This past week I attended a lecture by Professor John Jost of NYU on the psychology of political orientation. His presentation led me to wonder about museums and the psychology of cultural liberalism vs. cultural conservativism. How do we share new and progressive ideas with culturally conservative visitors? How do we even get them in our doors? Are there things that we know about the psychology of these visitors that might be useful?
I am imagining the art museum visitor with little art background who sees “Untitled,” by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and immediately rejects it. Or the history museum visitor who stumbles into an exhibit about the history of the LGBTQ movement and gets angry or upset. How can museums reach these visitors? Is there anything that we can do that can attract culturally conservative visitors to learn about what they might define as “liberal” topics? Are there methods of presentation that help bridge these gaps?
The Psychology of Political Orientation
John Jost’s work assumes that political ideology serves a psychological need, and that, generally speaking, there are core psychological differences between left-wing or liberal, and right-wing or conservative, voters. Most prominently, conservatives support authority and are interested in maintaining the status quo, while liberals are open to change, and prioritize social and economic equality. Therefore, if someone is psychologically motivated to reduce uncertainty, and has a preference for stability, he or she is likely to be a political conservative.
Jost shared an Ipsos/Reuters poll that asked people whether they found various entities (countries, leaders, organizations, and phenomena) threatening. Republicans found nearly all of these more threatening than did Democrats. For example, 67% of Republicans find illegal immigration threatening, while only 36% of Democrats found illegal immigration threatening. Similarly, 18% of Democrats and 33% of Republicans feel threatened by Atheism; 30% of Democrats and 58% of Republicans feel threatened by Islam.
Apparently there is evidence of a genetic component to political orientation, from studies conducted with identical and fraternal twins separated at birth. And one fascinating study found that researchers who looked at nursery school students could predict their later political orientation: children who were characterized as “developing close relationships, self-reliant, energetic, somewhat dominating, relatively under-controlled, and resilient” grew up to be liberals; children who were characterized as “feeling easily victimized, easily offended, indecisive, fearful, rigid, inhibited, and relatively over-controlled and vulnerable” grew up to be conservative.
Jost also looked at the personality characteristics called “the Big Five”: Openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism or emotional stability. Liberals tend to score higher on tests of openness, and on compassion, which is a subcategory of agreeableness. Conservatives score higher on conscientiousness and on politeness, another subcategory of agreeableness. Another study conducted by Jost’s team demonstrated that conservatives have neater, more organized, and more conventional working spaces than do liberals. More recent studies find differences in language – conservatives use more nouns than liberals – and in the physical structure of certain areas of the brain.
Museum encounters with new or threatening ideas
I am making a number of assumptions in even considering the questions in this post. These assumptions include:
- Jost’s research is valid. His work includes a number of meta-studies, and to the best of my understanding Jost is very well respected in his field.
- Cultural leanings have the same or similar psychological underpinnings as do political orientation. In some areas they overlap (for example, responses to minority groups.) Regarding responses to contemporary art or other unfamiliar objects, I do not have any evidence to support this, but it makes sense to me.
- Museums skew toward the liberal end of the cultural spectrum, often displaying new and novel art, or sharing new theories of science or history. There are certainly conservative-leaning museums, but my sense is that as a field we are at least culturally, if not also politically, liberal.
- When a museum displays a Felix Gonzalez-Torres work, or a history of the LGBTQ movement, one goal is to engage visitors who might not begin as sympathetic or knowledgeable, and help engage their interest and sympathy. This relates to the current interest in empathy in museums.
Museums, like political candidates, often draw like-minded people. But how do we present information, or draw in, those who are not already convinced? And, to restate the question posed earlier, how do we share new and progressive ideas with culturally conservative visitors?
Here are a few initial thoughts drawn from my understanding of Jost’s research:
- Conservatives are drawn to authority figures. There is a movement afoot in museums to share authority with visitors. It seems likely that this repels visitors who want a clear source of authority. In fact, this likely relates to Jackie Delamatre’s recent exploration of adult learning styles in this blog. Can museums be participatory while drawing audiences that yearn for clear authority?
- If cultural conservatives respond to authority, are there interventions such as audio tours scripted and read by respected and well-known authority figures that might make visitors feel more comfortable in an exhibition of new or politically uncomfortable material?
- Would acknowledging the sense of threat presented by new ideas help some people feel more comfortable with them? Instead of assuming that all visitors should, for example, recognize Gonzalez-Torres as an accomplished and established artist, what happens if visitors have access to a tour guide, or a brochure, that meets them in the place that they are starting from?
- Navigating exhibits can sometimes feel disorienting or confusing, because of the many choices visitors must make in what to look at first or second, and which direction to turn. While many visitors appreciate the choices offered by informal learning, this may make visitors who prefer clear structure and organization uncomfortable. Are there ways to offer some visitors are clearer path without compromising the experience for others?
What can we learn from Jost and other psychologists that helps us to reach visitors, especially those who might disagree with us, in a meaningful way?