In 2011, the psychologist Jonathon Haidt stunned a gathering of social psychologists at an SPSP conference in San Antonio by calling for a simple show of hands on political preferences during his address, and thereby empirically demonstrating the group’s overwhelming liberal bias. Eighty percent of the room self-identified as liberal, while only three lonely psychologists raised their hands as conservatives. Such bias within psychology is no small matter these days, as our country struggles with a degree of political polarization not seen since just after the U.S. Civil War. This public demonstration of bias triggered a period of self-reflection and debate within psychology on the consequences of the field’s dominant moral values.
Perhaps it was no coincidence that Haidt’s critique came a few years after the publication of a bombshell 2003 article in Psychological Bulletin on Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition, where the authors drew strong links between conservatives and off-putting personal traits like dogmatism, authoritarianism and social dominance orientation. In the paper, the authors characterize the core values of conservatism as “resistance to change” and “justification of inequality”, and thus implied that liberals held the opposite. Perhaps this essentialization of the core values of such a large swath of America’s voting public was simply a bridge too far.
In response, we conducted a study which sought to unpack these essentialist notions of conservatism and liberalism. We investigated how differences in the underlying value structures of Republican, Democrat and Independent voters affected the more or less tribalistic nature of their approach to politics.