Personality & Individual Differences. Vol. 8, No. 2, pp. 277-279, 1987 Pergamon Journals Ltd

NEOCONSERVATISM, mental health and attitude to death


University of New South Wales, Kensington, NSW 2033, Australia



University of Queensland, St Lucia, Brisbane, Queensland 4067, Australia

(Received 9 February 1986)

Summary --- There is an extensive literature attempting to link conservatism with various forms of ill-health. An example is Fromm's attempt to link conservatism with necrophilia. A new scale to measure Reaganite or Thatcherite conservatism was developed and correlated with scales of self-esteem, anxiety and death-acceptance. The sample was a random mail-out survey of 95 Australians. All scales showed satisfactory reliability and internal consistency but there were no significant correlations between neoconservatism and any of the other scales.


Ever since the work of Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson and Sanford (1950), there appears to have been some undercurrent in psychological writing directed towards finding signs of psychopathology on the political Right. Adorno et al. themselves labelled the right-wing syndrome they studied as a 'disease' (p. 974). Recent writing is a little more circumspect but Petersen and Wilkinson (1983) label conservatives as 'despairing' and Glad (1983) finds a whole host of psychological flaws in Ronald Reagan.

It is probably too late to check on the mental health status of German Nazis (but see e.g. Dicks, 1972) but the contemporary political phenomenon of neoconservatism is reasonably accessible. What is meant by neoconservatism can be difficult to determine totally unambiguously but in the present paper the aim is to study that ideology voiced first among national leaders by Australia's Malcolm Fraser but which had had better-known electoral successes with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. The essence of the ideology is taken to be a stress on individual responsibility and the limitations of government. Is this ideology associated with some degree or evidence of psychopathology? A test of the possibility while the phenomenon concerned is highly visible seems worthwhile.


A neoconservatism scale was devised embodying the types of statements made by neoconservative thinkers and politicians. Its items are in the appendix. It was included in a questionnaire together with a slightly modified version of the Taylor (1953) Manifest Anxiety scale (MAS) and the Rosenberg (1965) Self-esteem Scale. The choice of these scales was influenced on the one hand by Eysenck's argument that chronic anxiety (or 'neuroticism') is the most basic factor in mental health (Eysenck and Eysenck, 1969) and on the other by the increasingly prevalent view among psychologists (probably influenced by the anti-psychiatry movement) that the labelling of any form of behaviour as a disease is arbitrary and that it is more useful to ask whether the person is happy with his/her life. On this view high self-esteem is both the basis and the criterion of good mental health. Both scales then had some claim to provide a view of global or overall mental health. The aim of the present study was to determine whether conservatives are on balance more or less mentally healthy than others in the community.

A subsidiary goal of the study was to look at one particular type of psychopathology that conservatives have been accused of: A preoccupation with death and dead things or 'necrophilia'.

From his clinical observations of necrophiliacs (molesters of the dead), Fromm (1964) formed the view that there was such a thing as a characteristic 'necrophilous' outlook or emotional style. He also claimed that such an outlook underlies both Fascism and conservatism. Conservatives are viewed as 'lovers' of death and dead things whilst liberals are 'biophilic' or life-loving. At least two studies have, to date, suggested that conservatives may vary from liberals in their attitudes to death and dead things (Maccoby 1972; Ray 1984b).

One problem with such findings, however, is that Fromm's definition of the necrophiious outlook is not distinguished from conservative ideology. A preference for order and acceptance of some kinds of aggression, for instance, are said to be necrophilous. Yet it could be argued that these views comprise elements of a conservative ideology (Ray, 1973) rather than of a distinct attitude towards death. Conservatives would say that they dislike 'chaos' and are 'realistic' about the threat of war. The previously observed correlation between conservatism and a 'necrophilous' outlook could be a consequence of a failure to use a sufficiently specific measure of attitude towards death.

It is clear that the various aspects of the necrophilous outlook specified by Fromm are secondary to the one central concept of death acceptance. Having a positive or accepting attitude towards death and dead things should alone therefore predict conservatism.

To test this prediction, two often-cited scales of death attitudes were chosen: the Templer (1970) and Ray and Najman (1974) scales. As neither was balanced against acquiescence, a small number of new items to enable construction of a single all-inclusive balanced scale was created.

The alterations to the Taylor MAS were minor and were designed simply to enable production of a balanced anxiety scale. They have been described in full elsewhere (Ray, 1984a) -- where a full description of the sampling method may also be found. Briefly, however, the sample was obtained by a mail-out of the questionnaire to 500 addresses at random from the Australian electoral rolls (voters lists). Ninety-five questionnaires were returned and analysed. There was thus of course the inevitable volunteer artifact in the data but it was nonetheless felt that the sample did at least present a broader range of demographic characteristics than the more usual sample of college students.


The Neoconservatism scale showed a reliability (alpha) of 0.75 while the Taylor and Rosenberg scales had alphas of 0.87 and 0.83. The alphas for the Templer and the balanced Death Attitude scales were 0.76 and 0.79. The 12 negative and 12 positive items of the balanced Death Attitudes scale correlated -0.40 before reverse-scoring while the equivalent statistics for the Neoconservatism and Rosenberg scales were -0.30 and -0.67. All scales used. then, showed good evidence of psychometric adequacy.

The correlations between the scales appear in Table l. It will be noted that there were no significant correlations between the Neoconservatism scale and any of the other scales.

Table I. Product-moment correlations between the final forms of all scales

.....................................................................................Death......... Neo
..............................................Anxiety.. Self-esteem..... (new)......... Conserv.

Social desirability...................-0.25..........-0.12..............-0.35............0.04
Death (new).......................................................................................0.00

All correlations above 0.20 are significant at less than the .05 level (two tailed)


The finding that conservatives do not score particularly badly on standard measures of mental health is a fairly usual one. The interest of the present findings lies therefore in: (1) The finding that neoconservatism is in this respect much like other forms of conservatism, and (2) the finding that death anxiety/acceptance is much like other forms of mental adjustment in its relationship with conservatism.

As conservatives themselves often tend to see the Thatcher/Reagan outlook as a considerable departure from the conservatism of the past, it is useful to find that conservatism is beginning to look rather more unitary than either its friends or its enemies would tend to suggest. The psychiatric attack on neoconservatism (e.g. Glad, 1983) is thus blunted almost from the outset. The psychometric success of the Neoconservatism scale used in this study is however useful in that it provides an instrument for those who still feel that neoconservatism should be studied in its own right (!).

The finding in respect of death attitudes is much more of departure. Fromm was clearly correct in his view that some of the attributes he saw in his necrophilic patients are indeed also to be found among conservatives. Previous tests of the Fromm theory (Maccoby, 1972; Ray, 1984b) do suggest at least that. Where Fromm was mistaken was in assuming a necessary association between all the elements in this theory. Conservatives may be like necrophiliacs in liking order etc. but not all desire for order springs from necrophilia! The present results make clear, then, that the apparent association between necrophilous orientation and conservatism was simply an artifact of necrophilia being over-broadly defined. It is only the attributes which Fromm claims to be associated with necrophilia that provide the correlation with conservatism. Necrophilia in its core sense (acceptance of or liking for death and dead things) is unrelated to conservatism.


{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-Brunswik E., Levinson D. J. and Sanford R. N. (1950) The Authoritarian Personality. Harper, N.Y.

Dicks H. V. (1972) Licenced Mass Murder: A Socio-Psychological Study of Some S.S. Killers. Sussex U.P., London.

Eysenck H. J. and Eysenck S. B. G. (1969) Personality Structure and Measurement. Routledge, London.

Fromm E. (1964) The Heart of Man. Harper: N.Y.

Glad B. (1983) Black-and-white thinking: Ronald Reagan's approach to foreign policy. Polit. Psychol. 4, 33-76.

Maccoby M. (1972) Emotional attitudes and political choices. Politics & Society 2, 209-241.

Petersen L. R. and Wilkinson K. (1983) Sex role conventionality, race inequality and despair: evidence concerning a personal consequence of change. Sociol. Soc. Res. 67, 190-203.

Ray, J.J. (1973) Conservatism, authoritarianism and related variables: A review and an empirical study. Ch. 2 in: G.D. Wilson (Ed.) The psychology of conservatism London: Academic Press.

Ray, J.J. (1984) Measuring trait anxiety in general population samples. Journal of Social Psychology, 123, 189-193.

Ray, J.J. (1984) Attitude to abortion, attitude to life and conservatism in Australia. Sociology & Social Research 68, 236-246.

Ray, J.J. & Najman, J.M. (1975) Death anxiety and death acceptance: A preliminary approach. Omega 5, 311-315.

Rosenberg M. (1965) Society and the Adolescent Self-Image. Princeton, U.P., Princeton, N.J.

Taylor J. A. (1953) A personality scale of manifest anxiety. J. Abnormal & Social Psychology 48, 285-290.

Templer D. I. (1970) The construction and validation of a death anxiety scale. J. gen. Psychol. 82, 165-177.


Items of the Neoconservatism scale. All items are responded to on a 5 point scale from 'Strongly Agree' to `Strongly Disagree'. Items 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, 14, 16, 17 are scored 1 for 'Strongly Agree' (etc.) while the remainder are scored 5 for `Strongly Agree' (etc.).

1. Trade unions should make more efforts to grab company profits for the workers.
2. A free dental service should be provided by the Federal government.
3. The growth of large companies makes government regulations of big business necessary.
4. The Federal government should re-introduce a health insurance scheme that would cover every Australian no matter what he or she does.
5. Government regulation is necessary to ensure that the average Australian worker is given good conditions to work in.
6. In this country, the people who make big profits generally deserve it.
7. People should not expect the government to look after them so much.
8. People who want the government to look after everything must be pretty incompetent themselves.
9. Political apathy is probably the most sensible attitude there is in Australia today.
10. Law-breaking is probably quite often a desirable sign of individualism.
11. Too many people are exploited by smart businessmen in Australia today.
12. People who are always pressing for 'community involvement' in decisions are generally trying to take the liberties of other people away.
13. As society gets more complicated, we will need to rely more and more on governments for solutions to our problems.
14. Generally, you yourself are the only one who can solve your own problems.
15. Majority rule is the only proper system of government for all countries.
16. If everybody just minded his own business without worrying about what other people are doing in society, we would be better off.
17. Men would not do their best if the government owned all industry.
18. The government should do more to protect the jobs of Australian workers form cheap foreign imports.

APPENDIX II The four new death attitude items. If these are combined with the items of the Templer (1970) scale and the Ray and Najman (1974) scale and if items No. 9 of the Templer scale and No. 7 of the Ray and Najman scale are deleted, the new balanced Death Attitude scale is produced.

1. Death is one subject I never talk about if I can help it.
2. I hate the ugliness of death.
3. Maybe we all have to die but I certainly don't want to.
4. I can't bear to think about not being here any more.


Replication is one of the cornerstones of science. A new research result will normally require replication by later researchers before the truth and accuracy of the observation concerned is generally accepted. If a result is to be replicated, however, careful specification of the original research procedure is important.

In questionnaire research it has been my observation that the results are fairly robust as to questionnaire format. It is the content of the question that matters rather than how the question is presented (But see here and here). It is nonetheless obviously desirable for an attempted replication to follow the original procedure as closely as possible so I have given here samples of how I presented my questionnaires in most of the research I did. On all occasions, respondents were asked to circle a number to indicate their response.

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