Liberals Can’t Understand the Other Guy’s Point of View
May 22, 2012
If you’re going to disagree with someone, I think it may be pretty important that you understand his point of view. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with him, by any means—on the contrary, in a way, it’s only after you understand his position that you can truly disagree with it.
Conservatives may not like liberals, but they seem to understand them. In contrast, many liberals find conservative voters not just wrong but also bewildering.
One academic study asked 2,000 Americans to fill out questionnaires about moral questions. In some cases, they were asked to fill them out as they thought a “typical liberal” or a “typical conservative” would respond.
Moderates and conservatives were adept at guessing how liberals would answer questions. Liberals, especially those who described themselves as “very liberal,” were least able to put themselves in the minds of their adversaries and guess how conservatives would answer.
In this study, liberals both underestimated conservatives’ compassion and sense of fairness (more than moderates or conservatives did), and overestimated their own group’s (liberals’) compassion and sense of fairness.
The authors theorized beforehand about why liberals might be least accurate:
If liberals don’t intuitively feel what could be considered moral about [what conservatives care about], then they may be forced to conclude that conservatives simply don’t care about morality—specifically, that conservatives don’t care about Harm and Fairness, because they support policies that seem to hurt and cheat people for no morally good reason.
In their concluding section, they discuss further:
Examining co-perceptions of conflicting groups such as pro-life/pro-choice and hawks/doves, Chambers and Melnyk (2006) found that partisans saw their adversaries as motivated by an opposition to their own core values, rather than being motivated by promotion of the adversaries’ values. This is consistent with the moral stereotypes that liberals appear to have of conservatives: liberals see conservatives as being motivated by an opposition to liberals’ core values of compassion and fairness, as well as being motivated by their own (non-moral) values of ingroup loyalty, respect for authorities and traditions, and spiritual purity. This misperception is asymmetrical: conservatives did underestimate liberal moral concerns with the binding foundations, but they were no more likely to underestimate than liberals themselves.
In other words, liberals disproportionately assume bad motives of their opponents, which puts them more in a world of their own imagination and less in touch with reality. So much the worse for all of us.
Note that it would be circular reasoning or “question begging” to say that this study proves that conservatives actually are less compassionate (average score from nationally representative data set: 3.105) or fairness-oriented (3.425) than liberals (3.5 and 3.76, respectively). Sample question from the “Harm/care” category (“Please read the following sentences and indicate your agreement or disagreement”):
It can never be right to kill a human being.
Sample question from the “Fairness/reciprocity” category:
I think it’s morally wrong that rich children inherit a lot of money while poor children inherit nothing.
Off topic, but perhaps related to this past entry, Kristof also mentions this:
. . . Haidt cites research that a higher I.Q. doesn’t lead people to think through their moral positions in a more balanced, open way (although they are more eloquent in defending those positions).