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Why Liberals and Conservatives Think So Differently

Research helps explain the divide between the political left and right.

During the last presidential campaign, a major and striking difference between candidates Secretary Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was their view of present-day America. President Trump drew a virtually apocalyptic picture of our times, invoking economic collapse, rampant carnage, and the country's very demise. Harkening back to a more idyllic past, he promised to “Make America Great Again” if elected. By contrast, Clinton painted a far more optimistic vision. She insisted that America has always been great—and while there was more important work to be done, according to Clinton the best course was to stay on the demonstrable positive one we were already on.

Well, we all know how things turned out. And Trump's stunning political upset has further exposed a nation divided. But what is driving the divisiveness between liberals and conservatives? Enter social science. The “uncertainty-threat model,” developed by psychologist John T. Jost and colleagues, maintains that ideological differences between the political right and left has a psychological basis. The authors conducted a meta-analysis involving 88 samples, 12 countries, and 22,818 cases, and found that certain psychological variables predict political conservatism, including death anxiety, system instability, intolerance of ambiguity, needs for order, structure, and closure, the fear of threat and loss, being less open to experience, and being less tolerant of uncertainty. So, conservatives tend to see the world as dangerous and threatening, whereas liberals generally see society as a place of safety and cooperation.

According to the uncertainty-threat model, politically conservative ideas and leaders become more attractive when the psychological needs to decrease uncertainty and threat are on the high side, and liberal ideas and leaders become more attractive when these needs are on the low side. The thinking goes that stability and hierarchy (i.e., conservatism) generally provides reassurance and structure, whereas change and equality (i.e., liberalism) is associated with disorder and unpredictability.

Converging lines of evidence support the threat-uncertainty model. Consider research led by Paul R. Nail of the University of Central Arkansas that illustrates how it operates. Across a series of three experiments, the investigators assessed participants' political orientation, presented them with a threat, and examined how they reacted to political issues post-threat. In so doing, they found that the presentation of threats made liberals significantly more conservative in their thinking—and demonstrated that political ideology is more malleable than we perhaps realize. Here's how this three-part study broke down:

Study 1. To assess political orientation, participants self-reported whether they were liberal or conservative, and completed a political attitude scale. They later volunteered for two ostensibly unrelated experiments. First, they were presented with an Injustice threat. Participants were randomly assigned to read one of two different versions of a newspaper article. In the Injustice Threat condition, the article depicted the case of an executive who would likely get away with his financial crimes despite strong evidence of guilt, simply because of a legal technicality (it actually referred to the Enron scandal, in which senior executives committed brazen fraud). By contrast, in the non-threatening justice Control condition, the article described a male executive’s corporate crimes and proper legal prosecution.

Second, the researchers used in-group favoritism—the tendency to favor individuals who support one’s own in-group over those who are critical of the in-group—to measure conservative thinking. Participants were given a packet containing two essays. One of the essays was pro-USA, and the other was anti-USA. The essays were supposedly written by foreign exchange students enrolled at the participants’ university, and participants were told that the study was looking at foreign students’ opinions of the United States and the reactions of American students to these opinions. This, however, was a ruse. The true purpose of this study was to assess participants' level of in-group favoritism. The pro-USA essay praised America’s freedoms, democracy, and many opportunities; the anti-USA essay criticized Americans’ obsession with status and materialism, and disapproved of the inequities between rich and poor. The investigators then analyzed the data. What did they find? Politically liberal college students' in-group favoritism increased after reading about the Enron executive who got away with his crimes—becoming as strong as that of conservatives. In other words, a system injustice threat made liberals became more conservative in their thinking.

Study 2. Participants were determined to be conservative or liberal based on their preference for consistency, which the authors see as a psychological measure of political ideology. According to Jost and his collaborators, a key component of conservative thinking is a strong dislike for inconsistency, unpredictability, and fluidity in one’s view of the world. Participants in the threat condition were presented with a threat about dying, or more technically, a Mortality Salience Threat. More specifically, they were asked about their thoughts and feelings about dying. By contrast, participants in the non-threat Control condition, they were questioned about their thoughts and feelings about watching television.

Participants also reported their opinions about capital punishment and abortion by reading a list of 10 wide-ranging attitude statements (for each issue) and endorsing the statement that was most in keeping with their own views. What did the investigators find? After encountering the Mortality-Salience Threat, liberal students held as much conviction in their attitudes toward capital punishment and abortion as conservatives did.

Study 3. Participants were again administered the preference for consistency as a measure of political orientation, and the mortality salience threat that had been used in Study 2. But this time the measure of conservative thinking hit on gay rights. Participants were presented with a vignette in which company benefits for a gay employee’s partner was depicted. Participants were asked if they thought that the company should be required to provide for the partner's medical expenses as it would be if the couple were straight. The investigators crunched the numbers and found that after encountering the Mortality Salience threat, liberal students became as steadfastly unsupportive of homosexuals as conservatives were.

In addition to its scholarly value, this research may have important practical implications. Perhaps recognizing that threat sensitivity is a key contributor in explaining liberal vs. conservative thinking, it could help the political left and right begin to understand each other's points of view. Moreover, it could inform the larger national dialogues about the issues that divide us, including economic inequality, racism, sexism, and LGBQT rights. This research also demonstrates how inventing threats where they don't actually exist can foment conservative thinking—even among liberals.


Political conservatism as motivated social cognition.Jost, John T.; Glaser, Jack; Kruglanski, Arie W.; Sulloway, Frank J. Psychological Bulletin, Vol 129(3), May 2003, 339-375.

Threat causes liberals to think like conservatives.Nail, Paul R.; McGregor, Ian; Drinkwater, April E.; Steele, Garrett M.; Thompson, Anthony W. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Vol 45(4), Jul 2009, 901-907.