Learning · Psychology · Relationships

The psychology of liberal and conservative values and crossing the great divide

Picking up on a theme from the last blogpost: that one of the worst things for relationships is a great sense of self-righteousness, a lot of self-righteousness comes from our own sense of moral compass.

The world seems more and more polarised in political views. Are you liberal or conservative? Many of these views seem to be embedded deep within out moral frameworks and there seem to be few people attempting to cross the divide and understand the other side. This is an interesting podcast between Krista Tippett and Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist who has focused on the topic with some thoughts that might be applicable in many group dynamic situations. Here are my take-always:

“Moral foundation theory” trys to understand some of these psychological drivers in conservative or liberal leanings. Conservative and liberal leanings can, it seems, be defined by different sets of psychological values.

Moral judgements are based more on intuitions we grew up with, than on clear reason. They part of human nature that evolved in us from the groups or tribes we belong to and associate with.

Institutions and communities are becoming more and more polarised, media, think tanks, academic world and organisations often polarise towards one political leaning or the other. A large portion of what we see and hear (academia, the media and holywood) is dominated these days by the liberal agenda. So it’s possibly harder for liberals to understand conservative perspectives (liberals are happy to be open minded so long as not does not conflict with their the morals of open-mindedness that they cherish: “there is a certain kind of liberal that wants diversity in everything except thought”). That might be why it seems so inexplicable to many liberals that we had the outcome we did in the US elections and the UK Brexit vote (though I think Donald Trump is better described as populism than conservatism the Republican voters still vote for a set of conservative representatives.)

It is very seldom that we see people reaching across the divide between liberal and conservative and trying to really understand each other. Each side has a piece of the puzzle but they seldom see the other sides perspective.

What drives this?

Morality binds and blinds. Groups hang together and succeed due to cooperation around common moral values eg. Religion, politics. This is a function of evolution where group cooperation is rewarded.

So what are the driving morals and values in politics (and religion) that define either liberal or conservative tendancies? These may be over simplifications but they provide an interesting lens through which to view different groups’ arguments:

Both groups share two sets of common values: They believe and value fairness and compassion.

But when it comes to other values they have opposite beliefs: Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity are valued by conservatives, but liberals are skeptical of them.


  • value fairness, justice and compassion above all else.
  • They often represent the Party of Progress and Reform, openness to diversity.
  • Liberals on average are more inclined to reject authority, loyalty to others or ideas of sanctity. These represent to them the potential for the oppression, blind loyalty (nepotism) and injustice eg. Racism, sexism, abuse of power, the bad consequences of religious belief taken to an extreme.
  • Liberals tend to be universalist (care for all people) to a fault.
  • They are often more effective at getting fairness and justice within the group but less cohesive, due their egalitarian views: everyone’s views must count.


  • also value fairness and compassion. But the three additional values conservatives also value simultaneously with these:
  • loyalty – to family, community, associations; authority – they value stability, order and predictability, respect for authority; and sanctity – think the sanctity of religion, marriage etc.
  • Politically they are usually represented by the party of Stability and Order (think Theresa May’s “Strong and Stable”)
  • They can be parochial to a fault. (Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again”).
  • They are more effective at keeping a group together and making it operate more effectively because the value authority, leadership and structure.

Both are essential: the otherside also has a piece of the puzzle. Personally I see varying amounts of these two sides of my own personality in different situations eg. Work dynamics, home dynamics, church dynamics.

Few seem to cross over from one side to the other. So how could we help address and redress these imbalances, overcome impasses and see the other side?

  • Firstly knowledge is power. So having the above framework on moral drivers is a good starting place.
  • It is impossible often times to see the defects in our own moral matrix if it is so deeply engrained. To overcome this we need challenging exposures: Which is why exposure to different perspectives through travel, reading, podcasts are often so valuable. But its very difficult to overcome these inbuilt dynamics in any sort of inter-group conflict situation. Then the objective of the group usually becomes “defend our moral matrix, defeat theirs” because of the very deep seated beliefs and the limbic responses to these moral beliefs.
  • Diveristy is by nature divisive. What is the function of your group? If you group needs cohesion then you don’t want diversity. Celebrate commonality rather than emphasising difference.
  • If your group needs good clear thinking and you want people to challenge your prejudices then you do need diversity. (Particularly useful in investment decision making where you want to find the truth rather than follow someone’s biases)
  • In a politically charged encounter, start off with humility, acknowledge fault and praise the other side. The Power of Reciprocity requires the other side to match you. This is the power of apology.
  • Stop thinking about the message and arguement (eg trying to convince the other side you are right through superior argument, which seldom has any effect) start thinking more about the messenger: If you have someone or an alliance who you wouldn’t expect to say something, saying it, its much more powerful. Use unexpected validators. Eg. an oil barron talking positively about limiting climate change.
  • Build up the human relationships between the people you want to do the talking (especially over a meal, once you share a meal, there are deep psychological primal systems that come into play: its much more like you are family).
  • Be aware that we engage in reasoning and public debate not just for the purpose of finding the truth but for social purposes: to show our team or our audience that we are good team players or upholding a certain view. In a debate people may not be communicating with the other side as much as they are communicating with their own side.

Very interesting food for thought! Here is the podcast:

[On Being with Krista Tippett] Jonathan Haidt — The Psychology of self-righteousness

http://podplayer.net/#/?id=42264540 via @PodcastAddict

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