2019-08-21 13:30:00 | Categories: Theory

Mental time travel and right-wing ideology

Mental time travel involves the ability to reflect on the past, look towards the future, and foster up imaginative alternate realities (Epstude & Peetz, 2012). This capacity takes place over psychological distance from oneself – in space, in time, in hypotheticality. This act of traversing psychological distance involves the act of mental construal, with more abstract mental construals being created at greater psychological distances. For example, in the domain of hypotheticality, if one were to meet what could be called a ‘squirrel’ followed by a series of more-or-less similar four-legged furry animals, it might be sufficient enough to suppose their existence beyond concrete experience (i.e. at greater psychological distance), and understand them by the abstraction ‘mammal’. Note that, with increasing ‘hypothetical’ psychological distance (from concrete experience to a supposed ‘existing’ category), we have lost the incidental qualities that might distinguish between a ‘squirrel’ and a ‘sheep’ and increased the level of abstraction. Indeed, it can be seen from the other direction, where much fantastical (that is, more abstract) writing is premised on implying psychological distance – ‘Once upon a time’, ‘In a land far away’ and so on (Ecker & Gilead, 2018). 

I will attempt to show this capacity as relevant to the study of political conservatism, as specified by a prominent approach within political psychology. This approach takes political conservatism as ‘motivated social cognition’ which is to say that people are motivated to look at the social world in particular ways in order to satisfy three fundamental human needs: a need for belongingness (for example, within a particular group), a need for understanding, and a need for safety. Conservatism is taken to satisfy particular aspects within these needs, which are heightened across individuals and so foster some political differences (e.g. conservatives vs. liberals), with conservatives indeed having been found to have heightened relational, epistemic, and existential needs. Right-wing ideologies are characterized by a resistance to change and tolerance of inequality, though in a way resistance to change is a more fundamental aspect. The reason being that conservative ideology is more appealing to those who are higher in psychological needs of reducing uncertainty or threat which leads them, motivationally, to system justification which is ‘a motivation to defend, bolster, and justify existing social, economic, or political institutions and arrangements’ because it allows for the attainment of certainty, order and structure (epistemic needs); safety and security by minimizing danger and threat (existential needs); and allows affiliation with others by securing a shared reality (a particular religious or national consensus, for example) and thus a sense of belongingness (Jost, Federico, & Napier, 2013, p. 236).

Mental time travel is a ubiquitous process and necessary for everyday thinking (planning one’s route to work, for instance), so in this sense it might seem strange tying it to any particular political ideology. To be clear, then, it is being spoken about in terms of degrees. It is expected that people vary in their use of mental time travel and that they might conceive of things at a greater psychological distance more often. A certain ‘matching’ is taken to happen between processes of mental time travel and processes of political thinking like those summarised above. Specifically, the mental capacity for prospection as underpinning the process of goal-directed allostasis can be seen as matching needs for managing uncertainty and threat which underpins support for conservative ideology. This will be explored more below.

Prospection refers to the ‘ability to transcend the here and now and to imagine novel future states’ (i.e. an act of mental time travel operating across psychological distance) and goal-directed allostasis refers to the ‘goal-directed mental process that underlies individuals’ proactive attempts to maintain the current state of affairs’ (Ecker & Gilead, 2018, p.1). Goal-directed allostasis takes place when an individual perceives a lack of discrepancy between their current state and a desired state; it is thereby a psychology of maintenance. Allostasis is heavily reliant on prospection to function. If we take the case of John who wants to maintain his marriage to Margaret, John firstly must have the foresight to commit sufficient time and energy to the marriage, e.g. organising date nights, in understanding that Margaret might otherwise grow distant, and secondly, have an awareness of how to effectively spend that time and energy, does Margaret prefer trips to the cinema or getting a takeaway, for instance. More problematically for maintenance, is quantifying potential disturbances. Given that things are ‘just fine as they are’, no concrete grounds are available to evaluate those potential disturbances or threats that John might face. Rather, he has to rely a wide net of speculations and counterfactual worlds.  For example,  John now wants to look after his health. He must now consider the state of his cardiovascular health, pollutants in the air, sugar content in his foods and so on and on, to the extent that this can generate an avoidance orientation – ‘We will cross that bridge when we come to it’ and such like. Finally, John must rely on prospective memory which is the ability to remember to perform a future intended action – say, with John’s new gardening hobby he must remember to water the plants and clear the weeds to keep the garden as it is. Goal-directed allostasis is distinguished from goal-directed progress, which involves a discrepancy being perceived by an individual between their current state and a desired state. This discrepancy is a concrete fact for those concerned with goal-directed progress, for instance, Linda the competitive marrow grower, after recently coming 4th place at the county marrow competition, will now redouble her efforts for next years’ entry. Importantly, however, those concerned with allostasis have a vast array of counterfactual and future-related threats to contend with – what might be a threat to things as they are, rather the concrete facts.

It is argued that this generally means engaging with ‘an effortful and goal-directed consideration of doom’ which can give rise to avoidance strategies of those psychologically distant threats. A telling example is given by the authors: “Sure, maybe climate change is real, but maybe not. I will believe it when I see it. For now, we need to worry about coal mining jobs” (Ecker & Gilead, 2018, p.7). Indeed, experimental studies have found ambivalent attitudes towards climate change to be related to the perceived psychological distance of climate change: as happening in globally distant regions, or as happening to dissimilar ‘other’ people, or in some future time (Jones, Hine & Marks, 2017). This shows ostensible relevance to the heightened ‘epistemic needs’ that lead people to endorse right-wing ideology, which will be described below.

In a meta-analytic review of research, which included data from over 22,000 research participants it was found that that dogmatism, intolerance of ambiguity, and personal needs for order, structure, and closure was related to the endorsement of right-wing, or system-justifying, ideology (Jost et al., 2003). Right-wing ideologies satisfy these needs as they more often eschew or resist changing existing societal arrangements and systems according to contemporary ideals – conservatives might be said ‘to prefer the devil they know, to the devil the do not know’. Indeed, inducing a threatened mindset by asking participants to report on times they felt ‘terrified and/or severely threatened’  (which increases feelings of uncertainty and lack of control) leads to a ‘motivated close-mindedness’ or a certain black-and-white thinking, whereby individuals will ‘seize’ and ‘freeze’ on highly salient and accessible information, which also relates to endorsement of right-wing ideology (Thórisdóttir & Jost, 2011). There is evidence that these similarities (that is, between avoidance of speculative threats to current state maintenance, and motivated close-mindedness in response memories of being threatened) goes beyond ‘face-value’ and are in fact related. I will turn to this below.

A belief that can be taken as ‘system-justifying’ is that of ‘belief in a just world’ (BJW) (Kay & Jost, 2003), which involves the thinking that ‘good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people’ or people ‘deserve what they get and get what they deserve’, even when faced with stark examples to the contrary. It provides individuals with buffers against the harsh realities of the world and increases a sense of personal control over one’s destiny – people feel less vulnerable and have a lower perception of risk as they feel they have done nothing wrong to deserve negative outcomes. However, when inevitably faced with life’s realities, which will disrupt the belief and disturb its’ relatively comfortable stasis, individuals need to find ways to maintain it – this is primarily done via victim derogation, or victim blaming. Studies that looked at the cognitive and behavioural reactions to victims, namely at the “perceived responsibility to help the needy and willingness to act prosaically to migrants, third world employees and the unemployed” found that BJW motivated people “to blame the needy for their self-infliction, minimize their existing needs, and justify their own advantages” (Furnham, 2003, p. 803). In a way, this ‘lets “the world” off the hook’ and the belief can be maintained. An empirical link between BJW and mental time travel has been looked at by way of manipulating psychological distance. Researchers looked at the belief in a just world strategies of participants in response to reports of victims of domestic abuse, and found that participants would attribute more blame to the victim’s character  when the report is given at greater psychological distance (e.g. as happening 5 years go vs. last year). This is a more abstract form of blame (as opposed to blaming the situation) as congruent with mental time travel, and it is a more ‘negative’ form of blame (‘people get what they deserve’) as congruent with just world beliefs (Warner, VanDeursen, & Pope, 2012). It is also consistent with the ‘ideo-attribution effect’ whereby conservatives are more likely to attribute dispositional blame to individuals in regards to social problems, i.e. they are to blame for their situation (the causes of behaviour are personally situated), as opposed to blaming the situation itself (Skitka et al., 2002).

In conclusion, acts of mental time travel here (e.g. prospection – foresight, prospective memory) have been described in the context of right-wing ideologies. Specifically, goal-directed allostasis as reliant on prospection is related to the heightened epistemic needs that predict endorsement of right-wing, or system-justifying, ideologies. This was supported by experimental evidence involving the manipulation of psychological distance, which involves more abstract thinking, as predictive of just world belief strategies, namely, victim character blaming. One implication of this is the differences in general mental processing (i.e. psychological distance) might be relevant to differences in politics and ideology.


Ecker, Y., & Gilead, M. (2018). Goal-directed allostasis: The unique challenge of keeping things as they are and strategies to overcome it. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13(5), 618-633.

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Furnham, A. (2003). Belief in a just world: Research progress over the past decade. Personality and individual differences, 34(5), 795-817.

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Warner, R. H., VanDeursen, M. J., & Pope, A. R. (2012). Temporal distance as a determinant of just world strategy. European Journal of Social Psychology, 42(3), 276-284.

Oliver Keenan
Oliver Keenan
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