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Unconscious Reactions Separate Liberals and Conservatives

Psychological insights might tone down the bitter feuding between Democrats and Republicans

More practically, instead of trying to change people's emotional state (an effect that is temporary), astute policy makers might be able to phrase their ideas in a way that appeals to different worldviews. In a 2010 paper Irina Feygina, a social psychology doctoral student at N.Y.U. who works with Jost, found a way to bring conservatives and liberals together on global warming. She and her colleagues wondered whether the impulse to defend the status quo might be driving the conservative pooh-poohing of environmental issues.

In an ingenious experiment, the psychologists reframed climate change not as a challenge to government and industry but as “a threat to the American way of life.” After reading a passage that couched environmental action as patriotic, study participants who displayed traits typical of conservatives were much more likely to sign petitions about preventing oil spills and protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Environmentalism may be an ideal place to find common political ground. “Conservatives who are religious have this mind-set about being good stewards of the earth, to protect God's creation, and that is very compatible with green energy and conservation and other ideas that are usually classified as liberal,” Nail says.

Moral Scorecards

On topics where liberals and conservatives will never see eye to eye, opposing sides can try to cultivate mutual respect. In The Righteous Mind, Haidt identifies several areas of morality. Liberals, he says, tend to value two of them: caring for people who are vulnerable and fairness, which for liberals tends to mean sharing resources equally. Conservatives care about those things, too, but for them fairness means proportionality—that people should get what they deserve based on the amount of effort they have put in. Conservatives also emphasize loyalty and authority>, values helpful for maintaining a stable society.

In a 2009 study Haidt and two of his colleagues presented more than 8,000 people with a series of hypothetical actions. Among them: kick a dog in the head; discard a box of ballots to help your candidate win; publicly bet against a favorite sports team; curse your parents to their faces; and receive a blood transfusion from a child molester. Participants had to say whether they would do these deeds for money and, if so, for how much—$10? $1,000? $100,000? More? Liberals were reluctant to harm a living thing or act unfairly, even for $1 million, but they were willing to betray group loyalty, disrespect authority or do something disgusting, such as eating their own dog after it dies, for cash. Conservatives said they were less willing to compromise on any of the moral categories.

Haidt has a message for both sides. He wants the left to acknowledge that the right's emphasis on laws, institutions, customs and religion is valuable. Conservatives recognize that democracy is a huge achievement and that maintaining the social order requires imposing constraints on people. Liberal values, on the other hand, also serve important roles: ensuring that the rights of weaker members of society are respected; limiting the harmful effects, such as pollution, that corporations sometimes pass on to others; and fostering innovation by supporting diverse ideas and ways of life.

Haidt is not out to change people's deepest moral beliefs. Yet he thinks that if people could see that those they disagree with are not immoral but simply emphasizing different moral principles, some of the antagonism would subside. Intriguingly, Haidt himself has morphed from liberal to centrist over the course of his research. He now finds value in conservative tenets that he used to reject reflexively: “It's yin and yang. Both sides see different threats; both sides are wise to different virtues.”

This article was originally published with the title "Calling a Truce in the Political Wars."

(Further Reading)

  • The End of the End of Ideology. J. T. Jost in American Psychologist, Vol. 61, No. 7, pages 651–670; October 2006.
  • The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Jonathan Haidt. Pantheon Books, 2012.
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