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Are You Left or Right, Stupid?

When it comes to political orientation, personality shapes morality and ideology more than we think it does.

When people say they don’t care about politics, what they mean is that they don’t follow current events. But politics is more than current events. You don’t have to understand political leaders and/or parties to care about politics. Our political leanings run deeper than that.

Political orientation and its left-right alignment is thought to be universal. Just like intelligence, height, or weight, it has a bell-shaped distribution. Political leaning has been related with the personality traits of openness to experience and conscientiousness. For example, liberals tend to be “more open-minded, creative, curious, and novelty seeking”, while conservatives are “more orderly, conventional, and better organized.”

Furthermore, just like personality traits (and perhaps because of them), political orientations are genetically adapted to one’s ancestral environments. For instance, a study using twins demonstrated that genetics may play an important role in forming political attitudes. Additionally, by observing two brain regions, one could identify whether someone is liberal or conservative. That is, conservatism has been linked to heightened gray matter volume in the right amygdala, the region associated with emotional processing. A supplementary finding is that conservatives are more sensitive to disgust, and to processing fear or threat. Liberalism, on the other hand is related to increased gray matter volume in the anterior cingulate cortex, the region associated with higher tolerance for uncertainty and conflicts.  Regardless of culture, our snap judgements of whom to vote for is related to stronger responses in amygdala, implying that we tend to vote for those who we find emotionally arousing.

Moreover, our childhood personalities can accurately predict our political leanings in adulthood! In one study nursery school children were observed, and their personalities and social interactions were measured. They were then tracked down 20 years later to measure their political orientation. They found that pre-schoolers who had been described as “uncomfortable with uncertainty,” rigid, and over-controlled rated themselves as leaning right, while the children who were more “autonomous, expressive, energetic, and relatively under-controlled” turned out to be more liberal.

Irrespective of how our brains may be wired, we tend to be biased towards those across the aisle. That is, we tend to think or act in ways that favour our own political or ideological group. Partisan bias takes place when we expose ourselves to echo chambers, selectively remember, evaluate facts that support our own contentions, or when we assess the behaviours of political opponents harshly. Psychologists who examine partisan bias have found contradicting results: some have found right-leaning individuals to be more biased, while others have found the opposite. This might be due to the researcher’s own biases. To examine this further, Peter Ditto and his colleagues, examined 51 studies related to partisan bias, which cumulatively included more than 18,000 participants. They found that both left- and right-leaning individuals were significantly biased towards information that supported their own ideologies, and in this bias they were alike.

In other words, ideological bias is bipartisan.

One question worth asking is, why are we biased towards others? Often we think of right-leaning individuals as narrow-minded and lacking in imagination, while those on the left are thought of as naïve and degenerate. Both sides of the spectrum also think of the other as immoral. At times, our understanding of morality is focused on justice and fairness; however, there is more to morality. This is demonstrated by the work  by Richard Shweder in Bhubaneswar, where he found that morality is more extensive and pluralistic than previously thought.

A more unified version of Shweder’s thesis is called the Moral Foundations Theory. It identifies five basic principles that explain cultural differences in morality. Care (the ability to feel pain of others) and fairness (need for justice and rights of individuals) constitute individualizing moral foundations, because they facilitate in maintaining individual liberties. Loyalty (willingness to sacrifice the self for the group), authority (respect for tradition), and sanctity (the need to be pious and chaste) constitute the binding foundations, because they help in tying individuals together in a group, and help the group function. Left-leaning individuals have been found  to endorse individualizing foundations alone, while those leaning towards the right endorse both individualizing and binding foundations.

Given that political conservatives are less open to novelty in their experiences, and that they tend to be partial to the emotions of fear and disgust, we can say that they may be more reverential to traditional institutions, such as marriage as well as to more structured systems of social hierarchy, such as obedience to authority, and sexual modesty. Thus, they may stand for issues such as traditional family and gender roles, patriotism, etc. The opposite is true for liberals who are more open to experience, and need less structures, thereby challenging tradition. They prioritize issues like women’s and minority rights. Thus, the difference in their personality and moral beliefs is evident in the issues that they stand for.

Differences in the extent to which liberals and conservatives understand moral spheres is then the crux of political disagreements. We make moral judgements automatically and intuitively, rather than through strategic reasoning, which further abets these political differences. We also  exaggerate these differences when asked to describe the morality of those who do not follow the same ideology as us. Perhaps more importantly, conservatives are more accurate in their judgements of how much liberals value individualizing foundations, but liberals thought conservatives think far less about individualizing foundations than they actually do. In other words, conservatives accurately judged liberals as being more attentive to concerns about fairness or care, but liberals were excessively stereotypical of political conservatives.

In short, we tend to demonize those who do not think like we do. While most of our criticism might be towards those at the very extremes of the spectrum, we need to remember that generally, we have more similarities than differences, and most of us are moderate in our beliefs. Most of us tend to have opinions on what is morally acceptable and not acceptable, and making us inherently political. All we need to do is to find out where we lie on the spectrum.

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About the author

Arathy Puthillam

Arathy Puthillam is a Research Assistant at the Department of Psychology, Monk Prayogshala, a not-for-profit research organisation based in Mumbai, India. Her research interests include Evolutionary Psychology, Social Cognition, and Psychological Methods.