Political ideology is more than just “liberal” and “conservative”

In this blog post, I describe new evidence that thinking about political ideology on a single liberal/left to conservative/right spectrum masks important nuances in the origins of political ideologies and in the way that people apply those ideologies to important judgments, including those of other people (i.e., prejudice).

Both the popular media and social scientists themselves often divide the political world into two sets of actors: liberals and conservatives. And indeed, this distinction between liberals and conservatives has important implications—people sort themselves into different ideological camps based on these identities (Motyl et al., 2014). Knowing how liberal or conservative someone considers themselves indeed gives us a very good estimate of which party’s candidate they will vote for in a Presidential election (Jost, 2006). Moreover, many of our most influential psychological theories of ideology are predicated on this uni-dimensional left-to-right continuum (e.g., the motivated social cognition framework; Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski, & Sulloway, 2003).

That said, some recent evidence indicates that there are at least two dimensions to ideological beliefs: one encompassing social issues and policy (e.g., marriage equality and abortion rights), and another encompassing economic issues and policy (e.g., taxation and government intervention into markets). These different dimensions of ideology typically go hand in hand with one another (e.g., people who are socially conservative are typically economically conservative). However, there are also important differences between these two dimensions not only in the psychological predispositions associated with them, but also in their consequences for policy and intergroup attitudes. The importance of an understanding of ideology that includes multiple dimensions is illustrated in the case of libertarians, who are typically considered somewhat liberal on social issues but conservative on economic issues. In their examination of American libertarians, Iyer, Koleva, Graham, Ditto, and Haidt (2012) find that compared to both liberals and conservatives, libertarians more strongly endorse individual liberty compared to other moral principles, possess a more cerebral than emotional cognitive style, and are lower in social relatedness.

Using nationally representative data from the U.S., Feldman and Johnston (2014) draw several important conclusions regarding the multi-dimensionality of political ideology. First, they find that this two-dimensional understanding of ideology better explains people’s domestic policy preferences than a uni-dimensional one. Second, they find that different personality factors underlie social vs. economic ideologies. Most intriguingly, they find that whereas the need for cognitive closure (i.e., the need for firm answers and to avoid ambiguity) predicts social conservatism, it also predicts economic liberalism. This is an important finding, as it challenges influential psychological theories of ideology which have assumed a linear and positive relationship between the need for cognitive closure and political conservatism (e.g., Jost et al., 2003). It also shows that a uni-dimensional understanding of ideology masks important nuances that can only be found when examining the multi-dimensionality of ideology. Finally, Feldman and Johnston (2014) find that there are multiple different ideological profiles within the American electorate: only 45% of their sample could be categorized on the single left-right dimension; a majority of respondents therefore hold a mix of political views that make them difficult to place on the single left-right continuum.

Building on the recognition that both liberals and conservatives are prejudiced against ideologically dissimilar others (the ideological conflict hypothesis, or ICH; Brandt, Reyna, Chambers, Crawford, & Wetherell, 2014), my colleagues and I designed a series of studies exploring how social and economic ideologies have distinct influences on prejudice and discrimination against a variety of groups (Crawford, Wance, Brandt, Chambers, Inbar, & Motyl, in preparation). Using survey data from thousands of online participants, we found that social ideology more strongly predicts prejudice against groups that vary in their conventionality. For example, social conservatives are prejudiced against atheists (an unconventional group), whereas social liberals are prejudiced against Evangelical Christians (a conventional group). On the other hand, economic ideology more strongly predicts prejudice against groups that vary in their status. For example, economic conservatives are prejudiced against welfare recipients (a low status group), whereas economic liberals are prejudiced against businesspeople (a high status group).  

In a follow-up laboratory experiment, student participants were led to believe that they would interact with another student; this target student (whom the participant never met) was described as either an atheist (social liberal), an Evangelical Christian (social conservative), a future social worker (economic liberal), or a future investment banker (economic conservative). Participants played a version of the dictator game with the target. In the dictator game, participants are given the opportunity to divide a resource (in this case, raffle tickets for a monetary prize) between themselves and the target. We found that participants kept more tickets for themselves when the target was ideologically dissimilar, and that the ideological dimension of the target mattered—social liberals kept more tickets for themselves when the target was an Evangelical Christian than when it was an atheist, and vice versa among social conservatives. Further, economic liberals kept more tickets for themselves when the target was an investment banker than when it was a social worker, and vice versa among conservatives. Thus, people were more likely to discriminate against ideologically dissimilar others, and moreover, did so on the basis of the ideological dimension mismatch.

Together, this evidence suggests that if we only think of ideology as simply “liberals vs. conservatives”, then we risk ignoring important ways in which liberals and conservatives may be similar (e.g., social conservatives and economic liberals both being relatively high in need for cognitive closure) as well as important consequences of different types of ideologies for policy attitudes and intergroup relations. These recent studies suggest that our current understanding of the nature and consequences of political ideology is incomplete, and that psychological theories of ideology need to recognize and incorporate this multi-dimensional perspective to fully appreciate and comprehend people’s political lives.


Brandt, M. J., Reyna, C., Chambers, J. R., Crawford, J. T., & Wetherell, G. (2014). The ideological-conflict hypothesis: Intolerance among both liberals and conservatives.Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23(1), 27-34.

Crawford, J. T., Wance, N. M., Brandt, M. J., Chambers, J. R., Inbar, Y., & Motyl, M. (2014). Differential effects of social and economic ideologies on political prejudice: Further evidence for the ideological conflict hypothesis. Manuscript in preparation.

Feldman, S., & Johnston, C. (2014). Understanding the determinants of political ideology: Implications of structural complexity. Political Psychology, 35(3), 337-358. 

Iyer, R., Koleva, S., Graham, J., Ditto, P., & Haidt, J. (2012). Understanding libertarian morality: The psychological dispositions of self-identified libertarians. PLoS ONE, 7(8): e42366. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0042366

Jost, J. T. (2006). The end of the end of ideology. American Psychologist, 61(7), 651-670.

Jost, J. T., Glaser, J., Kruglanski, A. W., & Sulloway, F. J. (2003). Political conservatism as motivated social cognition. Psychological Bulletin, 129(3), 339-375.

Motyl, M., Iyer, R., Oishi, S., Trawalter, S., & Nosek, B. A. (2014). How ideological migration geographically segregates groups. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 51, 1-14.