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How Do Liberal and Conservative Attitudes About Obedience to Authority Differ? The Surprising Result of My Study

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SOLIDER SALUTE
VisionsofAmerica/Joe Sohm via Getty Images

As far as I was concerned, bible-thumping social conservatives were like obedient robots. When Uncle Sam called them to arms, heels clicked and hands met temples. When the preacher demanded chastity, zippers ascended toward belt-buckles. When the boss told them to fire an employee, conservatives reached for a pink slip. Social conservatives asked no questions, even when the command was arbitrary or the cause indecent.

The way I saw it, this slavish obedience to authority and tradition on the part of conservatives was the true source of the culture war between liberals and conservatives over foreign war, abortion, same-sex marriage, gun control, and racial inequality. They way I saw it, conservatives clung to old, near-sighted ways of thinking and fell in line with the dictates of the "man in charge." If only conservatives would think for themselves -- like liberals do -- the war would be over and we could get on with life, governance, and progress. Or so I thought.

Then, in 2012, I went on a cycling trip around Cuba. Being a Canadian, Cuba offered a warm, inexpensive, exotic, and legal escape from the depths of the great Canadian winter. My cycling friends and I stopped at a restaurant in Havana for New Years Eve. There, we shared a table with a wealthy, highly educated couple from Brazil. The couple was on a tour of sites enshrining Che Guevara, the legendary Marxist revolutionary. They self-identified as socialists.

During our cycling tour, I had noted that Che's image was everywhere -- painted on buildings, commemorated in statues, and decorating tourist trinkets. In fact, his image seemed more prevalent than that of Fidel or Raul Castro, the former and incumbent prime ministers. Che's prevalence seemed odd to me. It was as if the image of Neil Armstrong had been plastered all over buildings in Chicago or Los Angeles.

Over dinner, I asked the Brazilians why these images were still prevalent half a century after his death and the Cuban revolution. Due to a language barrier, I was speaking to the Brazilians through a translator, a fellow cycle companion and close friend of mine. My friend, a culturally sensitive NGO worker by trade, listened to my question. He then paused momentarily, and turned back to me: "I can't think of a way of asking them that question without offending them." Simply asking critical questions about Guevara seemed to cause offense.

Had I stumbled upon the same unquestioning deference to the authorities, only with the political Left the ones bowing obediently? I was reminded of a conversation with an American schoolteacher, who told me that it doesn't matter how people come to hold liberal views, just so long as they end up dedicated liberals. And I recalled a conversation with an international aid worker who, when pressed, would choose a liberal dictatorship over a democratically elected conservative government (e.g., el-Sisi over Morsi in Egypt). Perhaps the political Left is less freethinking, and more obedient, than I had originally thought. Maybe the Left thirsts for obedience and conformity, but only when the power-that-is shares their ideals.

To get to the bottom of this, I set out to test whether liberals favor obedience to authority just like conservatives do. Past psychology studies had found that conservatives have the more favorable attitudes toward statements such as, "If I were a soldier and disagreed with my commanding officer's orders, I would obey anyway because that is my duty." Did conservatives have a good feeling about this statement because they think that people ought to obey (in general), or because they support the military and its agenda? I suspected it was the latter.

Together with my collaborators Dr. Danielle Gaucher and Nicola Schaefer, we asked both red and blue Americans to share their views about obeying liberal authorities (e.g., "obey an environmentalist"). In an article that we recent published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, we found that liberals were now the ones calling for obedience. And when the authorities were viewed as ideologically neutral (e.g., office manager), liberals and conservatives agreed. Only when people perceived the authority to be conservative (e.g., religious authority) did conservatives show a positive bias.

If the two sides equally support obedience to their own authorities, how had I come to believe that conservatives are the ones that favor obedience to authority? We wondered if the asymmetry lay not in attitudes toward obedience, but in the nature of authority. Perhaps authorities tend to be conservative, and people know it. This is what we found in a subsequent study. Americans completed a survey in which they named authorities (e.g., police officer) then indicated whether they suspected the authority figure was liberal, moderate, or conservative. People perceived authorities to be conservative. Bosses tend to vote Republican -- or at least most people suspect they do. My suspicion is that the stereotype is accurate: authorities really tend to be conservative. I wonder if this is because conservatives are especially good at or motivated to gain positions of authority. Or perhaps gaining authority over others changes our ideology, making the boss conservative.

Rather than thinking of liberals and conservatives as being fundamentally different psychological breeds, I now think of them as competing teams. Liberal versus conservative is like Yankee fans versus Red Socks fans. Each has its own flag to which it pledges allegiance. And each side has its own authorities to which it demands obedience. Being a member of one team makes the other side seem evil and corrupt. I agree with Jonathan Haidt's argument that this "groupish" tendency is a "good" thing, an evolved trick that helped humans bind together into strong, cooperative groups. In times of scarcity and threat, this moral "technology" helped humans survive. However, just like fear and lust, heightened groupishness can be costly when overapplied.