Are Liberals Really More Egalitarian?

Recent studies find conservatives treat others more equally than liberals

Posted Feb 28, 2021 | Reviewed by Kaja Perina

  • Recent experiments reveal that in some cases it is liberals who tend to treat information and people more unequally on the basis of sex, race, and group status.
  • In a set of studies, liberals wished to censor written passages that portrayed low-status groups unfavorably more than identical passages that portrayed high-status groups unfavorably, whereas conservatives treated the passages more comparably. 
  • This does not necessarily mean that liberals are not egalitarian.  It might be that liberals prioritize equality of outcomes and view unequal treatment (at least for a time) as a means of attaining equal outcomes.

On personality measures, liberals are more egalitarian than conservatives. This preference for equality is often measured with the Social Dominance Orientation Scale, which contains items about both equality of treatment (e.g., “We would have fewer problems if we treated people more equally”) and equality of outcomes (e.g., “We should strive to make incomes as equal as possible”).

However, sometimes personality scales do not map onto behavior in expected ways. For example, despite the fact that conservatives score higher in epistemic needs for certainty, they appear to be no more politically biased than liberals (i.e., no more likely to evaluate politically congenial information more favorably than otherwise identical politically uncongenial information). A paper forthcoming in the American Journal of Political Science replicated this “symmetrical bias” pattern in two nationally representative studies, finding that epistemic needs for certainty actually did not predict political bias.

So, consistent with liberals’ self-reported support for equality, do they treat people and groups more equally than conservatives? Several recent studies over the past few years cast doubt on this proposition.

Scholars test for unequal treatment (sometimes also called bias) by presenting participants with identical or very similar stimuli (for example, a scientific finding, a resume) and manipulating whom or which group that piece of information is about (for example, a scientific finding about men or women, a resume for a Black or a White job applicant), and then having participants evaluate the piece of information. To the extent that people treat the stimuli differently in the different sex or race conditions, this is considered unequal treatment or a bias. If people rated a male candidate as more qualified for a job than a female candidate with the exact same resume, this would be considered an unequal treatment or bias in favor of men (or against women).

Recent experiments and quasi-experiments of this kind suggest that, at least sometimes, it is liberals who tend to treat information and people more unequally on the basis of sex, race, and group status.

Evaluations that favor or disfavor some groups

For example, two sets of studies by two different research teams found that participants evaluated science on sex differences more favorably when women were portrayed more favorably than men (as better drawers and less prone to lying and as more intelligent) than when men were portrayed more favorably than women. In both of these sets of studies, these tendencies were stronger as participants were more politically liberal. 

Similarly, in a more naturalistic study on Twitter, liberals were more likely to amplify the successes of female and Black athletes than male and White athletes, whereas conservatives treated the successes of groups more similarly. In another set of studies, White liberals presented less self-competence to Black than White interaction partners, whereas White conservatives treated Black and White interaction partners more similarly. And in another set, liberals had stronger desires to censor passages that portrayed low-status groups unfavorably than identical passages that portrayed high-status groups unfavorably, whereas conservatives treated the passages more comparably. 

Other teams of researchers have found similar patterns in other domains. For example, people had more generous acceptance criteria for admitting Black than White candidates to an honor society, and this tendency was stronger among liberals. Whereas those high in social dominance orientation favored a White over a Black job applicant, the reverse tendency to favor a Black over a White job applicant was stronger among those low in social dominance orientation. And whereas those high on system justification (correlated with more conservative ideology) found jokes that target low-status and high-status groups similarly funny, those low on system justification (liberals) found jokes that target low-status groups less funny than those that target high-status groups.

Limitations and a word about future research

These findings are far from a comprehensive overview of the literature on these kinds of studies. In order to draw any conclusions that one group (liberals or conservatives) treats groups and people more equally in general, one would need to conduct a thorough meta-analysis (if anybody wants to conduct a meta-analysis, perhaps as part of an adversarial collaboration, do let me know). Moreover, it seems quite possible that preferences for equality of treatment and equality of outcomes in relation to political ideology have changed over the past couple of decades and may continue to change in the future, and so one would have to take time into account as well.

However, these results may suggest that we cannot assume that liberals, being more egalitarian than conservatives, treat individuals and groups more equally. They might not.

This does not necessarily mean that liberals are not the egalitarians they claim to be.  It might be that liberals—first and foremost—prioritize equality of outcomes and view unequal treatment (at least for a time) as a means of attaining equal outcomes.

But likewise, that conservatives are more tolerant of inequality of outcomes does not necessarily mean conservatives oppose equality. It might be that conservatives—first and foremost—prioritize equality of treatment and view unequal outcomes (at least for a time) as an unfortunate side effect.

None of this research can adjudicate which of these positions (if either) is more empirically or morally justified. But it may lead one to wonder whether the relationships between ideology and egalitarianism are more complicated than certain mainstream narratives suggest.


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