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Liberals Think They’re Unique, While Conservatives Don’t

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Liberals underestimate their similarity to other liberals, while conservatives overestimate this.

ideology, liberal, conservative, consensus, uniqueness,

The older people get, the more conservative they are. At least, that is what young people tell themselves when they are stuck in a discussion on politics with their parents when Christmas dinner has evidently has reached the limits of tolerance. There seems to be an inherent tension between the desire to feel unique, and the need for people to agree with you.

In an article, published last week in Psychological Science, researchers Stern, West and Schmitt examined whether liberals and conservatives differ in their perceptions of agreement between like-minded people and whether this perception is based on reality. In this study, they found that liberals underestimate their similarity to other liberals, while moderates and conservatives overestimate their similarity to other moderates and conservatives. Liberals seem to think that they are all unique in their ideology, while conservatives have the perception that everyone is thinking along the same lines.

The study builds on a big number of previous researches that examine the specific characteristics of liberals and conservatives. For example, liberals tend to be more creative and thus show greater preferences to express their uniqueness and distinguish themselves in a group. Another research, aptly named ‘The Secret Lives of Liberals and Conservatives: Personality Profiles, Interaction Styles, and the Things They Leave Behind‘ also shows that liberals and conservatives have different personalities, especially with respect to social (and not economic) dimensions of ideology. In general, liberals are more open-minded, creative, curious, and novelty seeking, whereas conservatives are more orderly, conventional, and better organized.

In study published last week, the participants were presented  with a survey that measured their beliefs and preferences, perceived in-group consensus, political ideology, need for uniqueness, perceived social desirability and personal importance of topics in the survey. So, to examine the basic psychological desire to feel unique, they looked at topics related to politics, like the beliefs about abortion, and at topics concerning day-to-day business, like the beliefs of the participants about coffee.

The difference in the desire to feel unique and resist conformity is thus fundamental and can be related to the extent in which liberals and conservatives experience consensus within their group. This might also explain why the liberal’s greater desire to feel unique hinders their ability to use the consensus that does actually exist within their group. For conservatives, their weaker desire to feel unique works in their advantage. Even though it might not exist, they perceive consensus that helps them rally their base. The article uses this conclusion to explain the failure of the Occupy movement to successfully achieve their goal. This may be due to the liberals’ greater desire to develop beliefs and ideals different and unique from other liberals.

As a liberal at Christmas dinner, think twice and spare a sigh before you feel like your sitting there all alone with your political viewpoints at the dining table. Although you think you are unique in your stance, you might have a like-minded family member that can help you in your debate and fight those old conservatives at the other side of the table.


Photo: alles-schlumpf

Stern C, West TV, & Schmitt PG (2013). The Liberal Illusion of Uniqueness. Psychological science PMID: 24247730

Carney, D.R., Jost, J.T., Gosling, S.D., & Potter, J. (2008). The Secret Lives of Liberals and Conservatives: Personality Profiles, Interaction Styles, and the Things They Leave Behind Political Psychology DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9221.2008.00668.x

ideology, liberal, conservative, consensus, uniqueness

This post was written by Nura Rutten:
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  • Bill T.

    Perhaps the real reason why liberals are quiet at the dinner table is because they know it’s not polite to speak with food in their mouths.

  • Benno

    What a harsh comments. Although the story is short, it does try to grapple with an important problem: there is not much progressive collective action these days (at least not in Europe). And with collective I mean collective, not just the periphery.
    Thanx for the story.