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 explores different personality characteristics of the left and the right in America.
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
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.
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!
Cassie Jewell, M.Ed., LPC, LSATP
Aarhus University. (2015, November 24). Republicans prefer politicians with deep voices. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/11/151124112136.htm
American Psychological Association. (2018, December 20). Certain moral values may lead to more prejudice, discrimination. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/12/181220104506.htm
American Sociological Association. (2010, February 24). Liberals and atheists smarter? Intelligent people have values novel in human evolutionary history, study finds. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/02/100224132655.htm
Association for Psychological Science. (2012, October 22). Parenting and temperament in childhood predict later political ideology. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/10/121022162655.htm
Association for Psychological Science. (2013, February 12). Name-brand or generic? Your political ideology might influence your choice. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/02/130212131953.htm
Bixter, M. T. (2015). Happiness, political orientation, and religiosity. Personality and Individual Differences, 72, 7-11. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0191886914004553
Carl, N. (2014). Cognitive ability and party identity in the United States. Intelligence, 47, 3-9. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160289614001081
Cornell University. (2009, June 5). Easily Grossed Out? You Might Be A Conservative!. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/06/090604163620.htm
Georgia State University. (2018, September 20). Commitment to democratic values predict climate change concern, study finds. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/09/180920161057.htm
Michigan State University. (2020, September 16). The unintended consequence of becoming empathetic. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/09/200916131030.htm
Northwestern University. (2008, September 25). Political Conservatives Fear Chaos; Liberals Fear Emptiness. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/09/080924124549.htm
Northwestern University. (2016, March 15). Conservatives and liberals do think differently: Research shows different ways of solving everyday problems linked to political ideology. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/03/160315120953.htm
Ohio State University. (2015, February 9). Both Liberals, Conservatives Can Have Science Bias. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/02/150209113001.htm
Pew Research Center, June, 2014, “Beyond Red vs. Blue: The Political Typology”
Pew Research Center, June, 2014, “Political Polarization in the American Public”
Pew Research Center, September, 2017, “Partisans Differ Widely in Views of Police Officers, College Professors”
Pew Research Center, October, 2017, “Political Typology Reveals Deep Fissures on the Right and Left”
Pew Research Center, August, 2020, “Americans See Skepticism of News Media as Healthy, Say Public Trust in the Institution can Improve”
Pew Research Center, September, 2020, “In Views of U.S. Democracy, Widening Partisan Divides Over Freedom to Peacefully Protest”
Queen Mary, University of London. (2015, September 16). Study finds people’s conservative and liberal traits show up in their Twitter vocabulary: Different language used by supporters of different parties reflects psychological understanding. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/09/150916161824.htm
Regnery, A. S. (2018). THE PILLARS OF MODERN AMERICAN CONSERVATISM. Intercollegiate Review.
SAGE Publications. (2015, March 2). Republicans trust science — except when it comes to health insurance and gay adoption. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/03/150302123337.htm
Society for Personality and Social Psychology. (2014, November 7). Liberals are more emotion-driven than conservatives. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/11/141107091559.htm
Society for Personality and Social Psychology. (2019, April 17). Logical reasoning: An antidote or a poison for political disagreement?. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/04/190417084524.htm
University of Alabama. (2016, July 13). Study shows stark differences in how conservatives, liberals value empirical data. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/07/160713172717.htm
University of California – Irvine. (2015, March 12). Political liberals display greater happiness, study shows. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/03/150312142909.htm
University of Cambridge. (2019, August 29). ‘Mental rigidity’ at root of intense political partisanship on both left and right, study finds. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/08/190829081401.htm
University of Cincinnati. (2015, June 22). Conservatives demonstrate more self control than Liberals, studies suggest. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/06/150622181857.htm
University of Exeter. (2013, February 13). Red brain, blue brain: Republicans and Democrats process risk differently, research finds. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/02/130213173131.htm
University of Kent. (2016, February 24). Conservatives prefer using nouns, new research finds. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/02/160224133417.htm
University of Nebraska-Lincoln. (2011, November 9). That’s gross! Study uncovers physiological nature of disgust in politics. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/10/111025122617.htm
University of Nebraska-Lincoln. (2014, July 31). Political attitudes derive from body and mind: ‘Negativity bias’ explains difference between liberals and conservatives. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/07/140731145935.htm
University of New Hampshire. (2008, November 2). Does Your Personality Influence Who You Vote For?. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/10/081031161623.htm
University of Pennsylvania. (2018, June 19). Liberals do drink more lattes, but maybe not for the reasons you think. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/06/180619122429.htm
University of Toronto. (2010, June 10). Personality predicts political preferences. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/06/100609111312.htm
University of Utah. (2015, August 18). Republicans have happier marriages than Democrats, study indicates. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/08/150818090528.htm
Washington University in St. Louis. (2021, March 22). Widening political rift in U.S. may threaten science, medicine: Study finds conservatives less willing than liberals to participate in research. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/03/210322120110.htm
Wikipedia contributors. (2021, April 18). Conservatism. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Conservatism&oldid=1018563259
Wikipedia contributors. (2021, April 7). Liberalism. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Liberalism&oldid=1016510923