Given the media landscape you would assume that conservatives and liberals are different species. However, new research suggests that both liberals and conservatives make moral judgments based on notions of harm.
In an article published in the August 2015 issue of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, psychologists Chelsea Schein and Kurt Gray of the University of North Carolina carried out a series of seven experiments using hundreds of participants to tease out how liberals and conservatives alike make moral judgments.
For instance, one study asked 103 participants from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk program to “list an act that is morally wrong” and then describe the act as either “harmful, unfair, disloyal, disobedient…[or] gross.” Schein and Gray found that over 90% of participants chose actions that “display clear interpersonal harm” (such as murder, adultery, abuse, or rape), and most of them characterized the action in terms of harm done to another.
In another study, participants pretended to be anthropologists studying a foreign tribe. They then learned that one of the tribesmen has committed a violation that was “harmful, unfair, disloyal, disobedient, or impure.” For instance, the prompt for “harmful” read: “the tribesman performed a harmful action that caused others to suffer either emotionally or physically.” The prompt for a “disloyal” act read: “the tribesman performed a disloyal action that showed a lack of loyalty towards a friend or relative.”
The participants were then asked to rank the degree to which the act was immoral and wrong, and whether the tribesman should receive a punishment. The researchers found that “both liberal and conservatives rated harmful acts as significantly more immoral than unfair, disloyal, disobedient, and impure acts.”
Prior research has suggested that liberals and conservatives lean on different values (such as equality for liberals and purity for conservatives) when making moral judgments. But Schein and Gray’s work argues instead that people compare actions against a template of harm to decide whether or not the action is moral.
These findings have big implications for communicators, who may find that framing some issues in terms of harm may help foster bipartisan understanding.
“If people all speak the same moral ‘language’ of harm,” the researchers note, “we should be able to translate moral issues across partisan divides. More specifically, by granting legitimacy to our political opponent’s perceptions of harm, we may be more accepting of their views and more willing to engage in discussion.”
Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin
Chelsea Schein and Kurt Gray, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill