How we vote is coded in our genes. Or so says a growing body of research that investigates the interplay of biology and political behaviour, sometimes referred to as biopolitics.1
As we are born with a personality that is inclined more to being introverted or extroverted, studious or sporty, adventurous or risk-averse, our ideological inclinations and moral choices have a basis in biology.
“There’s little doubt that ideological orientations are genetically influenced, and to a surprisingly high degree – studies consistently estimate roughly 40-60 percent of the population level variance in ideology is under genetic influence,” says Kevin Smith, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska and a co-author of Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives and the Biology of Political Differences, quoted in the New York Times.
As with other genetic predispositions, outcomes are not etched in stone. Rather, we are born as a draft manuscript that is edited through and by our experiences in life and the culture we are brought up in.
The mind as an editable book is a metaphor that cognitive scientist Gary Marcus uses in his 2004 book, The Birth of the Mind. It is also a concept that Jonathan Haidt and his co-authors borrow in their influential Moral Foundations Theory (MFT).
Getting familiar with this theory can help think tanks better recognise and understand the values of their target audience – particularly those they are trying to persuade.
The 5 foundations of morality
Haidt and co’s MFT pinpoints 5 pairs of intuitive ethics – “not … the only foundations of morality … just the five we began with”. They are: Care/harm; Fairness/cheating; Loyalty/betrayal; and Sanctity/degradation. They can be conceived of as the DNA of our personal ethics.
The Care/harm foundation refers to our human instinct to protect others from harm. While the impulse developed to protect offspring, it is expanded to include those perceived to be at the bottom of the social ladder, which may include women and racial, ethnic and sexual minorities.
Fairness/cheating is concerned with ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, proportionality, justice and trustworthiness. If some have more than they deserve, those who value the Fairness foundation seek intervention, through punishment or the redistribution of wealth.
The Loyalty/betrayal intuitive ethic stems from our evolution from tribal living with its beneficial and enduring connections with others. It is about loyalty, patriotism and self-sacrifice and is associated with group pride, fear of the outgroup, and rage at traitors.
Authority/subversion is rooted in respect for tribal elders and parents, and the desire for hierarchies to maintain social order. It relates to the virtues of obedience and deference, and the emotions of fear and respect.
The moral foundation of Sanctity/degradation stems from our evolutionary drive to avoid pathogens. It also takes the shape of disgust towards social pathogens that may upset societal order. It is linked to the virtues of temperance, chastity, piety and cleanliness.
The difference between liberals and conservatives
Although the theory was created for research in cultural psychology, it accurately described the two sides of the culture war apparent in America from the 1990s – and one which most of us would agree is even more obvious today.
Haidt and many others have studied political leanings using MFT extensively and have repeatedly found that liberals value Care and Fairness much more than the other moral foundations.
By comparison, conservatives endorse all 5 of the foundations more or less equally – but they valued Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity more than liberals valued them.
A key implication – and one that we seem to have lost sight of – is that conservatives and liberals are not fundamentally different: they abide by the same moral foundations, but they are weighted differently.
And crucially, there is no right or wrong way to be in this equation. From an evolutionary psychology point of view, all of these tendencies have been useful.
The impact of Liberty
Haidt later added a sixth intuitive ethic, Liberty: that people should be free from external control, both social and economic.
Craig A. Harper at Nottingham Trent University and Todd E. Hogue from University of Lincoln (UK) made a fascinating study of the Brexit vote using MFT, which found that fixed demographic factors (older age, being male, lower educational attainment), which were previously the best predictors of voting intentions, became non-significant once moral intuitions were added.
Brexit voting was “predicted by political conservatism, ontological insecurities, and an adherence to the Liberty foundation of morality. In contrast, only an adherence to the Care foundation of morality was significantly predictive of a vote to remain in the EU,” they say.
These findings were also reflected in linguistic analyses of campaign materials and news items.
Our polarised society often assumes that those who do not agree with us are shallow, misguided and ignorant. But what MFT suggests is that people experience, process, and respond to the world differently.
So how can policy communicators and experts speak across the political divide?
Communication is about empathy. The first step is to recognise that people prioritise ethical judgements differently.
The second step is to recognise that there is no right or wrong here.
The third step is to recognise that in some instances you might need to double-down on communicating to audiences who have different priorities.
MFT is one framework you can use to inform your communications strategy.
4 tips for think tank comms
- Recognise your own framework.
- Conduct research to understand your audience – both the people who already agree with you and those you would like to convince.
- Speak to your audience in terms they can relate to rather than the way in which you see the world.
- Gather data on the approach’s success, and refine accordingly.
1 The term ‘biopolitics’ is used to mean different things, including referring to Michel Foucault’s concept of biopower. Here it describes the new field of interdisciplinary studies investigating the impact of biology on political behaviour.