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Liberal or Conservative? Obey Your Mom and Dad

Political scientists often wonder what makes someone liberal versus conservative. Fortunately, there are several well-studied clues to predicting individuals’ political attitudes. For example, disgust sensitivity, which refers to how easily you are repulsed by gross things, increases the likelihood that you call yourself a conservative and vote for conservative politicians.1 How do the researchers explain this effect? The emotion of disgust may have evolved in part to help humans avoid poisonous or diseased substances (that’s why dog crap smells so foul to us) and we also generally associate immoral behavior with feeling disgusted. When people feel disgusted, they also express harsher, condemning attitudes toward social behaviors they feel are immoral (like incest). Conservatives, who happen to be more easily disgusted in general, also have more critical perspectives on stigmatized social behaviors (like same-sex sexual contact).

What about relationship variables? Do factors in our relationships influence our political ideologies? As a matter of fact, yes, they do. Some markers of experiences with mom and dad early in life forecast later political attitudes.2 In an 18-year longitudinal study, parents’ attitudes toward raising children predicted whether their kids would wind up leaning liberal or conservative as young adults. Researchers assessed their parenting “styles” (in other words, the strategies and practices people use for raising their children), particularly with regards to obeying parents as authority figures. “Authoritarian” style parents tended to agree with statements like, “Children should always obey their parents,” and “Children will be bad unless they are taught what is right” whereas “progressive/egalitarian” style parents tended to agree with statements like, “Parents should go along with the game when their child is pretending something,” and “A child’s ideas should be seriously considered in making family decisions.”

These attitudes toward raising children and associated parenting styles really stuck with kids over time. The 18-year olds who were raised by authoritarian parents tended to be more politically conservative, whereas the 18-year olds who were raised by progressive/egalitarian parents tended to be more politically liberal.2  

Why might this be? Some other research suggests that conservatives generally score higher in the belief that respect for authority figures is a core part of our morality (in other words, liberals don’t believe that showing disrespect for authority figures is morally wrong, but conservatives feel that it’s very wrong).3 For example, in one study researchers asked people how much money they would need to be paid to behave in a way that is blatantly rebellious. Two examples of ‘blatantly rebellious’ behavior included slapping their father in the face as part of a comedy skit (with his permission), or making a disrespectful hand gesture to their boss, teacher, or professor. Conservatives, compared to liberals, said they would need to be paid significantly more money to do those things due to the fact that it’s a severe violation of their moral code for respecting authority.3

So if you’re wondering what makes someone favor certain social policies or vote for certain politicians, one answer comes from the science of relationships—the profound influence that our parents have in shaping how we view the world.

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1Inbar, Y., Pizarro, D., Iyer, R., & Haidt, J. (2012). Disgust sensitivity, political conservatism, and voting. Social Psychological And Personality Science, 3(5), 537-544.

2Fraley, R. C., Griffin, B. N., Belsky, J., & Roisman, G. I. (In Press). Developmental antecedents of political ideology: A longitudinal investigation from birth to age 18 years. Psychological Science.

3Graham, J., Haidt, J., & Nosek, B. A. (2009). Liberals and conservatives rely on different sets of moral foundations. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 96(5), 1029-1046.

Dr. Dylan Selterman - Science of Relationships articles Website/CV
Dr. Selterman's research focuses on secure vs. insecure personality in relationships. He studies how people dream about their partners (and alternatives), and how dreams influence behavior. In addition, Dr. Selterman studies secure base support in couples, jealousy, morality, and autobiographical memory.

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