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

Katie Bohn
October 24, 2019

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?’”

Charles Crabtree, Dartmouth College, and Kevin B. Smith, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, also participated in this work.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated January 22, 2020