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Which moral values drive your vote, and where’s your starting point?

After you’ve read this, check out the comment by my colleague Thom Baguley below (if you can’t see it, click on the title of this post to go to its ‘permalink’ version, which shows comments at the bottom. Gives a link to a useful debunking post by Andrew Gelman on the Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science blog (no, it’s good and interesting, really).

Interesting piece in this Wednesdays’ Guardian* by Jonathan Haidt (** giving a psychological line on why “working-class people vote for the political right, even when it appears to be against their own interests”. Haidt suggests that political choice is a moral choice as much as an economic one, and that right-wing parties “often serve up a broader, more satisfying moral menu than the left”.

This comes out of research by the group represented at

a group of professors and graduate students in social psychology at the University of Virginia, The University of California (Irvine), and the University of Southern California. Our goal is to understand the way our ‘moral minds’ work.

Haidt’s idea is that there are several dimensions of morality:


…and different political messages appeal to different aspects. So left-leaning messages often promote caringness, and to some extent fairness, while right-leaning messages promote liberty, loyalty, respect for authority and religion, and to some extent fairness. From this point of view, the right-wingers have the advantage of a wider range of values to promote. [psychologically-explainable Guardian errors: Haidt discusses this by analogy with the range of tastes we can detect: sweet, sour, salt, etc, and the article says that ‘conservatives have a broader moral palate than the liberals’: at least it keeps the metaphor unmixed, I guess. This is an association error, not a Freudian slip]

I said ‘to some extent fairness’ for both sides, because both sides focus on unfairness. On the right it’s the unfairness of spongers and benefit cheats (in the UK, anyway. In the US, this seems to include the unfairness of people who haven’t bought health insurance getting cancer treatment for free). On the left, it’s the unfairness of enormous rewards for people who aren’t seen as being useful to society. Quite a lot of the online discussions/slanging matches about the occupy movement and the 99% vs the 1% show these different orientations clearly.

Haidt claims that a good deal of people’s political are influenced by how strongly they feel about these different ‘flavours’ of morality, and the yourmorals group that he is associated with have quite a bit of research to show that people who identify themselves as being on the right and on the left do show different sensibilities to the different aspects. You can check that for yourself on the yourmorals site: after registering (anonymously, but with some demographic information), you can take lots of their tests, including the moral preferences questionnaire. When I did it, I came out higher on the care/harm dimension than 102,000 liberals and much higher than 21,000 conservatives (note that one personality difference between liberals and conservatives is that he latter are less inclined to waste their time with academic tomfoolery like this, by a ratio of 6 to 1), and much lower than either on sanctity/degradation – and I’m probably well to the left of most US liberals (Haidt explains that ‘liberal’ means something different in the US, not spineless, snivelling, selling-out posh-boy tuition-fee raisers, though he puts it more politely. The yourmorals site also introduces the word ‘socialist’ very gently, explaining that in some countries it is a respectable term for some people with left-wing views, presumably hoping that US respondents won’t be put off by it). Go & try it yourself, along with several other interesting measures on the site.

Haidt concludes:

When working-class people vote conservative, as most do in the US, they are not voting against their self-interest; they are voting for their moral interest. They are voting for the party that serves to them a more satisfying moral cuisine. The left in the UK and USA should think hard about their recipe for success in the 21st century.

All this makes sense to me, and fits broadly with traditional psychological approaches to political choice, like the authoritarian personality ( [Yes, I know there’s a lot more to it, but this post is long enough already]. In the few political arguments I get into (never seems to do any good), it often comes down to ‘position X leads to this moral wrong’, to which the other person responds ‘So? That’s not what’s important: it’s this moral wrong which we should be worried about’ – and the differences in the moral wrongs and rights people think significant do seem to correspond with the kind of dimensions Haidt is proposing. Maybe it would be a good idea to try to show how socialist policies do support those other moral dimensions. That might require some thought and ingenuity, or maybe just some lying.

But is there another factor, which you could call something like adaptive level? What’s accepted as a basic, obvious, taken-for-granted level of things like caringness, loyalty, sanctity? Probably everyone agrees that stamping on babies is unacceptable, but Haidt gives the example of cruelty to animals:

For example, how much would someone have to pay you to kick a dog in the head? Nobody wants to do this, but liberals say they would require more money than conservatives to cause harm to an innocent creature.

What about denying care to someone who is ill or injured unless they can pay for it? From my UK perspective, requiring payment for basic health care seems a bit like charging people for oxygen: it’s just unacceptable – and the UK political debate is around how health care – free at the point of delivery – should be organised, and how far it should extend, not about whether some people should be denied health care. The way I write about is shows my bias: it feels more appropriate to write ‘some people denied health care’ than ‘some people given health care’: the second phrase doesn’t seem to carry any information, like ‘some people have bodies’. ‘Some people denied champagne and Rolex watches’ and ‘some people have champagne and Rolexes’ works the other way.

From this side of the Atlantic, the idea that people should want to block access to free care seems perverse, and going beyond moral issues – but in the US, that’s a definitely debateable issue of freedom and fairness. In the same way, my Finnish friend was surprised that we dared to charge little children for food while they were in school: “Finnish people would find that just unacceptable” (Finland doesn’t charge tuition fees at universities for EU students, either – they have some idea about education being freely available to all – nutcases). It seems reasonable to suggest that moral issues are debated about some fixed, arbitrary start point, and this start point is culturally variable, but then we need an explanation and mechanism for his start point. Is it just custom and practice? Maybe if read some more of the papers from this group I’d get some idea about that.

Small methodological point: when I was doing the questionnaires on the yourmorals site, I found that they had comments boxes at the end like:

Was anything on this page unclear, or do you need to explain anything about your answers?

Was anything unclear in this study, or is there something we should know about your answers before we analyze your data?

Isn’t that sensible? I often use any comment box I can find to point out unclear things, or why the answers the questionnaire allows me to give misrepresent my position, because usually questionnaires don’t seem to have any interest in how respondents think about things like this. I suspect that means I get identified as some kind of contrarian weirdo whose responses should be junked. Nice to see researchers having the courtesy to ask – and probably improving their measures as a result (though it’s always possible that the analysis says IF ‘textincommentbox’ THEN ‘dumpresponses’)

*I don’t get all my psychology from The Guardian, though it may look that way, but my ‘Psychology & the Media’ option group found that there’s a great deal of psychology discussed in the everyday press, often with enough information to enable you to trace the publications (or at least the press releases) behind it, and this is a good example.

** Haidt will email you copies of quite a few of his papers from this site. He also helpfully tells you that it’s pronounced ‘Height’. Thanks for both of those things, Jonathan.

2 responses to “Which moral values drive your vote, and where’s your starting point?

  1. Thom June 8, 2012 at 8:05 pm

    While Haidt has some interesting stuff on the reasons why working class people might vote for conservative candidates it may be heartening to know that they tend not to – despite what his piece implies throughout (and states in a few places). Voting research shows that lower income voters tend to vote Democrat and higher income voters Republican in the US (by quite a margin usually). The effect is small in the UK overall (but probably stronger if you break it down regionally – given where all the safe Tory and Labour seats are).

    See for a detailed take-down.


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