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What makes liberals and conservatives tick

April 9, 2012 - Andrea Johnson
This country is so divided politically that social psychologists have been working double-time trying to figure out what makes people of different political persuasions tick.

George Lakoff, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, wrote a book a few years ago that argued that liberals and conservatives both think of the country as a family, but they have differing views of what an ideal family is. Conservatives supposedly prefer the "strict father" model, with an emphasis on strict discipline and self-reliance; liberals prefer a "nurturant parent' model and emphasize empathy and responsibility towards others.

So, the theory goes, if you think the ideal father is a strict authoritarian, you will be in favor of a government that punishes the lawbreakers with longer prison sentences and puts a time limit on social welfare programs so that weak people will have to learn how to stand on their own two feet. If you're a liberal, on the other hand, you might favor a government that ensures that the basic needs of citizens for food, shelter, health care and opportunities for education are met because your ideal parent is nurturing rather than authoritarian.

The moral foundations theory, created by a group of social psychologists, said that liberals and conservatives put different levels of importance on the values of care/harm; fairness/cheating; liberty/oppression; loyalty/betrayal; authority/subversion and sanctity/degradation.

When making moral decisions, according to this theory, liberals put far greater weight on not causing harm and on making a decision that is fair than conservatives do. Conservatives, while they also think it's important not to hurt others and to be fair, don't care as much about those concepts as liberals do. Instead, conservatives put great emphasis on being loyal to a particular family, group or country; on obeying authority and on holding something sacred than liberals do.

I took Haidt's moral foundation quiz at ( a few years ago and discovered that I'm neither a typical liberal or a typical conservative. I thought respect for authority and loyalty to country or group were important, but not nearly as important as avoiding harm to others and fairness. I apparently put far greater emphasis on not causing harm and on fairness than either the liberals or conservatives who took the test did.

I also put considerably greater weight on the concept of "purity" or "sanctity" than the liberals who took the test did, on a par with the conservatives who took the test. I thought that result was one of the most interesting.

The Moral Foundations website defines the "sanctity/degradation" foundation as "shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. It underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions)." According to the site, apparently conservatives are more easily disgusted than are liberals, which might explain some of the ongoing culture wars. Of course what people are disgusted by will vary from individual to individual.

I would suspect that, like me, a lot of people will find their results don't fit easily into either a conservative or liberal slot. The studies are interesting, though, and it is valuable as a tool to help people understand their decision making process better and also understand their political opponents


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