Political affiliation may help drive and shape a person’s morals

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Which came first — the personal beliefs or the political party? While it may seem intuitive that a person’s beliefs or moral compass may steer them toward one political party over another, a new study suggests it may be the other way around.

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.

Peter Hatemi, Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Penn State and one of the researchers on the paper, said the results — recently published in the American Journal of Political Science — may help explain the mental gymnastics some people do to rationalize behavior or actions within their own political party.

“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 said. “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.”

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 said 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 said. “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.”

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. Moral foundations and political attitudes were measured 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 said. “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 said the findings could potentially help people better process political information.

“No amount of information will change an ideologue,” Hatemi said. “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?'”

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7 Comments

  1. JO-ANN
    What a min .. I am not angry
    Its the Dems that spew angry spitiing fighting words.. where have you been ?
    Attacks on Republicans are a all time high
    Please dont confuse Compassion
    With Laws
    This story is useing The word purity and Politics together
    That should tell you where its going .
    SO by Jo-Anns take is we pepublicans arent compassionate
    People or caring or of pure heart (Shame on you)
    I stand by laws and rules
    I say Stand in line No cutting in or sneaking in
    Shame on you

  2. I think the last paragraph says it all. They want you think with the mindset of a lib
    “They can pause and say, ‘Am I processing this information in a thoughtful way or am I drinking the Kool Aid?’” If you are compassionate you will support open borders etc, if you are not compassionate you cant think straight. The left is well known for offering FREE KOOLAID to get elected and demonizing the ones who do not gulp it down.

    Really not much value to this article unless you are a koolaid person trying to justify your position. If you believe in holding people responsible for their actions and making them participate in life then you are not able to function it seems.

  3. From the local perspective –
    Data shows ; Voters reject Prop. 205 in almost every precinct, Romero loses to Ackerley on the eastside. Which to me offers a solution – Split Tucson! East Tucson and West Tucson – elect different representatives from Mayor down – cut the city in Half! My opinion East Tucson would flourish while West Tucson would continue as a ghetto…

  4. Thanks for this important study. What i notice when talking with pro trump people is they tend to get angry when i ask them to explain their position. While Democrat/ progressive people can also be passionate they dont seem angry in their explanations. Anger is a secondary emotion usually fueled by feeling disrespected orfrustrated or a need to protect their inner core and is often coming from the gut. It is a defense against being hurt again. Passion in politics appears to come more from the brain as in trying to persuade but doesn’t have that viseral need to protect against getting hurt. Maybe pro trump advocates are trying to avoid being taken advantage of again as in the MAGA slogan. They may feel the other party is responsible for changing their lifestyle and overall safety. Protecting ones self is a primal reaction. I am just responding to the discussion and trying to understand. Please respond accordingly.

    • Wow, are you saying Trump supporters are defensive and angry? being let down by MAGA? I would say the opposite. Passionate dems seem more angry, they lost the ’16 election, have to witness all of Trumps success, and let down by the Mueller report. (now trying to hurt him by conducting a Coup De etat. (false impeachment)
      When asked to defend their positions they get angry with me and I have learned not to put a MAGA or Trump bumper sticker. Don’t want slashed tires or to get assaulted by some wide eyed,slack jawed young woman or man.
      Seriously. The left/dem has a broken moral compass, a “former” friend supported a Porn shop next to a children’s dance center, Oh did we argue about that one, hence the “former”. Also supported viewing porn on library computers next to the Children’s reading section.
      See what I mean?
      I and many of my neighbors and family all support Trump and will see him in the White House the next 5 yrs.

  5. I was a life long democrat, and a true victim, until an incident in my life forced me to look at things differently. I went to Independent because I believed the brain washing I had been subjected to all those years of victim-hood. John McCain made me a Republican so I could vote against him in the primary. It took awhile to change but I’m now a FREE PERSON who is NO LONGER A VICTIM of anything. GO TRUMP MAGA

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