Ever considered sticking a pin into a child’s hand? How about kicking a dog in the head, hard? What about undergoing plastic surgery to add a two inch tail to the end of your spine?
Surprising as it may seem, your answers to these questions may throw some light on your political loyalties and affiliations. Recent research from the US has produced surprising data about differing attitudes towards social taboos across the political spectrum. The authors include Jonathan Haidt, whose thoughts on the moral and political choices facing Barack Obama are featured in this month’s edition of Prospect in an essay that is free to read online.
According to the study (pdf), published this Spring in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, conservatives are likely to feel more strongly about social taboos revolving around purity, authority and ingroup loyalty, while liberals feel a stronger sense of obligation around issues of harm to animals and other people. Libertarians, those rootless individualists, scored lower in every moral category.
The researchers selected over 1,500 politically committed volunteers, and subjected them to a range of questions exploring their attitudes to different taboos and trangressions. Asked about impaling a child’s hand, 78 per cent of the conservatives responded that they would refuse to do this “for any amount of money,” compared with 70 per cent of liberals and just 59 per cent of libertarians.
In fact, more of the liberal respondents felt strongly about kicking a dog than about harming a child (75 per cent versus 70 per cent refusal for any amount of money), while fifty per cent of the libertarians would agree to surgery giving them a prosthetic tail if they were paid enough to do so.
Some of the questions seem to be inspired by traumas specific to the researchers. One question testing “Purity” asks whether respondents would be willing to “attend a performance art piece in which all participants (including you) have to act like animals for 30 minutes, including crawling around naked and urinating on stage.”
Are these results culturally specific to the US? Or do they reveal a more universal set of moral principles underlying political choice?
CLARIFICATION 24/02/09: I can see from the comments that some people have found this post confusing. The PDF we linked to does not contain the full survey data from Haidt, Graham and Nosek’s research, just the conclusions they’ve drawn from it. But here at Prospect, we’ve seen the full survey data (Johathan Haidt sent it us), and I can confirm that they are as reported in the post, however bizarre that may seem. Apologies for any confusion.