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Will Mitt Romney appeal to empathizers or systemizers in his Republican National Convention speech?

The Republican National Convention is going to take place this week and one of the stated goals of many republicans is to “humanize” Mitt Romney. It reminded me of this graph that I pulled from our database which looks at systemizing vs. empathizing scores.  Based on work by Simon Baron-Cohen, the measure concerns how much one likes to analyze and construct systems as a way of understanding the world (e.g. being fascinated by how machines work) versus trying to understand social situations and empathize with others (e.g. I am quick to spot when someone in a group is feeling awkward and uncomfortable.).  Men (in general) tend to systemize, while women tend to empathize and this difference tracks rates of autism (Baron-Cohen’s main line of research), which strikes 4 males for every 1 female.  Men also tend to support Romney vs. Obama.

This graph shows the correlation between favorability ratings of potential 2008 presidential candidates and the difference between systemizing and empathizing scores for those candidates’ supporters.

Based on our libertarians research, we would have expected Ron Paul supporters to have the highest systemizing vs. empathizing scores and certainly his supporters do have a positive, and relatively high correlation.  It is similarly unsurprising that Hillary Clinton’s supporters in 2008 tended to be empathizers, or that Democrats generally tend to attract empathizers, rather than systemizers.  What surprised me, however, was that Mitt Romney’s supporters appear to have the highest systemizing vs. empathizing difference.  Does this reflect something intrinsic about Mitt Romney, or at least his image?  After watching some of the Sunday shows today, I think so.

Consider this quote from ABC’s This Week, by George Will, a conservative who observed that “with most politicians, the problem is their inauthenticity.  His (Romney’s) problem is that he is authentically what he is…he has a low emotional metabolism.  That’s who he is.  He can’t turn to the country and say I feel your pain because the pain isn’t his.  It’s other people’s.  What he can say is that I can fix your pain and that should be good enough for most people, unless we are electing a talk show host”.

Mike Huckabee said something similar on Fox News Sunday about likability being less important than technical skill.  These are perhaps inherent admissions by some of Mitt Romney’s supporters that his strength is in appealing to systemizers, and therefore, they would like frame the debate in those terms.  It will be interesting to see whether Mitt Romney aims his Republican National Convention nomination acceptance speech at empathizers or at systemizers.

-Ravi Iyer

Where to live? Liberal, conservative, & libertarian criteria differ.

In a line of research led by Matt Motyl, at the University of Virginia, we’ve been exploring ideological differences in preferences for where one lives.  This project is informed by a few ideas already out there.

Given these trends, we would expect liberals, conservatives, and libertarians to differ on what traits are most important in choosing a city to live in.  To test this, we asked participants to allocate 100 importance points to the 10 (out of  46) most important traits that they would use to judge a city.  The idea was to force people to make choices about what is and what is not important as most all of these traits are desirable.  The results, based on over 2000 visitors, largely follow common sense and are shown below with the traits preferred by liberals at the top and by conservatives at the bottom.  For the statistically minded among you, all correlations of .05 or higher are statistically significant.

Where to Live preferences for liberals, conservatives, and libertarians

Perhaps more interesting are the average number of points allocated by liberals, conservatives, moderates, and libertarians to each of these traits.  There is actually a great deal of consensus as to what is important (clean air/water, safety, job opportunities, medical care) even as there are differences (public transportation, family friendly, religiosity).  Also interesting is to note aspects of cities for which libertarians score highest (not too noisy, scientific community, many atheists), which dovetails well with our other research on libertarians.

Average points allocated by ideological group:

Where to Live Points Allocated

There are important plusses and minuses of using non-representative samples.  However, these results generally conform to popular wisdom about these groups, so while the means may differ in the general population, the overall patterns seem likely to generalize.  As with much of our research, the goal isn’t to determine which way of being or which city type is best, but rather to help people more explicitly make choices that may align with their value orientation.  I’m hopeful that the above lists will prove generative when people search the internet for ideas about where to live, a search which apparently is getting more and more common, according to Google Trends.

Where To Live Google Trends

- Ravi Iyer

Liberals vs. Conservatives:innocent until proven guilty?

If you are uncertain if a criminal is innocent or guilty, is it better to err on the side of innocence or guilt?  Given that proof is continuous, not categorical, how much bias toward innocent until proven guilty should one have?  A friend of a friend recently asked is this question to a group of psychologists:

do you know if there is any evidence that conservatives would be more upset (defined loosely) by a guilty person getting away with a crime than by an innocent person being convicted of a crime? and would it be the opposite for liberals?

None of us could come up with a ready answer of a published study to this effect (feel free to let me know of one and I’ll add it here), so I thought it would be useful to share a quick analysis of a few questions that help answer this question.

The below question was asked on a 7 point scale, meaning that liberals (and libertarians) generally agree that it is better to let 10 people go free than to convict one innocent person, while conservatives are somewhat torn given a 10-1 scenario.

Liberal vs Conservative "wrongness" of letting a criminal go free

Another way to ask this question is to ask how wrong it would feel for a criminal to go unpunished.  Again, we see a similar result where liberals and libertarians are less punishment oriented, while conservatives feel it would be more wrong.  This is perhaps a gut-level intuitive rationale for the above graph.

Everyone agrees that we should punish the guilty (indeed, everyone is above the midpoint on the above scale) and free the innocent.  The issue is that we operate in an uncertain world and some kinds of errors bother some people more than other errors.

I believe a similar asymmetry drives the differences between Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street.  Most people will admit that there are lazy people who take advantage of government generosity (e.g. the prototypical welfare queen) and that there are poor people who work hard and encounter a disaster that is out of their control and deserve help (e.g. the guy who works 2 jobs that don’t provide health care, and gets a chronic disease).  The question is which case bothers you most.

Similarly, there are cases of wealthy people who clearly deserve their wealth and who create wealth for others (e.g. Steve Jobs) and there are cases of wealthy people who game the system and create negative wealth for others (e.g. the aggressive mortgage bankers of the sub-prime crisis).  Is it worse to unfairly tax Steve Jobs or unfairly let the bankers keep their windfall of ill-gotten rewards?  There is no right answer to this.  I would submit that in such uncertain circumstances, we all let our intuitions lead our moral thinking, and hence we see the strong divisions we see in society.  Personally, I think it’s a good thing (that the conversation is had, though not that it gets so personal and uncivil), as society needs a healthy balance between punishing the guilty and protecting the innocent.

- Ravi Iyer

Libya as a moral war (except for libertarians)

Many people believe that war and violence are inherently immoral, and some psychologists have begun to explore the idea that celebrating heroism is an antidote to the problem of evil. In contrast, other psychologists have highlighted the dark side of moral conviction (Skitka & Mullen, 2002) and the notion of idealistic evil (Baumeister, 1997) to explain how moral motivations might actually lead to increased violence.  I sometimes call this being hypermoral, not because I have any great further insight, but simply because I think it has a better chance of catching on as a pop culture meme.

President Obama started military action against Libya, following his belief in the concept of a “just war”, suggesting that Libya might be a useful example of morally motivated violence.  This was somewhat informed by the fact that I personally support intervention in Libya on moral grounds, meaning that I see no gain for the US or myself, but rather would like to help those who are attempting to gain their freedom.  Unfortunately, that requires violence.  While I may see this as ‘good’, others likely see this as evil, and I do see the unfortunate parallel with violent actions anywhere, in that I could see a suicide bomber having a very similar thought process, even as they kill many innocent people in an act that I would term evil.  The point of this research is to divorce normative judgments about which kinds of violence are good or evil from the more general psychological process, and simply to show that at least in this case, violence is often morally motivated, rather than being indicative of a person who is amoral.

As such, I conducted an experiment where participants were randomly assigned to answer questions about Libyan military intervention in terms of what is morally right or what is in the national interest.  For example, one question read “Considering what is (morally right/in the US national interest), I support the recent American intervention in Libya.”

Results are shown in the graph below, broken down by ideological group, and indicated that many individuals are indeed more supportive of intervention when framed in terms of what is morally right. Liberals (p<.05) exhibited significantly greater support for Libyan intervention, framed in moral terms.  Conservatives exhibited a marginally significant effect (p=.06), though the magnitude of the difference is greater, so I likely just need to survey more conservative participants, who are a minority in this sample.  Consistent with our research on libertarian morality, whereby libertarians are not moved by the typical moral concerns of liberals and conservatives, libertarians were unaffected by moral framing.  Interestingly, moderates were also unmoved by moral framing.

Libya as a Moral War

This is one specific case and one specific study on a very specific sample, so there are certainly limitations in the conclusions one can make, as with most any social science research.  However, this does suggest that for many people, the case of Libya is a concrete example of morally motivated violence.  I’m hopeful that thinking about violence and war as morally motivated, divorced from whether you think the ends are good or evil, will be a useful paradigm for reducing violence and conflict more generally.  Perhaps violence will actually be reduced if people become less moral and instead more tolerant of other people’s views and actions.

- Ravi Iyer

Relative vs. Absolute Good Choices for Liberals, Conservatives, and Libertarians

Awhile ago, I read about a survey given to Harvard Medical school students about whether they would prefer to live in a world where they had a higher absolute amount of some beneficial good or a higher relative amount.  For example, participants had a choice of living in a world where they make $100,000 and everyone else makes $200,000 (absolutely better) or one where they make $50,000 and everyone else makes $25,000 (relatively better), explicitly assuming buying power remains the same.  The same types of choices were made for IQ, education, vacation time, attractiveness, and other goods, with the choice being between having more of something (absolute) or having more than other people (relative).  The survey results often generate a lot of discussion, in my experience, as people are intrigued by the idea that lots of people would give up money, just to be better than others.  In truth, other studies have shown that almost everyone cares about relative concerns, just perhaps in different circumstances.

I ran the same survey at, and the results are similar to the original study, with some important differences (see graph below).  Importantly, the % of people who chose a world of relative income was smaller than in the original study, where 50% of participants chose relative position.  Perhaps people at Harvard are simply more competitive?  Mean scores are quite variable in different non-representative samples, so I wouldn’t put much stock in them, but perhaps more interesting is that the relationship between variables replicates.  Our results converge with the idea that some goods are more positional than others.  Specifically, the same things that people thought were more appropriate to think of in relative terms in the original study (praise and attractiveness) were thought to be relative in our sample, with vacation time being the least relative good.  The graph below shows questions in rough decreasing order of concern about relative position.

relative vs. absolution goods in liberals, conservatives, and libertarians

Our data suggests that some people think of things as more relative than others.  Cronbach’s alpha for the items in the graph was .80, meaning that answers positively correlate and it is reasonable to think of answers to these diverse questions as all representing some general underlying preference for relative or absolute position.

Interestingly, it appears that conservatives care more about relative position compared to both liberals and libertarians.  Perhaps this converges with the idea that conservatives have a more competitive orientation, leading to positive beliefs about competitive markets and competitive sports, both of which are found in our data as well.

The current data is based on 5,795 participants (3,559 liberals, 632 conservatives, 569 libertarians, and 1,035 others) who took this survey.  This means that aside from political orientation, we could look at other factors that are associated with preference for relative or absolute goods.  For example, concern for positional goods is negatively correlated with Big 5-Agreeableness (r=-.13, p<.001), Openness to Experience (r=-.09, p<.001), and positively correlated with Neuroticism (r=.07, p<.001).  These are very modest correlations made significant by the sample size that took both measures (3,844).  If other people have ideas for personality variables that may explain why some people prefer relative vs. absolute goods, please leave a comment with your ideas.

- Ravi Iyer

Liberals place more value on being funny than conservatives and libertarians.

I’ve been watching a lot of comedy central lately and have been wondering why there does not appear to be a conservative equivalent, just as there is no popular liberal equivalent to conservative AM talk radio.  Perhaps liberals value being funny more than conservatives?

To test this idea, I thought I’d look at the data from the Good Self Scale from  In it, participants are asked how important it is to have various traits, and one of them happens to be “funny”.  If you look at the below graph, you’ll see that liberals do indeed place a tiny bit more value on being funny, compared to others (p<.01 comparing liberals to non-liberals).

It is important to note that this does not mean that liberals are indeed funnier, but rather that they place a value on being funny.  The results seem plausible given that the rest of the results conform to previous research (e.g. conservatives care about loyalty more and care about being more responsible).  Some observations:

In all, these are fair descriptions of these ideological groups, and given that the other relationships are reasonable, I would conclude that it’s also reasonable to say that liberals likely do place more value on being funny than other ideological groups.  Whether they succeed or not is another question.

- Ravi Iyer

Why do we study the psychology of libertarians?

We recently submitted a paper for publication about libertarian morality, along with co-authors Spassena Koleva, Jesse Graham, Pete Ditto, and Jonathan Haidt. The paper leverages our broad set of measures to tell a story about libertarians, which converges with previously reported findings about liberals and conservatives. Specifically, all ideological groups demonstrate the same patterns whereby preferences, emotions and dispositions lead to an attraction to corresponding values and ideological narratives. For example, liberals have greater feelings of empathy and are therefore more likely to moralize harm and be attracted to an ideology which prioritizes this moralization. Libertarians moralize liberty, both economic liberty, similar to conservatives, and lifestyle liberty, similar to liberals.

Libertarians believe in the importance of individual liberty, a belief that may be related to lower levels of agreeableness and higher scores on a measure of psychological reactance (e.g. “regulations trigger a sense of resistance in me”). They moralize concerns about harm less than liberals, in part because they have lower levels of empathy . They moralize principles concerning being a group member (obeying authority and being loyal) less than conservatives in part because they have less attachment to the groups around them.

If you want to read more about what the paper, says, you can click here or download the paper here, but right now, I’d like to focus on why we wrote the paper, as I have previously written about how people are attracted to why you write things as much as what you write.

Of course, some part of paper writing is driven by curiosity and the practical desire to publish. But in writing this paper, I have undergone my own personal intellectual journey, and I’m hopeful that others may have a similar experience. A lot of my impression of libertarianism was previously shaped by images of the Tea Party (who aren’t necessarily libertarians after all) and I thought of libertarians as uncaring, from my liberal perspective, in that they typically don’t support progressive taxes and social programs. The original title of the paper was “the Search for Libertarian Morality”, implying that libertarians are potentially amoral, and in retrospect showing my own ideological bias.

But as I read more about libertarian philosophy and looked more carefully at the data, I found that libertarians do indeed have a coherent moral code, that simply differs from my own. Like my liberal leanings, which have some relation to my dispositions and preferences, libertarians also moralize their preferences and dispositions, in ways that mirror my own processes. For example, liberals and libertarians both score high on desire for new experiences and stimulation, which may be a common reason why both groups tend to emphasize individual choice over group solidarity, compared to conservatives, as cohesive groups can limit choice. Libertarians may be less moved by emotions such as disgust and empathy, which may lead them to moralize certain situations less than others. But who am I to say that my moral compass is any better or worse than theirs, given my view that at some level, the basis for my liberal moral compass is driven by subjective sentiment. I previously wrote about the dangers of liberal moral absolutism, and villainizing libertarians for not sharing my particular vision of morality would be a step down that road

Why do we seek to publicize this paper? In a time when partisanship dominates, policy suffers, and people on both sides of the aisle villainize the other side, it is our hope that with greater understanding comes greater acceptance. We may not all agree about the relative merits of empathy, disgust, or reactance as moral emotions…but we all have some level of all of these emotions and can respect principles born out of these. Even liberals can find things so disgusting that they are seen as wrong, and conservatives actually give a lot of money to the poor. In attributing moral disagreements to dispositions, largely out of our control, perhaps we can learn to see others as different and attracted to other positive moral principles, rather than amoral and oblivious to the moral principles that are important to us.

- Ravi Iyer

Appreciating American Libertarians – Insight from Ted Conover’s Book, Rolling Nowhere

I just finished Ted Conover‘s book, Rolling Nowhere, which I definitely recommend to anyone interested in understanding the human condition.  In fact, I’d recommend any/all of Conover’s books, where he assumes roles as diverse as a prison guard, illegal immigrant, and in this book, a train jumping hobo. Personally, psychology is always more convincing when placed in a larger context, with conclusions reached from different angles (consilience) and I think there is as much to learn about the human condition from one of Conover’s books as in an issue of a psychological journal. In Rolling Nowhere, Conover hops trains  for a few months and joins a subculture of ‘tramps’ that live a wandering, lonely lifestyle on the margins of society.

This may be an odd thing to say, but as a liberal, Rolling Nowhere helped me to appreciate American libertarians better. There are surely lots of differences between liberals and libertarians, but there are similarities as well.  The book helped me contextualize the relationships we’ve found between being libertarian, which implies a sacredness placed on the value of freedom, psychological reactance, and the desire for stimulation.  These are traits where liberals tend to score higher than conservatives as well.

The below graphs, taken from our data, show these characteristics, using the Schwartz Values Scale, comparing liberals, libertarians, and conservatives. Notice that while self-direction is valued highly in all groups, it is highest in libertarians, and the difference between self-direction and the next highest value, is greatest for libertarians. Liberals score higher in self-direction than conservatives.

In the above graph, libertarians also show a relatively high desire for stimulation (equal to liberals, higher than conservatives) and a relatively low value placed on tradition and conformity.  This is consistent with the idea that libertarians are experience seekers, an idea further confirmed by the below graph of libertarian big five personality dimensions, where libertarians score relatively high (similar to liberals) on openness to experience.

Conover writes a fair amount about the motivation that made him (who seems to lean liberal) seek to experience life as a tramp:

I hit the rails to learn and because, as Lonny said, when you become afraid to die, you become afraid to live. Confronted by the prospect of entering a laid-out and set-up life largely devoid of the need to be resourceful, I had desired an activity with an unpredictable outcome. Risk-taking, in a way, seemed its own reward.

Notice how in the above graph, libertarians score relatively low in agreeableness (e.g. “likes to cooperate with others”).  That converges with the below measure of psychological reactance (e.g. “I become angry when my freedom of choice is restricted”).

As Conover writes -

To understand tramps…you have to understand the idea that people cannot always do what they are told. Maybe you are told to get a job, but there aren’t any; maybe you return from a crazy war and are told to carry on as though nothing ever happened…Many tramps’ careers on the road began when the tramp told society, “You can’t fire me– I quit!”

There may indeed be a lot of overlap between the tea party movement and traditional republicans.  But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t something that liberals can’t identify with in the American libertarian. Both groups share a desire to escape established structure (liberals score higher than conservatives on reactance) and seek new experiences (high openness to experience scores), and I bet Rolling Nowhere, with it’s portrait of individuals who have escaped life’s routines, living by their own resourcefulness, is the kind of book that would appeal to many members of both groups.

- Ravi Iyer

J Street vs. The Weekly Standard: Is it possible to be pro-peace and pro-Israel?

A group called J Street has recently sought to question the wisdom of military action by the Israeli government.  Their influence is supposed to be a counterbalance to the traditionally hawk-ish Israel lobby embodied by AIPAC.  Many lobbying groups which oppose military action by Israel identify with the groups that Israel has conflicting interests with or inherently believe that war is a terrible thing.  J Street is unique in that it is pro-peace AND is pro-Israel, taking the stance that the best way to support Israel is by taking a pro-peace stance.  In taking this stand, they are questioning one of the most powerful implicit arguments for military action….that support for military action is related to being patriotic.  As a result, groups like the Weekly Standard have been questioning just how pro-Israel J Street really is.

Is it possible to be both pro-peace and pro-Israel?  What part of this is simply the moral confabulation of believing that your side (liberal or conservative) is correct and that the other side MUST be unpatriotic?  Sometimes we might dislike the opposing viewpoint so much that we question not just their wisdom, but their motives.

To help answer this question, I analyzed some of our data from to see how identification with one’s country (measured using questions like “How much do you identify with (that is, feel a part of, feel love toward, have concern for)…people in my country?”) is related to attitudes toward peace (measured using questions like “Peace brings out the best qualities in a society.”) and attitudes toward war (measured using questions like “War is sometimes the best way to solve a conflict.”).  It is worth noting that attitudes toward war and attitudes toward peace are not necessarily the same thing.  They are highly correlated (r=-.68) in our sample, but the correlation is not perfect (-1 or 1 would be a perfect correlation).

At first glance, it seems that being pro-peace might be incompatible with identifying with one’s country.  Consider the below 2 graphs.  Attitudes toward peace aren’t really related to patriotism.  Attitudes toward war are related to patriotism in that people who identify with their country more seem to be slightly more likely to be more sympathetic to the need for conflict.



Given that the distinction between pro-peace and anti-war is difficult, it is unsurprising that from the simple relationships, people are suspicious of people who are both pro-peace and patriotic.  However, these relationships are not large and there are many confounding variables, the most obvious of which are your political leanings.  Much research in political psychology concerns our motivated reasoning to support our political party’s position on any given issue.  If we look within each political party, the relationship between being pro-peace and pro-country changes as shown in the below two graphs.



The confusing purple lines above are self-identified libertarians.  Let’s deal with them later.

The main result if we look at everybody else is that we see that identification with one’s country is actually associated with being pro-peace WITHIN each political group.  In contrast, in the first set of graphs, being pro-war was associated with identification with one’s country when collapsing across all political groups viagra sans ordonnance. The results suggest that identification with country is independently associated with being pro-peace if we control for being liberal, conservative, or libertarian.  If we control for the variance associated with political ideology, it is not patriotic to be anti-war or pro-war.  It IS patriotic to be pro-peace….and the reason people who are pro-peace are characterized as not being patriotic is because the doves and the hawks reside on opposite sides of the partisan divide.  This partisan divide also predicts identification with country (conservativism correlates .29 with identification with country).  But if we take out the variance due to ideology, peace is indeed patriotic.

Put in the context of the political issue of the day, there is nothing so abnormal about being pro-peace and pro-Israel, but it is unsurprising that critics of J Street are unable to disentangle their partisan leanings from their opinions about the group given the simple pattern of what we see in society.  It is worth noting though that questioning the motives rather than the wisdom of the opposing position is not something that is limited to conservative groups like the Weekly Standard.  J Street characterizes the Weekly Standard’s actions as “thuggish smear tactics”, “swift boat” moves, and “unhinged” which is surely a caricature of their true motivations.  My advice to J Street would be to avoid such confrontational language as it only exacerbates the partisan divide and makes it more unlikely that others might actually see resonance in their pro-peace, pro-Israel stance.

There is one group for whom being pro-peace is more diagnostic, libertarians.  Libertarians make up 10-15% of the population according to recent surveys and 7% of our sample, but it is worth speculating about why group identification is so diagnostic of war and peace attitudes for this group.  Using Moral Foundations Theory, war and peace attitudes are predicted by both the ingroup/loyalty foundation and the harm/care foundation.  Similarly, patriotism and identification with one’s country is a blend of concern about loyalty to one’s group and care for those group members.  Libertarians score lower on the moral foundations questionnaire on both the ingroup and harm foundations.  My hypothesis would be that for libertarians, identification with country is more a function of group loyalty rather than care for other group members (see Ayn Rand’s virtue of selfishness).  Indeed, the correlation between Moral Foundations Questionnaire-Ingroup scores and Identification with Country scores are higher for libertarians than for every other group (r=.56 for libertarians, .37 for conservatives and .38 for liberals).  I would speculate that the fact that libertarian patriotism is more loyalty than care based is the reason why libertarian patriotism is more highly related to pro-war/anti-peace attitudes.  More on libertarians to come as I’m working on a paper on libertarian psychology.