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.

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7 Responses to Understanding Liberals and Conservatives

  1. It’s an old article, I know; but it’s new to me, and so here’s my comment…

    You wrote: “Ditto believes that the media exacerbates the split by reinforcing the more extremist positions…”

    MY RESPONSE: Substitute the word “Internet” for “media” in Ditto’s statement and a whole new world of interesting explanations, for why things seem so different to we oldsters since the mid-1990s, becomes possible.

    It’s a subject that I’ve spent no small amount of time pondering; and one of the little quotables that I sometimes utter (and which is mine, if anyone’s citing) is that if it weren’t for the Internet, and how it isolates people and virtualizes community, there’d be no need for a national night out.

    We are fundamentally different, as human beings, now, since 1994: the public release of the worldwide web part of the Internet. Some of us were on it before that — in my case, because I’ve been in IT for nearly 40 years, I’ve used at least email since the ’80s; and even early AOL and other similar systems were actually part of the Internet — but it was the final release of the worldwide web part of it that began its societal and cutural ubiquity; and we are, as a society, profoundly changed by it. Not for the better, either, I posit.

    Because more people are connected, more opinion-forming and often polarizing information is available to them; however, because so many of them think the world may be covered in a 140-character text or tweet, much of that opinion-forming and/or polarizing information is incomplete and/or even inaccurate.

    Such technology also helps us to filter-out that which we don’t want to hear, and allow only that which reinforces what we already believe. When said reinforcement packs the double-whammy of being fundamentally inaccurate, then the problem is exacerbated.

    An example: If you watch MS-NBC, despite your acknowledged conservatism (which I won’t hold against you) [grin], then you’ve heard Rachel Maddow talk about the “FOX NEWS CHANNEL echo chamber;” and it was precisely that by which Romney and his minions’ got sucked-in when he insisted, during the second presidential debate on October 16th, that Obama took 14 long days to finally call the Benghazi attack an “act of terrorism,” at which point debate moderator Candy Crowley corrected Romney — and Obama asked her to repeat — that the president had, indeed, called it an act of terror in the very first sentence of his official statement about it in the White House Rose Garden, the very next morning after the attack.

    Romney, as so many Americans now do, used technology to get so caught-up in reading only articles and blogs of those with whom he agreed — and watching the FOX NEWS CHANNEL echo chamber, of course — that he lost touch with reality, and lacked exposure to counterbalancing and fact-checking.

    SEE: http://nbcnews.to/WMgX1G

    With such as that as backdrop, is it any wonder that it’s now easier to be more polarized? Yes, media played a role in all that, but it is, in the end, technology’s ability to help us so filter, and to become so isolated and living in only “virtual” community, in need of a national night out so we can meet our neighbors over the back fence like in pre-1994 days, which so polarizes us.

    That we may now be so easily lied to by our virtual communities in which we’ve isolated ourselves is yet another Internet-specific factor. Anyone with ten bucks a month to give to an ISP, a phone line with model or DSL, and a computer, can go online, even anonymously, and write pretty much anything one wants, with impunity. If meme theory holds water, then explained is how such misinformation can so travel so fast. There is simply no analog for that in pre-1994 days. Worse, meme phenomena isn’t even necessary in order for the ease with which the misinformation may flow to be present. Yes, we filter what we read online, but what we read online is not vetted. In pre-1994 days, that which we read, unless it was stapled to a telephone pole or something, had likely been somehow vetted by at least someone, somewhere, in some way. Today, we get it all raw; and if it’s also well-presented on an attractive and credible-looking webpage, it’s all the more subconsciously believable.

    We are, then, as a society, both more and better connected, but nevertheless more ignorant and less well-informed; and so we are also more isolated and polarized. As a liberal, I see the harm/care factor in all that in spades!

    Sadly, everyone’s too busy multi-tasking to care.

    Gregg L. DesElms
    Napa, California USA
    gregg at greggdeselms dot com

    • me says:

      Very interesting observations… I think you may be on to something.

      Although, as it turns out, Candy Crowley was wrong… 😉

  2. Amy says:

    Personally, I find ideology much easier to maintain than thought which is highly vulnerable to outside influences.

  3. Fred says:

    Personally, I find ideology much easier to maintain than thought which is highly vulnerable to outside influences.

  4. Howard says:

    “Perceptions” are what it’s all about, and from what I’ve learned recently, it really doesn’t make much difference if you’re a Clinton or a Bush, a Thatcher or a Blair – the misguided perceptions that have motivated your ideology are actually one and the same. If you want to know more, take a look here:
    (This is part 1 of a 3 part BBC documentary from 2007 – this and part 2 : The Lonely Robot – really define the malady of many strains of contemporary political thinking.

  5. me says:


    Thanks for commenting, and for the link. I’ve only had a chance to watch a couple of minutes, but it sounds interesting… and I laughed at his crack about Applebees…

  6. Bob says:

    Here is video of Haidt addressing the TED conference about this subject.


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