Studies: Conservatives Are From Mars, Liberals Are From Venus

Haidt and his colleagues, in their paper "Liberals and Conservatives Rely on Different Sets of Moral Foundations," graphed five "moralities" -- (a) harm/care (strong empathy for those that are suffering and care for the most vulnerable); (b) fairness/reciprocity (life liberty and justice for all); (c) ingroup/loyalty (tribalism, patriotism, nationalism); (d) authority/respect (mechanisms for managing social rank, tempered by the obligation of superiors to protect and provide for subordinates); and (e) purity/sanctity (related to the evolution of disgust, that makes us see carnality as degrading and renunciation as noble) -- to show how liberals give priority to only to the first two, harm/care and fairness/reciprocity, while conservatives give roughly equal weight to all five. 25


26 figure 2.jpg

In interpreting their data, Haidt and Graham write that

"justice and related virtues . . . make up half of the moral world for liberals, while justice-related concerns make up only one fifth of the moral world for conservatives. Conservatives have many moral concerns that liberals simply do not recognize as moral concerns. When conservatives talk about virtues and policies based on the in-group/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity foundations, liberals hear talk about theta waves [i.e., from outer space]. For this reason, liberals often find it hard to understand why so many of their fellow citizens do not rally around the cause of social justice, and why many Western nations have elected conservative governments in recent years." 27

Haidt and Graham look at the issue of 'harm' not from the viewpoint that conservatives are more willing to inflict it, but from the other end of the telescope, that liberals place a higher value than conservatives on avoiding inflicting harm.

This distinction is crucial. There is a strong tendency in the social sciences to demonize Republicans and the right. The result is often a caricature rather than an accurate portrayal of conservatism and the values it represents. Without an accurate portrait of conservatism, the outcome of elections in which majorities periodically back conservative candidates cannot be fully understood.

Recognizing the danger that "behavioral research . . . runs the risk of becoming an extension of the political struggle between left and right," two other researchers, Philip Tetlock of the Wharton School, and Gregory Mitchell of the University of Virginia Law School, have tried to look objectively at "flattering and unflattering cognitive and motivational characterizations of liberals and conservatives," and with the aim of producing a more balanced view of the competing value systems of left and right.

Four excerpts from their research paper, "Liberal and conservative approaches to justice: Conflicting psychological portraits," are instructive: 28

1. Flattering liberal portrait:

"They [Liberals] do not equate downtrodden or impoverished status with inherent unworthiness or inability . . . In a nutshell, liberals are less selfish and more empathic and tolerant than conservatives. Their fear of aiding the undeserving is outweighed by their fear not helping the truly needy . . . Liberals do not need to bolster their self-esteem by living in a stratified society in which they can claim superiority over this or that group . . . Finally, liberals do not blame the victim or make defensive attributions . . . Liberals acknowledge that fate can be capricious and that bad things happen to good people."

2. Flattering conservative portrait:

"Conservatives realize the importance of incentives and that no, or little, aid is often the best help of all. The conservative response to social problems avoids the simplistic first response of treating the symptom by creating a new and expensive government program . . . conservatives are more integratively complex than liberals because they understand how often well-intentioned political reforms have unintended consequences or perverse effects . . . Finally, conservatives understand how free markets work, [they] recognize that the invisible hand of free market competition leads in the long term to incentives to produce good at levels of quality and quantity that satisfy effective demand for those goods."

3. Unflattering liberal portrait:

"They practice, in effect, a kind of social homeopathic medicine that treats symptoms rather than underlying causes . . . They fail to take into account the growing burden on the economy and the perverse incentives that dependency on public programs creates . . . Liberals not only exaggerate the efficacy of government; they underestimate the creativity of the free market. Many liberals mindlessly condemn capitalism as a culture of greed and ignore the power of the market to stimulate hard work, investment and entrepreneurship . . . [Liberalism] is a reflection of the widespread 'psychology of dependency' in which government, by transference, takes on the role of nurturant, powerful parent."

4. Unflattering conservative portrait:

"[C]onservatives do not understand how prevalent situational constraints on achievement are and thus commit the fundamental attribution error when they hold the poor responsible for poverty . . . [C]onservatives are too prone to engage in zero-sum thinking, either I keep my money or the government takes it. They fail to appreciate the possibility of positive-sum resolutions of societal conflicts . . . Conservatives cling to the comforting moral illusion that there is a sharp distinction between allowing people to suffer and making people suffer. Finally, conservatives fail to recognize that even if each transaction in a free market meets their standards of fairness, the cumulative result could be colossally unfair. Some people will acquire enormous power over others . . . [C]onservatism and compassion are antithetical." 29

The competing value systems of liberals and conservatives are further illuminated by American National Election Studies (ANES) poll data which supports research finding that conservatives and Republicans are more willing than liberals or Democrats to endorse free market solutions even when high costs are imposed on those less able to compete. ANES asked in 2004 and 2008 whether the government has an obligation to provide its citizens a good job and decent standard of living. Democrats and liberals agreed that government has the obligation by 40.5 - 26.5 and 47.5 - 24.5 margins respectively. In contrast, Republicans and conservatives said people should get ahead on their own by margins of 63.5-15 and 68-14, respectively. 30

These findings demonstrate the danger of demonizing the left or right. Instead, a balanced approach to the strengths and weaknesses of each position -- recognizing the salience of Tetlock and Mitchell's 'flattering' and 'unflattering' characterizations -- is essential to understanding how it is possible for the electorate to shift back and forth from election to election.

At the state and federal level, Republicans justify budget cuts in basic health and welfare programs by positing that the poor are responsible for their condition; emphasizing the costs of social welfare policies and the tax burdens that such benefit programs impose on the middle class; alleging that the consequences of denied food stamps or medical care can be absorbed in the larger scheme of things; asserting that market forces provide better solutions than government handouts; and believing that requiring people to shoulder hardship has salutary effects.

Under conditions of scarcity, a significant number of 'discipline' oriented Americans will be drawn to the hard-edged doctrines of conservatism, providing support to the Tea Party and to the moral orientation of the current Republican House. Conditions of scarcity work to the advantage of conservatives, undermining the willingness of voters to sacrifice -- pay higher taxes -- for the less fortunate.

In contrast, periods of economic growth work to the advantage of those on the left, who are more committed to values of 'nurturance' and care. These voters feel the suffering of others, their compassion is intensified by the sight of the jobless and homeless and hopeless. They believe that a helping hand is morally appropriate and benefits the larger polity. Democrats depend on such voters for core support. In times of plenty, voters in the center can find themselves sympathetic to this position.

For both left and right, packaging is crucial -- placing political ideology and public policy in the most 'flattering' light -- to use the Tetlock-Mitchell template. In the 2000 election, for example, the concept of 'compassionate conservatism' was key to George W. Bush's victory. Similarly, Democrat Bill Clinton's 1992 promise to "end welfare as we know it," to press for "more empowerment and less entitlement," to seek a "government that is leaner, not meaner; that expands opportunity, not bureaucracy" was designed to win wary independent voters. Along the same lines, during the 2008 campaign, Obama -- seeking to reframe 'unflattering' stereotypes of Democrats -- supported the death penalty and the right to bear arms, 31 announced his approval of a House-passed intelligence surveillance law, 32 and urged absentee fathers to "realize that what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child -- it's the courage to raise one." 33


In many ways, the politics of austerity go to the heart of the problem of 'loss allocation' posed by MIT economist Lester Thurow in his 1980 book, The Zero-Sum Society.

Republicans are willing to allocate losses in ways that harm their adversaries, if the outcomes favor their own interests and are consistent with conservative value systems. Large numbers of voters -- indeed, intermittent majorities -- appear to agree with GOP values when decisions about loss allocation must be made, even though these values are anathema to the disadvantaged and to ideological liberals.

Values clashes of this nature are stark -- and result in the contemporary phenomenon of acute political polarization. Conditions of scarcity magnify and intensify the conflicts underlying polarization. The electorate is now divided into two roughly equal but ideologically antithetical blocks. The swing segment of the electorate -- i.e. those who have "an unstable attachment to the major political parties," according to analyst Mark Gersh, 34those who switch their votes from Republican to Democrat, and back again, from one election to another -- is very small, ranging from just 5 percent or 6 percent, according to estimates by former Republican strategist Matt Dowd, 35 to 10 percent, according to political analysts Alan Abramowitz and Bill Bishop. 36 In many elections this 5 percent to 10 percent slice of the electorate proves crucial to the electoral outcome. The candidate who successfully identifies and mobilizes the key moveable segments of the electorate -- swing voters -- often proves to be the winner.

In 2008, for example, Obama's core constituency of blacks, 'netroots," creatives, single women, young voters, and Hispanics was augmented by a sizeable number of white swing voters who were put off by Bush himself, by the Iraq war, and by the financial collapse of September 2008 -- as well as by John McCain's weak campaign and by his choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate. Two years later, many of these same swing voters, angered by continuing unemployment, ballooning deficits, and the perceived distributional impact of health care reform, swept House Democrats out of office.

The 2012 election will be a battle for the hearts and ballots of these same voters in what is shaping up as the most ideological confrontation in recent memory.

From the book THE AGE OF AUSTERITY by Thomas Edsall. Copyright © 2012 by Thomas Edsall. Published by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House Inc.

1Philip E. Tetlock, "Cognitive style and political ideology," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 45 (1983): 118-26, available at

2Linda J. Skitka and Philip E. Tetlock, "Providing Public Assistance: Cognitive and Motivational Processes Underlying Liberal and Conservative Policy Preferences," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 65 (1993): 1205-23, available at

3Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. "Independents Oppose Party in Power . . . Again: More Conservative, More Critical of National Conditions," September 23, 2010, available at

4Ibid. Accessed March 21, 2011, available at

6Thomas B. Edsall, Building Red America. New York: Basic, 2000. "The Democratic Party, conversely, is the party of the so-called 'subdominant' and of those who identify with the subdominant, including those upper-income voters who have taken the side of the insurgents in the sexual, women's rights, and civil rights revolutions. Roughly two-thirds of the Democratic party's adherents are Americans who struggle to survive in an increasingly brutal competitive environment. The party is also the representative of organized labor and of the leadership of old-line religious denominations -- institutions in decline." p.1. Accessed March 21, 2011, available at "Differences between White Male Liberals and White Male Conservatives," October 27, 2010, available at The site has a link to the same data for white female liberals and conservatives.

9Thomas B. Edsall, "Women's Political Muscle Shapes 2000 Race," The Washington Post, March 11, 1999.

10James C. Dobson, Dare to Discipline. Illionois: Tyndale House, 1977. "[P]ain is a marvelous purifier . . . It is not necessary to beat the child into submission; a little bit of pain goes a long way for a young child. However, the spanking should be of sufficient magnitude to cause the child to cry genuinely," p. 16 and p. 23.

11 George Lakoff, Moral Politics. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2002. "The conservative/liberal division is ultimately a division between strictness and nurturance as ideals at all levels -- from the family to morality to religion and, ultimately, to politics. It is a division at the center of our democracy and our public lives, and yet there is no overt discussion of it in public discourse. The reason is that the details are largely unconscious, part of what cognitive scientists call the Cognitive Unconscious -- a deep level of mind that we have no direct access to. Yet it is vitally important that we do so if Americans are to understand and come to grips with, the deepest fundamental division in our country, one that transcends and lies behind all the individual issues; the role of government, social programs, taxation, education, the environment, energy, gun control, abortion, the death penalty, and so on. These are ultimately not different issues, but manifestations of a single issue; strictness versus nurturance." p. x.

12 Nicholas Winter, "Masculine Republicans and Feminine Democrats: Gender and Americans' Explicit and Implicit Images of the Political Parties." Paper presented at the American Political Science Association Toronto Meeting, 2009, available at


14 Ibid.

15 Ibid.

16Jonathan Haidt, "What Makes People Vote Republican?" Edge, September 9, 2008, available at

17Susan Page, "Poll: Dems, GOP divided on how to move forward," USA Today, November 8, 2010, available at

18Jonathan Weisman and Danny Yadron, "Poll Supports Shift to Center," Wall Street Journal, December 14, 2010, available at

19 Dana R. Carney, John T. Jost, Samuel D. Gosling, and Jeff Potter, "The Secret Lives of Liberals and Conservatives: Personality Profiles, Interaction Styles, and the Things They Leave Behind," Political Psychology 29 (2008): 807-40, available at,%20Jost,%20&%20Gosling%20(2008)%20The%20secret%20lives%20of%20liberals%20.pdf.

20 Ibid.


22Felicia Pratto, Jim Sidanius, and Shana Levin, "Social dominance theory and the dynamics of intergroup relations: Taking stock and looking forward," European Review of Social Psychology 17 (2006): 271-320. The appendix lists the questions used to determine SDO.


24Felicia Pratto, James Sidanius, Lisa M. Stallworth, and Bertram F. Malle, "Social Dominance Orientation: A Personality Variable Predicting Social and Political Attitudes," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 67 (1994): 741-763, available at

25 Jesse Graham, Jonathan Haidt, and Brian A. Nosek, "Liberals and Conservatives Rely on Different Sets of Moral Foundations," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 96 (2009): 1029-46, available at

26Jesse Graham, Jonathan Haidt, and Brian A. Nosek, "Liberals and Conservatives Rely on Different Sets of Moral Foundations," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2009, Vol. 96, No. 5, 1029--1046, American Psychological Association, available at

27Jonathan Haidt and Jesse Graham, "When Morality Opposes Justice: Conservatives Have Moral Intuitions that Liberals may not Recognize," Social Justice Research (2007), available at

28 P.E Tetlock and P.G. Mitchell, "Liberal and conservative approaches to justice: Conflicting psychological portraits," in Psychological Perspectives on Justice, edited by B. Mellers & J. Baron (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), available at


30American National Election Studies. "Military Spending, 7 Point Scale (1980-2008)," accessed July 12, 2011, available at

31 Suzanne Goldenberg and Elana Schor, "Obama supports supreme court reversal of gun ban: Candidate's stance at odds with former position: Democrat backs death penalty for child rapist," GuardianUK, June 27, 2008, available at

32 Paul Kane, "Obama Supports FISA Legislation, Angering Left," Washington Post, June 20, 2008, available at

33Barack Obama, "We Need Fathers To Step Up," Parade Magazine, June 21, 2009, available at

34Mark Gersh, "Swing Voters," DLC, accessed June 12, 2011, available at 35Michiko Kakutani, "The Republican Collapse May Not Be So Imminent," New York, Times, September 12, 2006, available at

36Alan I. Abramowitz and Bill Bishop, "Myth of the Middle," Washington Post, March 1, 2007, available at

Presented by

Thomas Byrne Edsall

Thomas B. Edsall is the Joseph Pulitzer II and Edith Pulitzer Moore Professor at the Columbia School of Journalism. He covered national politics for the Washington Post for 25 years and currently writes a weekly online column for the New York Times. He is the author of The Age of Austerity.

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