Why Do We Tend to Exaggerate How Much Liberals and Conservatives Differ Morally?

In our study, participants were randomly assigned to fill out the Moral Foundations Questionnaire either normally (as themselves), as a “typical liberal” would answer, or as a “typical conservative” would answer. We found that people’s moral stereotypes about liberals and conservatives mirrored the actual differences we’ve found before (liberals care more than conservatives about harm and unfairness, conservatives care more than liberals about ingroup betrayals, disrespect for authorities and traditions, and physical/spiritual degradation). We also found that these moral stereotypes exaggerated the actual moral differences between liberals and conservatives in a nationally representative sample.

So why do people exaggerate these moral differences? Our first thought was that when people imagined the “typical” partisan, they weren’t thinking about the average of everyone on that side of the aisle—maybe they were thinking of the prototypical liberal or conservative, the really vocal partisans at the extremes of the spectrum (Michael Moore, Rush Limbaugh). So we also compared the moral stereotypes to self-reported extreme liberals and extreme conservatives in our comparison sample, and found that the stereotypes were even more polarized than these extremes. Not only do we exaggerate the liberal-conservative differences in morality—we exaggerate them beyond even the most extreme partisans in our samples.

This could still be a consequence of people thinking of the most polarized examples from the media and extrapolating from that. It could also be a consequence of a general wish to see oneself as less extreme than the “typical” ideologue (even for people who say they are at one of the ends of the political spectrum). Finally, it’s worth noting that the people who exaggerated moral differences the most were liberals—more specifically, extreme liberals. We speculate that this asymmetry might be due to liberals hearing conservative arguments as reflecting a complete lack of concern about harm and unfairness, instead of reflecting other moral concerns about betrayal, disrespect, or degradation. It will be interesting to see if similar patterns of exaggeration exist for other kinds of moral stereotypes, such as race or gender. As all researchers tend to conclude about any question ever: more research is needed.

Jesse Graham is a professor of psychology and the principal investigator at the Values, Ideology, and Morality Lab at the University of Southern California.

Category: Q&A


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