The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer

Political Science

published December 2009
Psychological research reveals how
and why liberals and conservatives differ
magazine cover

Humans are, by nature, tribal and never more so than in politics. In the culture wars we all know the tribal stereotypes of what liberals think of conservatives: Conservatives are a bunch of Hummer-driving, meat-eating, gun-toting, hard-drinking, Bible-thumping, black-and-white- thinking, fist-pounding, shoe-stomping, morally hypocritical blowhards. And what conservatives think of liberals: Liberals are a bunch of hybrid-driving, tofu-eating, tree-hugging, whale-saving, sandal-wearing, bottled-water-drinking, ACLU-supporting, flip-flopping, wishy-washy, namby-pamby bed wetters.

Like many other stereotypes, each of these contains an element of truth that reflects an emphasis on different moral values. Jonathan Haidt, who is a psychologist at the University of Virginia, explains such stereotypes in terms of his Moral Foundations Theory (see, which he developed “to understand why morality varies so much across cultures yet still shows so many similarities and recurrent themes.” Haidt proposes that the foundations of our sense of right and wrong rest within “five innate and universally available psychological systems” that might be summarized as follows:

  1. Harm/care: Evolved mammalian attachment systems mean we can feel the pain of others, giving rise to the virtues of kindness, gentleness and nurturance.
  2. Fairness/reciprocity: Evolved reciprocal altruism generates a sense of justice.
  3. Ingroup/loyalty: Evolved in-group tribalism leads to patriotism.
  4. Authority/respect: Evolved hierarchical social structures translate to respect for authority and tradition.
  5. Purity/sanctity: Evolved emotion of disgust related to disease and contamination underlies our sense of bodily purity.

Over the years Haidt and his University of Virginia colleague Jesse Graham have surveyed the moral opinions of more than 110,000 people from dozens of countries and have found this consistent difference: self-reported liberals are high on 1 and 2 (harm/ care and fairness/reciprocity) but are low on 3, 4 and 5 (in-group loyalty, authority/respect and purity/sanctity), whereas self-reported conservatives are roughly equal on all five dimensions, although they place slightly less emphasis on 1 and 2 than liberals do. (Take the survey yourself at

Instead of viewing the left and the right as either inherently correct or wrong, a more scientific approach is to recognize that liberals and conservatives emphasize different moral values. My favorite example of these differences is dramatized in the 1992 film A Few Good Men. In the courtroom ending, Jack Nicholson’s conservative marine Colonel Nathan R. Jessup is being cross-examined by Tom Cruise’s liberal navy Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee, who is defending two marines accused of accidentally killing a fellow soldier. Kaffee thinks that Jessup ordered a “code red,” an off-the-books command to rough up a disloyal marine trainee in need of discipline and that matters got tragically out of hand. Kaffee wants individual justice for his clients. Jessup wants freedom and security for the nation even at the cost of individual liberty, as he explains:

“Son, we live in a world that has walls. And those walls have to be guarded by men with guns…. You don’t want the truth because deep down, in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall. We use words like honor, code, loyalty. We use these words as the backbone to a life spent defending something. You use ’em as a punch line. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom I provide, then questions the manner in which I provide it.”

Personally, I tend more toward the liberal emphasis on individual fairness, justice and liberty, and I worry that overemphasis on group loyalty will trigger our inner xenophobias. But evolutionary psychology reveals just how deep our tribal instincts are and why good fences make good neighbors. And I know that ever since 9/11, I am especially grateful to all the brave soldiers on those walls who have allowed us to sleep under a blanket of freedom.

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21 Comments to “Political Science”

  1. Cissy Van Balen Says:

    Mr. Shermer, I am very glad you realize and are grateful to all the brave soldiers on those walls who have allowed you to sleep under the blanket of freedom. The majority of those brave soldiers were reared in families with conservative values. If the majority were reared in families with liberal values, no one would be on those walls, and you, I and are fellow citizens would not be allowed to sleep under a blanket of freedom.

    I’m a native Californian now living in South Carolina. Therefore, over the years I’ve experienced residing in liberal communities and conservative communities. When the going gets tough, I’ll take conservatives hands down.

  2. Jak Says:

    Cissy, I’m curious where you get your information that a majority of those brave soldiers were reared in families with conservative values? Also I wonder If it were not for liberal values, I wonder if we would not today still be a colony of England.

  3. GeekGoddess Says:

    Jak, in your last sentence, you are confusing the use of the word liberal in the political party sense, as discussed in this article, and the word as it is used in the sense of Classical Liberalism – think of the liberalism of the Enlightenment, or a liberal arts degree.

    Military personnel are not allowed to engage in politics, by law, but towns with large military populations tend to overwhelming elect candidates who are politically conservative over those who are politically ‘liberal’ (using that sense of the word). Of course, that says nothing about their parents’ political values, as you point out, only the voting tendency of the soldiers themselves. As someone who has several family members in the military, both in the enlisted and officer corps, I know from their personal experiences that they seldom meet fellow soliders/sailors who are politically liberal. Anecdotal, of course.

  4. Dan Lynch Says:

    Alas, under “harm/care” is the human lust to harm somebody else, especially if you can get away with it. I started thinking about it on reading the Gyges allegory of Plato’s “Republic” more than half a century ago. I am a conservative, and in that half century have both “guarded that wall” and watched conservatism slide out from under me.

    These days, modern American conservatives seem defined by how much they want to hurt somebody. Consider “conservative” attitudes about punishment, immigration, other people’s sexuality, other people’s religiosity.

    In a world of nearly seven giga-folk (7E9 humans), conservatives from other cultures act as suicide attackers with a lust to harm that exceeds their will to live.

  5. Allisonwonderland Says:

    Quite a shame the tone of Shermer’s piece was completely missed. It was a lovely sentiment.

    As for me, I am not sure there can be meeting ground between the two factions, not sure there should be.

    The anti-war factions serve as a stark contrast, a balance, a conscience to those in society and politics who would send our men and women, people who put TRUST in our government not to send them to war, to potentially die, *without good, just and established* cause…to remove “bad men” and deposit democracy in areas that simply aren’t ready.
    It’s not our duty or mission to sacrifice our men and women to those goals.

    Dissenters serve a purpose, and those who fall in lockstep with the idea America is the world’s military policeman should understand that our soldiers are human beings, not mechanical, tin soldiers to be marched off at the whim of our elected.

    The fact is, the US is not safer for the war with Iraq and our borders were not being protected with that war.
    Our soldiers deserve better. They deserve to be home with their families until real threat to America is identified.

    Both the liberals and the conservatives who voted to send our soldiers into harm’s way in a war like Iraq owe those men and women and their families…they owe America, an apology at the very least….event that sounds so hollow given the costs of this war we find ourselves in.

    To dispel further wrong-headed stereotypes, liberals are not against war when it is legitimately due to preserve our freedoms and borders.

    …and let’s just call it like it is, if pro-war conservatives cared so much about soldiers, they’d be outraged at the pay and medical care these men and women receive. We all should be.

    Rationalists shouldn’t swoon to rhetoric or cave to puffed up pomposities disguised as finger pointing and (hopefully) shame inducing “Patriotism”.
    My Patriotism is better than your patriotism is no better than the my god is bigger than your god type of mentality.

    As a US citizen and a Patriot that would like my country to be the best it can be for the human beings that live in and must interact with it, it is my duty to cry foul when soldiers are sent to chess game wars that have nothing to do with 9/11 or keeping America free or safe.
    Our elected are just men and women and they’re capable of making dreadful mistakes, let’s not give them blind faith by insinuating that all war is good and to be patriotic we should support such wars.
    I support our soldiers so much I’m willing to speak out on sending them where they do not belong.
    Bring ’em home. Now THAT takes courage far beyond the
    ….and Cissy, if you are a woman, you better thank a liberal you have any rights at all beyond marrying and bearing children.
    GG-centrist and more liberal leaning soldiers probably keep their inclinations to themselves. The fact is, a lot of men and women join the forces for different reasons, one of which is to afford an education. These “advantages” for service bring a lot of folks with a “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude into the fold. Anecdotal is quaint, it is not evidence of a broader picture and regardless of the political persuasion of the soldiers, no soldier in their right mind wants to die. They put trust in the officials and the voters to use their service wisely and ETHICALLY.
    ALL of us, regardless of label owe ALL them, that.

  6. Jak Says:

    GeekGoddess – I was not referring to Classical Liberalism, rather I was inartfully trying to pose a question? In the context of the American Revolution the colonists were subjects of the King of England. Using contemporary language in that context would you be considered a liberal for supporting the revolution or a conservative?

    And… I would really like to know – are statistics kept regarding the political affiliation of the memebers of any or all of the branches of the armed forces? I am unable to find that information.

  7. Griff Says:

    I believe that the meat behind the claim that most servicemen/women are conservative or rather Republicans is based on the people posing it are Republicans and so are their friends/family in the military as are those servicemen/women friends in the military.

    People tend to associate predominately with like-minded people. I could have concluded from my military experience that a great majority of the servicemen/women are liberal or Democrats since I myself am liberal, as are the friends and family members that I have known through the years in the military. Of course, I don’t come to this conclusion because it’s actually not based on any data, and neither should anyone else.

    And what if data were to show without doubt that most military folks are leaning one way or the other? Then what? It’s not as if it some how qualifies one position or another as “more correct” or “more important”.

  8. Sam Rock Says:

    Jak asks if there are statistics regarding political affiliation – the answer is no, the military doesn’t ask [probably is forbidden]. Can you imagine the uproar? Of course, the same is true for businesses and educational institutions.

    My own experience – drafted in 66 for Vietnam and later voluntary return to the Army – is anecdotal also, but here it is. My recollection of the 60’s Army was that officers were more conservative [Republican – and quite different than today’s brand] while enlisted tended to be more Democratic [although not liberal in today’s sense of the word]. More recently I note that with the all-volunteer force there does seem to be a tendency toward more conservative orientation.

    In the system proposed by Haidt – mentioned in Michael’s essay – I would say most current military are stronger on #2 & 3, possibly also on #4, but in the appropriate context would also score high on #1 [look at photos of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan interacting with kids or needy civilians].

    As for Michael’s essay, add context as a critical modifier and you have a pretty good statement of where we are. Our hearts [emotional responses] go out to those in need when we ourselves are not threatened [and sometimes when we are]. However, when we [the group/community/nation] are threatened we seek the protection of others, be it a big brother or sister, the neighborhood policeman, of soldiers.

    From an evolutionary perspective we needed to band together – there are too many bigger, stronger, faster predators with better vision & hearing – it insured our survival. That need remains, in much modified form.

  9. steve w. Says:

    I’m a recent Army veteran who just finished his enlistment after a 15-month tour in Iraq. In regards to the above debate about military political affiliations, I have never seen any actual data on military members political affiliations. I checked my Army friends on Facebook and of those with political affiliations listed and 42% are Republicans/conservatives and 58% are Democrats/liberals. This sort of came as a surprise to me, I was expecting just under 2/3 Conservative to 1/3 Liberal.

    Please note that my sample is unscientific and that it reflects the people I knew as a lower enlisted who signed up for only one enlistment and got out, most of my friends did not list a political party/affiliation, has few officers in the sample, and the fact that all but 2 are Army and don’t reflect other services. I hope my little experiment may lead somebody to do a proper study of the issue.

    As I recall during the 2004 election most of the soldiers I knew favored Bush over Kerry and during the 2008 election they were about evenly divided between McCain and Obama, with a slight majority favoring Obama.

    I have a question about value #3. I’ve noticed that a lot of liberals tend to believe liberals at their word on political issues over conservatives and conservatives believe conservatives at their word on political issues. Could those on the left just have different ingroup loyalties and not actually lack that value, they just don’t emphasize the nation group as much as other groups? (I’m not trying to make any political points about any group, I’m just questioning Dr Haidt’s contention that liberals don’t value ingroup/loyalty)

    I want to raise a question, do these emphasis on different values have a warping value on public policy in society? For instance national security policy, economic stimulus bills, abortion, the death penalty, healthcare, and tax policy have no logical relationship to each other (except for the money needed for some issues) yet we seem to combine certain combinations of those issues into “conservative” and “liberal” positions instead of examining each issue on its merits and coming to the best policy. I think it’s an important question that our society doesn’t seem to be willing to ask itself.

    If anybody is interested/cares to know what my biases are, for the record I’m a Republican moderate that tends to lean more conservative than liberal. I voted for Kerry in 2004 and McCain in 2008. I think Obama is better than Bush on some issues and worse on others and I have generally positive opinions of both Presidents. I now think I was wrong about Bush in 2004 but it’s too early to early to make an informed judgement on Obama but he’s doing okay so far.

  10. Richard S. Russell Says:

    Regardless of the political make-up of the military, there is absolutely no question that the Democratic Party is the one that’s doing the most to look out for the actual troops, their dependents, and veterans.

    GOP standard-bearer John McCain voted against updating the GI Bill of Rights, for heaven’s sake. The Bush White House was way more interested in providing protection for Iraq’s oil wells than for the American kids who were guarding them. Which party decided that our patriotic volunteer troops were good enuf to get shot at in the hot zones, but private outfits like Blackwater and Halliburton deserved the relatively safe work of guard duty and potato peeling at 5-10 times what we’re paying actual oath-taking government employees? Bush/Cheney’s cutbacks in housing allowances for military dependents were a disgrace.

    And it goes on and on. Up-armoring. PTSD. Agent Orange. Body armor. Stop-loss. Recruiter suicides. Walter Reed Army Hospital. Disgracefully hidden returning caskets. In every single case, it was the Democrats who were looking out for the working men and women of our armed forces, while the Republicans were looking out for their fat-cat military-contractor buddies.

  11. chet jones Says:

    I have no data to support the following assertions, other than the data in my brain, which could be wrong, but seems right to me…
    Conservatives are the ones that tend to be less-educated, less inclined to critical thinking, though plenty of ignorant, sheep-like liberals exist as well, but more so conservatives because of the socio-political status of the conservative base. They are more likely to be military-minded because the military-industrial complex has done a better job indoctrinating them then the ones who go to college and get at least a little bit of critical thinking education. This also is connected to the fact that folks of lower means (i.e., the conservative base – if you’re not black, who are more inclined to be liberal) are the ones most vulnerable/enthusiastic about using the military as a way to get college money, job training, etc. Liberals are more likely to have had a parent pay for college.

  12. Jorg Fleige Says:

    Having been first Democrat, then Republican, I’m disgusted with both realizing they are simply coalitions of self serving interest groups. The ‘innate’ principals are interesting. The problem historically has often been when No. 3 In group/Loyalty, has been used to overpower No. 2 Fairness/reciprocity.

  13. Shenonymous Says:

    Not ever being in the military, and my father was the last in my family to serve, in WWII, I take a little different track on the search for moral values.

    It doesn’t seem true that we can feel the pain of another unless there was some magical way of being that other who experiences pain. Having the virtues of kindness, gentleness and nurturance must come by means of a different passage than mammalian attachment. How exactly can the pain of another be felt by oneself? One would have to recall one’s own pain and attempt to compare what is assumed of the other with that former pain. And how, then, can one be sure that the assumed degree of pain of another is the same as what was remembered of oneself?

    While the rest of his Moral Foundations Theory seems right, Haight’s idea that we can feel the pain of others borders on a preposterous crisscrossing of a physical/psychological, subjective/objective barrier. We might be able to approximate another’s physical/psychological pain, but never to actually feel it. Nor can they feel ours. The cold hard fact is that acts of kindness, sympathy, gentleness, and nurturance must arise from an innate, genetic, and true, a mammalian, organic, realization that as a organism, it is in one’s own built-in best interest for survival. Love and care for others and a gentle disposition promotes that care and survival of the species. Nurturance as well because it and all those other benevolent behaviors advance the society and it is within a society one usually will find the best chance for survival of the individual and its species. Sentimentality is constructed to provide a buffer against the cold hard facts. Yes, I do realize how mechanical that all sounds. But there is that irrational side to emotional attachment that cannot be ignored if real understanding is desired. It is only through detachment that a thing may be seen for what it is. So how is it then that we can feel another’s pain?

    Knowing forestalls deception and without deception real choices are possible. Real choices give rise for a real morality to be aroused. That development seems to be in the best direction for advancement of evolution for humankind. Perhaps if we can discover how it happens that one can feel another’s pain, the animosity between liberals and conservatives could be

  14. richard benton Says:

    First let me clear the air.I have considered myself a “liberal” for a long time.But over the last few years I keep repeating a mantra to myself.There is in reality no such thing as liberal or conservative.I keep trying to refer to myself as a realist.Be that as it may there are a list of things about which conservatives are consistently wrong,although I will admit there are certain areas where they have good talking points.Guns-they are wrong here,although it is true that there are cases where guns have saved lives.These instances are far outweighed by the instances where they have taken lives.After all,isnt that what they are designed to do?Evolution-they are always no wrong here-no if,ands,or butts.Biblical innerancy-ditto.Overpopulation ,abortion,contraceptives-I feel they are generally wrong here,but there are some good talking points to be hashed out.I take my stand with legal abortion with the proviso that we reduce unwanted pregnancies.But then along come the anti-contraception C atholic church,and their fellow travelers.They are just flatout WRONG.Hard as I try to repeat my mantra of realist,realist,realist I keep coming back to the idea that the “liberal” position is more realistic.But this is by no means the last word on anything.As far as only conservatives in the military-BULLSHIT.George Mcgovern,that humble,sissy liberal flew dangerous bombing missions over Germany.I rest my case.

  15. Serafin from Spain Says:

    I think the article oversimplifies the diferences between liberals and conservatives and uncritically accepts some clichés about these differences. For example, the idea that conservatives rate higher in “Authority respect”. I don´t see why this should be the case. If a person has been raised in a family where left-wing ideas are dominant, becoming conservative can be a sign of assertiveness and independence. The same happens with the label “Ingroup loyalty”. The author of the study seems to think that patriotism is the main expression of this trait. In fact, “loyalty” can be felt towards any kind of group, no matter the kind of ideas this group holds. The closed and clannish liberal groups you find in the academia are as good examples of loyalty carried to the point of conformism as any form of national patriotism or chauvinism.
    At bottom, the problem is how the author of the study obtained his rankings. This is not explained in the article. Has he asked his subjects to rate themselves in a 1-10 scale in “Authority respect”, for example? If that is the case, what he has researched is the self-image of these individuals, which may or may not reflect their actual behaviour.

  16. opinionated old fart Says:

    Nit pickey point of fact: The Marines were accused of killing a fellow Marine not a soldier. Soldiers are in the Army.
    As far as the military being generally conservative, it is. Sure, I’ve seen a Marine driving a Prius, and at least two Marines have been self described Communists. One I know personally and then there was Lee Harvey Oswald. No one is saying that all military are conservative.
    Remember the 2000 Presidential election? When the overseas military vote came in it was heavily for Bush. This was overwhelmingly expected, and apparently is usually the case.
    Military recruiters have also stated that my city (Fort Worth, Texas) is a very good recruiting region as are other conservative areas. Also I’ve read that it is well established that conservative Midwest and Southern States are over represented in the military and liberal areas tend to be underrepresented. Whatever point people want to make with it, there really is no doubt that conservatives are more likely to join the military.

  17. Adam Says:

    When I read Michael, I often feel like I’m reading an article from Psychology Today, which to the uninitiated, is not a compliment.

  18. Stephen E. Fowler Says:

    I love Dr. Shermer’s quotable (assuming it’s original) caricature of liberal vs. conservative. We have seen previously in SciAm the report on Jonathan Haidt’s study proposing five moral foundations, that identifies the three particular traits of loyalty, authority, and sanctity as being the main ones that differentiate individuals and subsequently place a person on a spectrum of liberal versus conservative.

    Expressed in this way, it follows that there is some moral connection between the above cited values and one’s political outlook (and certainly to one’s worldview of values).

    I have long been impressed by the clarity imparted to me by means of a concept about moral development which I believe should be attributed to Carol Gilligan: “circle of care”. It is my belief that, at least generally, one can attribute smaller circles of care to conservatives, and larger circles of care to liberals. I won’t make the argument here, but I’m confident that it can be reasonably shown that all five of Haidt’s foundational moral traits provide each person with criteria by which they may narrow or shrink their own circle of care. Each of Haidt’s “five innate and universally available psychological systems” provide to each of us personally decisive factors by which we would seek alternatively to protect another from harm, not care about whether another becomes harmed, or seek to cause harm to another. Hopefully it won’t seem too disingenuous to leave the evaluation of whether smaller or larger circles of care are more or less morally advanced, to each individual interpreter.

  19. Mike Duquette Says:

    A person that believes in life after death is probably more likely to put themselves in such a war situation as the military does. The military makes no choice in the reasons for the fight they may fight. The civilian goverment does.
    An atheist may have the same altruistic caricteristics for a fight they percieve is just and nessisary for the greater good of society. Knowing how our system unjustly has involved itself in unnessesary war, The Atheist likely would not join such an organizatition.
    I am just assuming here that Atheists are more likely to be liberal. The Christian conservatives have vast power in the civilian goverment. The muslim conservatives have vast power in our percieved enimies goverment. Both believe in the afterlife and reward in heaven for dieing for thier gods values.I would assume based on these facts that conservatives would likely be the military jihad types.
    I would also like to point out that breaking military laws like torturing the enemy is not productive to protecting the wall of freedom but is more likely to break the wall down. That is why we made these laws in the first place.A conservative, I would think should embrace our laws until the said law has been proven by the government to be inefective and then overturned.

  20. Dean Says:

    I’m not so sure liberals have lower sanctity/purity values than conservatives, they may just be different. Anecdotally there seems to be a conservation of taboos.

    I say this because of attitudes anecdotally observed concerning smoking, eating meat, recycling, etc. Not that these are good things, but the response frequently goes beyond sensibleness into disgust and even outrage.

  21. MJ Says:

    Libertarians are for maximum personal and enomomic freedom. There are conservative religous libertarians and atheist libertarians. Remember languague fails-Libertarianism could be described as “classical liberalism” or “tolerant conservativism” One of the hardest things to do is think of the individual and not the group. Check out the World’s Smallest Political Quiz and prepare to be suprised!

    “The World’s Smallest Political Quiz is savvy and willing to tell you the truth.”
    – YAHOO! Magazine

    The World’s Smallest Political Quiz stands ready to help you determine your political identity. Quick and relatively painless.
    – USA Today

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