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Women vs. men – differences on moral psychology measures

I made a recent post summarizing the differences between liberals and conservatives from our YourMorals dataset, using the effect size differences between groups and sorting the results from those constructs that are most associated with liberals to those constructs most associated with conservatives.  I was asked a followup question as to whether the differences found were indicative of masculine-feminine differences.  Indeed, some have written that the Democratic party has become feminized and that is a prime reason why white males generally vote Republican.

Is this true?  One way to examine this is to compare the table from the previous post with the below chart of moral psychology differences between women and men.  Below are the same constructs, sorted by effect size, with constructs at the top being more associated with men and constructs toward the bottom being more associated with women.  I did the same thing for just liberal women/men and just conservative women/men and found the same result, so I feel fairly confident that these differences between men and women are somewhat robust.

The conclusion?  First, in comparing the previous liberal-conservative differences to the differences here, it is pretty clear that male-female differences are far lower in magnitude than liberal-conservative differences.  The effect sizes are much smaller, meaning that scores of women and men overlap much more than scores of liberals and conservatives.  It is clear that male-female differences cannot account for a great deal of the variance in political attitudes.

Second, there are many constructs associated with being female that are indicative of liberalism (valuing universalism, empathizing) as well as traits indicative of conservativism (higher disgust scores, belief in a just world, and being collectivistic).  Similarly, there are male traits associated with liberalism (individualism, utilitarianism) and conservativism (attitudes toward war, belief in proportionality).

It is still possible that the Democratic party is emphasizing certain traits, like empathy, that are driving away ‘masculine’ voters, at the margins.  Perhaps overly individualistic and utilitarian individuals are actually identifying as libertarian, an overwhelmingly male group, that is characterized by rational and utilitarian  psychological traits.

From a moral psychology perspective, the results are promising for the social intuitionist model that posits that emotional reactivity is the basis for much moral reasoning.  The clearest pattern in the data is that women seem more emotionally reactive and men report being more rational.  Both have their benefits as at either end of that spectrum are manic-depressives and psychopaths.  But this data converges well with previous research indicating that women are, in some instances, more morally and socially conscious.  Perhaps this is evidence for a social intuitionist basis of those previous findings.

- 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

How to publish a Replication of Disgust & Big Five Personality Trait Correlations

I have recently been following a discussion in my discipline about the peer review process, which led me to this very interesting paper about the history of and alternatives to the peer review process in psychology.

At the same time, I’ve been working with colleagues on a paper about experiential vs. material purchasing styles, for which we have found convergent correlations all suggesting that experiential purchasers are dispositionally motivated towards seeking new, stimulating experiences to promote positive emotion, while material purchasers often seek to avoid negative emotions. This is supported by the fact that, in the dataset, experiential purchasers report higher levels of openness to experience, lower levels of neuroticism (both measured by the Big Five Personality Inventory), and lower levels of disgust (as measured by the Disgust Scale). The disgust finding does not necessarily fit with the idea that experiential purchasing is related to seeking new experiences, unless one looks at the literature on disgust. In particular, this study theorized about such a relationship and confirmed it by reporting correlations between disgust and big five personality dimensions.

It occurred to me that I could contribute to the original studies’ findings, by examining the same correlations in our dataset, using a more diverse and far larger sample, and perhaps even including some internal cross-validation.  The results are summarized in the table below.

Disgust Scale Correlations with Big Five Personality Traits

The main hypothesis of the original study actually dealt with the two robust relationships found in our dataset, specifically that disgust is negatively related to openness to experience and positively related to neuroticism. In all, these two relationships stand out as robust across groups and in both studies. Interestingly, the correlation between openness to experience and disgust is weaker in the two most ‘rational’ groups, and libertarians, which might be worth pursuing later. Given the smaller sample size and restricted diversity of the original study, I’d be inclined to say that conscientiousness and agreeableness are not robust correlates of disgust, though this could be an effect of the fact that uses a different measures of Big Five personality traits from the original study.

Can I publish this finding? It’s only correlational and says nothing about causality. It really doesn’t say much that is new, but rather confirms the original study, more or less. Still, the 26 papers which cited the original study would be slightly more improved if they could cite this finding as well, since it’s the same basic study with a different (larger and more diverse) sample. This is where the discussion of the peer review system converges with this analysis. According to this paper,  ”many natural science fields operate on a norm that submissions should be accepted unless they are patently wrong.” In contrast, psychology papers are often rejected, not because they are wrong, but because they are not interesting or novel enough.

The paper and the listserve discussion bring up many points related to this, but one relevant one to this finding is that it is hard to build a cumulative science when you don’t reward replication, but instead reward novelty. The end result is that you end up with a series of slightly different perspectives on the same subjects, all named differently, where authors are constantly trying to come up with something new rather than building on something existing. This may help academics, but it makes it very difficult for these theories to be used in the real world. Any research on humans is likely flawed in some way. Can anybody do double-blind experiments on representative samples of people with behavioral measures? The public is wisely skeptical of any social science finding as are academics…but the solution might lie in publishing more replications rather than in restricting the publication process toward the mythical goal of the perfect, novel study. No single study proves anything when dealing with research on people. It’s the convergence of lots of studies that might potentially be convincing enough to outsiders.

- Ravi Iyer

ps. if anyone wants to write this up and publish it traditionally, feel free to contact me