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The Polite Party

Psychology research finds that conservatives are more concerned with order, liberals are more compassionate

May 28, 2010

U of T psychologists have untangled another part of the personality difference between liberals and conservatives. It turns out that liberals are more compassionate, and conservatives are more polite.

Psychologists have been studying the role of personality in political orientation for years. They’ve found that a number of measurable personality traits are associated with either liberalism or conservatism. For instance, liberals tend to have a higher tolerance for complexity and ambiguity than conservatives.

U of T psychology researchers Jacob B. Hirsh, Xiaowen Xu and Jordan B. Peterson – working with Colin G. DeYoung of the University of Minnesota – wanted to analyze the role of agreeableness, which is one of the “big five” traits that are most important in defining one’s personality, in determining one’s politics. Previous studies had found no correlation between differences in agreeableness and political leanings. The researchers tested people in Canada and the United States to determine their political beliefs and personality traits.

When they broke agreeableness down into its two constituent parts – compassion and politeness – they found that there was a difference. Liberals tended to score higher in compassion, and conservatives scored higher in politeness.

The researchers say that this difference helps explain other observed differences between liberals and conservatives. Liberals’ compassion explains their concern with egalitarianism. Conservative politeness reflects their greater concern with order, tradition, and respect for authority.

Hirsh says that research into personality provides a new way to understand political orientation, beyond the idea that it simply reflects rational self interest. “Political attitudes have much deeper motivational roots,” Hirsh says.

It’s not clear if the results will be the same in different countries and cultures, but Hirsh suspects they will. We already know that the big five personality traits are valid across cultures, he says.


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