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Understanding the Progressive and Conservative Psyche



Progressives and conservatives are mostly similar to each other, but researchers have uncovered some interesting systematic differences between the two groups, in terms of personality and fundamental beliefs about the nature of the world.


Some reasons you may find it helpful to understand these differences include: 


  • Having a deeper understanding of the psychology of others can lead to deeper empathy in personal relationships with them.

  • Awareness of how your political orientation might influence and be influenced by your perceptions of the world can lead to more nuanced decision-making.

  • Grasping the psychological aspects of political ideologies can enhance your ability to comprehend broader cultural dynamics. This understanding can enrich your views of historical events, media narratives, and current societal debates, making it easier to navigate and participate in cultural conversations.


So, with that in mind, let's explore what differences are known to exist between progressives and conservatives. 


Note: The research outlined here is primarily conducted in the U.S., though some of it extends to differences between conservatives and progressives in other countries as well.


1. Life satisfaction


Evidence suggests that progressives are less likely than conservatives to report being satisfied with their lives and more likely to be anxious and depressed. In our own research in the U.S., these correlations with progressivism were moderate in size (r=0.28 for anxiety, r=-0.26 for life satisfaction). 


In 2007 (during the Republican presidency of George W. Bush), Gallup found that just 8% of Republicans said their mental health is poor or only fair, whereas 15% of Democrats and 17% of independents said the same thing.



Source: Gallup poll


However, this trend does not appear to change when the political parties in power do: this study used data from 2022 (during the Democratic presidency of Joe Biden) and found that, even controlling for factors such as age and church attendance, there was still a difference between the self-reported mental health scores of conservatives and progressives.



Of course, these are just correlations, and they don’t tell us why these differences exist. One hypothesis that researchers have suggested is that this difference may stem from the fact that being progressive involves being unsatisfied with the status quo (seeking progress), which could naturally lead to a lack of satisfaction.


Further supporting this explanation, researchers have argued that conservatism can be characterized as being what's known as a "system-justifying ideology", which offers arguments in support of the status quo. One of the most prominent conservative thinkers of the late 20th century, William F. Buckley Jr., articulated his type of conservatism (and the conservatism of his publication, The National Review) as one that “stands athwart history, yelling Stop”. This suggests a view that the status quo is largely satisfactory (and should be conserved) and might go some way to explaining higher rates of life satisfaction among conservatives. 


However, another possible explanation (offered in the Tufts study, cited above) points out that these are all self-reported mental health scores. If, as evidence indicates, conservatives are more likely to stigmatize poor mental health, they may also be less likely to report having poor mental health regardless of how poor their mental health actually is. This explanation finds some support in a study that found that, despite reporting lower mental health scores, progressives exhibited certain happy behaviors more often than conservatives.


These theories are hotly debated, and it may simply not yet be known why there is an empirical difference in the average self-reported well-being and mental health between progressives and conservatives in countries like the U.S.


2. Moral foundations


Moral Foundations Theory is a social psychological theory designed to explain the origins of (and variation in) human moral reasoning. For instance, why certain moral appeals resonate strongly with one group but provoke opposition from another group. The theory suggests that there are several innate, universal moral foundations upon which complex moral systems are built. According to the theory, differences in moral judgments and political ideology can be better understood by examining the emphasis each individual or culture places on these various moral foundations. This handy table explains each of the moral foundations:



Research on moral foundations theory finds that progressives are more likely to rely on just the harm and fairness aspects of morality, whereas conservatives appeal to more aspects, including ingroup, authority, and purity.



Source: This study.


3. Openness


The Big Five personality traits (also known as the Five Factor Model) constitute an influential and widely adopted framework in academic psychology, used to describe human personality. Though it is not without its detractors, it has a substantial body of research supporting its validity and utility. It consists of five broad dimensions, one of which is openness.


Individuals high in openness are more likely to engage in creative and abstract thinking, seek out new experiences, and be open to novel ideas, values, and cultural practices. They tend to be more adventurous, creative, and open to different ways of thinking and living.


Conversely, individuals who score lower on openness may prefer routine, have more conventional and traditional interests, and be more cautious about new ideas or changes. They might prioritize stability and familiarity over novelty and change.


Progressives are more likely to be high in the openness Big Five personality trait. However, some studies of the link between openness and progressiveness end up skewing their results because they use openness scales that include questions about whether you "tend to vote for liberal political candidates", and they interpret doing so as a sign of openness. Of course, this would hopelessly bias these results.


However, even when looking at aspects of Openness that don’t include questions directly related to political views, we find a small link between openness and political views (e.g., r=0.11 in our research for the link between the "introspection" aspect of openness and progressivism). A study examining the link between personality and voting preferences across 5 European countries similarly found that "The Openness trait [was found] to be the most generalizable predictor of party preference across the examined cultures."


4. Fundamental Beliefs


Research on fundamental beliefs about the world ("Primals") has found conservatives are more likely to see the world as hierarchical (taking the view that people, places, and things all have a value and rank). Perhaps relatedly, research typically finds that conservatives tend to be higher in what researchers call "authoritarianism", which is understood and measured in terms of submission to established authority, conventionalism, and aggression towards sanctioned targets.


Here is a diagram showing how some of these "Primals" were found in research to link to social and economic conservatism:




Numbers show correlations, and line color relates to correlation strength. All p values are <0.001 except three: the two numbers with asterisks are p<0.01, and the dotted line was not statistically significant.


5. Conscientiousness


Conscientiousness is another Big Five personality trait. People high in this trait tend to be more reliable, disciplined and focused on achieving their goals. They tend to follow rules and prefer planned rather than spontaneous behavior, and are often seen as meticulous and thorough in their tasks.


Progressives are found to be less conscientious than conservatives on average. More specifically, in our research, progressives were somewhat less industrious (r=-0.20) and a tad bit less perfectionistic (r=-0.12). This study, which we mentioned previously, examined the link between personality and voting behavior in five European countries and concluded that "Conscientiousness was also a valid predictor [of voting behavior], although its effect was less robust and replicable [than Openness]."


6. Agreeableness


It is sometimes claimed that conservatives are less "agreeable" than progressives, but this is not a consistent finding. Subdividing agreeableness into its components may give greater insight. Some research suggests that the politeness component of agreeableness is higher among conservatives, whereas progressives are higher in the compassion component of agreeableness. So, whether conservatives are found to be less agreeable or more agreeable may depend on the facet of agreeableness being discussed.


 

If you’re interested in finding out more about your own personality traits (including the Big Five), you can try out our Ultimate Personality Test. It’s based on our research (including a study of 550+ people in the U.S.) into the accuracy and predictive power of personality tests, and it will provide you with a detailed report.

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