The disagreement has crippled our politics and our collective ability to get things done. But where do these conflicts come from? A split between liberals and conservatives could say a lot. But underlying this divide is an even more fundamental crack in the way people perceive the world.
In politics, scholars generally define conservatism general tendency to resist change and tolerate social inequalities. Liberalism is a tendency to accept change and reject inequality. Political parties change over time – the Democrats were the conservative party 150 years ago – but the liberal-conservative split is generally recognizable in a country’s politics. This is the fault line on which political cooperation most often fails.
Psychologists have long suspected that a handful of differences in worldviews could underlie the conservative-liberal divide. Forty years of research has shown that, on average, conservatives view the world as one more dangerous place than liberals. This core belief alone seemed to help explain many political disagreements, such as conservative support for gun ownership, border enforcement, and increased spending on the police and military – which, perhaps it is said, aim to protect people from a threatening world.
But new research by psychologist Nick Kerry and myself at the University of Pennsylvania contradicts this long-held theory. Rather, we find that the main difference between left and right is the belief that the world is inherently hierarchical. Conservatives, our work shows, tend to believe more than liberals in a hierarchical world, which is essentially the idea that the universe is a place where the lines between categories or concepts matter. A clearer understanding of this difference could help society better bridge political divides.
[Read more about what brain and behavioral science reveals about conservative and liberal thought]
We discovered this by chance. My team was undertaking an ambitious effort to map out all the most fundamental beliefs people have about the world we share. We call these principles “primal world beliefs” or “primals” for short. Primals reflect what people think is typical of the world, for example, that most things are beautiful or that life is generally pain and suffering. We suspect that these beliefs have important implications for people’s mental health and well-being.
Our effort began with 10 projects to identify possible primals, such as collecting data from over 80,000 tweets and 385 influential written works, including the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita. After several rounds of statistical analysis with data from over 2,000 people, we identified 26 primals and found that most beliefs fell into three areas: the world is generally dangerous or safe, boring or more attractive and alive or mechanist. We have created a free site, scientifically online survey validated which you can take if you want to know how your own primals compare to the average.
In most of our studies, we also asked people to share their political party preference and rate how liberal or conservative they considered themselves. In an early study focusing on well-being, I noticed a surprising relationship between people’s beliefs and how they answered these two questions. The Dangerous Global Belief was not tied to party or ideology as previous research – including some of our own – suggested.
We conducted nine more studies with almost 5,500 participants, mostly Americans, to make sure we got it right. These studies have moved away from the dangerous world belief as the fundamental difference between liberals and conservatives and towards a different primal world belief called hierarchical. This primal, we found, was 20 times more strongly tied to political ideology than dangerous global belief.
People raised in the belief in the hierarchical world see the world as full of differences that matter because they usually reflect something inherent, real, and meaningful. These people often separate things of greater value from things of lesser value. You can imagine that, to them, the world seems full of bold black outlines. The opposite view – held by people weak in this belief – tends to perceive the differences as superficial and even silly. For people with this perspective, the world is mostly dotted lines or shades of gray. (To reiterate, the primary concern trends only. Even people with a strong hierarchical belief in the world see some lines as arbitrary.) In our work, this primal was high among conservatives and low among liberals.
Most types of hierarchical thinking that have been studied, such as social dominance orientation, are about preferences for how humans should be organized. But hierarchical world belief relates to how people perceive the world as actually existing, regardless of what they would like to see. Moreover, this primal applies not only to human groups but also to All, including plants, other animals and inanimate objects. For people raised in this belief, the universe is the kind of place where lines matter.
One of the reasons our discovery is exciting is that it suggests ways to resolve specific policy impasses. For example, consider debates on LGBTQ+ topics. Conservatives may think the line separating men and women is natural and innate – a wide and bold line – while liberals may see this distinction as more superficial and culture-based – a gray area. Welfare payments and policies can also be viewed through a hierarchical lens, with some assuming that the lines between rich and poor often reflect significant differences in work ethic, talent, morality, or value to society. Company.
Perhaps the relevant line for the abortion debate is conception. Conservatives believe that this line marks the beginning of human life and therefore means a lot. A non-hierarchical perspective would be that life gradually emerges through many thresholds.
Immigration debates often involve literal lines, such as the border between the United States and Mexico. If non-hierarchical global belief shapes liberal thought, then no one should be surprised that liberals depress the enforcement of those boundaries.
Knowing the left-right divide on the hierarchical belief of the world could have practical value. English author GK Chesterton wrote once, “The most practical and important thing in a man is always his view of the universe.” Although I may not go that far, Chesterton is right. Whether you want to sympathize with the other side, beat them in an election, or convince them of a policy, understanding the primals of others can be helpful. And again, primitive world beliefs are about world trends, but people also expect some exceptions. This nuance creates an opening for productive debate.
For example, imagine trying to convince a conservative to adopt a more liberal policy on transgender rights. If you assume that their beliefs are based on fear of danger, you might notice that transgender people are much more more likely to be assaulted than assaulting someone themselves – a tactic to allay fears. But another tactic is to blur the lines – perhaps by noting that a small but consistent number of babies are born with ambiguous genitalia and arbitrarily assigned a gender at birth, suggesting that the boundary between male and female is not always extremely clear. If the hierarchical belief of the world is more at stake than the dangerous belief of the world, allaying fears may be less effective than describing why a specific line is a bit arbitrary.
To reach a point of cooperation, even in the midst of intense disagreement, people often need to grasp the other’s point of view. Our work shows that conservatives and liberals disagree more on the meaning of the differences than on the prevalence of the danger. This idea may seem modest, but it is a big step in the right direction.
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