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As a conservative living in San Francisco, I often struggle with a sense of alienation because while I know and understand the liberal mindset of my neighbors, acquaintances and friends, I don’t perceive them to understand how I think or to care why I hold the beliefs I do. I often encounter gross stereotypes of conservatives — we’re xenophobic, homophobic, misogynistic, judgmental racist bigots who want the rich to get richer and the sick and poor to go ahead and die already to reduce the surplus population. And that’s not even taking our foreign policy positions into consideration! That one could actually believe all those ugly things about a fellow American who votes for someone like John McCain instead of Barack Obama is mind boggling.
It turns out my perception of how liberals view conservatives isn’t too far off the mark. In his NYT op-ed today, Nicholas Kristof writes that conservatives seem to understand liberals far better than liberals understand conservatives.
One academic study asked 2,000 Americans to fill out questionnaires about moral questions. In some cases, they were asked to fill them out as they thought a “typical liberal” or a “typical conservative” would respond.
Moderates and conservatives were adept at guessing how liberals would answer questions. Liberals, especially those who described themselves as “very liberal,” were least able to put themselves in the minds of their adversaries and guess how conservatives would answer.
The 2009 UVA study linked above explains its findings by positing that liberals form their basis of morality by considering three values: caring for the weak, fairness, and liberty. Conservatives, on the other hand, have a much more complex system of morality. In addition to caring about all of the things liberals do—while of course understanding fairness and liberty in very different ways—conservatives factor in loyalty, respect for authority, and sanctity into their conception of morality. It’s these added dimensions that seem to baffle the Left. From the study:
Liberals see conservatives as being motivated by an opposition to liberals’ core values of compassion and fairness, as well as being motivated by their own (non-moral) values of ingroup loyalty, respect for authorities and traditions, and spiritual purity. For instance,when conservatives express binding-foundation moral concerns about gay marriage—e.g., that it subverts traditional gender roles and family structures—liberals may have difficulty perceiving any moral value in such traditional arrangements and therefore conclude that conservatives are motivated by simple homophobia, untempered by concerns about fairness, equality, and rights.
This misperception is asymmetrical: conservatives did underestimate liberal moral concerns with the binding foundations, but they were no more likely to underestimate than liberals themselves.
Fascinating findings. But what are we to do with this information?