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UNICORN CONCEPTS IN PSYCHOLOGY



By John Ray

A unicorn is something that we can describe but which does not exist. There are a lot of unicorns in psychology. And they really come out to play when psychologists are trying to disparage conservatives. Quite a lot of people noted with some puzzlement the "intolerant of ambiguity" description in the Berkeley study of conservatives. And quite a lot of people -- including the Berkeley authors themselves -- got the point that intolerance of ambiguity may not always be a bad thing. When a scientist tries to find some order in a body of data, is he not trying to reduce its ambiguity and give what is there a clearer meaning? After all, the basic scientific principle known as Occam's razor is a very strong statement of preference for the simplest possible conceptual world.

Nonethless the usual claim among psychologists is that intolerace of ambiguity is generally a bad thing and that it is characteristic of conservatives. Allegedly, conservatives need to pretend that everything is cut and dried and simple even when it is not. Conservatives are allegedly simple souls who cannot deal with the complexity of the real world so have to oversimplify their understanding of it. They rush for simple formulas to describe things which in fact are complex.

Conservatives will of course recognize this as exactly what they see in Leftists -- and accusing others of your own faults is of course an old trick. What after all could be a greater and crasser oversimplification than the basic Leftist slogan of "All men are equal" -- when all men are in fact quite clearly different in various ways. So who is right? Is it Leftists or Rightists who are the great oversimplifiers? The answer clearly is: It depends on the circumstances. Leftists are often highly intelligent people much given to hairsplitting argument (e.g. about "What Marx REALLY said") so while they do undoubtedly sometimes greatly oversimplify, it is not something that they HAVE to do or always do.

And that is what the research data shows: Intolerance of ambiguity is multidimensional and situational. It is NOT a trait or a consistent tendency. And that of course falsifies the customary claim by psychologists that it IS a trait or consistent tendency of conservatives. The trait concerned is a unicorn. It does not exist.

A listing of research findings supporting the view that there is no consistency in intolerance of ambiguity can be found here -- particularly under the heading Multidimensionality.

I will however mention briefly here just one of the crucial findings: The questionnaire psychologists most usually rely on as a measure of intolerance of ambiguity is the one compiled by Budner. Yet the questions in the Budner questionnaire correlate hardly at all with one another! The very measure usually relied on to detect intolerance of ambiguity itself shows that there is no such general tendency! I pointed that out in one of the two papers of mine that the Berkeley authors DID cite but they appear to have given little heed to such an inconvenient fact. They would have excluded all studies using the Budner and similar measures from their data-set if they had. Clearly, their need to disparage conservatives swamped all other considerations -- truth and logic included. One might even describe the Berkeley work as intolerant of ambiguity!




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