Republicans and Democrats Consider Each Other Immoral - Even When Treated Fairly and Kindly by the Opposition


By Phillip McGarry, University of Tennessee

Both Republicans and Democrats regarded people with opposing political views as less moral than people in their own party, even when their political opposites acted fairly or kindly toward them, according to experiments my colleagues and I recently conducted. Even participants who self-identified as only moderately conservative or liberal made the same harsh moral judgments about those on the other side of the political divide.

Psychology researcher Eli Finkel and his colleagues have suggested that moral judgment plays a major role in political polarization in the United States. My research team wondered if acts demonstrating good moral character could counteract partisan animosity. In other words, would you think more highly of someone who treated you well – regardless of their political leanings?

We decided to conduct an experiment based on game theory and turned to the Ultimatum Game, which researchers developed to study the role of fairness in cooperation. Psychology researcher Hanah Chapman and her colleagues have demonstrated that unfairness in the Ultimatum Game elicits moral disgust, making it a good tool for us to use to study moral judgment in real time.

The Ultimatum Game allowed us to experimentally manipulate whether partisans were treated unfairly, fairly or even kindly by political opponents. Participants had no knowledge about the person they were playing with beyond party affiliation and how they played the game.

In our experiments, even after fair or kind treatment, participants still rated political opponents as less moral. Moreover, this was true even for participants who didn’t consider themselves to have strong political bias.

Other psychology studies suggest that conservatives are more politically extreme, being more likely to adopt right-wing authoritarianism and more sensitive to moral disgust. However, in our experiments, we found no differences in party animosity and moral judgment between liberals and conservatives, suggesting political polarization is a bipartisan phenomenon.

Why It Matters

Our experiments illustrate the magnitude of current political polarization in the United States, which has been increasing for at least the last four decades.

Americans with different political opinions could once cooperate and maintain friendships with one another. But as political attitudes begin to coincide with moral convictions, partisans increasingly view each other as immoral.

My colleagues and I are particularly interested in this topic, as we worry about the potential for political polarization based on moral convictions to descend into political violence.

What's Next

My colleagues and I believe that a controlled scientific approach, rather than speculation, could help find ways to mitigate political polarization. Currently, we are running experiments to explore how online interaction – for example, through social media – can foster psychological distance between partisans. We’re also investigating how emotions such as disgust can contribute to the moral component of partisan animosity, and how the evolutionary origins of morality may play a psychological role in political polarization.

Phillip McGarry, Ph.D. Candidate in Experimental Psychology, University of Tennessee

The Research Brief is a short take on interesting academic work. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

You may also enjoy:

Interested in Serving in Westwood's Town Government? Nomination Papers Now Available

Sharing Local Concerns for User Safety on Roadways, Congressman Auchincloss and Senator Markey Reintroduce Complete Streets Act

Westwood Moves to Expand Solar Generated Electricity

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Concern Over Rising Property Taxes

I'm interested
I disagree with this
This is unverified


Good article! This makes me think of something I heard a while ago from Psychologist Jonathan Haidt. He said that there are five different elements of morality that people have: harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. Liberals tend to value the first two (harm/care, fairness/reciprocity) more than the other three, while conservatives put comparatively more weight on ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. So from that perspective you could say that the sides have different ideas of what is most moral. As a conservative myself, I don't think most liberals are ill-meaning, but I personally think that they can be overly focused on ideals of equality and kindness to the neglect of other important things. For example, it's great to feel compassion towards people who want to come to our country for a better life, but it shouldn't blind us to the necessity of having a secure border.

I disagree with this
This is unverified