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Authoritarian Liberals and Satisfied Conservatives

New research modifies the landscape of political psychology.

The field of social psychology has recently been criticized for being politically homogenous with a liberal bias (see Crawford & Jussim, 2018). The problem for this area of science is that the lack of ideological diversity constrains the questions that are tested and limits the scope of science that the peer-review process can produce (Duarte et al., 2015). The imbalance of political ideology has been well-documented in social psychology (Inbar & Lammers, 2012) and academia in general (Abrams, 2016; Shields & Dunn, 2016).

Traditionally, researchers in social psychology have promoted the idea that conservatives are authoritarian. In fact, “conservative” and “authoritarian” are viewed as nearly synonymous in the previous research literature. Jesse Singal has reviewed recent research that supports the idea that previous findings were due to reliance on politically biased scales, and that it is not difficult to modify the scales so that liberals also demonstrate similar levels of authoritarianism. This was done by using issues more important to liberals instead of issues that are more important to conservatives, which are used in the traditional scales. The fact that liberals can be just as dogmatic as conservatives is not surprising to any conservatives who have engaged in discussions with liberals. Conservatives and liberals are similar authoritarians. Thus, one outcome of a politically biased field was a politically biased “truth” that conservatives are more rigid than liberals. However, an outcome of the recent professional discussions of the field’s ideological imbalance was research that exposed this research error. Science is self-correcting and slow, but it did its job.

Recently Newman et al. (2018) found that conservatives reported greater meaning and purpose in life and that meaning in life was better linked to social conservatism than economic conservatism. The data used for these studies included different sets of data across nearly 40 years with consistent findings, controlling for religion. (For descriptions of the studies and interviews with the authors, see Eric Dolan’s article and Olga Khazan’s article.) However, I point out in my interview for Khazan’s article that the effect sizes are small and that on the street a person can’t predict another’s perceived meaning in life from their political affiliation. Conservatives and liberals are strikingly similar, with some small group level differences on meaning in life and well being.

In another recent set of findings, Winegard et al. (2018) developed a concept of equalitarianism. Their research supports the idea that liberals are biased in equalitarianism. Their empirical studies show that liberals (but not conservatives) evaluate information with bias when perceived victim’s groups or perceived privileged groups are involved. Similar to the authoritarianism findings above, this appears to be one of the salient issue differences that can tip conservatives or liberals one direction or the other in a biased authoritarian scale.

There are real differences in liberal and conservative cognition, such as differences of moral foundations (Graham et al., 2009). The new research on authoritarianism challenges the traditional narrative of rigid, inflexible conservative thinking and open-minded, flexible liberal thinking. The new research on well-being challenges the narrative of the grumpy conservative and the happy liberal. It is important and interesting to continue to empirically study the cognitive differences and similarities of political groups. However, the standard social cognitive rules of attitudes and persuasion apply to political beliefs. I suspect that Petty’s Elaboration Likelihood Model will continue to explain the engagement of both groups in their thinking.


Abrams, S. J. (2016, July 1). There are conservative professors. Just not in these states. The New York Times (online).

Crawford, J. T., & Jussim, L. (Eds.) (2018). The politics of social psychology. New York: Taylor and Francis.

Dolan, E. W. (2018, July 8). Conservatives report greater meaning and purpose in life than liberals, study finds. Psypost (online).

Duarte, J., Crawford, J. T., Stern, C., Haidt, J., Jussim, L., & Tetlock, P. E. (2015). Political diversity will improve social psychological science. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 38, 1-13.

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

Inbar, Y., & Lammers, J. (2012). Political diversity in social and personality psychology. Perspectives in Psychological Science, 7, 496-503.

Khazan, O. (2018, July 26). Why conservatives find life more meaningful than liberals. The Atlantic (online).

Newman, D. B., Schwarz, N., Graham, J., & Stone, A. A. (2018). Conservatives report greater meaning in life than liberals. Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Shields, J. A., & Dunn, Sr., J. M. (2016). Passing on the right: Conservative professors in the progressive university. New York: Oxford.

Singal, J. (2018, July 15). How social science might be misunderstanding conservatives. New York Magazine (online).

Winegard, B., Clark, C., & Hasty, C. R. (2018, May 18). Equalitarianism: A source of liberal bias. SSRN (online).

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