The Australian Quarterly, Volume 44, No. 1, March, 1972, pp. 64-70.

Also reprinted as Chapter 54 in: J.J. Ray (Ed.) "Conservatism as Heresy". Sydney: A.N.Z. Book Co., 1974

(With two post-publication addenda following the original article)


By J. J. Ray

Political preference is partly determined by one's attitude to aggression. This influence on political choice is quite separate from the influence of social class. This deterministic view of political preference has some potential to make us more tolerant of different political preferences in others.


The explanation of conservative ideology in terms of "authoritarianism" having fallen into disrepute, other psychological variables need to be sought to explain voting preferences. The belief that people are naturally aggressive and untrustworthy may help to explain much conservative ideology if it can be shown to underlie other conservative beliefs and if it does spring from childhood experience. On a door-to-door sample taken in Sydney, Australia, it was found that belief in man's innate aggressiveness did predict other forms of conservatism. This supported the view that childhood experience leading the person to believe that interpersonal aggression was inevitable in man generalized to the belief that international aggression was also inevitable unless carefully guarded against -- hence the "tough" foreign policy and military preparedness favoured by conservatives. It is concluded that the wariness of the conservative and the trust of the radical were both justifiable in terms of the individual's own experience and were hence relatively impermeable to dissuasion.


In the social sciences today, the two most popular explanations for political orientation appear to be either in terms of social-class membership or in terms of psychodynamic processes such as "authoritarianism" (Adorno et al, 1950). In Australian terms, this would mean either that the Liberal-Country party voter is a middle-to-upper class person or that he is a person of "pre-Fascist" personality. There are also combinations of the two lines of thought such as the work on "working-class authoritarianism" by Lipset (1960) and the work on "alienation" (Seeman, 1959; Olsen, 1969). Few would dispute that both social and psychological variables must enter into the explanation of voting behaviour. The focus in this paper is on psychological determinants -- but without any assertion of their necessary primacy being entailed.

The search for psychological determinants has been made doubly urgent because of the relative failure by many writers to confirm the findings of Adorno et al (1950). These authors had asserted that right-wing party preference was an outcome of various forms of psychological maladjustment stemming from early childhood and, in the first chapter of their book they identified extreme right-wing ideology as a "disease" (sic) which had to be "cured" (sic) by hook or by crook. In contradiction to this account Masling (1954) found no association between the Adorno 'F' scale (an attitude test designed to measure "pre-Fascist" ideology or "authoritarianism") and neuroticism while Schoenberger (1968) found no association between conservatism and psychopathology. Elms (1970) found that even right-wing extremists did not show an abnormally high incidence of mental and personality disturbance while Ray (1971 (a) ) found that, in a general population sample, there was a significant tendency for authoritarians to be better adjusted than normal. Therefore we may conclude by agreeing with Eysenck (1954) that a simplistic account of one side being more psychologically disturbed than the other will not do. When this possibility is eliminated we are left with only a few suggestions about the psychological bases of political preference. Even the alienation variable has been shown to be heavily laden with neuroticism (Hughes, 1968; Ray & Sutton, 1971).

The suggestion made here is that a person's early experience of interpersonal aggression is crucial in developing those beliefs and expectations that later give rise to differences of opinions in politics. Acceptance of aggression is most certainly not proposed as the only relevant psychological determinant, but it is suggested as a major determinant (cf. Worchel, 1967; Graham, 1970).

Aggression-acceptant attitudes do figure in McClosky's (1958) excellent historical summary of the important elements in conservatism. Part one of his summary of what the conservative believes may be quoted:

"Man is a creature of appetite and will, governed more by emotion than by reason' (Kirk) in whom wickedness, unreason and the urge to violence lurk always behind the curtain of civilized behaviour (Rossiter). He is a fallen creature, doomed to imperfection, and inclined to license and anarchy."

In other words it is felt that the Conservative is characterized by a belief that aggressiveness is innate in man and accordingly accepts this as inevitable. This fits in fairly well with the alignments of present day Australian political parties. If the conservative believes aggression is always lurking beneath the surface just awaiting the opportunity to burst through, he is going to favour political policies that guard against contingencies of international aggression. He will, in short, favour military preparedness and "forward defence". All these things are of course precisely what Australia's conservative parties do preach at election time. "Forward defence" is in fact the Liberal-Country Party term for the policy under which Australian troops were committed to Vietnam.

Taking the converse of the above, radicals would believe man is naturally social and moral -- aggression being primarily the learned result of an unfortunate upbringing. They do not in short see aggression as an action-specific energy (cf. Tinbergen, 1951) which will burst through if it is not repressed. They are more likely to see it as a coping response to attack. In other words they would believe that, in international policy, "If we don't attack them, they won't attack us". This in turn seems to be a fair summary of Australian Labor Party electoral exegesis. Parallels in U.S. politics are readily drawn.

The hypothesis here, then, is that beliefs about probability of interpersonal aggression are related to beliefs about the danger of international aggression. If this relationship is established we can then go on to argue that perhaps there are differences in child rearing practices which give rise to opposing views of man and it is to these that we may trace later political orientation. In particular, it might be argued that the physically restrained middle class who punish primarily by way of love-deprivation might produce children who expect as a matter of course that aggression will always be subject to such restraint. Working-class children, an the other hand, would probably see more reasonable and unreasonable physical aggression both directed towards them and directed towards others in the environment. That is, a "rougher" early environment might lead to more wary and hence more conservative children.

One reservation that must be made in the above account however is that middle-class children might see more covert, non-physical or delayed-reaction type aggression. If this is so, it is at least possible that the middle-class child is led to an even more disturbing view of man's innate aggression than is the lower-class child. The lower-class child might at least see more clearly the correlation between the provocation and the aggressive response. Aggression might seem more predictable and hence less anxiety-provoking and "irrational". Thus theorizing does not lead to any clear preference for either of the contradictory findings by Lipset (1960) and Hamilton (1968). Lipset says that the working-classes are more authoritarian and conservative while Hamilton says that the upper classes are more aggression-oriented and conservative in international policy.

In this paper no attempt will be made to test out directly the two alternative child development hypotheses given above. Instead the two preliminary steps will be taken of finding out whether acceptance of aggression does exist as such (i.e., as a general attribute) and, if it does exist, is it related to political party preference and social class. Only after these three things are shown to be so. does it become worthwhile to test out the further developmental theories.

Some Empirical Research

As a preliminary study, a pool of fifty-two attitude statements was written to tap the concept under consideration. These were administered to a sample composed of three groups, (1) forty management students at North Sydney Technical College, (2) thirty-eight school teachers, (3) fifty process workers from a local factory. The resulting data was pooled for the purposes of item-analysis and test construction.

The statements were organized to form a psychological test by the conventional method of scoring answers to each item as follows: "Strongly agree" - 5; "Agree" - 4; "Not sure" - 3; "Disagree" - 2; Strongly disagree' - 1. Items expressing disapproval of aggression were scored in reverse, i.e., from 1 (for "Strongly agree") to 5 (for "Strongly disagree"). Scores on the individual items were then added to produce a total score. In order to reduce the length of the test, items showing low correlations with the total score were eliminated. With 39 items the reliability (Cronbach's (1951) coefficient "alpha") was .81. This meant that the items did indeed form a successful and homogeneous attitude scale. One problem with this scale however, was that, of the 39 items only 18 were "anti" (negative) items. It is in general desirable to maintain an equal balance between positive and negative items (Brown, 1965, pp. 510-514). In the scale prepared for the second study below therefore, five new untested negative items were added and one positive item was reversed.

The main study to be reported here was a project aimed at testing out Lipset's (1960) hypothesis that the working classes are more authoritarian than the middle and upper classes. The opportunity was taken to include the new scale in the questionnaire for this project. The sampling was on a door-to-door basis and was designed to suit the requirements for a test of Lipset's (1960) hypothesis. These requirements were taken to be two random samples--one of working-class people and one of upper-to-middle class people. The approximation to this objective in fact adopted was to sample clearly upper-class and clearly lower-class Sydney metropolitan areas. This was done with the aid of Congalton's (1969) prestige ranking of Sydney suburbs. When a suburb had been selected, blocks in these suburbs were selected from the map with a pin and blindfold. An attempt was then made to contact one person from each household in the block. For the purposes of the present report data from both types of area was pooled. There were 118 subjects (persons) all told.

The 44 item scale was then re-analysed by the same methods as before (item-to-total correlations ) to produce the balanced 30 item form shown below. The reliability coefficient (an index of internal consistency) was .79. Only the final form of the scale was of course used in computing the correlations with other variables given below.

The success of the scale (particularly in its inclusion of items 12 and 30) does give support for the view that beliefs about the probability of interpersonal aggression generalize into the area of opinions on international politics.

Aggression Acceptance Attitude Statements

(The final Acceptance of Aggression (ACAG) scale "alpha" = .79. The correlation between positive and negative halves is - .418. Items marked 'R' are "reversed" in scoring, i.e., they are anti acceptance of aggression.)

1. Beneath the polite and smiling surface of man's nature is a bottomless pit of evil.
2. (R) Human nature is fundamentally co-operative.
3. (R) Most people can be trusted.
4. Human nature being what it is there will always be war and conflict.
5. Life is a jungle.
6. Man is a fighting animal.
7. "Dog eats dog" is a law of nature we have to accept.
8. "Survival of the fittest" is what determines who gets on in life.
9. (R) Everybody can control his temper if he really wants to.
10. I believe in "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth".
11. If a man hits me I believe in hitting back.
12. Wars are a good thing because they help people work off the aggression inside them.
13. It's natural for men to be full of fight when they are young.
14. (R) To be kind and friendly towards others is the natural state of men.
15. (R) If we trust others they will generally prove worthy of our trust.
16. (R) Nobody is just born with a need to show himself stronger or superior.
17. With some people it is a waste of time being soft-the only argument they understand is force.
18. If you are always obliging to other people they don't respect you.
19. A fighter is always respected.
20. (R) Any sort of fighting is basically uncivilized.
21. (R) Aggressive people are not being natural -- they are psychologically sick.
22. (R) It is natural to be considerate towards others.
23. Civilization is only a thin veneer over man's basic animal nature.
24. (R) It is not natural for man to be destructive.
25. (R) Man is basically a builder-not a destroyer.
26. Children are naturally destructive.
27. (R) Fighting never solved anything.
28. (R) Fighting is never necessary.
29. (R) People who fight to settle an argument are just showing how stupid they really are.
30. (R) Nations don't need armies to protect themselves.

Voting preference in this study was scored as in Ray (1971 (a) ) , i.e., D.L.P. (5), L.C.P. (4), No. Pref. (3), A.L.P. (2), Communist (1). This ranks the parties on a single Right-Left continuum. The correlation between conservatism of voting and scores on the new scale was statistically significant at .277. This statistic ranges from - 1.00 for a perfect inverse association through 0.00 for no association to -1.00 for a perfect positive association. Social class was scored as in Ray 1971 (b) using the composite index obtained by adding scores on the "subjective index" (class self-placement) and of occupation (dichotomized into "manual" and "non-manual"). The correlation of this index with the new scale was .053 (statistically not significant) while years of education correlated .018 (also not significant). Also included in the battery was the political conservatism scale given in Ray (1971 (b)) . The correlation between this scale and the acceptance of aggression scale was .320. The class index correlated .485 with voting preference.


The meaning of the correlation with conservatism of attitudes may be spelt out as: people who believe "Australia should withdraw its troops from Vietnam immediately" and "Conscription should be abolished" (items characteristic of the political conservatism scale) reject "Man is a fighting animal" and "It's natural for men to be full of fight when they are young" (items characteristic of the acceptance of aggression scale). They accept "If we trust others they will generally prove worthy of our trust". We have thus same preliminary support for the idea that the issues of international politics which are nowadays so destructively divisive in Western society do turn largely on simple differences in the upbringing experiences of the people on each side. In a sense both the aggression-acceptant and aggression-denying groups are right. One has grounds for believing man is naturally aggressive while experience of the other leads him to believe that man is naturally restrained. Unless these basic premises can be altered there is no hope of agreement between the people on opposing sides. Perhaps it is at the level of personal interaction that the above knowledge is most useful. It will surely help us to accept and retain a high opinion of others in different political camps if we know that each of us is arguing from a limited base of personal experience. The wariness of the one is as justifiable as the trust of the other. The present writer believes that this is certainly more "enlightened" (an acknowledged value judgment) than regarding our opponents as psychologically "sick".

It is well known that social class is a good voting predictor but acceptance of aggression has been shown here to be another good voting predictor which is itself independent of social class. This means that social class and acceptance of aggression each explain different aspects of voting. Therefore, whatever the factors are in child development which lead to high levels of acceptance for aggression, these factors are not to be sought in class-typical behaviour. Specifically, it would seem that early experience of interpersonal aggression is as extensive in one class as in another.


{Articles below by J.J. Ray can generally be accessed simply by clicking on the name of the article. I am however also gradually putting online a lot of abstracts, extracts and summaries from older articles by other authors so if an article not highlighted below seems of particular interest, clicking here or here might just save you a trip to the library}

ADORNO, T. W.; FRENKEL-BRUNSWICK, ELSE; LEVINSON, D. J. & SANFORD, R. N., 1950. "The Authoritarian Personality", N.Y.: Harper.

BROWN, R., 1965. "Social Psychology", Glencoe, I 11: Free Press.

CONGALTON, A. A., 1969. "Status and Prestige in Australia". Melbourne: Cheshire.

CRONBACH, L. J., 1951. Co-efficient alpha and the internal structure of tests. "Psychometrika" 16: 297-334.

ELMS, A. C., 1970. Those little old ladies in tennis shoes are no nuttier than anyone else, it turns out. "Psychology Today". 3 (6), 27-59.

EYSENCK, H. J., 1954. "The psychology of politics". London: Routledge.

GRAHAM, H. D., 1970. The paradox of American violence: A historical appraisal. "Annals Amer. Acad. Polit. & Social Science". 391: 74-82.

HAMILTON, R. F., 1968. A research note on the mass support for tough military initiatives. "American Sociological Review". 33, 439-445.

HUGHES, A. H., 1968. "Problems and solutions in the measurement of psychological dispositions". Paper delivered at the Australian UNESCO seminar on mathematics in the social sciences.

LIPSET, S. M., 1960. "Political man". N.Y.: Doubleday.

MASLING, M., 1954. How neurotic is the authoritarian? "J. Abnorm. Soc. Psychol." 49, 316-318.

McCLOSKY, H., 1958. Conservatism and personality. "Amer. Pol. Sci. Rev.", 52, 27-45.

OLSEN, M. E., 1969. Two categories of political alienation. "Social Forces", 47, 288-299.

RAY, J.J. (1971a) An "Attitude to Authority" scale. Australian Psychologist, 6, 31-50.

RAY, J.J. (1971b) The questionnaire measurement of social class. Australian & New Zealand J. Sociology 7(April), 58-64.

RAY, J.J. & SUTTON, A.J. (1972) Alienation in an Australian University. Journal of Social Psychology, 86, 319-320.

SCHOENBERGER, R. A., 1968. Conservatism, personality and political extremism. "Am. Pol. Sci. Rev.", 62, 868-877.

SEEMAN, M., 1959. On the meaning of alienation. "Am. Sociolog. Rev.", 24, 783-791.

TINBERGEN, N., 1951. "The study of instinct". Oxford: Clarendon Press.

WORCHEL, P. 1967. Social ideology and reactions to international events. "Journal of Conflict Resolution, 11 (4): 414-430.


1. The above was written early on in my research career and I did at that time follow the orthodox custom in psychology of taking low but statistically-significant correlations seriously. My evaluation these days would be to point out that the correlation of .277 between vote and acceptance of aggression indicates that many Leftist voters share a conservative (cynical) view of human nature. The traditional view of conservative thinking is therefore upheld but a conservative view of human nature is surprisingly widespread. A follow-up study on the conservative view of human nature (Ray, 1981) arrived at similar conclusions -- which see.

2. I would also NOT now assume that differences in beliefs are the outcome of childhood experience. There has subsequently become available strong evidence that many political attitudes are genetically inherited. There is now good evidence from the twin studies by Nick Martin and others confirming that. Martin's work is mainly published in highly technical academic journals rather than being available online but one early summary that IS available online is particularly fascinating. Martin found that your politics in your youth are mainly the product of the social influences around you (family, school and college indoctrination, for instance) but as you get older your genetically inherited political tendencies come to the fore.

Martin's most striking finding, however, is his 1999 finding (reference below) showing that conservatism/Leftism is even more hereditary that how tall you are.

His 1986 article showed that heredity is a particularly strong influence (around 50% of the variance) in women. Presumably because women tend to take less interest in the details of politics, their political reactions are much more likely to be purely instinctive.


Martin, N. & Jardine, R. (1986) Eysenck's contribution to behaviour genetics. In: S & C. Modgil (Eds.) Hans Eysenck: Consensus and controversy. Lewes, E. Sussex: Falmer

Eaves, L.J., Martin, N.G., Meyer, J.M. & Corey, L.A. (1999) Biological and cultural inheritance of stature and attitudes. In: Cloninger, C.R., Personality and psychopathology. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Press.

Ray, J.J. (1981) Conservatism and misanthropy. Political Psychology 3(1/2), 158-172.

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