Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


A protester Santa Barbara, California in 2007 (PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK)

A protester Santa Barbara, California in 2007 (PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK)

On Moral Values, Liberals More Prone to Stereotype Than Conservatives

• December 12, 2012 • 2:00 PM

A protester Santa Barbara, California in 2007 (PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK)

New research finds people on both sides of the ideological divide caricature the other, but those on the far left are the most guilty.

Those conservatives are appalling: They couldn’t care less if people get hurt. And liberals? They think anything goes, and have no concept of the meaning of loyalty.

Caricatures? Absolutely. But such stereotypes are widely held among Americans, newly published research confirms, with liberals particularly clueless about the concerns of conservatives.

Regarding issues of morality, “people overestimate how dramatically liberals and conservatives differ,” psychologists Jesse Graham, Brian Nosek and Jonathan Haidt write in the online journal PLoS One. Specifically, their research suggests those on the left unfairly assume their counterparts on the right are cold-hearted on issues involving harm and fairness.

“There are real moral differences between liberals and conservatives,” the researchers write, “but people across the political spectrum exaggerate the magnitude of these differences, and in so doing create opposing moral stereotypes that are shared by all.”

The research provides the latest insights derived from Haidt’s framework of moral attitudes. He has identified five distinct moral realms: harm/care, fairness, in-group loyalty, deference to authority, and purity/sanctity. The first two promote individual freedom and self-expression, and are beloved by liberals; the final three bind societies together, and are close to the hearts of social conservatives.

This new study featured 2,212 visitors to the projectimplicit.org website, a research portal that focuses on “the gap between intentions and actions.” About half identified themselves as liberals, while 500 placed themselves in one of three conservative categories, and 538 defined themselves as moderates.

They were first asked a series of questions to determine their own moral attitudes. For instance, to measure how strongly they believe in loyalty to one’s group, they were asked the extent to which they agreed with such statements as “It is more important to be a team player than to express oneself.”

They then completed similar surveys, offering not their own feelings, but those of a “typical liberal” or “typical conservative.” The researchers compared their assumptions to the answers provided by actual liberals and conservatives, as well as to a different, nationally representative sample of Americans.

“Extreme liberals exaggerated the moral political differences the most, and moderate conservatives did so the least,” Graham and his colleagues report. “Liberals were the least accurate about conservatives and about liberals.”

Liberals tended to stereotype conservatives as uncaring, rather than realize that conservatives’ genuine concerns about harm and fairness are tempered by other moral values that have less value to the left, such as loyalty and respect for authority.

Distorting the picture further, liberals tend to underestimate the degree to which their fellow liberals take those “conservative” values into account when making moral evaluations. Although conservatives did this to some degree, liberals showed a stronger tendency to stereotype their political soul mates, assuming an exaggerated level of ideological purity.

“We suspect that this is partially due to the fact that one can imagine members of one’s own ideological group more extreme than oneself,” the researchers write. “But this may also be a unique feature of moral stereotypes, in that people are motivated to exaggerate the moral values of their group in ways that are in line with the same values.”

Whatever the cause, “our findings suggest … partisans on each side exaggerate the degree to which the other side pursues moral ends that are different from their own,” the researchers conclude.

Although a highly profitable media machine keeps focusing on our differences, and an increasingly tribal mindset serves to reinforce an us-vs.-them attitude, this research suggests that, when it comes to our actual beliefs, American liberals and conservatives are less polarized than we realize.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 25 • 4:00 PM

Is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Doing Enough to Monitor Wall Street?

Bank President William Dudley says supervision is stronger than ever, but Democratic senators are unconvinced: “You need to fix it, Mr. Dudley, or we need to get someone who will.”


November 25 • 3:30 PM

Cultural Activities Help Seniors Retain Health Literacy

New research finds a link between the ability to process health-related information and regular attendance at movies, plays, and concerts.


November 25 • 12:00 PM

Why Did Doctors Stop Giving Women Orgasms?

You can thank the rise of the vibrator for that, according to technology historian Rachel Maines.


November 25 • 10:08 AM

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.


November 25 • 10:00 AM

If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow

If you actually care about water and the future of the species, you’ll think twice about flushing.


November 25 • 8:00 AM

Sometimes You Should Just Say No to Surgery

The introduction of national thyroid cancer screening in South Korea led to a 15-fold increase in diagnoses and a corresponding explosion of operations—but no difference in mortality rates. This is a prime example of over-diagnosis that’s contributing to bloated health care costs.



November 25 • 6:00 AM

The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You’re not the first.


November 25 • 4:00 AM

Are Women More Open to Sex Than They Admit?

New research questions the conventional wisdom that men overestimate women’s level of sexual interest in them.


November 25 • 2:00 AM

The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.


November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


November 24 • 10:00 AM

Why Are Patients Drawn to Certain Doctors?

We look for an emotional fit between our physicians and ourselves—and right now, that’s the best we can do.


November 24 • 8:00 AM

Why Do We Elect Corrupt Politicians?

Voters, it seems, are willing to forgive—over and over again—dishonest yet beloved politicians if they think the job is still getting done.



November 24 • 6:00 AM

They Steal Babies, Don’t They?

Ethiopia, the Hague, and the rise and fall of international adoption. An exclusive investigation of internal U.S. State Department documents describing how humanitarian adoptions metastasized into a mini-industry shot through with fraud, becoming a source of income for unscrupulous orphanages, government officials, and shady operators—and was then reined back in through diplomacy, regulation, and a brand-new federal law.


November 24 • 4:00 AM

Nudging Drivers, and Pedestrians, Into Better Behavior

Daniel Pink’s new series, Crowd Control, premieres tonight on the National Geographic Channel.


November 21 • 4:00 PM

Why Are America’s Poorest Toddlers Being Over-Prescribed ADHD Drugs?

Against all medical guidelines, children who are two and three years old are getting diagnosed with ADHD and treated with Adderall and other stimulants. It may be shocking, but it’s perfectly legal.



November 21 • 2:00 PM

The Best Moms Let Mess Happen

That’s the message of a Bounty commercial that reminds this sociologist of Sharon Hays’ work on “the ideology of intensive motherhood.”


November 21 • 12:00 PM

Eating Disorders Are Not Just for Women

Men, like women, are affected by our cultural preoccupation with thinness. And refusing to recognize that only makes things worse.


November 21 • 10:00 AM

Queens of the South

Inside Asheville, North Carolina’s 7th annual Miss Gay Latina pageant.


Follow us


Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.