UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Are people drawn towards political ideologies due to their own morals, or does one’s political allegiances shape those morals? That’s the question political science researchers at Penn State University set out to answer in a recent study. While most would assume that morals develop before politics, the research team say it actually may be the other way around.
After tracking participants’ political attitudes and moral foundations, such as fairness and loyalty, over time, researchers found that while personal morals didn’t accurately predict a person’s future political leanings, the opposite actually held true. That is, that political beliefs were an accurate indicator of one’s morals.
The study’s authors say their findings may partially explain the “mental gymnastics” many people seem to engage in to justify their political party’s actions.
“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,” says study author and PSU distinguished professor of political science Peter Hatemi in a media release. “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.”
For the most part, researchers have usually operated under the assumption that moral beliefs influence ideologies, referred to as the moral foundations theory.
“We were really driven by this question of why people are so different,” Hatemi adds. “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.”
Researchers used data from three studies to analyze the relationship between personal morals and political affiliation. This included over a thousand participants in the American Election Studies panel, a group of some 400 Australians, and several hundred Americans recruited online.
Participants from all sources completed a questionnaire measuring five moral foundations: caring, fairness, authority, purity, and loyalty. Then, each person was asked about their political beliefs.
After analyzing all the data, researchers concluded that political ideology was two to three times more accurate at predicting moral foundations than the other way around. They also concluded that political attitudes were more constant across time than personal morals; meaning a person’s morals are more likely to change than their politics.
“Something predicting another measure doesn’t prove causation,” Hatemi says. “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.”
The study is published in the American Journal of Political Science.