Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Jul 26, 2019

Liberals and Conservatives Favor Their Own Groups When Applying Moral Principles

by Jan G. Voelkel & Mark J. Brandt
man with arms spread repels two huge hands pointing at him

A great deal has been written about how liberal and conservative people are guided by different moral principles. Moral principles are universal, normative rules that prescribe how people ought to behave that should apply to all times and situations. For example, if you endorse equality as a moral principle, you should want everyone to be treated equally – in the place where you live, in a neighboring country, and even among the as-of-now undiscovered creatures living in another universe. After all, equality is for everyone, even aliens.

According to some research, liberals tend to endorse and be guided by moral values such as care and equality more than conservatives. Conversely, conservatives tend to endorse and be guided by moral values such as loyalty, respect for authority, and purity more than liberals. Thus, both groups see themselves as being on the high road when discussing important issues (such as securing the U. S. southern border) because each group focuses on different moral principles.  Our research was interested in whether these are really universal moral principles that are applied to everyone or whether liberals and conservatives apply them selectively -- when they benefit their own groups.

Most people, including both liberals and conservatives, have a remarkably consistent preference for members of their own groups (that is, ingroups) over members of other groups (outgroups). This preference is shown in people’s reports of who they want to befriend and who they want their own children to marry, as well as in behavior such as dividing money between a member of the ingroup and a member of the outgroup. These findings suggest that rather than applying universal moral principles to everyone, liberals might endorse moral values more when they favor liberal people, whereas conservatives would endorse these moral values more if the benefiting groups are conservatives.

To test this idea, we ran two studies in which we examined how much liberals and conservatives endorsed moral principles depending on whether they were applying those principles to liberals or conservatives. For example, a question used to assess endorsement of respect for authority was worded so that the situation involved either a liberal (“You see a student stating that her liberal professor is a fool during an afternoon class”) or a conservative (“You see a student stating that her conservative professor is a fool during an afternoon class”). Would participants apply this moral principle the same no matter who the target is?

The results clearly showed that the target group often matters. Liberals and conservatives do not simply universally endorse moral principles more or less than the other group. Instead, whether liberals or conservatives endorse moral principles more often depends on the target group. For example, conservatives endorse the moral principle of respect of authority more strongly than liberals when the target is a conservative authority. However, when the target is a liberal authority, the groups do not endorse the principle of respect for authority differently.

Similarly, liberals endorse the moral principle of caring for someone who is harmed more strongly than conservatives when the target is a liberal victim. However, when the target is a conservative victim, we found either no differences in the degree to which the groups endorse the principle of caring or that conservatives endorse the care principle more than liberals do, depending on the study. Although the precise pattern is sometimes different, people adjust their moral values depending on the target to whom it is being applied. This does not mean that there are no ideological differences in moral values, but both liberals and conservatives show clear ingroup favoritism when applying their moral principles.

What do we make out of these results? They suggest that morality is groupish in many ways. For example, as research shows, different groups (such as liberals versus conservatives) have different moral principles. But beyond that, people seem to derive their idea of what is right and wrong at least partly from the group memberships of the people involved. In other words, not only do people disagree on which moral principles should be universal, they also apply moral principles selectively depending on how much they like or dislike the groups involved.

These results may seem discouraging, showing us how far we human beings are from being a consistently moral species. But they can also motivate us to learn how to become more moral and show us where to start. One place to start might be applying our moral principles equally to our outgroups and ingroups. After all, it does not require much moral virtue to support fairness or loyalty towards people we already care about.  But such considerations mean much more when it comes to judging moral violations towards the people we dislike.

For Further Reading:

Voelkel, J. G., & Brandt, M. J. (2019). The effect of ideological identification on the endorsement of moral values depends on the target group. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 45(6), 851-863. doi:10.1177/0146167218798822 [Link for free download]

Brandt, M. J., Reyna, C., Chambers, J. R., Crawford, J. T., & Wetherell, G. (2014). The ideological-conflict hypothesis: Intolerance among both liberals and conservatives. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23(1), 27-34. doi:10.1177/0963721413510932. [Link for free download]

Haidt, J. (2012). The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York, NY: Pantheon.


Jan G. Voelkel is a PhD student in sociology at Stanford University. His research aims to identify factors that divide ideologically dissimilar groups, design and test interventions that enable more constructive discourse about moral and political issues, and examine new ways to increase the reproducibility of scientific findings.

Mark J. Brandt is an Associate Professor at Tilburg University. His research aims to understand ideological and moral beliefs – such as political ideology, religious fundamentalism, and moral conviction – and how they structure attitudes and behaviors, how they provide people with meaning, and why people adopt them in the first place.

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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