Your politics may shape your morality

Protesters hold signs as they block a street in front of US Sen. Dianne Feinstein's (D-CA) office during a demonstration against migrant detention facilities. (Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Our politics and political party affiliation may help shape our beliefs and morality, a new study suggests.

After tracking people’s political attitudes and moral foundations—such as fairness and loyalty—over time, researchers found that while morals did not do a good job of predicting a person’s future political attitudes, the opposite was true.

The results may help explain the mental gymnastics some people do to rationalize behavior or actions within their own political party, says coauthor Peter Hatemi, a professor of political science at Penn State.

“There are examples of members of both the political left and right of excusing or explaining away things that on paper should go against their moral compass,” Hatemi says. “We’ll recondition anything, on average, through our ideological lens. If we see something within our political party that may conflict with our morals, we will often say ‘no, it’s moral because of this,’ or ‘no, it really is fair because of that.’ We tailor what we find acceptable to our politics.”

Chicken or the egg?

According to the researchers, it has previously been theorized that a person’s moral foundations or beliefs influence their ideologies, such as with which political party they identify and how they feel about certain political issues.

But while numerous studies have found links between a person’s morals and ideology, Hatemi says it is unclear which is causing the other. In other words, does a person’s morals steer them to one political party over the other, or does identifying with a political party help shape a person’s morals?

“We were really driven by this question of why people are so different,” Hatemi says. “People can be so passionate about political issues, and sometimes these are issues that don’t affect them directly. Why is that? The moral foundations theory suggests that we maybe we have these deep-seated moral compasses that are driving these beliefs, so we wanted to see if that was true.”

Our beliefs, politics, and morality

The researchers used data from three studies for their analysis, including more than a thousand participants in the American National Election Studies panel, a sample of more than 400 Australians, and several hundred Americans recruited from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform.

All participants completed a questionnaire designed to measure five moral foundations, which included attitudes and beliefs about care, fairness, loyalty, authority, and purity. The researchers also asked participants about their political attitudes. They also measured moral foundations and political attitudes at multiple points in time.

After analyzing the data, the researchers found that while morals did not predict political ideology, political ideology was two or three times better at predicting moral foundations. They also found that political attitudes were more stable across time than morals.

“Something predicting another measure doesn’t prove causation,” Hatemi says. “But what it does mean is that I may not know all your beliefs or anything about you, but if I know with which political party you identify, I’m going to have a pretty good guess at your position on a lot of issues.”

Hatemi says the findings could potentially help people better process political information.

“No amount of information will change an ideologue,” Hatemi says. “But for people who are more open politically, they can use this information and use it to help them think about their thoughts and decisions a little better. They can pause and say, ‘Am I processing this information in a thoughtful way or am I drinking the Kool Aid?'”

The research appears in the American Journal of Political Science. Additional researchers who contributed to the work are from Dartmouth College and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Source: Penn State