What Your Dog Breed Preferences Say About Your Politics and Other Moral Foundations Theory Findings


Suppose you take two of your friends, let’s call them Arthur and Mark, to the kennel to buy a new dog. The kennel owner explains that they have only two dogs left and that these dogs are identical in every way except their personality. “Their personalities? you ask, curious to know more. The owner says the first dog is “really very gentle, friendly to strangers, independent-minded and often relates to his owner as an equal”. The second dog is “very obedient and easy to train. He doesn’t open up to strangers quickly, but once he gets to know you, he’s fiercely loyal. Hearing this, Arthur says he wants the first dog and Mark says he wants the second.

Based on this, which of your friends do you think is most likely to have voted for Joe Biden, and which for Donald Trump, in the 2020 US presidential election?

Well, the researchers looked at a very similar question as part of their investigation of Moral Foundations Theory (MFT). MFT is a new psychological theory that holds that human moral reasoning is based on at least six innate ethical intuitions: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, and freedom/oppression. The theory was first proposed by Jonathan Haidt, Craig Joseph and Jesse Graham after finding that experimental subjects often approved or disapproved of hypothetical ethical scenarios before any conscious reasoning process. For example, in an article titled The emotional dog and his rational tail Haidt noted that although his experimental subjects found certain harmless norm violations wrong (such as secretly using an American flag to clean a bathroom), they could not rationally justify such beliefs when pressed to do so.

Haidt concluded that this is because most moral judgments are based on innate intuitions that humans have developed to help them cooperate better in large groups, rather than being based on reasoning alone. Psychologists have long observed that people make decisions using unconscious heuristics. Daniel Kahneman documents it quite well in his book think fast and slow, exploring intuitions and biases such as loss aversion, availability bias and the endowment effect. These heuristics tend to be useful from a survival point of view – they save a lot of time and cognitive energy to produce a decision that is often beneficial. Moral foundations theory extends this idea to ethical decision-making. Drawing on anthropology, primatology, psychology, and plenty of empirical evidence, the theory holds that the six foundations listed above are the foundation of these moral intuitions.

The following table summarizes the foundations and their proposed social function:

Foundation Definition and social function
Care/damage Represents our intuitive aversion to unnecessary suffering and our sensitivity to the pain of others.
Fairness/cheating Represents the notions of equity, justice and reciprocity. This foundation condemns unequal treatment and inequality.
Loyalty/betrayal This foundation condemns betrayal and praises self-sacrifice for the “greater good”. It manifests itself through notions of belonging to groups (such as sports teams, political parties, countries, etc.).
Authority/subversion Represents the notions of fulfilling social roles, respecting hierarchy, traditions and strong leadership. Encourages respect for legitimate authority.
Sanctity/degradation Represents notions of purity and contamination and underpins notions of striving for a noble/high life. Sanctity/degradation implies that certain things should be treated in a certain way given their inherent value, and can apply to objects, places, ideas, behaviors and other people.
freedom/oppression Represents the feelings of resentment that people feel towards those who restrict their freedom.

Figure 1: The Moral Foundations Theory Chart

The links between moral foundations and politics were found to be significant. In a series of global surveys (a version of which is available at yourmorale.org) Haidt and Graham found that, regardless of country or culture, those who identify as liberals have a “three-pronged morality”, where they primarily endorse the foundations of care/harm, fairness/cheating and freedom/oppression. The more conservative you are, the more likely you are to endorse the other three foundations (loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and holiness/degradation). It is important to note that conservatives have a six-foundation morality – they endorse all foundations relatively equally.

This finding held true no matter how the question was posed. Returning to the question at the beginning of this article, Haidt and Graham found that liberals prefer dog breeds that relate to their owners as equals (freedom/oppression) and are gentle (care/harm), while conservatives want dogs that are obedient (authority/subversion) and loyal (loyalty/betrayal). Interestingly, both sides prefer clean dogs (sanctification/degradation). Judging by that, Arthur probably voted for Joe Biden and Mark for Donald Trump.

Another study in 2011 by Ravi Iyer found that liberals tend to be more disturbed by signs of violence and suffering (care/injury) than conservatives. In 2010, Graham discovered that these differences can be detected in brain waves, with EEG (encephalogram) scans revealing that liberal brains show more shock when they utter sentences that reject care and fairness in favor of loyalty, authority and holiness. In 2015, Andrew Franks and Kyle Scherr foundusing regression analyses, that knowing a person’s moral underpinnings is a better predictor of voter choice than traditional demographic variables (race, gender, income, etc.).

Moral foundations have also proven powerful in developing individuals’ political perceptions. For example, a study by Mathew Feinburg and Robb Willer in 2012 found that liberal discourse on environmentalism is largely framed in terms of a care/harm foundation (such as harm to those living in developing countries, harm to animals, harm to the planet, etc.) . However, by framing pro-environmental rhetoric in terms of sanctity/degradation (an essentially conservative foundation), the difference between liberal and conservative environmental attitudes has largely been eliminated. Essentially, if we wish to achieve more agreement in politics, we need to start speaking each other’s moral languages.

Of course, all of this implies that political parties could be more successful if they framed their political issues in as many foundations as possible. So far, a few studies have shown this to be true in the United States. For instance, Joel Hanel found that Democratic and Republican candidates did better in opinion polls if their ads used the full range of moral underpinnings. However, in his book The right mind (2012), Haidt laments that in recent times Democrats have failed to take full advantage of the six foundations. Instead, they focused almost exclusively on care/harm, fairness/cheating, and freedom/oppression.

I was interested to see if this was also the case for Australia’s two main political parties – the Australian Labor Party (ALP) (Australia’s main liberal/leftist party) and the Liberal Party of Australia ( Australia’s main conservative/right wing party). part of the wing). There were no studies looking at the Australian case that I could find, so I decided to conduct my own analyzes as part of a research project for one of my political science classes. . To see how each party used the moral underpinnings, I analyzed the campaign kickoff speeches of Bill Shorten (then leader of the ALP) and Scott Morrison (then leader of the Liberal Party) during the 2019 federal election. (at the time, the 2022 election had not taken place). I decided to use the federal campaign launch speeches for their representative value – each politician represents their entire party nationally and each speech is aimed at the general Australian public.

To see how leaders framed policy issues according to the six foundations, I went through each speech in detail, and each time I found a moral assertion, I coded it into one of the six moral foundations. . This is a common method in qualitative research called content analysis. As an example, see the table below:

Moral foundation Example
Care/damage “I make this promise to my fellow Australians… help with the cost of living for families, including cheaper childcare” (p 1) Bill Shorten
Fairness/cheating “if you vote labor we’ll put the fair into action” (p 1) Bill Shorten
Loyalty/betrayal “They sacrificed and they also served” (p 1) Scott Morrison
Authority/subversion “A country where older Australians are respected…” (p 3) Scott Morrison
Sanctity/degradation “A country where you can live in a clean and healthy environment that is the envy of the world” (p 3) Scott Morrison
freedom/oppression “It is also a country that…relentlessly strives to ensure that every Indigenous girl and boy can grow up with the same opportunities as all other Australians” (p 3) Scott Morrison

Figure 2: Coding Examples

After taking the frequency of each complaint, I created a bar chart showing the percentage breakdown of each type of complaint. By looking at the percentage that each foundation makes of the total claims made, we can get an idea of ​​the relative importance of each foundation to each politician. For a full methodological breakdown and discussion of limitations Click here to view the original document.

The results were as follows:


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