Ingroup-versus-outgroup thinking warps the moral principles of liberals and conservatives

Liberals and conservatives tend to rely on different sets of moral foundations when making ethical judgments. But new research indicates that both liberals and conservatives apply these principles more consistently towards members of their own political group.

The findings appear in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

“We wanted to test whether liberals and conservative are consistently guided by different moral principles or whether they apply the same moral principles differently depending on the target groups,” said study authors Jan G. Voelkel and Mark J. Brandt, a PhD Student at Stanford University and an associate professor at Tilburg University, respectively.

“This is interesting because if the latter is true (which we found for most principles in our studies), people do not use moral principles in the very way that they are typically defined (i.e., universal, normative rules that apply to all times and situations). One reason that this is interesting is that it helps us understanding the root cause of animosity in society.”

“For example, if moral principles are consistent and apply at all times and situations then animosity may be due to these clashing moral principles. However, if moral principles are more flexible and are adjusted based on the group membership, it suggest that animosity may be due to group conflict more so than principles moral conflict.”

In their initial study, the researchers randomly assigned 542 participants to complete one of four versions of the Moral Foundations Questionnaire. The survey assesses attitudes regarding five different moral principles: Harm/Care, Fairness/Reciprocity, Ingroup/Loyalty, Authority/Respect, and Purity/Sanctity.

Three versions of the Moral Foundations Questionnaire, however, were altered to include a liberal, conservative, or moderate target group.

In line with previous studies, the researchers found that liberal participants tended to score higher on Harm/Care and Fairness/Reciprocity foundations while conservative participants tended to score higher on the Ingroup/Loyalty, Authority/Respect, and Purity/Sanctity foundations.

But the researchers also found evidence that liberals’ and conservatives’ endorsement of moral values were influenced by the target groups. In other words, conservatives tended to endorse moral foundations more strongly when a fellow conservative was the target — and the same pattern was true of liberals. This finding was replicated in a second study of another 416 participants, which used a different measure of moral foundations.

“Differences in moral judgments by liberals and conservatives appear to be caused both by ingroup-versus-outgroup thinking and by genuine differences in moral concerns,” the researchers said in their study.

“It seems that most people think that they applying their moral principles in an even-handed way. However, our findings suggest that we humans struggle to apply our moral principles equally to our outgroups and ingroups,” Voelkel and Brandt told PsyPost.

“It may not require much moral virtue from us to support fairness or loyalty towards people we already care about. Where moral virtue is maybe most impressive is when we apply our moral principles even-handedly to judging moral violations towards the people we dislike.”

The researchers hope that future research can help to further untangle how political identification interacts with moral foundations to influence ethical decisions.

“We argue that the selection of target groups is highly consequential for the measurement of people’s moral values because people appear to have different moral values depending on the target groups,” Voelkel and Brandt explained.

“However, we have not established what kind of questionnaire would satisfy this requirement. Future research is needed to examine how the endorsement of moral values can be measured in the most valid way.”

The study was titled: “The Effect of Ideological Identification on the Endorsement of Moral Values Depends on the Target Group“.