Research indicates that personality is a strong predictor of political affiliation, leading to the question: What personality traits are associated with modern liberalism versus conservatism?
This article is based on scientific research. It explores the clashing personality characteristics of the left and the right in America. And if you’re reading this now and doubting that science can predict political affiliation, chances are, you lean to the right! Read on to find out more…
Liberalism Versus Conservatism
Liberalism is “a political and moral philosophy based on liberty, consent of the governed, and equality before the law” (Wikipedia, 2021). Modern liberalism in America “combines ideas of civil liberty and equality with support for social justice and a mixed economy.”
Meanwhile, the foundations of American conservatism (defined as “a political and social philosophy promoting traditional social institutions” [Wikipedia, 2021]), are based on four fundamental concepts: liberty, tradition and order, the rule of law, and belief in God (Intercollegiate Studies Institute).
Morals & Values
Liberals and conservatives differ in morals and values, with empathy being a notably distinct value that designates the left as ‘bleeding heart’ liberals. In fact, research indicates that when a person’s ability to empathize increases, they shift to having a more liberal perspective.
Conservatives, on the other hand, are more concerned with duty and order, valuing the ability to exert personal self-control to meet the demands of self and others.
Regarding spirituality and belief in God, conservatives are more religious, more likely to pray, and more likely to attend church, while liberals are more likely to lean towards atheism. What’s more, Republicans tend to believe that belief in God is necessary for morals while Democrats believe morals can exist without religion.
In one study, liberals were found to value care and fairness more while conservatives were more likely to value loyalty, authority, and sanctity. Also, Democrats exhibit more creativity than their Republican counterparts, who prefer certainty and clarity.
Additional research suggests that conservatives value structure, simplicity, and tradition. Republicans place greater emphasis on stability. Meanwhile, the ‘bleeding-heart’ liberal cares more about openness, compassion, and equality. Democrats place greater emphasis on progress and innovation.
Intelligence, Thinking Style, & Problem-Solving
Regarding political affiliation and intelligence, one study found that liberals and non-religious individuals have higher IQ’s than conservatives and religious individuals. In contrast, other research suggested that individuals who identified as Republican had greater probability knowledge, higher verbal reasoning ability, and better question comprehension.
Regardless of political affiliation, mental rigidity (i.e., ‘black-and-white’ thinking) is characteristic of individuals who identify as either far left or far right (extremist views).
When it comes to problem-solving, conservatives are more structured and persistent. Conversely, liberals are more flexible, and tend to think outside the box. Also, Democrats are better at tolerating complexity and ambiguity than Republicans, and are more influenced by emotions.
Not surprisingly, both liberals and conservatives struggle to think logically when it comes to arguments attacking their political beliefs. However, researchers found that liberals were better at recognizing flaws in conservative arguments, and conservatives at identifying flaws in liberal reasoning.
Political Affiliation & Fear
Liberals and conservatives experience fear differently. Conservatives have a greater fear of death (which enhances their need for security). While Republicans fear chaos and the absence of order, Democrats tend to fear emptiness.
In one study, when asked about a world where God doesn’t exist, conservatives expressed fear that tradition and order would fall apart, resulting in chaos. Liberals, on the other hand, feared a world without God as barren, lifeless, and devoid of beauty or meaning.
What’s more, neuroscientists found that Republicans and Democrats processed risk differently, although they did not differ in the risks they took. Liberals showed significantly greater activity in the brain region associated with social and self-awareness. Meanwhile, conservatives showed significantly greater activity in the brain region involved in the body’s fight-or-flight system.
Another key difference between Democrats and Republicans is in what they worry about. For example, Democrats are more concerned about climate change while Republicans fear big government and worry more about terrorism.
Temperament, Happiness, & Disgust
A person’s temperament, including how they experience things like happiness and disgust, predicts political affiliation.
Temperament in childhood may predict political ideology in adulthood. Children with fearful temperaments are more likely to be politically conservative as adults. Contrastingly, children with higher levels of activity and focus are more likely to develop liberal views in adulthood.
When it comes to happiness, research indicates that political conservatives are happier than liberals. What’s more, Republicans tend to have happier marriages and are less likely to divorce than Democrats.
However, one study found that compared to conservatives, liberals are more likely to smile genuinely and use ‘happier’ (positive) language.
Other research suggests that compared to Democrats, Republicans are more alert to negativity and spend more time focusing on the negative (but do not seem to be negatively impacted by it).
Interestingly, research indicates that compared to liberals, conservatives experience disgust more easily and intensely, and have stronger physiological reactions when they are repulsed. Similar research suggests that disgust may influence moral judgement.
Political Affiliation & Language
The words we use in everyday conversations are positively associated with political affiliation. There are a few key differences in language and speech patterns of conservatives and liberals. Republicans are more likely to use language that stresses clarity and predictability while Democrats use emotionally expressive language and have a preference for poetry.
In an analysis of U.S. presidential speech transcripts, conservatives demonstrated a preference for nouns, and tended to refer to things by name rather than providing a description of their features. (Example: “He is an adventurer” versus “He is adventurous.”) It was determined that the use of nouns over adjectives was a way to promote stability, familiarity, and tradition.
On Twitter, liberals swear more (with ‘f**k’ and ‘sh*t’ in their top ten most used words) and are more likely than conservatives to use emotionally expressive language and to express both positive feelings and anxiety. Meanwhile, conservatives are more likely to tweet about religion, with ‘God’ and ‘psalm’ as popular words. What’s more, liberals on Twitter are more likely than conservatives to use words like ‘I’ and ‘me,’ while conservatives use ‘we’ and ‘our’ more.
Political Affiliation & Trust in Science
Liberals and conservatives differ in how trusting they are when it comes to science and empirical data. Some research indicates that compared to liberals, conservatives are less trusting of the scientific community. Additionally, conservatives are more skeptical of the value of empirical data. Liberals, on the other hand, tend to be more optimistic about knowledge gained from scientific research and its potential applications.
Other research found that while Democrats are generally more ‘pro-science’ than other political parties, Republicans trust science with the exception of the following issues: global warming, evolution, gay adoption, and mandatory health insurance.
Regarding science bias, research suggests that both Democrats and Republicans are less likely to trust science when it does not align with their political beliefs.
Additional Traits by Political Affiliation
- Seek reform for injustice in society
- Are more likely to describe themselves as trusting and optimistic
- Are more likely to enjoy reading and going to museums
- View teachers and college professors more warmly
- Are more likely to have a passport
- Drink more lattes
- Are more likely to use Instagram and Twitter
- Endorse gay unions, government support programs, universal healthcare, feminism, and environmentalism
- Are more likely to say it’s important to have a moral, ethical president
- Are more likely to support the right to peaceful protest
- Report higher levels of political activity
- Are more likely to recycle
- Are willing to defend current social groups as justifiable or necessary
- Prefer SUVs
- Prefer to live in small towns
- Are more likely to own a gun
- Are more likely to go hunting or sport shooting
- Are more likely to buy established name-brand products over generics
- Are less likely to participate in clinical trials (medical research)
- Endorse the United States government, the military, the state they live in, big corporations, and most Americans
- Are more likely to say they are ‘proud to be an American’
- Prefer politicians with deep voices
- Are more likely to be a first-born
- Are more negative in their evaluations of the media
- Are more likely to vote
- Demonstrate better self-control
In sum, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that personality is a strong predictor of political affiliation. Liberals and conservatives tend to have different values, thinking styles, temperaments, and emotional experiences.
While partisan differences may contribute to a polarized divide in America, this doesn’t have to be the norm. Rather, differing perspectives can be complementary and maintain balance.
Liberal… conservative… or somewhere in between… try to learn from opposing viewpoints and aim to value differences, regardless of political affiliation!
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