Do progressives and conservatives hold opposing values? Let’s look at the data.
Updated: Sep 29, 2021
Do progressives and conservatives really have different intrinsic values? If so, in what ways? By surveying hundreds of people, we identified substantial differences between what each end of the political spectrum considers important in life – and detected some interesting patterns in what types of values each group tends to hold.
The ClearerThinking.org team is in the final stages of producing a test designed to help you identify your most important personal and social values (our “Intrinsic Values Test”). During the process of creating the tool, we investigated what sorts of values people in the U.S. cherish, and how their demographic backgrounds influence their perspectives. The relationship between values and political alignment was of particular interest to us – we investigated this relationship using our rapid study recruitment platform Positly.com.
Our study – a more recent and thorough entry in a series of studies we’ve mentioned before – asked 321 people in the U.S. how much they cared about each of 92 possible intrinsic values, as well as where they'd place themselves on a political spectrum from "left" (progressive) to "right" (conservative). We grouped the 92 intrinsic values in this study into 22 mutually exclusive intrinsic value categories, and looked at how strongly scores in each category correlated with self-reported political conservatism (vs. progressivism).
As you can see, our analysis uncovered striking correlations between some value categories and political alignment:
The intrinsic value categories most correlated with conservatism were “spirituality” (r=0.49), “purity” (r=0.31), and “virtue” (r=0.20), whereas the intrinsic value categories most correlated with progressivism were “diversity” (r=0.38), “freedom” (r=0.34), “nature” (r=0.32), “beauty” (r=0.23), “learning” (r=0.20) and “pleasure” (r=0.18).
These correlations are substantially stronger than those we found between intrinsic values and gender, education, or income, suggesting that the progressive/conservative divide may in part be a values divide. So when it comes to progressive vs conservative perspectives, values may be an interesting indicator. (You can see a list of the values that make up each of the categories we just mentioned at the end of this article.)
Interestingly, we found that each individual value statement associated with the categories mentioned above had the same direction of correlation (except for the “virtue” group, as we’ll discuss below). So for instance, all 4 “spirituality” statements and all 4 “purity” statements were correlated with being conservative, whereas all 3 “diversity” statements and all 6 “freedom” statements were correlated with being liberal. The exception was the "virtue" group – a more complicated case, perhaps due to the breadth of the category, which included 10 different value statements. All of the value statements from this group which showed political correlations of at least 0.1 in magnitude (5 statements in total) pointed in a conservative direction, but we also found that 4 statements from this group had tiny correlations with progressivism.
It's worth noting that the contents of these value categories depend heavily on how they're defined. For instance:
Our "spirituality" category focuses on values associated with organized religion (e.g. "That humanity worships god"). If it had instead contained more values that reflected new-age visions of spirituality, our study may have returned a less clearly conservative correlation for it. (That being said, all four of our spirituality value statements were correlated with conservatism, even "That I maintain and grow my spirituality," which seems like it could apply to virtually any manner of faith.)
Likewise, the values in our "diversity" category may have proven more attractive to progressives due to their wording (e.g. "That there are many distinct and unique cultures in the world"). These concepts could conceivably be framed in a manner that appeals more to conservative sensibilities.
The values in our "freedom" category were focused on individual autonomy (e.g. "That I have agency and can make choices for myself"), rather than oriented around laws. This framing may have influenced the way respondents regarded the category overall. We've seen a number of people express surprise that we found all 6 of the freedom related intrinsic values we tested to be correlated with being progressive (left), whereas many people view freedom as a more conservative (right) value. We recommend taking a look at all the intrinsic values statements included for freedom (down below) if you'd like to better understand this result.
These caveats all share a theme: it's challenging to create a culturally neutral phrasing of any value, no matter how common that value may be. It's also worth noting, that our findings are just correlations, and that individual people tend to have far more heterodox values than their political alignment group does collectively.
Still, the trends our study identified suggest a symmetry that may play a role in the cultural strife between progressives and conservatives. Each side may view the other as unethical specifically because of their non-overlapping values: for instance, liberals may be bothered by the relative lack of interest conservatives have in protecting nature and promoting diversity, and conservatives may be bothered by the relative lack of interest liberals have in religion and living a life of purity.
We also found some pretty interesting correlations with age. We found that being older was correlated with holding intrinsic values about truth (r=0.21), spirituality (r=0.18), happiness (r=0.17), virtue (r=0.17) and non-suffering (r=0.14), but youth was associated with holding intrinsic values involving pleasure (r=0.21).
Below is a list of the value categories we discussed in this post, and the individual value statements that comprise them. And keep an eye out for our upcoming Intrinsic Values Test, which can help you figure out what you value most! We'll be releasing it in the coming weeks!
Intrinsic Value Statements By Group:
“That I do not violate the tenets of my religion”
“That humanity worships god”
“That humanity not take actions that my religion forbids”
“That I maintain and grow my spirituality”
“That I do not commit impure or degrading acts”
“That my friends and family do not commit impure or degrading acts”
“That the nature of what humans are is not one day radically altered”
“That humanity not create new life forms that are radically different than those in nature”
“That the way I behave is consistent with my values”
“That I am honest and don't lie”
“That I avoid taking actions that significantly harm others”
“That humanity becomes more moral than it is right now”
“That I show courage in the face of difficult challenges”
“That I am grateful for what I have “
“That I am not wasteful (e.g. with food, time or opportunities)”
“That I maintain my humility and don't become too prideful or boastful”
“That I am patient with those around me”
“That I maintain self-control and don't give in to harmful temptation”
“That I get to experience a wide variety of different things during my life “
“That there are many distinct and unique cultures in the world”
“That there is a diverse range of people represented in workplaces, colleges and government”
“That people all around the world have the freedom to pursue what they choose to pursue”
“That I am able to express myself creatively”
“That I have agency and can make choices for myself”
“That people should be able to freely and publicly speak their mind without risking arrest or physical harm”
“That people are free to make any choices that they want about their body, even if others disapprove”
“That I have privacy to act the way I want without other people knowing”
“That animal species do not go extinct as soon as they would normally “
“That we do not destroy the natural environment”
“That I regularly experience beauty (e.g. in the form of art or music)”
“That beautiful things continue to come into existence (e.g. art or music)”
“That I continually learn new things”
“That I don't become less intelligent than I am now“
“That I increase my understanding of reality beyond my current understanding”
“That the people I know personally experience a lot of pleasure in their lives”
“That I experience a lot of pleasure in my life”
“That I believe true rather than false things”
“That people all around the world believe true rather than false things”
“That the people I know personally feel happy”
“That I feel happy”
“That people all around the world are happy”
“That I achieve inner peace”
“That people all around the world achieve inner peace”
“That I maintain hope even in difficult times”
“That the people I know personally do not suffer much in their lives”
“That I stay healthy for a long time”
“That I do not suffer much during my life”
“That people all around the world do not suffer much during their lives”
“That animals all around the world do not suffer much during their lives”