Liberals & Conservatives More Alike Than You Think

Voters casting their ballots in voting booths. (Image credit: Associated Press)

With media figureheads like Rush Limbaugh and Michael Moore representing the right and left, it's no wonder conservatives and liberals seem worlds apart. But the two sides of the political spectrum are closer together than they believe, a new study reveals.

Everyone, including political moderates, overestimates the gap between liberal and conservative morals, according to the new study published today (Dec. 12) in the journal PLOS ONE.

Surprisingly, it's not just the other party that people get wrong; they also tend to exaggerate the moral beliefs of their own political affiliation.

"These moral stereotype differences were exaggerations beyond even the most extreme partisans we could find," study researcher Jesse Graham, a psychologist at the University of Southern California, told LiveScience.

Moral differences

Graham and his colleagues based their work on previous research that has found real differences in the ways liberals and conservatives view morals. Essentially, people see morality through five different domains, these studies have found. The first is harm/care, or concerns about treating people with compassion and sympathy. The second is fairness/reciprocity, which has to do with ideals about justice and rights.

Both conservatives and liberals care about these first two domains, but liberals tend to put more emphasis on them than conservatives. Meanwhile, the study found, the last three moral areas are important to conservatives, and less so to liberals. These three areas are all focused on group morality. The first is ingroup/loyalty, which includes patriotic concerns and "us versus them"-style arguments. The second is authority/respect, which demands respect for tradition and social order. The final domain is purity/sanctity, which includes such beliefs as "the body is a temple" and similar religious purity concerns. [8 Ways Religion Impacts Your Life]

Graham and his colleagues wanted to know if people correctly judge that liberals care more about the first two domains while conservatives base their morality more evenly on all five. They also wanted to know whether stereotypes about liberal and conservative beliefs would be exaggerated, and if so, who would be the most accurate and who would be the most off-base.

Political stereotypes

To find out, the study researchers asked volunteers who visited their research website,, to fill out surveys on their own moral beliefs or to fill out the same surveys while imagining that they were answering for the "typical liberal" or "typical conservative." In all, 1,174 liberals, 538 political moderates and 500 conservatives participated in the study.

The researchers then compared the answers with a real-life national survey of actual liberal and conservative beliefs.

They found a clear pattern: Everyone, even middle-of-the-road moderates, exaggerates the distance between liberals and conservatives.

"People's moral stereotypes were even more polarized than the actual differences between self-reported 'extreme' liberals and 'extreme' conservatives," Graham said.

What's more, everyone exaggerated in the same way. Liberals were seen as caring only about harm/care and fairness/reciprocity. Conservatives were seen as barely caring about those moral domains at all, though their concerns about loyalty, authority, respect and purity were overestimated.

People even exaggerated their own group's beliefs. Self-described conservatives who filled out the survey as "typical conservatives" were more likely to describe a "typical conservative" as not caring about harm and fairness than an extreme conservative was to describe him or herself. Liberals, meanwhile, exaggerated "typical liberal" concern about those issues.

"One of the takeaways of the study is that liberals and conservatives actually share a lot more of their moral values than anybody thinks," Graham said. Putting more emphasis on one or two moral domains does not mean people don't care at all about the rest, though that seems to be the misperception, he added.

Liberals and conservatives "are not really polar opposites," Graham said.

Exaggerated beliefs

Moderates exaggerated the liberal-conservative gap the least, though they did exaggerate it, the researchers found. Moderate conservatives were also relatively accurate, while the worst exaggerators of the groups' differences were self-described extreme liberals, Graham said.

The reason for this liberal exaggeration may be that conservatives do emphasize all five moral domains, while the group morality domains are fairly nonpressing to liberals. Thus, Graham said, a liberal who hears a conservative arguing morality on the basis of purity may assume that the conservative doesn't care at all about harm or fairness. In fact, conservatives do care about these things, Graham said, they just include other morals, too.

The media may play a role in fomenting liberal conservative stereotypes, Graham said, given that "the kinds of people who argue with each other on Sunday morning talk shows" are generally more extreme voices than the average Romney or Obama voter. People may also exaggerate their own group's beliefs as a way to differentiate themselves as unique political thinkers — "No one wants to think of themselves as a 'typical liberal,'" Graham said.

The researchers plan to follow up with more studies looking at gender differences in morality and whether similar stereotyping patterns are seen. In the meantime, Graham said the findings hold a message for the politically passionate. [5 Ways to Talk Politics Without Shouting]

"I don't think that any single scientific study is going to magically make you get along with your conservative uncle or your liberal aunt, but one of the messages here is that people aren't as morally different as people across the political aisle as they think," he said.

Follow Stephanie Pappas on Twitter @sipappas or LiveScience @livescience. We're also on Facebook & Google+.

Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.