Moral Psychology in Politics

When it comes to politics, people care what other people think. Although a familiar phenomenon, existing theories of public opinion poorly understand the psychological underpinnings of this impulse. My dissertation draws on cross-disciplinary findings that highlight the distinctiveness of human moral psychology and examine the role it plays in politics. In three stand-alone chapters that use an array of survey and experimental data, I find that citizens’ intuitions about morality profoundly influence how they respond to political disagreement, their acceptance of political compromise, and how they process political information. 

The first empirical chapter, “Reconsidering Moral Issues in Politics,” challenges the conventional claim that moral and economic issues are natural kinds, fundamentally distinct in the mind of the average citizen. Instead, I show that some citizens “moralize” economic issues, and that the psychological patterns typical of morality—e.g. growing angry at disagreement—arise on economic and noneconomic issues alike. 

The second chapter, “No Compromise: Political Consequences of Moralized Attitudes,” examines the relationship between moral conviction and approval of political compromise. I find that attitudes can be intense in ways that permit compromise, but that morally convicted attitudes orient citizens to oppose compromises and punish compromising politicians. One study in “No Compromise” shows that citizens with morally convicted attitudes eschew even concrete monetary benefits to prevent a disliked group from gaining. 

The third chapter, “Unthinkable! How Citizens with Moralized Attitudes Process Political Arguments,” identifies a connection between moral psychology and patterns discussed under the heading of “motivated reasoning.” I find that many citizens are responsive to political information that challenges their existing attitudes, but that citizens with morally convicted attitudes are particularly resistant to disconfirming information. As such, I argue moral psychology represents one chief mechanism by which motivated reasoning operates. 

This research demonstrates that taking account of different aspects of attitude intensity enriches the scholarly understanding of how citizens interact with the political environment—with moral conviction playing a powerful role. It invites future research on what causes moral convictions to take hold and the extent to which political elites can galvanize or stifle their effects.

Paper-specific information

Reconsidering Moral Issues in Politics

Journal of Politics 76(2): 380-397

There is substantial evidence that political actors can incorporate emotional content into their messages with an eye toward evoking politically relevant behaviors. In particular, many studies highlight anxiety as effective in eliciting interest and information seeking. This finding raises the question of why many appeals seem geared to evoke not anxiety, but rather anger. I point to reasons why anger might evoke information seeking under at least some conditions. Then, in a new type of field experiment, I induce feelings of anger and anxiety and passively measure the effects on information seeking. Across three studies, I find anger, evoked alone, to increase information seeking to a large degree – substantially increasing web users’ proclivity to click through to a political website. The results suggest that anger can engage and speak to psychological incentives for political communication, under some conditions, to employ angry rhetoric.

Supplementary Information

Journal of Politics version

Replication files: Local or Harvard Dataverse

No Compromise: Political Consequences of Moralized Attitudes

Evolutionary, neuroscientific, and cognitive perspectives in psychology have converged on the idea that some attitudes are moralized—a distinctive characteristic. Moralized attitudes reorient behavior from maximizing gains to adhering to rules. Here, I examine a political consequence of this tendency. In four studies drawing data from a variety of sources, I measure attitude moralization and examine how it relates to approval of political compromise. I find that moralized attitudes lead citizens to oppose compromises, punish compromising politicians, and even pay a monetary cost to obstruct political opponents’ gain. These patterns emerge on economic and noneconomic issues alike and shed light on the mechanisms by which popular pressures hinder elite bargaining.

Supplementary information

Unthinkable! How Citizens with Moralized Attitudes Process Political Arguments

Recent work in psychology demonstrates 1) that moral conviction is a dimension of attitude intensity distinct from others and 2) that the mind has a mode of processing that downweights considerations of costs and benefits, in favor of a focus on rules. Across three studies, I show that these two findings are linked, and in ways that bear on mass politics. Moral conviction reflects a style of processing that is unresponsive to costs and benefits. As such, when citizens have morally convicted attitudes, they reject arguments that emphasize costs and benefits of particular policies, and they do not moderate their opinions in response to disconfirming information. These patterns are related to, but distinct from, phenomena discussed under the rubric of `motivated reasoning.’

Supplementary Information