Study: Geographic location shapes what it means to be liberal or conservative

What it means to be a “liberal”, “conservative”, or “moderate” varies from state to state in America, according to research published in PLOS One.

“Our results suggest that if a person feels hatred toward others simply based on how they identify on the political ideology spectrum, then in some circumstances, that hatred is actually aimed at someone with the exact same policy stances,” the authors of the study wrote.

The study examined data from 3,862 participants in the American National Election Survey and conducted a separate survey of another 1,269 U.S. participants. The results indicated that political identity is inconsistent across geographical locations in the United States.

Americans living in Democratic-leaning states were more likely to support left-leaning policies even after accounting for differences in self-reported political identity, and vice versa. For example, “extremely conservative” individuals in Republican-leaning state of Utah tended to staunchly oppose legalizing abortion even in cases of rape while “extremely conservative” individuals in the Democratic-leaning state of Hawaii were open to legalizing abortion in a range of circumstances.

PsyPost interviewed the study’s corresponding author, Matthew Feinberg of the University of Toronto. Read his responses below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

Feinberg: We were interested because the political climate in the U.S. has become very hostile, and we noticed that people often make cruel judgments about others simply based on political labels — as if they knew everything others believed based on a label.

Also, at the time, I was living in the San Francisco Bay Area and my co-first-author Alexa Tullett was living in Tuscaloosa Alabama, and we realized through a conversation one day that what it meant to be liberal or conservative seemed to be very different in those two locations.

What should the average person take away from your study?

I think there are two main take-away points: (a) Rather than having a consistent or objective meaning, what it means to be “liberal”, “moderate”, or “conservative” varies depending on where one lives in the U.S., and as a result, (b) We should be careful not to make snap judgments about others simply from a political label because our assumptions about what those on the “other side of the political spectrum” believe can be totally off. Likewise, our assumptions about those who identify in the same way as we do can be very wrong — they may hold opposing stances from what we hold on political issues.

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

Although we found that the relationship between political identity and policy stances varies depending on location (i.e., your State and your county), we do not know exactly what the mechanism is that is causing there to be a difference from place to place. We believe it has to do with our social environment — who lives around us and what appears to be the normal (most common) political stance of those around us.

The study, “The political reference point: How geography shapes political identity“, was also co-authored by Alexa M. Tullett , Zachary Mensch, William Hart, and Sara Gottlieb.