The Psychology of Political Differences

22/04/2015 14:11 | Updated 20 June 2015

Elections are nigh! So, this is a dutifully timed post about the psychology of political differences. But first, a public service announcement: check out the Vote for Policies website, which will ask you a bunch of questions about specific issues, and then tell you how your attitudes match up to the different political party platforms. It's a handy tool.


Some of our political disagreements are over matters of fact. We disagree over which fiscal and monetary policies will decrease unemployment. We disagree over what the most effective means of reducing criminal recidivism are. We disagree over what education policies will best prepare our children for the increasingly competitive labour market. These disagreements are, at least in principle, resolvable with appeal to evidence. Of course, the evidence is often scarce and multiply interpretable, and we have a tendency to search for and evaluate evidence in biased ways, to confirm the attitudes we hold already. But still.

Besides disagreeing about facts, however, we also seem to disagree about values. But why? What is it about liberals' and conservatives' dispositions or life experiences that shape their political and moral leanings? One possibility is that some values--particularly those that involve simplistic black-and-white thinking typically attributed to conservatives--are more attractive to, well, dumber people. There is actually some evidence for this, at least in the American context: people with lower IQs tend to hold more politically conservative attitudes (e.g., on abortion, homosexuality, gun ownership, taxation, hate speech). Of course, there are liberal pieties as well as conservative ones, and we might expect low IQ scores among dogmatists on both sides, but this isn't what we find here: if anything, extremists score better than their lukewarm comrades. Now, these findings are bound to be culturally-specific. In Brazil, for example, where there is more real experience of political extremism, intelligent people are more attracted to political moderation. And even in the American study earlier, the link between intelligence and liberalism is reversed in states where political involvement is generally low.

Another possibility is that political conservatism--with its resistance to change--is a way to mitigate a fear of uncertainty or some other kind of existential insecurity or anxiety. Consistent with this idea, a recent study of over 20,000 individuals across 88 countries found that political conservatism was more common among people who feared uncertainty, were intolerant of ambiguity, feared death, and displayed other related traits. In other studies, researchers have also found that just reminding people--liberals included--of their mortality caused them to adopt more conservative stances, particularly on issues of national security and sexuality.

Speaking of sexuality, there is actually quite a lot of work done on the relationship between disgust and attitudes toward homosexuality. After all, people who are against gay marriage tend to have a sort of "Ew! Yuck!" response to it. Moral disgust may be less metaphorical than one might assume. Studies have shown that people who are easily disgusted by a variety of things (e.g., cockroaches, corpses, public restrooms) are also more disapproving of homosexuality. In fact, just being reminded about cleaning and cleanliness leads people to, at least temporarily, hold conservative views on sexual issues. In Erik Hezler and Dave Pizarro's research at Cornell, for example, they found that even just standing near a hand sanitiser made people momentarily more conservative. As they point out, this finding brings new meaning to the phrase "dirty liberals". Disgust sensitivity doesn't just affect our sexual attitudes: in their study on over 30,000 individuals across 121 countries, Yoel Inbar and colleagues found that people who were more easily disgusted were also more likely to self-identify as political conservatives more generally, and especially on social and foreign policy issues. Perhaps the Conservative Party (and UKIP and the BNP, etc.) should pay attention. For their next campaign, they might want to start a joint venture with their detergent brand of choice.

So far, conservatives might think that this is all evidence that liberal academics are out to get them. The picture that we are painting of conservatives as dumb, scared, and weak-stomached is hardly a pretty one. And social and personality psychologists are generally politically liberal. But these are the facts as they currently stand. Still, there might be a less polemical angle available. There is some recent research on moral foundations that attempts to provide a less contentious view of political differences. According to the work of Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues, our moral and political decisions are based on a small handful of basic concerns that we all share, conservatives and liberals alike. These basic values include concerns about fairness, harm, loyalty, respect, and purity. The differences between liberals and conservatives arise because we weigh and prioritise these different concerns differently, and perhaps also under different circumstances. This view basically rejects the notion that conservatives and liberals have fundamentally different values. It doesn't account for the research on intelligence and fear, but at least it provides a shared starting point for further conversation across the aisle.

Finally, a piece of unambiguously good news for conservatives. It turns out that conservatives are happier than liberals. I suppose this might depend on who wins the election come May 7th.