What Makes Them Tick: Inside The Mind Of The Abbott Government


If the Abbott Government was an individual, he would be a psychopath. And you wonder why they’re frightened of science! Clinical psychologist Dr Lissa Johnson explains.

Decades of research in political psychology has opened a window onto the psychological heart of politics. The Abbott Government embodies the conservative psyche in pasquinade form.

With a prime minister who threatens to shirt-front the Russian president, a finance minister who calls the opposition leader a girlie-man and a government advisor for whom “Abos”, “darkies” “muzzies”, “chinky-poos” and “whores” rolls comfortably off the tongue, it is little wonder people are asking what goes on in the minds of our politicians.

For different reasons, academic psychologists have been asking the same question for some time.

They say that it takes 20 years for knowledge in academic psychology to make its way into the public domain. If that is the case, the political psychology literature is just coming of age.

Tony Abbott eats an onion. Just because.
Tony Abbott eats an onion. Just because.

Thanks to an invigoration in 2003 of research that had been gathering steam in the 1990s and before, we now know with considerable clarity what separates the left psychologically from the right. And the picture is revealing.

Political vaudeville aside, the Abbott Government offers a vivid case study in conservative psychology that breathes life into the very definition of conservatism.

In the political psychology literature conservatism is defined in two parts, resting on the pillars of equality and change: accepting versus rejecting inequality and advocating versus resisting social change.

By this definition, the conservative position on any issue involves promotion of inequality and resistance to change. Where conservative change is sought it is typically in the direction of inequality, winding back historical egalitarian change.

As a case study, the Abbott Government illustrates not only these two principles, but also their psychological building blocks, identified in a vast number of studies from institutions around the world. These studies, emanating from the likes of Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, NYU, UCLA and countless other universities, have been replicated time and again by different researchers using different measures (self-report, implicit tests, peer-ratings, behavioural indices) and different methods (correlational, experimental and longitudinal). In short, a reliable body of research.

One consistent finding in this literature is that conservatism involves a cognitive tendency known as the need for cognitive closure. This entails an impetus to arrive at fixed and firm answers to complex questions, motivated by the drive to resolve uncertainty and ambiguity. It manifests in seizing and freezing on opinions and ideas, or swiftly and resolutely reaching final conclusions on complicated topics, which then remain closed to further review.

Our government’s policy on climate change, for instance, comes to mind. As does its haste to pass legislation without debate.

The conservative need for cognitive closure is broadly rooted in a personality style that psychologists call “closed-minded” or often simply “closed”. It involves low levels the personality trait Openness to Experience, which is widely accepted as one of the five core dimensions of personality.

People low on Openness prefer certainty, order, structure, the familiar, predictability, simplicity, and sticking with the tried and true. They dislike change, complexity, uncertainty, ambiguity, novelty and flexibility. They are less intellectually curious than their more open counterparts, disinclined to examine their own ideas and views, and as a result are often suspicious of science and the arts. They also tend to dislike new experiences, frequently including but not limited to foreign people, culture and food.

Our government’s distaste for science ministers and asylum seekers, then, makes sense.

Former immigration minister Scott Morrison, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, and current immigration minister Peter Dutton, pictured in October 2015. Dutton and Abbott are recorded on microphone insulting Pacific Island leaders and joking about the effects climate change.
Former immigration minister Scott Morrison, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, and current immigration minister Peter Dutton, pictured in October 2015. Dutton and Abbott are recorded on microphone insulting Pacific Island leaders and joking about the effects climate change.

Another ubiquitous finding is that conservatism is inversely related to the pursuit of social and economic equality. Conservatism correlates strongly with a preference for fixed social hierarchies entailing inequality between social groups, along with punitive attitudes towards marginalised and/or non-conforming members of society, who are seen as destabilising elements that threaten social cohesion.

This anti-egalitarian psychological characteristic, with over 50 years of research behind it, is known as Right Wing Authoritarianism. It is predicted by low levels of Openness, with the associated need for a predictable, orderly and controlled social world.

Right Wing Authoritarianism has a younger cousin, with 20 years of research behind it, known as Social Dominance Orientation. A darker pathway to ideological views, Social Dominance Orientation is more a ruthless and competitive form of anti-egalitarianism. It not only correlates with conservatism but also with the ‘dark triad’ of personality: Narcissism, Machiavellianism and Psychopathy.

In newer research, conservatism has also been found to correlate inversely with compassion, humility, dispositional fairness, altruism and empathy.

So robust are the psychological findings that John Jost of NYU and his colleagues propose that political orientation “may be structured according to a left-right dimension for primarily psychological (rather than logical or philosophical) reasons… linked to variability in the needs to reduce uncertainty and threat”.

Of course not all people who vote for conservative political parties embody all, or even necessarily some, of the psychological correlates. What the research indicates is that the more conservative a person is, on average, the more strongly they are likely to display these characteristics. Fortunately none of us, as individuals, is entirely average.

Former Prime Minister, Tony Abbott.
Former Prime Minister, Tony Abbott.

In fact, some studies have found that the more politically active a person is the stronger the psychological underpinning of their ideology is likely to be. Thus we could expect our leaders’ political views to be more, rather than less, psychologically driven than our own.

And more hell bent on inequality and opposing change.

In a world of increasing egalitarianism the conservative position can make for a hard sell. Politicians with an agenda as conservative as the Abbott Government’s can’t to go to the polls wearing their manifesto on their sleeves. “We promise to preserve and intensify privilege, entrench disadvantage and wind back egalitarian change, putting a halt to its further spread.”

As a result, in order to gain power conservative political parties are compelled to sugar-coat their agenda to be palatable in a putatively egalitarian world. A conservative stock-in-trade to this end is what political scientists call ‘legitmising myths’, or ideologies that justify discrimination against disadvantaged groups.

Legitimising myths typically appeal to fear, which increases political conservatism; scarcity, which increases competition between social groups; and stereotypes, which smooth the way for discrimination against less privileged members of a society. For instance, “Burqa-wearing women are potential terrorists who threaten our safety and our way of life” is a myth that appeals to all three.

While the Abbott Government relied more heavily on lies than myth-making on its way to the election, since gaining office Abbott and his ministers have had a crack at a few legitimising myths of their own.

They have been successful with some, for example ‘The carbon tax will cripple the economy (fear and scarcity)’. They have limped along lamely with a few, such as the ‘Budget emergency’ (fear and scarcity again) and ‘Age of entitlement’ (stereotype).

Other efforts at legitimising mythology have received hostile reception, for instance ‘The unemployed just need to try harder’ (stereotype), and ‘Poor people don’t have cars’ (stereotype again). Some are just plain silly, such as ‘Coal is good for humanity’ (tempting to type ‘insanity’ here).

On Aboriginal people, the Government has opted for the most effective and time-honoured myth of all, ‘They don’t exist – at least not really.’ Silence and collective blindness have worked for governments until now. This kind of psychological apartheid (literally “apart-hood”), keeping races psychologically apart, is a stealthy variety of stereotype that serves to obscure the very existence and legitimacy of an entire race.

A prime example is the call for a more westernised version of history in the national curriculum, one that emphasises Judeo-Christian heritage and scales back focus on Aboriginal history. It not only seeks to reverse historical egalitarian change, but also serves to push Aboriginal Australians even further out of our collective awareness and understanding.

The Government’s most recent legitimising rhetoric, ‘The war on terror at home’, is probably the most potent and promising of all. In numerous studies, invoking fear and even simply thinking about death increases self-reported conservatism and endorsement of conservative policies, candidates, and values.

For instance, in time series analyses George W Bush’s approval ratings and policy support soared after every upgrading of the national terrorist alert. Similarly, priming threat by asking people to rate statements such as “I worry that terrorists might strike any time anywhere” raises levels of both closed-mindedness and conservatism.

So strong is the fear connection that a brain structure integral to fear – the amygdala – is larger, on average, in conservatives relative to their ‘small l’ liberal counterparts.

Jost explains it thus: “Stability and hierarchy appear to provide reassurance and structure inherently, whereas social change and equality imply greater chaos and unpredictability…. People may be psychologically unwilling or unable to embrace the unpredictability associated with social change and increased equality when they are feeling threatened or experiencing aversive levels of uncertainty”

Exploiting ISIS for all it’s worth, then, is Tony Abbott’s best hope. The “death cult” refrain no doubt helps. Although Australians are at greater risk of death from falling off a ladder or out of bed, a cult is far more scary. And better on which to build stereotypes.


Given that stereotypes and prejudice feed and thrive on fear and justify inequality, it is perhaps not surprising that prejudice has been found to correlate with conservatism in a number of studies. Conservatism is most often associated with racism, particularly of the “modern” kind, which holds that underprivileged racial groups are responsible for their own disadvantage, but also prejudice in general, including prejudice against sexual minorities, women, and other disadvantaged or marginalised groups.

The attitudes of Professor Barry Spurr – the Sydney University academic and contributor to the review of the National School Curriculum who was suspended after a series of racist, misogynistic emails – may be more prototypical than we would like to think.

Jim Sidanius of UCLA and colleagues say, “Political conservatism and racism should be strongly correlated, because both ideologies are motivated by a common desire to assert the superiority of the in-group over relevant out-groups, and they justify such group superiority in terms that appear both morally and intellectually justifiable.” Or at least they try.

With prejudice, in pursuit of inequality we have seen the Abbott Government target “entitled” pensioners, welfare recipients, young people, single parents, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, the chronically ill and the disabled for a good kicking down the economic hierarchy. We have seen treatment of “illegal” asylum seekers sink to new lows, efforts to keep those with modest bank balances out of tertiary education, and to make healthcare inaccessible to low income groups.

These latter measures are important if inequality is to be a stable feature of a society, as they lock disadvantage in place.

Winding back egalitarian change has also proceeded apace. There has been the repeal of the carbon tax, axing of numerous climate change research and advisory bodies (ensuring inequality between current and future generations), abolishing a dedicated Disability Discrimination Commissioner, seeking, albeit unsuccessfully, to water down racial discrimination legislation, seeking to scale back focus on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history and Asia in the national curriculum, disbanding the Immigration Health Advisory Group, and proposing regressive changes to migration law described by legal experts as cruel and inhumane and designed to subvert international law.

Not to forget the rushed changes to national security legislation, under fire from legal experts for encroaching on fundamental human rights and damaging the democratic cornerstone of press freedom.

Increasing a Government’s powers to jail journalists and removing journalists’ rights to defences such as public interest is one way to keep a society in its place. As is giving ASIO the power to “add, copy, delete or alter” information on computer devices. But there are others.

For instance, the Government’s introduction of social media guidelines prohibiting public servants from criticising the government. Or the gag clauses on community organisations such as Legal Aid Centres, also to prevent them from criticising the Government.

And what of mission creep in the war on criticism?

If the Government fails to expand and protect its borders around secrecy, then whistleblowers and ‘citizen/academic/activist journalists’ might continue speaking out.

The two ideals most dear to our Government’s extremist ideological heart could be exposed for what they are: change-aversion and inequality.

Our leaders’ policies might be outed as fanatical versions of these ideals, worthy of a terror alert all their own.

That would never do.

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Dr Lissa Johnson is a clinical psychologist and practice principal in private practice. Prior to becoming a psychologist she qualified in Media Studies, with a major in Sociology. Lissa has a longstanding interest in the psychology of social issues and the impact of social issues on psychology, and is a former member of the Australian Psychological Society Public Interest Advisory Group.