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Over the past several posts I have hinted at a very important distinction that must be made: the natural conservative versus the nurtured conservative. The natural conservative being an individual born with traits that see them tend towards Conservatism, the nurtured conservative being an individual raised in a punitive environment with diminished access to diverse perspectives, and ignoring (or indeed suppressing) their natural predispositions. The focus on learning in punitive environments and the overweening focus on social expectation, particularly as outlined in the Bible, being fundamental (pun intended) to American conservatism, and particularly white Evangelical Republican Conservatism.

To illustrate the likely hallmark of nurtured conservatism, a study conducted by Pew Research (2014[i]) on what values parents try to instill in their children is potentially instructive. The only difference between the top five of the “mostly conservative” (naturally conservative?) and the “consistently conservative” (nurtured conservative?) was the importance of Independence (to the former) and Obedience (to the latter). Aside from these, both considered Being Responsible, Religious Faith, Hard Work, and Being Well-Mannered, to be important (and to approximately the same degree). Recall that those who are the subject of corporal punishment consistently grow up to value corporal punishment – this high valuation of Obedience in children likely ties in with the moral education that I have been discussing. Obedience that is significantly more important than Helping Others, Persistence, Independence, Empathy for Others, Tolerance, or Curiosity.

In this post I intend to look more closely at the likely sources of difference between individuals who are naturally conservative, and those that have been inculcated into (particularly religious) conservatism. Firstly, however, I’d like to extract a bit more information from this Pew Research survey.

Pew Survey ‘Instilling Values in Children’

The Mostly Liberal parents, and parents with Mixed (Liberal and Conservative) views agreed with the conservatives that Being Responsible, Religious Faith, Hard Work, and Being Well-Mannered, are important values. Contrary to the conservatives however, both of these types of parents held Helping Others to be more important than Independence or Obedience. The Consistently Liberal parents agreed with the Mixed and Mostly Liberal parents that Helping Others is important. They also agreed with the conservatives about Being Responsible and Hard Work. However, they dumped Religious Faith and Being Well-Mannered, selecting instead Empathy for Others and Curiosity.

Being Responsible and Hard Work were in the top five (of 12) for all political categories, with Being Responsible selected as the most important value by all. It is notable that Helping Others is the third most important value to all Liberal parents, fifth most for (politically) Mixed parents, and sixth most important for all Conservative parents. Conversely, Religious Faith was the second most important value to all Conservative parents, third most for Mixed parents, fifth most for Mostly Liberal Parents, and tenth most for Consistently Liberal parents. So, Religious Faith becomes less important the further left you go, and Helping Others becomes less important the further right you go. It’s likely that many Conservatives would argue that Religious Faith is, at least in part, about Helping Others (although both the Mixed and Mostly Liberal parents rate both Religious Faith and Helping Others in their top five). Equally, the Consistently Liberal parent could argue that Empathy for Others and Helping Others are more than sufficient to replace Being Well-Mannered (which is generic and impersonal).

This survey also reflects trends that I saw in my data. I suggested that the secular left rely on more ideas of fairness. Here the Consistently Liberal scored 11 of the 12 values in double digits (only Obedience, at 3%, didn’t make the cut). The Consistently Conservative rated five of the 12 in single digits: Independence (9%), Empathy for Others (6%), Tolerance (3%), Curiosity (3%), and Creativity (2%).

The three least selected values in the whole survey were Tolerance, Persistence, and Curiosity, two of which were also the least valued by Consistently Conservative parents. However, these values scored 22%, 13%, and 23%, respectively, for the Consistently Liberal parents, for whom the three lowest were Religious Faith, Being Well-Mannered, and Obedience.

Whilst several of the values do start high on one wing, and then descend as they approach the other, there are three values where Mixed (effectively Centrist) parents had the highest scores, Hard Work, Independence, and Being Well Mannered. They valued Persistence the lowest of any group. This again illustrates that the left/right dichotomy is insufficient, and that the circumplex is a better model. It should be noted that the Mixed category rated Obedience with an equal percentage to that given by the Consistently Conservative parents, but placed it as seventh most important, rather than fifth.

So let’s look at the impact of the Consistently Conservative parents’ preference for instilling Obedience ahead of Independence, Empathy for Others, Tolerance, Curiosity, and Creativity.

Nurturing Parent vs. Strict Father

Putting the Pew Survey into the context of Lakoff (2002[ii]), the Nurturing Parent instills Independence by a gradual loosening of the reins. This process is underpinned by gaining an understanding of things, people, and those people’s ideas, through a combination of Curiosity and Empathy for Others, using Creativity to integrate other people’s views, and Tolerance for people with differing views that you cannot integrate. If, however, Obedience comes before (or even negates) these values, you have a Strict Father approach to parenting.

What I attempted to show with my Parable was that human learning occurs in a particular way, even when slowed by learning difficulties (or the complexity of the subject matter). Interfering with that process can have negative (or at least unintended) consequences. I contend that the heightened preference for Obedience leads to these consequences in the case of moral learning. The negative impact of interference is approximately the same across spheres of learning – longer than normal retention of both over- and under-extension (aka category errors). To suggest that moral learning is in some way different to every other kind of learning, is probably begging the question (or special pleading), unless it can actually be shown to be different.

The same approximate process that underpins over-extension also underpins the logical fallacy of hasty generalization. This is likely due to lack of exposure to sufficient variation around the boundary of the relevant categories. Additionally, over- and under-extension are by-products of failures of executive functions (mental abilities negatively impacted by punitive learning environments and physical abuse, as per my previous posts). It is the executive functions that Joshua Greene (2010[iii]) puts forward as a ‘conflict monitor,’ a suggested correction to Haidt’s Social Intuitionist Model (see comparison below).

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Figure 1. “Haidt’s (2001) social intuitionist model (SIM) consists of six links describing causal connections among moral intuitions, moral judgments, and episodes of moral reasoning: (1) intuitive judgment, (2) post-hoc reasoning, (3) reasoned persuasion, (4) social persuasion, (5) reasoned judgment, and (6) private reflection. Dashed lines indicate links that are rarely used” (Greene, 2010).

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Figure 2. “According to Greene et al.’s (2001, 2004, 2008) dual-process model, moral judgments are driven by both intuitive emotional responses and controlled cognitive responses. This model differs from the SIM in two critical ways. First, it emphasizes the role of rule-based, controlled cognitive processes, especially the conscious application of utilitarian moral principles. Second, it allows that social influence may occur when people directly engage one another’s capacities for moral reasoning, that is, the conscious evaluation of moral judgments/behaviors for their consistency with moral principles and other moral commitments” (Greene, 2010).

I want to make it quite clear that I am suggesting that the desire for Obedience and the resultant punitive home environment has two quite specific results, these will likely vary with the degree to which punishment is doled out:

  1. Physical punishment for social infractions perpetuates the confusion that children have over the distinction between the social environment and the general environment (see my discussion of promiscuous teleology[iv]). Punishing the organismic self for behaviour of the social self must be confusing for an individual that is still trying to learn the distinction between the two. This could well explain why the brain regions that monitor for conflicts are under-developed in children who are regularly physically punished. In effect the brain, being forever miserly, has gone ‘Oh, there is no effective difference between the general environment and the social environment, no need to continue monitoring for differences, then!’ and plasticity resources are deployed elsewhere…
  2. Delayed punishment for any infraction – the classic ‘just you wait until your father gets home’ – may cause children to associate punishment with the wrong aspect of the infraction. Consider that in the case of delayed punishment children are instructed to call to mind the incident for which they are now to be punished, and are then punished for that. This is a detachment between the physiological reality of being caught in the act, with all of the relevant bodily feelings and attitudes associated with the action still fresh in the mind (and body), and the memory of that action. The memory is necessarily less full in the mind, but it is this that the punishment is then associated with. Whilst an adult may be able to make this distinction (though I’m not convinced, see for example Game Transfer Phenomena[v]), a child is certainly going to find the separation between action and reaction, infraction and punishment – and indeed stimulus and response – confusing. This could also explain the enlarged amygdala and heightened fear processing in children who are regularly physically punished, especially given the time they have to anticipate punishment.

An obvious defense as regards conservatism and the negative effects of corporal punishment is that, in the post where I detailed the differences between Born-Again Christians and Republicans, and non-Born-Agains and Democrats, the rates of corporal punishment were not so very different: 80% and 65%, respectively.

Let’s look at how little difference there is between Liberals and Conservatives when it comes to psychological make-up, and then see how quickly those little differences multiply.

When Nature and Nurture Collide

If moral learning is the same as other types of learning, one starts with a set of predispositions, many of which are broadly the same across the entire species (type), though most of which have some variation in intensity (degree). To use the quote that Haidt does in his TED talk[vi], “The initial organization of the brain does not rely that much on experience… Nature provides a first draft, which experience then revises… ‘Built-in’ does not mean unmalleable; it means organized in advance of experience” (Marcus, 2004[vii]).

Both Haidt and Schwartz have found regular relationships between elements of their respective models and the Big Five Personality traits (see PsychCentral for an explanation of the Big Five[viii]). What is perhaps a little surprising is that the Big Five traits do not differ that much between Libertarians, Liberals, and Conservatives (see figure 3, below), varying by 0.16-0.33 out of five (Iyer, et al. 2012[ix]), when averaged by political orientation. That’s a variance of no more than 7% – albeit based on intra-group averages, rather than actual variance. However, these traits seem to be at least some of the differences that make all of the difference:

  • Libertarians and liberals are almost identical on their openness scores, around one third of a point (~7%) higher than conservatives.
  • Conservatives and liberals are almost identical on their agreeableness scores, around one quarter of a point (~5%) higher than libertarians.
  • Conservatives and libertarians are almost identical on their neuroticism scores, around one fifth of a point (~3%) lower than liberals.

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Figure 3: The Big 5 Personality traits for Libertarians, Liberals and Conservatives, based on data from Iyer, et al. (2012). It is worth noting that these scores represent what respondents believe about themselves.

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Figure 4: The Schwartz Values for Libertarians, Liberals and Conservatives, based on data from Iyer, et al. (2012).

There is significantly more variation in scores for the Schwartz values (see figure 4), but what is interesting is how they vary. Previously I have suggested that Self-Direction, Stimulation and Hedonism are Liberal, and that Achievement, and Universalism complete the left side of the Schwartz model. Security, Conformity, and Tradition, are Conservative, with Power and Benevolence rounding out the right side of the Schwartz model. However, Achievement seems to be a value shared by Libertarians and Conservatives (with Liberals less than 2% behind). What “Achievement” actually means to the various groups may vary quite a bit, however, e.g. for Libertarians it’s personal achievement, for Conservatives it is achievement within the group (Social Power). Liberals are ahead on Benevolence (see figure 5), with Libertarians bringing up the rear (9-10% behind).

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Figure 5: The Schwartz Values for Libertarians, Liberals and Conservatives, based on data from Iyer, et al. (2012), this time presented in a table to illustrate the disparities between the groups. The coloured cell is the highest value for a given row. There are two (or more) coloured cells when the scores are close (less than 0.2 separating them), in which case the bolded value is the highest value, and the unbolded is second.

 What is also striking is that Libertarians and Conservatives appear to be virtually antithetical to each other (with the exception of Achievement), making the fact of right-leaning libertarianism (and the inclusion of so many libertarians amongst the ranks of the GOP) something to be explained. Liberals, however, are set apart by their Universalism score. I suspect that had Iyer and colleagues, kept religious liberals (Haidt’s fourth sub-type) separate from secular liberals, Benevolence would be stronger amongst them, and weaker amongst the secular liberals, but Universalism would be stronger for the secular, and weaker for the religious.

What is especially noticeable here is just how important Achievement is to all three political groupings. I believe that this is key. It’s likely that Liberals being slightly lower in Achievement (a Self-Enhancement value) may be due to their much higher scores in Benevolence and Universalism (both Self-Transcendence values). Achievement is the first value that I claim starts to move from being self-oriented to other-aware (but not necessarily other-oriented). Recall that I said[x]:

An individual can improve upon their personal best along any number of measures (weight, time, etc.). That is achievement. So, of course, is coming first, winning (epically, or otherwise). It is only in the context of others that achievement gives rise to power, at least as it relates to hierarchy (be that gold, silver, bronze, or upper class, middle class, working class).

Note that it is Conservatives that consider power to be important, and recall that power, according to Schwartz (1994), includes Social Recognition, Wealth, Authority, Preserving Public Image, and Social Power.

I pointed out previously[xi] that it was curious how important Authority seemed to be to Haidt’s In-Group and Purity flavours, more so even than the relationship between Harm and Fairness. Haidt has made a lot of noise about Harm/Fairness as being part of liberal two-flavour morality, as compared to conservative five-flavour morality. The correlations in my data seemed to suggest that Authority was the primary driver for the differences, both as a driver towards In-Group and Purity, and as a driver away from Harm, and particularly Fairness, at least in my sample.


I want to suggest that punitive educational environments, particularly those of a “strict father” style, with authoritarian overtones, cause children to deviate from a normal learning process, not least a failure to learn the difference between the general and social environments. Children are punished for failing to live up to adult expectations of behaviour that require adult knowledge (Conformity and Tradition). As such, in some meaningful ways, when children should be passing from Achievement to Power to Security they are, at some point, being forced to conform to Tradition on the basis of Authority (see figure 6), without the benefit of understanding their own relationship to power and security. Without an internalized understanding of Power and Security they become over-reliant on their parents and other authority figures for these things.

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Figure 6: The standard depiction of the Schwartz-Duval Model. Note the location of Achievement, then Power, then Security, then finally Conformity and Tradition when starting from Stimulation/Self-Discovery.

In my next post I will look at how Haidt’s flavours were actually defined, with recourse to the Schwartz values, by my sample, and see if anything there supports my contention that it is the individuals relationship to authority, not Harm or Care, that defines the difference between Libertarians, Liberals, and Conservatives.




[ii] Lakoff, G. (2002). Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think (2nd Ed.). London: University of Chicago Press.





[vii] Marcus, G. (2004). The birth of the mind: How a tiny number of genes creates the complexities of human thought. New York: Basic Books.


Note that The Big Five have generally been called CANOE or OCEAN (Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism – in this explanation Openness and Neuroticism have been changed to Intellect and Emotional Stability, respectively).

[ix] 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