With the 2012 presidential elections steadily approaching, we as novice voters have to pledge our allegiance to some political party or another. What fuels that decision? Yes, you can become “educated,” but what actually influences which opinions with which you identify? As college students, this election is the first or second major election since we came of voting age. As US citizens, we are charged with the significant task of identifying with a political ideology and electing our future leader. With a poor economy, social unrest, and no jobs for college graduates, our choice will speak volumes. So I ask you, elephants or donkeys?
What makes a conservative and what makes a liberal? Psychology has long been concerned with these sorts of questions, and its resulted research has yielded many findings. Those findings however, are not consistent—perhaps because humans have highly diverse and complex minds and thinking patterns, the research reflects that fact. Regardless, some predictors of partisan identification results include parenting style, genetics, and temperament.
A recent turn in the research, however, which has received favorable coverage, indicates intuitive moral mechanisms as the origins of our partisan identifications. Political ideological commitments are thus, more accurately, core moral commitments.
Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist and professor at the University of Virginia, has done extensive research on morality and emotion. His research pinpoints five moral foundations which, depending upon a person’s sensitivity to each, predicts his or her political ideations.
Haidt names these foundations as harm/care (which relates to our sensitivity to suffering), fairness/reciprocity (which relates to justice and reciprocal altruism), in-group loyalty (which relates to recognizing, trusting, and cooperating with members of one’s perceived group, while distrusting members of other groups), authority/respect (which relates to deference, obedience, and duty towards leaders and people of authority), and purity/sanctity (which relates to the exclusively human emotion of disgust as it relates to virtues and vices associated with bodily activities in general and religious activities in particular).
He compares the moral mind to an audio equalizer of sorts with five slider switches for the five different values of the spectrum enumerated above. Differences of opinion with regard to, say, harm/care issues, reflect a difference in sensitivity toward that value, or how far the slider switch for that value is set. Haidt’s extensive research shows that political liberals base their moral systems primarily upon the harm/care and the fairness/reciprocity foundations to the exclusion of the other three foundations. Political conservatives, on the other hand, base their moral systems more evenly upon all five foundations.
This principle is what Haidt refers to as the Moral Foundations Hypothesis, and it is why nonpolitical questions such as “Would you be willing to slap your father in the face, with his permission, as part of a comedy skit?” and “Does it disgust you to touch the faucet in a public restroom?” are in fact excellent predictors of political alignment. These nonpolitical questions directly relate to a person’s sensitivity towards one of the five moral foundations (in this case authority/respect and purity/sanctity, respectively). Haidt reaffirms that a conservative is more concerned with authority/respect than a liberal, which explains a conservative’s reluctance to slap their father even with his permission in a comedy skit. Conservatives are likewise more concerned with purity/sanctity than are liberals and are therefore more sensitive to issues of disgust such as touching faucets in public restrooms.
Though several critiques of Haidt’s moral foundations have emerged it has received significant attention and acclaim as a statistical model. Haidt’s work has been compiled into a website, www.yourmorals.org, where people are encouraged to create a profile and begin taking the questionnaires that he designed as part of his ongoing research. The questionnaires, which address issues of morality, ethics, and values, immediately report your results, and tell you how you scored relative to others (males vs females and conservatives vs liberals), and what your answer choices reveal about you.
Our political alignments will be largely determined by our moral sensitivities. For you to gain insight into the motivation for your own political alignment, take Haidt’s questionnaire and see if his theory works for you.