Posted by: Millard J. Melnyk | January 8, 2015

Conservatism Is a Cognitive Bias

Did you know that conservatism is a cognitive bias?

Conservatism is a failure to sufficiently revise one’s beliefs in light of new information. On steroids, we know it as “fundamentalism”, which glorifies resistance to belief revision as a kind of saintly, obligatory virtue. This doesn’t just apply to political positions or religious beliefs — it’s a cognitive bent, an ingrained habit of thought that affects all areas of concern. (See Conservatism.)

Conservatism” refers to the experimental finding that people tend to underestimate high values and high likelihoods/probabilities/frequencies and overestimate low ones.
   — Martin Hilbert, Toward a Synthesis of Cognitive Biases, p. 14

In other words, it’s an anti-progressive gravitation towards norms, towards mediocrity, towards established, familiar beliefs — in other words towards the past — coupled with aversion to novel and especially radical or fantastic possibilities. Conservatism doesn’t spurn divergent ideas for implausibility or lack of feasibility, but simply because they are different. It has a retarding effect on cognitive development, personal development, development of knowledge disciplines, and social change. The wheels of justice and most other functions of society turn slowly, but not because we don’t know what to change or how to change it, but rather because everyone pays inordinate attention to covering their asses — one of conservatism’s prime directives.

In my experience, conservatism is always tightly bound with high priorities on self-preservation and self-defense, arising from the belief that the first order of business in every proposition in every aspect of life is to secure the safety of our persons, property, and agendas — even at the expense of the persons, property, and agendas of others. In fact, inflicting expense on others in pursuit of our own safety, aka exploiting them, is often considered “powerful” and “shrewd”. No wonder that this kind of “power” corrupts!

Prioritizing safety presupposes, of course, that safety is threatened in the first place. It also presupposes that our presumed treasure is worth the cost of protection. Conservatists are loathe to open those presuppositions to question. On the contrary, their primary job is to preserve the truth and inviolability of what they hold dear without question. They resist clarity for ample reason. When their measures are examined and quantified, we often find out that the costs wildly exceed anything reasonable. Just one example: those who have done the math say that four terrorist incidents per day would need to be foiled to cost-justify the “War On Terror”.[1] Shouldn’t conservatists at least consider the possibility that the threats they battle are overblown? Not if overblowing them is precisely the point. If there were no threats to fight, no enemies to war against, whatever would they do with themselves?

We experience threat to safety as adversity. When seen as a given, a naturally resident characteristic of the universe, aka “just the way things are”, I call it “adversariality”.

Reports of adversariality are greatly exaggerated, and perception of adversariality is largely delusory. Adversity is prevalent in the world, but its sources are localized. It’s almost exclusively of human origin — at least the graver forms are. Being its authors necessarily means that we influence and control it. In effect, conservative insistence that adversariality predominates and pervades the very nature of things denies our competence to influence and control adversity; but conservatists apply this denial selectively. They are quick to attribute successes of their persons, property, and agendas to their own competence, but even quicker to attribute problems and failures to the incompetence of others — incompetence that they swear is incorrigible. Bullshit. This is the kind of hypocritical double-dealing decried by sages and honest people of every age.

Conservatism is born under threat, continues as a response to threat, and is doomed for the duration, subordinated to threat. Conservatists claim that they hold a hard, realistic view, but it’s a BIAS! It’s hardly realistic, and it’s far from accurate.


[1] From the U.S. News report The Cost of Counterterrorism:

With the U.S. government facing tight budgets, all of that spending is suddenly under scrutiny. Analysts are asking — was it worth it? Political Scientist John Mueller tells CBC — the U.S. has spent a lot of money for very little payoff.

JOHN MUELLER: “Unless they can demonstrate that they have deterred, protected against, or foiled thousands of plots per year, the money simply is not justified by using conventional cost-benefit analysis.”

ADRIENNE ARSENAULT: “How many Times Square-type attacks a day would they have had to have foiled to make the trillion-dollar spending worth it?”

MUELLER: “Four.”


MUELLER: “Yeah, four a day.”


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