Liberals and Conservatives Both Love Following the Leader, Studies Say

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Researchers say Occupy protesters may have a lot in common with the Tea Party when it comes to obedience Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

Conservatives and liberals have something annoying common: They both love to follow their leaders, studies published Friday in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin claim.

In one paper, researchers at the University of Winnipeg explore whether common perceptions about political partisanship and obedience are actually true—in other words, do conservatives blindly respect leadership, whereas liberals rebelliously protest the status quo? Or are these just stereotypes? 

To examine this, these researchers conducted several online studies. In the first survey, they asked participants to express moral sentiments toward obedience itself—is it morally bad or wrong, is it irrelevant or is it good or right? In this same survey, researchers asked participants to express their moral sentiment toward liberal authorities as well as toward conservative authorities. The initial results showed conservatives favor obedience more than liberals—which jibes with past surveys conducted elsewhere. However, the researchers weren’t satisfied with that initial assessment, arguing in the study that “we posit that these simple tests of the divisiveness of obedience are invalid because participants inferred a conservative authority.” 

So researchers further asked participants to report the first thought that comes to mind when presented with these blanks: “obey a ____, respect a ____, … behave rudely toward ____, resist against ____.” After filling in these blanks, participants gave “their first intuition about the ideological agenda of each obedience object that they themselves listed.” In other words, does the person that participants picked to fill in the “obey a ____” field have a conservative or liberal leaning?

The result: “Objects of obedience tended to be on the conservative side” in the minds of study participants, suggesting that “the concept of obedience carries ‘cognitive baggage’ recruiting thoughts of conservative authorities.” 

To work around this implicit bias linking conservatives and authority, researchers asked participants to list three jobs that involve having authority and three jobs that do not involve having authority. Not surprisingly, the jobs that participants list as having authority tended to have a conservative political agenda, such as “police officer.” 

The fourth study brings all this data together: Researchers realized that they need to ask about specific authorities, such as “commanding officer” or “civil rights activist,” because asking about obedience or authority per se is clearly skewed. While they found that conservatives favor conservative authorities and liberals favor liberal authorities, they also determined that “obedience itself is not ideologically divisive.” Rather, “three studies supported the claim that this disagreement [on obedience] is primarily sourced to sentiments toward authorities demanding obedience rather than to sentiments toward obedience itself.” 

“Each side is engaging in team-like behavior rather than one side being blind or ignorant or biased or corrupt, which is a kind of notion about ‘the other side,’” lead researcher Jeremy Frimer tells Newsweek. “The two sides are not as far away from each other as they often seem.”

Darren Schreiber, a political scientist at the University of Exeter who extensively studies the relationship between politics and psychology, says this research gives new, deep insight into why people step and march, rather than just “pathologize” conservatives as hive-minded.

“The article is undermining this idea that conservatives are more obedient,” says Schreiber, who is working on a book about evolution and social alliances. “I think that’s a really useful nuance.” 

Another study published Friday in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin claims that conservatives tend to believe that other conservatives think like them, whereas liberals tend to think their thoughts are unique—that they don’t think like other liberals. This work, conducted by researchers at New York University and the University of Toronto, suggests that perceived consensus affects political activity. When people think their political allies think like them, they might be more likely to organize a cohesive movement. “A stronger desire for shared reality among conservatives may be why the Tea Party gained more momentum than the Occupy Wall Street movement,” the study says. 

Of course, this research probably won’t do much to convince conservatives and liberals that people on the other side of the aisle are actually a lot like them, given widely cited studies claiming that Republicans and Democrats have different brains. 

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