The field of psychology has for some time been attempting to explain why people hold particular political opinions. Among the many popular psychological theories which are used to classify political orientation, the two most popular ones are the Big 5 Personality Model and the Moral Foundation Theory. These theories are typically presented as objective theories which have accurately categorized people's political preferences. However, both of these theories use liberal and societal concepts and presuppositions in gathering their results. There are some who believe it is possible to maintain objectivity within these psycho-political theories, thinking one can separate ideology from psychological analysis. However, psychological analysis applied to politics is contingent on the tester’s ideology—a person’s ideological attitudes towards politics will bias their beliefs and behaviours. In this article, we will explore these ideological biases in the Big 5 Model and the Moral Foundation Theory model.
Big 5 Personality Metric
The most popular and well-accepted theory that tries to analyse political leaning through psychology is the Big 5 theory. As a refresher, the theory uses five categories to describe personality:
- Openness: General appreciation for art, emotion, adventure, unusual ideas, imagination, curiosity, and variety of experience.
- Extroversion: Characterized by breadth of activities (as opposed to depth), surgency from external activity/situations, and energy creation from external means. Sometimes also labeled as “affinity towards happiness”.
- Neuroticism: Tendency to experience negative emotions, such as anger, anxiety, or depression.
- Conscientiousness: Tendency to display self-discipline, act dutifully, and strive for achievement against measures or outside expectations.
- Agreeableness: General concern for social harmony.
Modern liberals are generally categorised as being high in openness and low in conscientiousness, while conservatives are categorised as low in openness but high in conscientiousness. This is usually interpreted as liberals thinking it is common sense that what is newer is better and can be constantly improved, while for conservatives it is common sense that what works well has no reason to stop working, and can continue to produce good results without significant alteration.
However, this assigning of ideological labels such as liberal and conservative is already ideologically biased. The political type is taken before the personality test by asking subjects to rate their political orientation on a spectrum from left to right. This already biases the sample space, which is mainly composed of subjects from the western world, because “western culture” is a liberal idea. There is already a liberal cultural belief on what left (Liberalism) and right (Conservatism) mean. Liberalism embodies change, in particular an idea of progress, and conservatism is about static-ness, or sticking with the “old”. However, these definitions do not hold up when looking at different political groups.
To illustrate this, we can find left and right movements which don’t fall under these personality classifications. Libertarianism is an offshoot of liberalism. However, libertarians are generally high in conscientiousness. Many people who have positions at banks or high governmental positions can be accurately described as libertarians. It is also clear there are many people on the new right who are high in openness. New right-wing writers and publications have greatly proliferated in numbers such as the The American Mind, American Sun, the UnHerd, Jay Dyer, The Dominion, among others, with each of these groups giving new and original ideas in conservative discourse. This Journal itself can be considered a conservative enterprise along those same lines. One would be hard-pressed to say that these new thinkers are not right-wing since they enjoy the exploration of new non-liberal ideas.
We can also analyse new conservative political parties. The UK political party UKIP is a new right-wing party. It was originally created to push for Brexit, but has evolved to focus on the issues facing people living in rural areas, a group generally considered conservative. Looking at a graph of how UK voters rank on the Big 5 personality traits, we can see that UKIP members have below average conscientiousness, even though UKIP is commonly portrayed as being more conservative than the Conservative Party.
Overall, we can see how the narrative that liberals are for progress and change while conservative are for keeping old institutions is inaccurate; there are very important examples of liberal and conservative ideologies having the opposite trait. The personality definitions presented are more accurately labeled as “Tempermantaly Liberal” (people with an affinity to change) and “Tempermantaly Conservative” (people with an affinity to resist change). Someone Tempermantaly Liberal can be conservative, and vice versa.
Moral Foundations Theory
The second theory we’ll be addressing is the Moral Foundations theory, created by Jonathan Haidt. This theory is increasingly used in public discourse on the utility of psychology in politics and in the realm of ethics. Haidt is an American social psychologist and professor of ethical Leadership at the University of New York, who is also a self-professed liberal. His theory centres around posing a list of moral questions to participants, then looking to see if a pattern emerges within their answers in terms of their moral alignments. From the answers to the questionnaire, he concluded that the basic components of human morality can be statistically delineated into these six categories:
- Care: cherishing and protecting others; opposite of harm
- Fairness or proportionality: rendering justice; opposite of cheating
- Loyalty or ingroup: standing with one’s group, family, nation; opposite of betrayal
- Authority or respect: Respecting tradition and authority; opposite of subversion
- Sanctity or purity: abhorrence for disgusting things, foods, actions; opposite of degradation
- Liberty: makes people notice and resent any sign of attempted domination. It triggers an urge to band together and resist or overthrow bullies and tyrants.
He then applied his theory to politics to gauge people's political leanings, and came up with these results:
In Haidt's case, both his theory and its application to classifying political orientations have ideological biases. Firstly, Haidt uncritically presupposes the validity of applying the two-dimensional left-right political spectrum to something as complex as people’s political positions. Modern liberals have been found to be high in care and fairness, while conservatives are middling in all the traits. It is likely that this lack of strong commitment to one or more moral traits by conservatives is because the group here labeled as conservatives compromise a varying set of ideologies of the subjects, i.e. neoconservatives, fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, nationalist conservatives, and so forth. The category of “conservative” seems to be better defined as “not-liberal”. Therefore it is too broad to be understood as a particular political position, so its members average out at around the middle for all traits.
Moreover, the sixth foundation: “Liberty” seems to exist more as an ideological construct than a really distinct foundation of human morality. In particular, the foundation of liberty is a combination of fairness and a skepticism towards authority. Haidt points out that this trait triggers the urge to overthrow tyrants and bullies, two examples of figures holding power and using it unfairly. Historically, the word liberty meant for a group of people to be carrying out collectively but directly many parts of the overall functions of government. The conversion of the word liberty to a form of skepticism towards authority, the view that authority is unfair in itself, grew out of Enlightenment philosophy. Western academic ideology is the continuation of these ideas. So for Haidt, such issues would naturally be distinct moral issues from fairness.
Overall, liberal ideology has a great influence on the interpretation of these popular psychological models when it comes to understanding political orientation, and in Haidt’s case, the model itself is biased. The creators of these models see themselves as being neutral in their data collection. However, we have shown how without a proper understanding of ideology, the results cannot be presented as objective. A proper psychological analysis of political leanings must be careful to not use under-developed ideological structures (like the left-right spectrum or the idea of liberty as a moral foundation), and it must have a clearer perception of what political groups are available for sorting people. This is important, since when making political models from psychology, the model must find political categories of people. If you go with a pre-established political model, then you’re not finding new psychological models but making the data fit the already established political model. If we start with a culturally accepted political model, then the result would be to continue to reinforce cultural stereotypes of left and right people instead of finding deeper truths about why humans differ in political leanings.