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Question Session 04

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Liberal vs Conservative: Emilie’s question

How can we be sure that the dutch ‘liberal’ is the same as the ‘liberal’ the moral psychologists are talking about (possibly US1) in the study by van Leeuwen & Park (2009)?

The rough answer I gave in the live session was, ‘we can’t be sure, but there does seem to be something to the one-dimensional opposition in lots of places’.

It’s important that the claim is about socially liberal vs socially conservative. (If we were talking about economic views, the picture would be much more complex.2)

The moral psychologists do take themselves to be talking about a dimension that is found across the world. For example:

‘Whereas in the US, the political divide is between “liberals” and “conservatives” (or Democrats and Republicans), both the substance of political divides and the terms used to describe them vary across cultural contexts (Malka et al., 2014). However, research suggests that the liberal–conservative divide on social issues in particular manifests in similar ways across cultures (e.g., Feinberg, Wehling, Chung, Saslow, & Melvær Paulin, 2019; Graham et al., 2011)’ (Feinberg & Willer, 2019, p. footnote 1).

Do the references they cite here support these assertions?

As far as I can tell, Graham et al. (2011) depend on the assumption that the socially liberal-socially conservative distinction works in roughly the same way across many countries; in this sense it provides indirect evidence (if this assumption was false, they shouldn’t have been able to get significant results). Feinberg, Wehling, Chung, Saslow, & Paulin (2020, p. Study 4a) compares earlier findings from a US sample of participants with studies of people in Austria, France and Germany. Again, this seems to depend on the assumption that (in their words) ‘the same conservative-liberal divisions found in the United States are common in countries across the world’ (Feinberg et al., 2020, p. 790) and so provides at most indirect assumption for it.

Those authors do cite Bornschier (2010) in support of this assumption. This covers multiple countries with relevantly different histories (but not the US). I don’t fully understand this research (yet), but my sense is that it provides one method to identify how robust the idea of a divide between socially liberal and socially conservative is. It also has some very clear figures.


Bornschier, S. (2010). The New Cultural Divide and the Two-Dimensional Political Space in Western Europe. West European Politics, 33(3), 419–444.
Duckitt, J., & Sibley, C. G. (2009). A dual process motivational model of ideological attitudes and system justification. Social and Psychological Bases of Ideology and System Justification, 292–313.
Feinberg, M., Wehling, E., Chung, J., Saslow, L., & Paulin, I. M. (2020). Measuring Moral Politics: How Strict and Nurturant Family Values Explain Individual Differences in Conservatism, Liberalism, and the Political Middle. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 118(4), 777–804.
Feinberg, M., & Willer, R. (2019). Moral reframing: A technique for effective and persuasive communication across political divides. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 13(12), e12501.
Graham, J., Nosek, B. A., Haidt, J., Iyer, R., Koleva, S., & Ditto, P. H. (2011). Mapping the moral domain. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(2), 366–385.
Jost, J. T., Federico, C. M., & Napier, J. L. (2009). Political ideology: Its structure, functions, and elective affinities. Annual Review of Psychology, 60, 307–337.
Malka, A., Soto, C., Inzlicht, M., & Lelkes, Y. (2014). Do Needs for Security and Certainty Predict Cultural and Economic Conservatism? A Cross-National Analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 106(6), 1031–1051.
van Leeuwen, F., & Park, J. H. (2009). Perceptions of social dangers, moral foundations, and political orientation. Personality and Individual Differences, 47(3), 169–173.
  1. van Leeuwen & Park (2009, p. 169) do indeed rely on research using US samples as background on political identity. Jost, Federico, & Napier (2009)’s authoritative review of the one-dimensional liberal-conservative model of political identity (which they do not cite) covers much of the background they are relying on. This review is entirely focussed on the US. It also does not discuss whether a single model of political identity works equally well across different ethnic groups. 

  2. To illustrate, Malka, Soto, Inzlicht, & Lelkes (2014, p. 1034) notes that ’Eastern European nations formerly subjected to communist rule sometimes show relations between high levels of NSC [needs for security and certainty] characteristics [which are associated with socially conservative views] and left-wing economic preferences.‘ See also Duckitt & Sibley (2009), who propose that different processes underpin social and economic aspects of political identity.