Scientists have been trying to figure out the psychological differences between liberals and conservatives, and a new study adds an interesting theory.
Earlier work by Jonathan Haidt showed that almost everyone in the world, regardless of culture, has five moral instincts: fairness, not harming others, group loyalty, respect for authority, and purity. But liberals emphasize the first two, showing much more concern for fairness and whether anyone is being hurt. This raises the question of where this difference comes from.
That’s where the new study comes in, which found that of the five moral instincts only the first two are innate, and the remaining three are driven by feeling threatened or fearful. When we are threatened, we are more likely to stick with our immediate group, follow authority, or distrust the impure.
The new theory ties in with numerous experiments that find that conservatives are more sensitive to threats and fear and less open to new experiences.
This might explain why political talk radio is popular with conservatives, but progressive talk radio has had more problems finding a large audience. Conservative talk radio often plays to fears and helps foster a sense of group membership. Or why conservative politicians are more willing to vote in lockstep with conservative talking points, while liberals are more willing to openly attack their fellow liberals. Or why Fox News engages in so much fear mongering.
UPDATE: Jonathan Haidt’s excellent TED talk on the moral roots of liberals and conservatives:
You can also take Heidt’s survey and learn about your own morality, ethics, and/or values.