popular theories of political psychology, challenged by data

(Washington, DC) I’ve raised doubts about Moral Foundations Theory, which offers valuable insights but classifies individuals too crudely, overlooks the importance of deliberation and narrative in the construction of our moral ideas, and fails to explain historical change in moral opinions. I’ve also complained about research that classifies conservatives as having negative character traits. And I’ve argued that Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld’s bestseller that purports to explain economic success is unscientific.

Research reported in the press during this week has reinforced my skepticism:

First, Kevin B. Smith and colleagues, writing in the American Journal of Political Science, cast doubts on three strong claims of the Moral Foundations Theory: that the dispositions labeled “foundations” are stable for individuals over time, that these foundations predict and explain political ideology (and hence explain ideological differences), and that the foundations are inherited–as they must be if they result from Darwinian selection. Surveying twins along with other family members, Smith et al. find that “moral foundations are not particularly stable within individuals across time, at least compared to ideology.” At a given point, individuals’ answers to Moral Foundations questions do relate to their ideologies, but their views change over time. The causal arrow seems to point from ideology to moral foundations, as much as the reverse. Presumably, people are influenced by events, experiences, and discussions to revise their political views, thereby changing their Moral Foundations (which are not actually foundational). Thus the stream of research exemplified in Moral Foundations Theory has been “overly dismissive of the role of conscious deliberation.”

Second, Steven G. Ludeke & Stig Hebbelstrup Rye Rasmussen use a large survey to dispute previous work that had associated conservative ideology with “psychoticism,” which means being “cold, impersonal, lacking in sympathy, unfriendly, untrustful, odd, unemotional, unhelpful, antisocial, lacking in insight, strange, with paranoid ideas that people were against him.” Quite to the contrary, they find a negative association between psychoticism and conservatism.

These authors still find that conservatives tend to be more authoritarian than liberals are. My complaint about that kind of finding is that it’s ahistorical. At various historical moments, the right or left may be more favorable to authority or to disruption and change. The current association between conservatism and authoritarianism in the US tells us more about the political situation today than it does about fundamental political psychology. But in any case, we can drop the association between psychoticism and conservatism, since it’s false.

Third (in the same journal), Joshua Hart and Christopher F. Chabris tested whether the Chua & Rubenfeld “Triple Package” of “impulse control, personal insecurity, and a belief in the superiority of one’s cultural or ethnic group” predict economic achievement in modern America. It does not. Parental education (a proxy for social class) does, as does the individual’s own cognitive ability and self-control. As one might expect, having rich parents, doing well on tests, and behaving yourself lead to prosperity in the USA. Believing in the superiority of your cultural or ethnic group is no help at all. (This is political psychology only in the sense that a view about ethnic groups has political implications.)

Sources: Smith, K. B., Alford, J. R., Hibbing, J. R., Martin, N. G. and Hatemi, P. K. (2016), Intuitive Ethics and Political Orientations: Testing Moral Foundations as a Theory of Political Ideology, American Journal of Political Science (doi: 10.1111/ajps.12255);  Steven G. Ludeke & Stig Hebbelstrup Rye Rasmussen, “Personality correlates of sociopolitical attitudes in the Big Five and Eysenckian models,” Personality and Individual Differences, vol. 98, August 2016, pp. 30–36; Joshua Hart & Christopher F. Chabris, “Does a ‘Triple Package’ of traits predict success?,” Personality and Individual Differences, vol 94, May 2016, pp. 216–222.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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