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Conservatives have nothing to fear but fear itself

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.



  1. Iron Knee wrote:

    Thanks to Starluna for sending me the link for this.

    Sunday, July 3, 2011 at 11:46 am | Permalink
  2. Ok, this is going to drive me nuts: I saw some of this material about 3 years ago. Unfortunately, I was reading about it on the office computer where I was adjuncting, and I never emailed the links to myself.

    Now I’m going to wonder where the heck I’ve already seen this. Ugh! I don’t have access to research libraries anymore. ๐Ÿ™

    Sunday, July 3, 2011 at 12:42 pm | Permalink
  3. Peter wrote:

    Giving new meaning the phrase, “A Conservative is a Liberal who got mugged.”

    Sunday, July 3, 2011 at 5:00 pm | Permalink
  4. Mad Hatter wrote:

    I’ve noticed when I talk to work-a-day people who vote Republican, they all seem to have a fear and/or hatred of the “welfare” class, immigrants, illegal or otherwise and even the intelligentsia, scientists, engineer, doctors, etc. Ever since Reagan, the Republicans have really tapped into these fears and know how to use this to get these people to vote against their best interest.

    Sunday, July 3, 2011 at 6:46 pm | Permalink
  5. ebdoug wrote:

    “intelligentsia, scientists, engineer, doctors, etc” Goodness, doesn’t this sound like the Chinese Revolution to make China a communist country? And Cambodia? Get rid of all the educated people.

    Sunday, July 3, 2011 at 8:08 pm | Permalink
  6. A REGULAR READER wrote:

    Rule of thumb: never use the phrase “begs the question” unless you’ve taken a course in logic. (You just might be using it ‘backwards’.)

    Sunday, July 3, 2011 at 9:32 pm | Permalink
  7. Iron Knee wrote:

    Sheesh, you guys don’t let me get away with anything! I was using “begs the question” in its common meaning where it is the same as “raises the question”, not in its formal logic meaning (where it is similar to a circular argument). But just to make you happy, I changed the post to “raises the question”.

    And yes, I have taken a course in logic (more than one, actually).

    Sunday, July 3, 2011 at 11:27 pm | Permalink
  8. starluna wrote:

    Thought Dancer – have you used Google Scholar? A lot of academics are posting their papers on their university profiles. And some publishers are allowing open access for certain journals too.

    Jon Haidt did a TED talk on his morals research, so you can find it there. He also has a separate website and you can participate in his morals research study too.

    Also, if you live in or near a city, the reference librarians are usually able to help you find some academic articles. If it’s a reasonably big city, you might even be able to get them to ILL the article for free.

    Monday, July 4, 2011 at 7:49 am | Permalink
  9. Iron Knee wrote:

    I added Haidt’s talk to the original post for your enjoyment.

    Monday, July 4, 2011 at 9:32 am | Permalink
  10. Jason Ray wrote:

    Turns out according the quiz I am a liberal – who knew?

    Monday, July 4, 2011 at 3:22 pm | Permalink
  11. Starluna: I had forgotten about Google Scholar… completely slipped my head. Thanks!

    I do live in a decent sized city, but the college situation here is mediocre at best. If I had the time, I could drive to the state capital and use the excellent graduate library at the state university there, but I wasn’t going to run that errand for just this post. (It’s about an hour away.)

    Iron Knee: thanks for the pointer to the TED talk. TED talk pointers are always a wonderful thing. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Monday, July 4, 2011 at 4:17 pm | Permalink
  12. ZJD wrote:

    I came across Haidt’s work last year and found it very intriguing. If anyone’s interested in more of his writing check out his article “What Makes People Vote Republican?” –

    Monday, July 4, 2011 at 7:41 pm | Permalink
  13. starluna wrote:

    ZJD – Thank you for posting that essay. Definitely worth the read. I read through half of the criticisms, some of which is I felt were right on point. I’m going to see if there is some way to sneak this into my sociology of law classes.

    Tuesday, July 5, 2011 at 9:10 am | Permalink
  14. Sammy wrote:

    I don’t care what anyone says, I’ll continue to use the phrase “begs the question” in its common usage. But I will still refuse to spell “all right” as one word. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Tuesday, July 5, 2011 at 11:27 am | Permalink
  15. starluna wrote:

    But what about “a lot”? ๐Ÿ™‚

    Tuesday, July 5, 2011 at 2:07 pm | Permalink