Study: Red or blue, Americans value effort to achieve success

Liberals and conservatives may agree on at least one thing: the importance of working hard in order to succeed.

According to new Cornell-led research exploring the foundations of morality, liberals and Democrats are far more inclined than conservatives and Republicans to believe in the importance of equity – the notion that some groups may need different opportunities to succeed based on their starting points, so that all have the same levels of success.

But when it comes to proportionality – the idea that effort determines success – the researchers found a much smaller political divide.

“This speaks to why we see so much value in American society placed on picking yourself up by your bootstraps to overcome any obstacle,” said Christofer Skurk, Ph.D. ’19. “Notions of meritocracy and what is sometimes called the ‘Protestant work ethic’ are really interwoven into the American fabric, almost regardless of a person’s political orientation.”

Skurka is first author of “All Things Being Equal: Distinguishing Proportionality and Equity in Moral Reasoning,” which published Aug. 7 in Social Psychological and Personality Science. The paper’s senior author is Jeff Niederdeppe, associate professor in the Department of Communication.

Morality means different things to different people. Moral psychologists believe five factors underlie decisions about morality, including notions of harm, loyalty, purity and fairness. But fairness can be an overly broad or vague category, and the researchers sought to tease out the strands of what’s behind it.

“Just as people have different taste receptors that help them care about sweet or salty or sour, we have these different moral palates that help us navigate moral decisions,” Skurka said. “We wanted to unpack what fairness means, especially as it relates to different political groups.”

In the study, around 3,000 participants, all from the United States, filled out a 42-item questionnaire, rating the extent to which they believe different circumstances impact their moral judgments (“Whether or not someone showed a lack of respect for authority”) and rating the relevance of statements such as “Respect for authority is something all children need to learn.” Participants reported their political views and party affiliations, as well as their gender, age, education, race and ethnicity.

The researchers found that people on the political left care much more about equity than those on the right, explaining why liberals generally support policies like affirmative action and public assistance, which aim to correct imbalances.

“Liberals are much more likely to believe that different people have different starting points in life, and therefore some deserve extra resources to succeed,” Skurka said.

The study also found that while conservatives generally care more about proportionality than liberals do, liberals also value it highly. “Equity is strongly tied to a person’s political ideology,” Skurka said, “but proportionality is prioritized across the political spectrum.”

Understanding what contributes to concepts of fairness, he said, can help policymakers or advocates frame conversations in terms that will resonate across different groups.

For example, galvanizing people to combat climate change by discussing its outsized impact on the developing world could be effective with liberals, who place a high value on equity. For a conservative audience, successful arguments might emphasize how climate change could interfere with the ability to work hard and show loyalty to family by setting up future generations for success.

“There’s quite a bit of political polarization that we see around public policy, and we often see political partisans talking past each other,” Skurka said. “So by understanding the different moral foundations on which these partisans base their moral judgments, we can better understand why they support certain kinds of initiatives and not others, and how we might be able to rally support for different initiatives.”

The paper is co-authored by Liana Winett, of the Oregon Health and Science University-Portland State University School of Public Health, and Hannah Jarman-Miller. The research was supported by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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