Apr 28 2010

Understanding Liberals and Conservatives

I’ve had my own thoughts about the differences between liberals and conservatives for a few years; and have blogged about it occasionally. It has seemed to me, as I read and listen to debates on various issues, that liberals and conservatives do not speak the same language; they may use many of the same words, but the concepts are not the same. As a result, the dialog is often meaningless. There is no attempt whatsoever to really try to understand the motivation behind the opinions or to understand the different meanings that each attaches to the words they are using.

I was therefore intrigued by the article on MSNBC last week entitled 5 key ‘moral triggers’ polarize politics. In it, Rachael Rettner reports on a study by Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia which have identified 5 “moral triggers”—factors that people use to judge right from wrong—that are common, but not universally shared between cultures or individuals within cultures. These are identified as:

  • Harm/care
  • Fairness/reciprocity
  • Ingroup/loyalty
  • Authority/respect
  • Purity/sanctity

What is interesting is that (as least by American terminology) conservatives tend to be concerned with all five factors, while liberals focus only on harm/care.  This difference explains a lot, including the difference between liberal and conservative views of the Constitution and what type of Supreme Court judges we need. And, as the article points out, this really explains the different points of view on gay marriage.

Peter Ditto, professor at UCI, talked about how people will interpret facts differently, and even ignore facts that don’t fit their moral view; views of right and wrong by both conservatives and liberals are actually based on “altered realities.”  He is quoted as saying

“People process information, and it’s biased to supporting their moral ideological view,” he said. “And what you end up with is these sort of radically different perceptions of fact, so that it’s not like they’re just arguing about morals anymore; they perceive the world completely differently.”

I have recently read a number of different sources from different fields of study making similar points—people don’t think completely rationally. All of us—even those trained to be objective—will see data that fits our already-held beliefs.

However, the article itself kind of deteriorates as it continues on, trying to find reasons why the left-right split seems more severe than in the past; Ditto believes that the media exacerbates the split by reinforcing the more extremist positions, which seemed more of a guess then the result of any serious study (I did agree, however, with his categorizing NPR as “liberal” media along with MSNBC). This may be true for some; however, I’ve read and watched MSNBC more than any other news source for the last dozen or so years, and I’m still a conservative.

Regardless, the 5 moral triggers that Haidt & Co. have classified are intriguing, and do seem to explain some things.