Compassionate (Sentimental) Liberals, Loyal (Authoritarian) Conservatives, and Intelligent (Cold-Hearted) Libertarians

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and the Cato Institute’s Emily Ekins have an incredible article on the moral psychology of different candidate supporters. The two begin with the 6 major moral foundations:

  • Care/harm: We feel compassion for those who are vulnerable or suffering.
  • Fairness/cheating: We constantly monitor whether people are getting what they deserve, whether things are balanced. We shun or punish cheaters.
  • Liberty/oppression: We resent restrictions on our choices and actions; we band together to resist bullies.
  • Loyalty/betrayal: We keep track of who is “us” and who is not; we enjoy tribal rituals, and we hate traitors.
  • Authority/subversion: We value order and hierarchy; we dislike those who undermine legitimate authority and sow chaos.
  • Sanctity/degradation: We have a sense that some things are elevated and pure and must be kept protected from the degradation and profanity of everyday life. (This foundation is best seen among religious conservatives, but you can find it on the left as well, particularly on issues related to environmentalism.)

In the graph below you can find how supporters of the various candidates scored:

Here are some highlights from Haidt and Ekins:

  • “The most obvious thing to note is that supporters of the two Democratic candidates are high [in Care], whereas supporters of most Republicans are low. This is consistent with most studies of the left-right dimension: The left values care and compassion as public or political values more than the right does. (We note that all people, and all groups, value care to some extent; we are merely looking at relative differences among groups.)…Rand Paul’s supporters score particularly low [in Care]. We have consistently found that libertarians score lower on care and compassion compared with others — indeed, they score low on almost all emotions, while scoring the highest on measures of reason, rationality, and intelligence.”
  • “As you move to the right, the bars [in Fairness] rise. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio supporters score highest on this foundation. This pattern is consistent with these candidates receiving the most support from the Tea Party. In our earlier research, we have each independently reached the conclusion that Tea Party supporters are highly motivated by the sense that the government routinely violates proportional fairness, by bailing out well-connected corporations and by spreading a safety net of welfare benefits under people they see as undeserving of help.”
  • “Not surprisingly, Rand Paul’s supporters rate [Liberty] the most important foundation, by far…More surprisingly, Bernie Sanders supporters also score high. Sanders seems to be drawing the more libertarian elements of the left, consistent with his more libertarian views on personal freedom, gun rights, and dovish foreign policy. Libertarian-minded voters seem to choose Sanders if they are on the left on economic policy, and Paul if they are on the right…Clinton supporters, in contrast to Sanders’s supporters, score slightly below the national mean. This may be one of the most important differences between the two candidates: Clinton attracts voters less concerned about individual autonomy.”
  • “Supporters of the Republican candidates tend to highly rate authority/loyalty/sanctity. Supporters of Democrats and libertarian-leaning Rand Paul do not…Sanders supporters score the lowest on these foundations and are joined not by Clinton supporters but by Paul supporters.”

But perhaps the biggest surprises?:

One surprise in our data was that Trump supporters were not extreme on any of the foundations. This means that Trump supporters are more centrist than is commonly realized; consequently, Trump’s prospects in the general election may be better than many pundits have thought. Cruz meanwhile, with a further-right moral profile, may have more difficulty attracting centrist Democrats and independents than would Trump.

One last interesting finding: Jeb Bush supporters are closest to the average American voter, despite the fact that his campaign has thus far has failed to gain any traction among Republican primary voters.

Bush’s failures may have more to do with his poor debate performances than with his moral profile, but in this time of high and rising polarization, cross-partisan hostility, and anger at elites and the establishment, Bush appears to be suffering from an excess of agreeability: He has no standout moral message that connects to any particular moral foundation, even at the risk of alienating supporters of another.

Check it out.

3 thoughts on “Compassionate (Sentimental) Liberals, Loyal (Authoritarian) Conservatives, and Intelligent (Cold-Hearted) Libertarians”

  1. The shift from “fairness” to “proportionality” surprised me. I can’t help but wonder whether working for Cato has influenced the way issues get framed; the illustrations I saw for how proportionality would be measured seemed to assume that how the system defines “earning” is fair. That explains the otherwise very odd result that Sanders supporters aren’t so interested in fairness. My impression of their rhetoric is that it’s very largely a fairness-based critique of the system which defines the value a person’s work has. If Haidt’s work has started to define this approach to fairness out of consideration, that would seem to introduce a pretty serious bias into the results of research to which he contributes.

  2. The shift to “proportionality” happened even prior to his book ‘The Righteous Mind’ a few years ago. In his book, Haidt talks about how he had done a “poor job of capturing conservative notions of fairness.” He writes that this conservative approach to fairness was more along the lines of “the Protestant work ethic and the Hindu law of karma: People should reap what they sow” (pg. 196). Haidt and his colleagues had originally set up fairness to be about equality and equal rights and the questions had been skewed toward the equality/liberal way. In other words, the “fairness” category was originally biased in favor of political liberals. After further research, Haidt concluded, “The desire for equality seems to be more closely related to the psychology of liberty and oppression than to the psychology of reciprocity and exchange. After talking about these issues with my colleagues at, and after we ran some new studies on various kinds of fairness and liberty, we added a provisional sixth foundation–Liberty/oppression. We also decided to revise our thinking about fairness to place more emphasis on proportionality” (pg. 197). So, they came up with a sixth moral foundation that largely covers the equality/equal rights impulse while fairness has more to do with proportionality and reciprocity (libertarian psychology had basically been ignored early on). This interpretation of fairness is backed up by other studies as well. Cooperation tends to decay very quickly when there is no punishment for those receiving benefits without contributing (mainly because people tend to take advantage of the system). However, when punishment is employed, cooperation rises along with giving (see Fehr, Gachter, “Altruistic Punishment in Humans,” Nature 415. Jan. 2002). The reward regions of the brain are activated when the violation of societal norms are punished (see de Quervain et al, “The Neural Basis of Altruistic Punishment,” Science 305. Aug. 2004). Haidt has said that morality is largely the evolved solution to the free rider problem.

    So, it is pretty clear the proportionality definition of fairness is not novel to this study. Haidt and others have simply refined the Moral Foundations Theory since his popular TED talk (2008).

  3. That was a marvelous answer–thank you! It also seems to explain why Sanders supporters would be so high on liberty: their opposition to oppression is unusually high.

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