Politics, Neuroscience, & Morality

The Largest Study Ever of Libertarian Psychology

Posted by Jonathan Haidt in Moral Foundations in Action, Politics,Videos

We’ve been deluged in recent years with research on the psychology (and brain structure) of liberals and conservatives. But very little is known about libertarians — an extremely important group in American politics that is not at home in either political party.

At YourMorals.org we have now addressed the gap. Unlike most surveys, which force everyone to place themselves on a Left-Right scale, we have always allowed our visitors to choose “libertarian” as an option. Given our unique web platform, where people register and then take multiple surveys, we have amassed what we believe is the largest and most detailed dataset in the world on the personality traits of libertarians (as well as of liberals and conservatives).

In a project led by Ravi Iyer, we analyzed data from nearly twelve thousand self-described libertarians, and compared their responses to those of 21,000 conservatives and 97,000 liberals. The paper was just published last week in PLoS ONE. The findings largely confirm what libertarians have long said about themselves, but they also shed light on why some people and not others end up finding libertarian ideas appealing. Here are three of the major findings:

1) On moral values: Libertarians match liberals in placing a relatively low value on the moral foundations of loyalty, authority, and sanctity (e.g., they’re not so concerned about sexual issues and flag burning), but they join conservatives in scoring lower than liberals on the care and fairness foundations (where fairness is mostly equality, not proportionality; e.g., they don’t want a welfare state and heavy handed measures to enforce equality). This is why libertarians can’t be placed on the spectrum from left to right: they have a unique pattern that is in no sense just somewhere in the middle. They really do put liberty above all other values.

2) On reasoning and emotions: Libertarians have the most “masculine” style, liberals the most “feminine.” We used Simon Baron-Cohen’s measures of “empathizing” (on which women tend to score higher) and “systemizing”, which refers to “the drive to analyze the variables in a system, and to derive the underlying rules that govern the behavior of the system.” Men tend to score higher on this variable. Libertarians score the lowest of the three groups on empathizing, and highest of the three groups on systemizing. (Note that we did this and all other analyses for males and females separately.) On this and other measures, libertarians consistently come out as the most cerebral, most rational, and least emotional. On a very crude problem solving measure related to IQ, they score the highest. Libertarians, more than liberals or conservatives, have the capacity to reason their way to their ideology.

3) On relationships: Libertarians are the most individualistic; they report the weakest ties to other people. They score lowest of the three groups on many traits related to sociability, including extroversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. They have a morality that matches their sociability – one that emphasizes independence, rather than altruism or patriotism.

In other words: Libertarians, liberals, and conservatives all differ from each on dozens of psychological traits, which help to explain why people – even siblings in the same family — gravitate to different ideological positions as they grow up. Understanding these psychological differences will be crucial for politicians and political movements that want to appeal to libertarians, who are often left out as so much attention is lavished on liberals and conservatives.

The Largest Study Ever of Libertarian Psychology

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