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"This is provocative and practical"
Pam Radford, Senior Director, Global Marketing

"Super interesting - a new and predictive way to understand customers."
Mark Staples, Editorial Director
McKinsey & Company

When Liberal Customers Turn Conservative

When Liberal Customers Turn Conservative

Events cause customers to switch worldviews within a matter of minutes. The effect is mostly temporary, but it represents a significant mindset change that your business can understand to stay in sync, whether you sell insurance, fitness, video games, or the news itself.

This temporary change in worldview from events is governed by an axis of emotion formed by the feeling of safety on one end and fear on the other. Customers feel these powerful emotions every day to varying degrees, actively moderating their worldview and sometimes dissolving the boundary between liberal and conservative mindsets. Worldview becomes fluid in the face of fear and safety.

The Idea

Conservative customers prefer stability, so change can represent a threat. Liberal customers prefer to experiment to create a better future, which requires change. But what about extreme cases when a sudden and startling change invokes fear? Or the opposite - when there is a sudden sense of greater safety and stability? This is when it gets interesting for your customers and how you might shift the stance of your business.

When faced with real fear, conservative and liberal customers become more conservative - there is a retreat to conservatism. But for liberal customers, the shift is far greater. Liberal customers become just as conservative as conservative customers, even if only temporarily. When fear is amplified, the liberal customer comfort level with ambiguity, experimentation, and desire for change goes down. Fear motivates them to seek the same stability that conservative customers always desire.

FUD - Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt - is a common acronym that describes strong motivations for purchase. Fear is the strongest of the three, as it unifies both groups, creating a consistent conservative mindset toward your business, whether you align with it or not.

But it’s not just liberal customers who make the switch. While threats make liberal customers more conservative, the flip of this argument is also true. When fears are removed - even temporarily - and safety is more pronounced, conservative customers become more liberal. Security, or the lack of vulnerability, unites both groups in liberalness. In this case, the conservative customers cross over to join the liberal customers in mindset.

The Evidence

Paul Nail, a professor of psychology at the University of Central Arkansas, lead a team of researchers to evaluate how threats affect liberals and conservatives using three studies. They found that “Liberals became more conservative following experimentally induced threats. Moreover, the threats consistently caused liberals to become as conservative as conservatives chronically were. The findings of all three studies are consistent with the view that conservative social cognition, whether political or psychological, is a defensive reaction against feelings of personal vulnerability.”

Hi his book, Buyology, Martin Lindstrom discusses an experiment where participants were monitored using fMRI to gauge their reactions to fearful events like 9/11. The participants identified as Democrats exhibited far more activity in the amygdala than Republicans. The amygdala is an area of the brain that governs fear, anxiety, and dread. So the more liberal participants appeared to undergo a more significant change when faced with a threat. Consider that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, George W. Bush, the conservative President, saw his approval rating rise from 52% to 88%, unifying both liberals and conservatives in the face of terrorist threats.

Another study led by New York University psychology professor Jamie Napier examined the opposite effect: how conservatives are affected by a greater sense of safety. They told the research participants they had been granted a superpower and were invincible, like Superman. They were then presented with ideas for social change. Liberal participants expressed the same views as before the experiment. Conservative participants, however, became significantly more liberal.

One of the researchers in this study, John Bargh, from the Department of Psychology at Yale University, went on to publish the book Before You Know It: The Unconscious Reasons We Do What We DoHe states, “The fundamental drive for physical safety is a powerful legacy of our evolutionary past. It exerts influence on the mind as it navigates and responds to modern life, often in surprising ways - like who you vote for.”


Fear and safety shape your customers’ worldviews due to a wide variety of events. Significant national or international events in the news, such as 9/11, are rare, yet knowing how your market reacts to these events enables you to respond to stay in sync with your market’s mindset.

Suppose a significant event drives high, broader market anxiety. In that case, your business must consider becoming more conservative - not with politics or divisive social issues - but with ideas around stability, orderliness, and conservation. On the other hand, if significant events bring a large degree of resolution to the marketplace to instill greater safety, your business can instantly push boundaries by offering new solutions and experimentation.

For example, news organizations can dial stability or innovation up or down in response to events. Some of this will happen naturally, but having an intentional strategy will create tighter alignment with the market’s shifting mindset.

A more likely scenario for your business is that events driving fear and safety are more local, potentially confined to the individual customer. For example, many companies sell into markets defined by “life events,” such as having a baby, marriage, divorce, finding a new job, selling a home, buying a home, moving, and more. In every one of these cases, there can be heightened fear and anxiety or safety and stability that can shape a market’s worldview, overriding the worldview that may normally be present.

Home security products invariably invoke fear, which would cause liberal customers to unite with conservative customers. Pharmaceutical products tend to invoke the resolution of the condition rather than the fear of the disease, which would unite conservative customers with liberal ones.

Insurance companies play both ends of the spectrum. Some invoke fear of catastrophe, while others focus on a more secure future. Unfortunately, these companies are likely unaware of how these decisions affect market appeal for the two groups. Instead, the framing of their products results from leadership predispositions, advertising agency worldview, or market research that doesn’t control for worldview. The solution for any business is to understand the differences in mindset between the two groups and have an intentional strategy rather than leave it to fate.

Fear and safety may or may not significantly affect the marketing of your products. Yet remaining aware of how your market can switch sides instantly will help you navigate changes, whether the news comes from front-page headlines or a story you hear when a customer drops by your store. The goal is to enable your business to bend to how your customers see the world - even when it changes momentarily.

This article originally appeared in the Red and Blue Customers newsletter.

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