Haidt: Conservatives Understand Liberals Better Than Liberals Understand Conservatives

Haidt describes a study in which he examines how well liberals, conservatives, and moderates understand each other.  From page 334 of The Righteous Mind (emphasis added):

When I speak to liberal audiences about the three “binding” foundations – Loyalty, Authority, Sanctity – I find that many in the audience don’t just fail to resonate; they actively reject these concerns as immoral. Loyalty to a group shrinks the moral circle; it is the basis of racism and exclusion, they say. Authority is oppression. Sanctity is religious mumbo-jumbo whose only function is to suppress female sexuality and justify homophobia.

In a study I did with Jesse Graham and Brian Nosek, we tested how well liberals and conservatives could understand each other. We asked more than two thousand American visitors to fill out the Moral Foundations Qyestionnaire. One-third of the time they were asked to fill it out normally, answering as themselves. One-third of the time they were asked to fill it out as they think a “typical liberal” would respond. One-third of the time they were asked to fill it out as a “typical conservative” would respond. This design allowed us to examine the stereotypes that each side held about the other. More important, it allowed us to assess how accurate they were by comparing people’s expectations about “typical” partisans to the actual responses from partisans on the left and the right)’ Who was best able to pretend to be the other?

The results were clear and consistent. Moderates and conservatives were most accurate in their predictions, whether they were pretending to be liberals or conservatives. Liberals were the least accurate, especially those who described themselves as “very liberal.” The biggest errors in the whole study came when liberals answered the Care and Fairness questions while pretending to be conservatives. When faced with questions such as “One of the worst things a person could do is hurt a defenseless animal” or ”Justice is the most important requirement for a society,” liberals assumed that conservatives would disagree. If you have a moral matrix built primarily on intuitions about care and fairness (as equality), and you listen to the Reagan [i.e., conservative] narrative, what else could you think? Reagan seems completely unconcerned about the welfare of drug addicts, poor people, and gay people. He’s more interested in fighting wars and telling people how to run their sex lives.

If you don’t see that Reagan is pursuing positive values of Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity, you almost have to conclude that Republicans see no positive value in Care and Fairness. You might even go as far as Michael Feingold, a theater critic for the liberal newspaper the Village Voice, when he wrote:

Republicans don’t believe in the imagination, partly because so few of them have one, but mostly because it gets in the way of their chosen work, which is to destroy the human race and the planet. Human beings, who have imaginations, can see a recipe for disaster in the making; Republicans, whose goal in life is to profit from disaster and who don’t give a hoot about human beings, either can’t or won’t. Which is why I personally think they should be exterminated before they causeany more harm)3

One of the many ironies in this quotation is that it shows the inability of a theater critic-who skillfully enters fantastical imaginary worlds for a living-to imagine that Republicans act within a moral matrix that differs from his own. Morality binds and blinds.


38 thoughts on “Haidt: Conservatives Understand Liberals Better Than Liberals Understand Conservatives

  1. I believe a major contributor to this is the fact that most liberals are immature emotionally and don’t spend near as much time considering the ideas of those with opposing views. However, conservatives tend to be more tolerant of ideas and are more likely to discuss their ideas with those who oppose them. Liberals tend to shut out opposition, therefore they can’t honestly represent a conservative because they haven’t given any real thought to the ideas of conservatives.


    Posted by Steven Turner | June 17, 2019, 6:07 pm
  2. @Regressivaid…Thank you for your posting…You took the words right out of my brain, so to speak. I have been a great admirer of Ayaan’s, and also have a lot of admiration for Maajid. I had to laugh, and shake my head when I heard about SPLC putting them on their ‘hate’ list. My problem with what happened at Brandeis, is that they gave into this ‘shut-down-free-speech’ group. I find the supposed ‘adults-in-charge’ in so many situations/institutions in our culture to not be very in charge at all. Instead they are weak, and gutless. This is one of the major problems in our culture, and more adults need to step up to the plate and be more courageous, and authoritative. (I am talking to myself on this point too).

    Personally, I would say forget about the psychological categories you are thinking of. I think it’s more simple than that. A major reason so many kids are so wimpy is because many parents, and teachers/adults have become so wimpy. When I grew up, we KNEW the adults were in charge, All of them. It didn’t matter where we were. Maybe in a store, or walking on a sidewalk, if we acted wrong, or irresponsible in anyway we knew it was the right of ANY adult to correct us. Unfortunately, this social code has been broken down; much to our societies detriment. I am astounded at the passivity of adults I see in so many situations. And as the old saying goes, garbage in, garbage out. It’s not always that simple of course, but that is what I see a lot of the time.


    Posted by LR | March 25, 2019, 11:42 am
  3. Right Wing Authoritarianism succinctly voices the essence of the modern right wing conservative republican. It’s a personality disorder.

    Liked by 1 person

    Posted by Darrin Rychlak | November 26, 2018, 7:07 pm
  4. It is a very necessary article because the society is polarized and we need to find a way to communicate so we don’t end up being killed. I am shocked that Michael Feingold wants Republicans exterminated! Pretty radical and genocidal idea that’s for sure!
    I define myself as a conservative and I have friends who are very liberals. I’ve noticed that they will help you if you need it, many of them are animal lovers, have a good core. Once the topic changes to political correctness, racism, immigration – the change is visible. I think that there is guilt, fear of not being called racist, so they compensate by being overly “correct.” I’ve seen a stiffness and the compulsive need to act in such manner.
    The younger ones I think are mostly poorly educated and immature. As schools don’t teach critical thinking, they are incapable of a fact based discussion, instead throw slurs to intimidate the counterpart and stop the discussion. On FB they will block you.


    Posted by CrisS | March 3, 2017, 10:11 pm
  5. https://youtu.be/gb_aSznzu4Y – This got me thinking, as well


    Posted by Yaroslav Ledyaev | November 19, 2016, 3:39 am
    • I see this play out every day on Twitter. I follow both conservatives and liberals (both liberals & leftists more accurately), and it seems that while there is vitriol on both sides, the characterizations of liberals by the conservatives pretty much seem more or less on the mark (while being admittedly abusive) while the leftists all brand conservatives as rabid racists and xenophobes and misogynists which seems quite clearly to be missing the point of conservative arguments (typically not racist arguments).

      The splintering of the left into what Maajid Nawaz is calling the Ctrl-Left or Regressive Left and classical liberals is what I’m experiencing on Twitter. I think of myself as a classical liberal, who feels the push to the right after witnessing the rise of this mutated Left that thinks nothing of shutting down debate by branding anyone as racist, bigoted or misogynist and raising the spectre of hate speech if they criticize Islam or radical feminists or the BLM movement (meanwhile totally missing the point of free-expression). A truly great feminist like Ayaan Hirsi Ali has been de-platformed from her scheduled talk at Brandeis University by a campus Islamic group, and she and Maajid Nawaz were identified by SPLC as ‘anti-Muslim extremists’, a fact that couldn’t be further from the truth for Maajid (still a nominal Muslim) and a bizarre distortion of the truth for Ayan (she escaped from an arranged marriage and is a survivor of FMJ).

      I’m pretty sure that most of the Regressive left is just young Millennials that are at-sea in this confusing modern age, and are clinging to the safe authoritarian structures they were raised in by well-meaning liberal helicopter moms and dads. Perhaps some of my Gen-X contemporaries are among the Regressive left- actually I know there are at least a few thousand, because someone has to be teaching some of these these more ridiculous notions to them. The safe-space/trigger-warning culture clearly hasn’t been dictated entirely by the kids.

      Anyway, I’m developing a theory of liberal-leftism that is psychological in nature. My theory is that these pseudo-liberals or Regressives are actually experiencing some kind of emotional dysregulation that is not unlike the phenomenon formerly called Borderline Personality Disorder (I believe this is in the process of being renamed to emotional regulation disorder), where people suffering with this condition are “triggered” and tend to see things in black and white. A caveat is in order, as conservatives have been the ones traditionally accused by liberals of having black and white thinking. This is why I call these leftists ‘pseudo-liberals’. Instead of seeing nuance and trying to see things from multiple perspectives, they are quick to label any deviation from orthodoxy as “evil” or racist or hate speech for whichever standard offense applies to their emotional triggering.

      Meanwhile, conservatives seem to be the more reasonable ones of late, at least with respect to the issues that the Ctrl-left is absolutely losing the plot on, that is Islam, Black Lives Matter, and Feminism, and perhaps even multiculturalism as a realizable dream (who knows, maybe I’m a closet conservative in the making myself!).


      Posted by regressiveaid | January 11, 2017, 5:06 pm
      • Thanks very much for your thoughts. It’s clear you’ve put a lot of thought into this.

        Closet conservative, liberal, whatever, I appreciate your intellectual honesty.


        Posted by The Independent Whig | January 11, 2017, 11:03 pm
      • Where I would disagree is this: The Regressive Left comes mostly from Generation X, and actually, with the exception of college-aged kids who are directly under the influence of radicalized Gen X professors, Millennials (people born after 1980 generally) are far more libertarian, right-wing and conservative, or at the least, more centrist and classical/old liberal (much like their Baby Boomer forebears/parents). All you have to do is go on Youtube to see what I mean. The rise in populist movements and the rapid disintegration of globalism (such as the failure of Hillary Clinton) has much to do with Millennials rejecting the neo-liberalism and authoritarian leftism of Gen X (and some Boomers).


        Posted by ErickTsiknopoulos | April 2, 2017, 8:08 am
      • I posted a comment previously but this is the edited one. Where I would disagree is this: The Regressive Left comes mostly from Generation X (those born between roughly 1960 and 1979), and actually, with the notable exception of college-aged kids who are directly under the influence of radicalized Gen X professors, and some older ones who have been thoroughly indoctrinated by the same, Millennials (people born after 1980 generally) are generally far more libertarian, right-wing and conservative, or at the least, more centrist and classical/old liberal (much like their Baby Boomer forebears/parents). All you have to do is go on Youtube to see what I mean. The rise in populist movements and the rapid disintegration of globalism (such as the failure of Hillary Clinton) has much to do with Millennials rejecting the neo-liberalism and authoritarian leftism of Gen X in particular (and some Boomers).


        Posted by ErickTsiknopoulos | April 2, 2017, 8:11 am


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