World Views and Belief Systems
There are many issues that divide us: Money, wealth, good looks, religion, athletic abilities, tastes in clothing, books, music and architecture are but a few of them. Most of these issues are also visible, and, for the most part, we are tolerant of our differences. Many of us even find enjoyment and enrichment in the fact that we have diverse likes and dislikes. Other issues that divide us are not so visible. One is our diverse set of belief systems, or how we view the world and our place in it. We also think we know how we acquired our own world view, but we are suspicious of the other person's sources and their reasons for holding their perceptions. Our beliefs are also often the fundamental reason for our prejudices, and they can lead to hostilities and, in extreme cases, even to wars. Perhaps it requires a glorious spirit descending upon us, or a great prophet to come upon the scene, to synthesize all the myriad differences for us, to simplify them, and to show us the errors of our ways. Until that person comes along, you and I are stuck with the thoughts of ordinary people like me who take the time to ponder and to wonder about such matters. It's still worth our time and effort to try to unravel some of the mystery that surrounds this subject, difficult as that may be. Our survival could hang in the balance. Social science can play a major role in such a clarification effort.
Back in the 1960s the social psychologist, Milton Rokeach, developed a scale to measure "open-" v. "closed"-mindedness. His scale consisted of a set of statements in which respondents were asked to either agree or disagree with them. Scores were summed such that a person's total score indicated his relative degree of receptiveness to new ideas and to new information. The scale was used by many researchers in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. In fact, it is still in use today, although admittedly I have not kept up with progress in this area of study. I do recall that some 800 researchers were listed in Burrow's "Tests in Print" catalog as having used it in their research studies sometime the 1970s. I recall also that it had been used by at least one investigator to see if there was a difference between those who identified themselves as either "liberal" or "conservative" on the political continuum. The research findings showed a significant difference between the two groups: conservatives scored toward the closed-minded end of the scale, while liberals scored toward the open-minded end of the scale. This finding did not draw much attention at the time. But other investigators also found that scores on this scale correlated with several psychological traits, all of which suggested that there were deep psychological differences in how and why liberals and conservatives process information. And those differences basically distilled to this: conservatives tend to rely on authority figures for their information and conclusions, while liberals tend to rely on facts, analysis, and personal evaluations for theirs. More than 20 other studies in combination showed this profile of the conservatives' psychological makeup: They were dogmatic in their views; had low self-esteem; they had a low tolerance for ambiguity; a low sense of humor; high anxiety; were future-oriented; relied on external influences for information; were low self-actualizers; they were not confident; they were conformists; and they had a low ability to differentiate between source and message. Open-minded people were on the opposite side in virtually all of those traits.
This body of research pointed to much more than just a difference in political points of view between the two groups. It suggested that conservatives were stuck at the "need to belong" level on Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of human needs. If true , it meant they were not fully functioning human beings, rather they were stuck on that scale at the conformance level; they had not acquired enough self-esteem to become real achievers in fulfillment of their own destinies. Here is a quick review of Maslow's scale of human needs: First, we must have food and rest (our biological needs); then we must feel safe from nature (safety needs); then we need the love of others (conformance needs); then we want some respect (self-esteem); then we need to develop our talent and achieve something (self-actualization); and finally, we have reached the psychological pinnacle in life when we realize we can't take anything with us, and we set out to give back to humanity all our wealth and all our accumulated wisdom (self-transcendence need).
The conservative has a simpler belief system in place. He is unreceptive to Maslow or to new ideas and new information because he already has all the answers to all the important questions. He has found the "truth" because some authority figure has given it to him. Examples: God created everything 8,000 years ago; the Bible is the Truth; God speaks to him thru his church leaders, and He tells them all he needs to know. Political leaders among the conservatives have all the correct answers to all the nation's problems. He also reduces the world to these simplifications: liberals are the evil enemy; they are appeasers, they want to take his money and give it to others; they are all socialists and/or communist sympathizers. Since he has the truth, he is justified in using any means to stop them and to achieve the ends of conservatism.
Where do such beliefs come from? And why would anyone hold them without questioning them, without examination, and without allowing for the possibility they could all be false?
Maslow also argued that we must satisfy one need on his scale before we can move up to the next need. Otherwise, we get stuck there. For example, nearly all of us acquire our first knowledge of the world from our parents, our teachers, and our church leaders. Such knowledge arises from authority figures, hence its method of delivery is called "authoritarianism." It holds up pretty well...until we begin to question it. Then it tends to fall apart. Many of us seek other sources of knowledge via inductive and deductive reasoning while always allowing ample room for error, but always looking for the best answers through experience, study and observation. Those who question knowledge learned from authority figures, may also smile sympathetically at their early lesson givers, but never look back to them in their search for truth. Those who do not, never advance beyond their need for the love and conformance shown by authority figures. And as long as the followers are willing to accept the guidance of their teachers, their teachers are willing to provide plenty of it. Sometimes they even demand it. But their followers never reach a satisfactory level of self-esteem, they rarely become self-actualizers, and they cannot give back what they have never achieved.
A good social psychologist could elaborate on each of these elements of the "world view" issue with greater clarity. My role is to suggest a solution arrived at by my powers of reasoning. As limited as that may be, it can nevertheless begin to lift the murkiness that surrounds this issue. It is not a perfect solution, but it points in the direction of where a good solution lies. The solution is...education. And by that term, I do not mean diplomas. There are many open-minded persons without diplomas; and, conversely, there are many persons with diplomas who are closed-minded. Still, the evidence shows that as education levels go up, open-mindedness also goes up. The correlation is very high, and it repeats with different sampling groups, in different locales, and over different time periods. Now, doesn't that finding make sense on an intuitive level? How can anyone be open to his/her experiences, and also seek to achieve at a high level, but who cannot or will not listen to and evaluate other points of view within his abilities of doing so? Education, however, is not the answer that begins and ends with something we do today. It must begin early in life and end very late, with heavy doses of how to think--rationally, clearly, and resolutely--in between.
So why, then, am I taking a slap at conservatives? I am not, nor am I an advocate for liberalism. I am an advocate for free thinking. Moreover, to be open-minded does not mean to be open to any and every point of view held by miscreants, ne're-do-wells, or propagandists. It means to listen attentively to other arguments; to analyze them with the care and thoughtfulness, at least equal to that with which they are put forward; and then to accept those that pass all the tests of critical examination; to reject those that do not; and to suspend judgment about all the others. It must also include an acknowledgement that we each have an obligation--to ourselves and to others--to learn how to think for ourselves and to make our own judgment about most things. To give up that responsibility to others is tantamount to surrendering your mind, your will, and your soul to others.
Closing Thought. We do not know from whence we came, nor do we know our ultimate destination in this life or in another life hereafter. But we can know more about the journey we are on now, more about this world and others, and more about ourselves--if we are open to our experiences, if we think about our observations, if we consider the points of view of others, and if we remain mindful of our obligation to improve our personal sense of enlightenment while we are part of this life. I once heard a young child put it this way: "Do the best you can, with what you've got, in the time allotted to you. Do that, and you will remain true to yourself."