Conservatives may not like liberals, but they seem to understand them. In contrast, many liberals find conservative voters not just wrong but also bewildering.
One academic study asked 2,000 Americans to fill out questionnaires about moral questions. In some cases, they were asked to fill them out as they thought a “typical liberal” or a “typical conservative” would respond.
Moderates and conservatives were adept at guessing how liberals would answer questions. Liberals, especially those who described themselves as “very liberal,” were least able to put themselves in the minds of their adversaries and guess how conservatives would answer.
Now a fascinating new book comes along that, to a liberal like myself, helps demystify the right — and illuminates the kind of messaging that might connect with voters of all stripes. “The Righteous Mind,” by Jonathan Haidt, a University of Virginia psychology professor, argues that, for liberals, morality is largely a matter of three values: caring for the weak, fairness and liberty. Conservatives share those concerns (although they think of fairness and liberty differently) and add three others: loyalty, respect for authority and sanctity.
Those latter values bind groups together with a shared respect for symbols and institutions such as the flag or the military. They are a reminder that human moral judgments are often about far more than just helping others. Some of Haidt’s most interesting material is his examination of taboos.
His team asked research subjects pesky questions. What would they think of a brother and sister who experimented with incest, while using birth control? Or of a family that, after their pet dog was run over, ate it for dinner?
Most respondents were appalled but often had trouble articulating why; we find these examples instinctively disturbing even if no one is harmed. (One lesson of the book: If you see Haidt approaching with a clipboard, run!)
Of course, political debates aren’t built on the consumption of roadkill. But they do often revolve around this broader moral code. This year’s Republican primaries have been a kaleidoscope of loyalty, authority and sanctity issues — such as whether church-affiliated institutions can refuse to cover birth control in health insurance policies — and that’s perhaps why people like me have found the primaries so crazy.
Another way of putting it is this: Americans speak about values in six languages, from care to sanctity. Conservatives speak all six, but liberals are fluent in only three. And some (me included) mostly use just one, care for victims.
“Moral psychology can help to explain why the Democratic Party has had so much difficulty connecting with voters,” writes Haidt, a former liberal who says he became a centrist while writing the book.
In recent years, there has been growing research into the roots of political ideologies, and they seem to go deep. Adults who consider themselves liberals were said decades earlier by their nursery-school teachers to be curious, verbal novelty seekers but not very neat or obedient.
Some research suggests that conservatives are particularly attuned to threats, with a greater startle reflex when they hear loud noises. Conservatives also secrete more skin moisture when they see disgusting images, such as a person eating worms. Liberals feel disgust, too, but a bit less.
Anything that prods us to think of disgust or cleanliness also seems to have at least a temporary effect on our politics. It pushes our sanctity buttons and makes us more conservative.
A University of Toronto study found that if people were asked to wash their hands with soap and water before filling out a questionnaire, they become more moralistic about issues like drug use and pornography. Researchers found that interviewees on Stanford’s campus offered harsher, more moralistic views after “fart spray” had been released in the area.
At Cornell University, students answered questions in more conservative ways when they were simply near a hand sanitizer station.
Our ideologies shape much more than our politics. We even seek pets who reflect our moral outlook. Researchers at YourMorals.org found that liberals prefer dogs who are gentle but not subservient, while conservatives seek dogs who are loyal and obedient.
In short, moral and political judgments are complex and contradictory, shaped by a panoply of values, personalities — maybe even smells.
Little of this is a conscious or intellectual process. Indeed, Haidt cites research that a higher I.Q. doesn’t lead people to think through their moral positions in a more balanced, open way (although they are more eloquent in defending those positions).
There’s even extensive research finding that professors of moral philosophy are no more moral than other scholars.
And do you know what kind of books are disproportionately stolen from libraries? Books on ethics.