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Conservatives Say Why (Oughts); Liberals Say Why Not (Ideals)

December 9, 2013

By James Cornwell & E. Tory Higgins (Columbia University)

“Some people see things as they are and say why?  I dream things that never were and say why not?”  This paraphrase of a line from a play by George Bernard Shaw was brought into the American political imagination by Robert F. Kennedy during a speech delivered at the University of Kansas in 1968, less than three months before his assassination (Kennedy, 1968).  The year marked a break from the general post-World War II political consensus and the movement of the country’s liberals and conservatives to opposite poles of the political spectrum.  But that quotation may have an even deeper wisdom beyond the purposes to which RFK put it: it may hold a key to understanding the motivations behind differences in our political commitments.

Researchers have noted that our political differences inevitably result in different emphases when it comes to morality (Graham et al, 2011).  According to moral foundations theory, morality is divisible into five basic areas: Harm/Care, Fairness/Reciprocity, Ingroup/Loyalty, Authority/Respect, and Purity/Sanctity.  The first two are referred to as “individualizing” foundations in that they focus on the rights of and relationships between individuals, whereas the latter three are referred to as “binding” foundations because they represent rules affirming the embeddedness of individuals in natural orders such as the family, the nation, or religious groups.  Both liberals and conservatives tend to emphasize the importance of the individualizing foundations, but differences between political groups consistently appear with respect to the binding foundations (Graham, Haidt, & Nosek, 2009).

In our view, these differences in foundation emphasis are a reflection of a fundamental motivational distinction.  According to the regulatory focus theory of motivation, goal pursuit is organized around two distinct systems of motivation: the promotion focus and prevention focus (Higgins, 1997).  The promotion focus is associated with hopes and aspirations and achieving progress and growth (ideals).  The prevention focus is associated with duties and obligations and maintaining safety and security (oughts).  These motivational systems offer a way of thinking about moral differences between political groups.

According to this view, conservatives “see things as they are and say why.”  They view the status quo as the product of the wisdom of prior generations and of the internal logic of current social, economic, and political arrangements.  Their political thought is generally devoted to the reaffirmation of existing states of affairs as either the inevitable outcomes of natural processes (such as the free market) or as reflective of a deeper natural order (such as a divine law).  Liberals, in contrast, “dream things that never were and say why not.”   They view the current status quo in light of shared aspirations and constantly work towards bringing the former into line with the latter, of which we as a nation fall short.  Their political thought is devoted to improving existing states of affairs towards closely held ideals about society (such as equality) and personhood (such as autonomy).

Both of these positions involve pursuing goals, but there exists a fundamental difference in the kind of basic concerns that underlie goal pursuit, which are related to the motivational distinction between promotion and prevention focus.  We therefore hypothesized that the differences in moral foundation emphasis that is reflected in political differences may be the product of differences in regulatory focus.

Our first study showed that those who are more effective at achieving promotion goals placed a lower emphasis on the binding moral foundations and identified as more political liberal.  In contrast, those who are more effective at achieving prevention goals placed a higher emphasis on the binding moral foundations and identified as more conservative (Cornwell & Higgins, 2013).

The second study we conducted showed that people are somewhat malleable in these moral beliefs as a function of whether a current situation makes promotion more relevant or prevention more relevant.  By simply having participants write an essay about either their hopes and aspirations (promotion) or their duties and obligations (prevention), we were able to significantly influence the degree to which they endorsed the binding foundations.  Those who wrote about their ideals became more morally liberal (endorsing the binding foundations less) whereas those who wrote about their obligations became more morally conservative (endorsing the binding foundations more), over and above their self-identified political ideology when compared to a control condition (Cornwell & Higgins, 2013).

Our research shows that both liberals and conservatives appear to be motivated to emphasize particular aspects of ethical reality, but they are also able to see the other moral point of view when properly motivated.  Put another way, liberals can be brought to see things as they are and ask why, and conservatives can be influenced to see things as they might be and ask why not.

Considering the growing moral chasm between representatives of the American Left and Right, which has introduced an unprecedented level of political paralysis in Washington, it is especially important to understand what motivations underlie the different political viewpoints held by our fellow Americans, and recognize that these viewpoints can change when motivational focus changes.  This research brings us not only a step closer to viewing the current state of political divisions in America and answering why, but it also suggests a way to dream of a better political culture and start asking why not.

Author Information

CornwellJames Cornwell is a doctoral student of psychology at Columbia University. His research has investigated the motivational underpinnings of moral judgments, ethical decisions, and political ideology. His work also focuses on how different fundamental motivations contribute to our sense of virtue or “the good life,” and how this concept relates both to moral behavior and to personal well-being.

HigginsE. Tory Higgins is the Stanley Schachter Professor of Psychology, Professor of Business, and the Director of the Motivation Science Center at Columbia University. His work is in the areas of motivation science and social cognition, with particular emphasis on where value comes from and how value, truth, and control work together. He is the author of Beyond Pleasure and Pain: How Motivation Works (Oxford, 2012), and is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.


Cornwell, J.F.M. & Higgins, E.T. (2013). Morality and Its Relation to Political Ideology: The Role of Promotion and Prevention Concerns. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39(9), 1164-1172.

Graham, J., Haidt, J., & Nosek, B.A. (2009). Liberals and Conservatives Rely on Different Sets of Moral Foundations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96(5), 1029-1046.

Graham, J., Nosek, B.A., Haidt, J., Iyer, R.,  Koleva, S., & Ditto, P.H. (2011). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(2), 366-385.

Higgins, E.T. (1997). Beyond Pleasure and Pain. American Psychologist, 52(12), 1280-1300.

Kennedy, R.F. (1968, March). Speech presented at the University of Kansas.  Lawrence, KS.

Image Credit: By nirots, published on 24 August 2012, Stock Image – image ID: 10098919.

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