Study: Ideology is no measure of compassion

Conservatives and liberals found equally likely to act out of self-interest.
Tuesday, August 3, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:28 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

As election season heats up, voters have not only begun looking at the candidates’ stances on the issues, but their moral beliefs as well. While it is sometimes held that liberals are more compassionate than conservatives, some Republicans — including President Bush — have tried to combat this perception in their political campaigns.

Three researchers, including an MU professor, put the perceived differences between liberals and conservatives to the test. Using two types of experimental games, the researchers concluded that liberals and conservatives are equally trustworthy and just as likely to act outside of their immediate self-interest.

“What we found is that political ideology or party preference has absolutely no effect on people’s behavior in these games,” said researcher Jeff Milyo, an associate professor of economics and public affairs at MU. “They were not significant determinants at all of trusting behavior or generosity.”

Milyo, along with Lisa Anderson and Jennifer Mellor from the College of William and Mary, found no correlation between what subjects reported as their political leanings and whether they showed trustworthiness or generosity.

The study — “Do Liberals Play Nice?” — was conducted with 196 students at the College of William and Mary. Subjects were asked about their family backgrounds and political leanings to determine which political party they would most likely align with. The subjects were paid to participate in two types of experimental games. Using their starting payment in the games, the subjects could choose whether to try to increase their payment or hold the initial amount.

The first game tested whether liberals were more likely to act outside of their self-interest and contribute money into a group account, which would eventually yield more money for the entire group.

“The game is structured so the self-interested person doesn’t contribute,” Milyo said. “It’s often used as a measure of people’s generosity or the degree to which they do things that are contrary to their own interest, but in the group’s interest.”

The second experiment tested whether liberals behaved in a trustworthy manner toward strangers despite monetary rewards that would lead them to be untrustworthy.

The researchers introduced inequality among the subjects by conspicuously altering their starting payment to mimic the inequalities in the real world. Although this made a difference in the way some people played, Milyo said it didn’t make a difference between liberals and conservatives.

But Milyo pointed out that conventional wisdom continues to play a major role in the election strategies of both parties. In 2000, for example, Bush ran as a “compassionate conservative,” a label Milyo thinks was chosen to combat the perception that conservatives are mean-spirited.

“Just as Kerry is pushing his resoluteness and his veteran credentials because that is a perceived weakness, Bush is pushing compassionate initiatives because he recognizes that as a weakness of Republicans in general,” Milyo said

Marvin Overby, associate professor of political science at MU, said liberals tend to be more concerned with how life’s uncontrollable circumstances affect people and believe in using government resources to help. Conservatives, on the other hand, are opposed to many social welfare programs and as a result, are viewed as cold-hearted.

“I think it’s grounded in the fact that in the U.S., conservatives have generally believed that people are responsible for their own welfare and well-being,” Overby said.

Overby said he doesn’t think these party differences mean liberals are more compassionate than conservatives, only that the two ideologies believe in different solutions.

Anthony Thomas, an MU senior and field organizer for the House Democratic Campaign Committee, said a problem with the conventional wisdom is that compassion is a relative term.

“What compassion means to a conservative does not necessarily mean the same thing to someone who is on the other side of the issues,” Thomas said. “Liberals, Democrats, leftists or however you want to label them are compassionate, but in different ways.”

Mellor, an associate professor of economics at the College of William and Mary, said it is important to understand that the study’s general setting is different from any specific situation, such as contributing to an environmental fund.

“It’s hard for me to take this one study and apply it to broad issues,” Mellor said. “As a scientist, I’ve learned that most decisions are made based on numerous studies and research.”

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