Liberals Don't Hate Authority After All
Turns out, liberals are not so opposed to authority, research has found. Here, President Barack Obama in downtown Indianapolis, Indiana, on May 17, 2009.
Credit: Ron Foster Sharif | Shutterstock

Contrary to stereotype, conservatives are not more accepting of authority than are liberals. But they are less concerned that their opinions appear unique.

Two new studies, both published today (June 27) in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, examine the chasm between left and right and reveal that the two sides of the political spectrum are not quite as different as they seem. However, the political right's valuation of consensus over uniqueness might explain why the Tea Party had more success than Occupy Wall Street.

"Conservatives' stronger perceptions of consensus with like-minded others might give them an edge in mobilizing their ranks during the incipient stages of forming a movement," New York University psychologist Chadly Stern, who conducted one of the studies, told Live Science. [10 Historically Significant Political Protests]

Consensus or conflict?

The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements spurred Stern's study. The conservative Tea Party benefited from focused goals, and was able to successfully elect its preferred candidates to Congress. In contrast, Stern said, Occupy struggled to define itself, and has yet to effect major political change.

Stern and his colleagues conducted a series of studies to determine whether conservatives, such as those in the Tea Party movement, are more motivated to share their view of reality with others, and whether this motivation might affect consensus. The researchers showed participants pictures of white men's faces and asked some to judge whether or not each man was heterosexual. Other participants were told to guess if the man was born in November or December. Participants were also asked how likely it was that others of their same political persuasion agreed with them, and how important it was that others see the world their way.

The researchers used the question on sexual orientation, because such judgments are affected by politics: People make judgments about sexual orientation based on stereotypes, and previous research has found that conservatives are more likely to lean on stereotypes about masculinity and femininity when making such judgments than are liberals. The question on birth month, on the other hand, was politically neutral.

The results revealed that compared with liberals, conservatives were more interested in having others see the world their way, and that they felt other conservatives would agree with their judgments. The same was true for both sexual orientation and birth-month questions. Follow-up studies found this tendency to assume consensus led conservatives to be more self-confident about political success in an upcoming election.

"Having beliefs and perceptions that are shared with similar others allows individuals to feel that they possess an orderly and structured understanding of the world, and also helps to build and maintain important relationships, both of which conservatives place a greater value on than do liberals," Stern said.

Appeal of authority

Stern's findings might seem to back up the stereotypes of conservatives as conformists and liberals as free spirits. But a second study by another group of researchers found the two sides are not so different, after all — at least when authority is concerned.

Psychological study after psychological study has found conservatives to be more accepting of authority than are liberals. But Jeremy Frimer, a psychologist at the University of Winnipeg, suspected the difference between the two sides was not so simple. During a bike tour of Cuba, he and some friends shared a dinner with a wealthy Brazilian couple. The two Brazilians were socialists and were touring sites important to the Argentinean Marxist Che Guevara. 

Through a friend who was translating, Frimer asked the couple why Che Guevara's image was still found all over the country, more than 50 years after his death. The friend hesitated before saying he couldn't ask the question without causing offense; Guevara's authority was simply too strong, and he commanded too much respect to be questioned.

"I had stumbled upon a kind of deference to authority that forbids asking questions," Frimer told Live Science. "It was just like the U.S. culture war, only with left and right reversed."

Clearly, leftists respected authority, as well. So why did U.S. studies portray them as anti-authority? Frimer and his colleagues recruited participants and asked them about their feelings concerning leftist authorities, rightist authorities and neutral authorities, like office managers.

This time, the answers revealed that most people accept authority, as long as the authority is on their side.

"When the authority demanding obedience is a liberal advocate, liberals are the ones who demand obedience," Frimer said. "When the authority has no ideological leaning, liberals and conservatives have similar feelings about obedience."

Conservatives were most likely to be positive about military and police authority, Frimer and his colleagues found, while liberals liked environmentalists and civil rights activists. [7 Great Dramas in Congressional History]

Bipartisan findings

No other studies had picked up on this shared love of authority for a simple reason: When people on both the left and right hear "authority," their brains substitute "conservative authority." Frimer asked participants to free-associate authority figures and list such figures' likely political leanings. He found that people typically perceive authority figures as conservative.

Stern's study is not the first to show that liberals and conservatives share some predilections. For example, one 2006 study found that Democrats and Republicans were equally likely to ignore facts and to make judgments based on pre-existing beliefs. And a 2013 study found that both sides are similarly smug about the superiority of their views.

Either way, Frimer said he hopes the findings can be used to bring left and right together.

"In the ongoing culture war, it often feels like the other side is biased, corrupt or even crazy," he said. "Liberals often struggle to understand why conservatives seem to blindly follow the orders of their leaders. These new findings suggest that liberals may do the same. Deep down, liberals and conservatives may be more similar than they appear at first."

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