New research published in PLOS One has found evidence that a person’s sensitivity to social rule-breaking is linked to their political orientation.
Social norms are underlying rules that guide our social behavior. These guidelines dictate what is and is not appropriate in a given situation, and people who breach them are met with negative evaluations. While social norms are widely enforced and followed, there are individual differences in sensitivity to these rules.
Study authors Élise Désilets and colleagues wanted to explore one particular factor that may be associated with a person’s response to social norms — political orientation. The authors point out that political ideology is a framework that guides social structure, dictating one’s stance on values like in-group loyalty and maintaining the status quo. This association with social structure suggests that political beliefs may be linked to beliefs about social norms.
In the first study of its kind, Désilets and her team recruited a sample of nearly 200 French-Canadian adults with an average age of 24. The participants completed something called a Social Norm Violation task, which presented them with 102 different scenarios involving behaviors that varied in appropriateness (e.g., a person dancing on a subway platform, a person dancing at an art museum). The participants were asked to rate the level of appropriateness of each scenario.
The subjects’ political opinions were also assessed, along two separate dimensions: socioeconomic issues and identity issues. The socioeconomic axis included economic issues like taxes and the role of business, and the identity axes included social issues such as poverty.
The researchers found that those with a right-wing political orientation rated more items as strongly inappropriate than those with left-wing beliefs, suggesting rightists were more sensitive to the breaching of social norms. This finding fell in line with the researchers’ expectations. As the authors say, conservatives tend to have a more “rigid cognitive style” and may feel a greater need for structure and order, causing them to lean toward more stringent codes of behavior.
Désilets and her team note that their findings also correspond with previous research linking right-wing beliefs to greater sensitivity to “negative stimuli, such as angry faces, negative words or images.” Their findings extend this research, suggesting that this sensitivity includes complex stimuli such as real-life scenarios involving social behaviors.
The findings also fall in line with Moral Foundations Theory, which posits that right-wing supporters place greater emphasis on the values of Ingroup/loyalty, Authority/respect, and Purity/sanctity than leftists do. It stands to reason that investing in these values should involve a more rigid following of social norms.
Of note, further analysis revealed that the identity dimension of political orientation was related to sensitivity to norm violation, while the socioeconomic dimension was not. The authors say this suggests that social rules are “more related to in-group identity and loyalty issues than socioeconomic issues.”
As the authors point out, the sample in the study was primarily French-Canadian and whether or not these findings would translate to other cultures is unclear. The authors suggest that a future area of interest would be to investigate whether the breaching of certain social norms is more strongly related to political orientation than the breaching of others.
The study, “Sensitivity to social norm violation is related to political orientation”, was authored by Élise Désilets, Benoit Brisson, and Sébastien Hétu.