Across two studies, we find evidence for our prediction that experimentally increasing feelings of physical safety increases conservatives' socially progressive attitudes. Specifically, Republican and conservative participants who imagined being endowed with a superpower that made them invulnerable to physical harm (vs. the ability to fly) were more socially (but not economically) liberal (Study 1) and less resistant to social change (Study 2). Results suggest that socially (but not economically) conservative attitudes are driven, at least in part, by needs for safety and security.
In the first inaugural address of Franklin D. Roosevelt (1938), given amidst the widespread disquiet of the Great Depression, the president famously warned Americans that their fear could serve as a psychological impediment to much needed social change. Decades later, research bears out Roosevelt's supposition: Across several disciplines and methodologies, research consistently demonstrates an association between threat, broadly defined, and political conservatism. Such work has shown that: (i) political conservatives are, on average, more likely to perceive threat than their liberal counterparts; and (ii) the existence of threat, in myriad forms, is associated with increased endorsement of conservative attitudes that resist efforts toward social change. Here, we test the novel hypothesis that the opposite of threat—that is, heightened feelings of safety—will increase socially progressive beliefs, especially among conservatives. Specifically, we test the prediction that experimentally inducing feelings of safety will increase social liberalism among Republicans (Study 1) and acceptance of social change among conservatives (Study 2).