Is Ideology Psychology?

Differences between conservatives and liberals are more than skin deep.
October 29, 2010 | Event Highlights
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Skeptics have cast doubt on decades of findings that suggest deep-seated fundamental differences between conservatives and liberals do exist, in part because most studies linking personality to political affiliation have relied on self-reported data, which often doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. When asked, you might say — and honestly believe — that you vigilantly recycle at every opportunity, but an impartial observer might find your true vigilance considerably lower.

Professor Dana Carney worked with John Jost of New York University, Samuel Gosling of the University of Texas at Austin, and Jeff Potter of Atof, Inc. in Cambridge, MA, to learn if real differences in personalities and actual behaviors of liberals and conservatives are consistent with those self-reported findings.

Personality has been shown to remain highly stable throughout life, coming online in very young children (and even pets). The Big Five, an assessment shown to persist over time and across cultures, measures personality on five dimensions: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. The researchers expected that conservatives would score very high on the dimension of conscientiousness, exhibiting behavior that was diligent, careful, and rule-oriented, and that liberals would be score much lower on conscientiousness, but much higher on openness, reflecting greater curiosity and less concern with rules and order.

Researchers used the Big Five to assess the personality structures of their subjects, and then documented their social interactions, asking subjects to chat with others about a few popular films. These conversations were videotaped and coded for behaviors and body language like smiling, crossed arms, slouching, the number and length of pauses in conversation, and how close subjects sat to their companion. The more conservative people were less expressive and less responsive, smiling and speaking less, and pausing more overall. Liberals oriented their bodies toward their conversational companions quite openly, were more expressive, and made more eye contact. “You almost get this picture of conservatives actually conserving their physical energy, being frugal,” Carney says, “while liberals are liberal with their bodies, projecting almost excessive physical energy.”

But public behavior isn’t always consistent with private life — maybe that exceptionally tidy and polite guy from the office goes home to a living room strewn with dirty dishes and spends his free time writing poetry. The researchers couldn’t exactly spy on their subjects, so, to catch subjects in their natural, normal environments, they arranged for coders to drop in unannounced during a predetermined one-week window. The teams of coders observed and logged all belongings in view (but left drawers, closets, and the like untouched).

At home, conservatives were more likely to have organizational items such as event calendars, postage stamps, and thread at the ready, and more likely to have cleaning aids at the ready such as laundry baskets and ironing boards out in view, ready for use. Liberal homes held more travel tickets, lots of books and CDs on a variety of topics, movie tickets, and art supplies, and tended to be less clean and neat. Conservatives’ offices tended to be more formal and conventional than liberals’ offices, which tended to be more colorful and distinctive and contain more books and music.

Carney notes that while these differences reinforce accepted notions about political affiliations, they also belie the stereotypical notions of conservatives as utilitarian and liberals held under the sway of their emotions. One of the classic problems from moral philosophy illustrates this. A trolley is running down a track toward five people who are tied to the track. You are standing next to man on a footbridge above the track, close enough to push him over the edge and stop the trolley from killing the five people farther down the track. What do you do?

“Speculating for a minute, conservatives might give a rule-based response: of course you can’t push and kill the man on the footbridge,” Carney says, “because it’s obviously wrong to take a life even to save five others. Liberals on the other hand might be more open to a utilitarian response: of course you can push the man off the footbridge, because sacrificing one life to save five lives is obviously better than letting five people die.”

“It is not that people are looking at different evidence,” Carney says. “We may think of conservatives as highly rational and always thinking about people from the perspective of the bottom line, but social conservatives tend to have a much more moralistic way of thinking of about things. It’s liberals who may actually be open to framing decisions from a utilitarian standpoint, weighing costs and benefits and adjusting their decisions as circumstances change. And that mutability seems to give liberals a reputation for inconsistency.”

Many of these differences are not big — Carney uses gender as analogy, in which there are real hormonal, biological, and cognitive differences between men and women, but far more similarities. But they are meaningful, rooted in personality and motivated by psychological predispositions. That means that managers need to be prepared to coordinate and adapt teams and organizations to account for these contrasting styles and ways of thinking, and adopt a broad definition of workplace diversity.

“Workplace diversity doesn’t only mean getting representation from different social groups — it also means approaching and solving problems in different ways,” Carney points out. A group made up exclusively of liberal-minded or conservative-minded people lacks the value that other perspectives bring to the decision-making process and is less likely to hear dissenting opinions, making it more vulnerable to making mistakes.

“We know that companies are run better when they have a diversity of minds at the table,” Carney says. “The best decisions, on the whole, are made by people with diverse opinions and different ways of perceiving and solving problems. That may lead to more short-term conflict, but if you manage the conflict process you end up with better decisions in the end.”

There’s a simpler principle, too. “If you are trying to motivate people or get their buy in for an idea,” Carney says, “ and you frame it in terms of right and wrong, but they have a more utilitarian framework, you're limiting your ability to persuade. It sounds trite, but it is a very powerful force.”

Dana Carney is assistant professor of management at Columbia Business School.

Dana Carney

Dana Carney was a Columbia Business School faculty member from 2008 to 2012.