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What can moral psychology teach our elected officials?

Updated: Mar 8, 2023

In his landmark book The Righteous Mind, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt showed how we can better understand political behavior by first understanding individuals’ moral beliefs. Specifically, in what he coined Moral Foundations Theory, he offered a way of measuring an individual’s moral commitments by decomposing them into distinct foundations or moral “taste buds.” Although the exact number and terminology for these foundations has been the subject of ongoing scholarly debate, the original five were: care, fairness, loyalty, authority, and purity.

In the context of American politics, Haidt’s original insight was that those who identify as liberal tend to focus more on care (e.g., preventing harm to others) and fairness (e.g., equitable distribution), while those who identify as conservative tend to have a more even distribution of concern across all five categories. Building on this observation, Haidt co-founded the Constructive Dialogue Institute to help people in both public and private-sector institutions foster productive communication with others despite their ideological differences.

But does this theory of moral psychology hold for individuals who actually work in government? In an era of ever more heated partisan fighting, any framework that might offer a way of building mutual understanding among our elected officials could be of great value. However, because of the scarcity of data on elected officials’ attitudes, this question has remained largely unknown—until now!

In collaboration with researchers Joe Vitriol at the University of Minnesota and William Kidd at the University of California, Irvine, CivicPulse conducted a representative national survey of 253 local politicians to better understand how Moral Foundations Theory translates to elected officials themselves. As in the case of public opinion polls, we found that liberal politicians scored highly on concern for the weak or vulnerable (care) and whether someone acted unfairly (fairness), while conservative politicians showed similar levels of concern for harm and fairness as for love for country (loyalty), whether someone conformed to the traditions of society (authority), and whether someone violated standards of decency (purity).

While no doubt some elected officials out there have purely Machiavellian tendencies, we surmise that most view themselves as moral agents, and choose their actions to align with their own moral convictions. A feature of a pluralistic society, however, is that not all moral convictions are the same. Viewing specific governance challenges from this viewpoint may generate a more constructive framework for resolving differences than the viewpoint that all politicians’ actions are cynical, self-interested ploys.

For example, passing a budget is a challenge at every level of government. At the local level, one elected official may push for more funding to go to health services for low-income residents because of their tendency to be concerned with care and fairness. Meanwhile, another leader may wish to allocate more funding to law enforcement because of their deep concern for authority. The difference in each leader’s moral foundations may lead them to believe the other is wrong or motivated by selfish intentions when, actually, each leader is focused on what they believe is best for the community.

The Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA) has taken steps to try to act on this framework with their own members—top civil servants in local governments tasked with managing the budget process. In collaboration with Haidt's Constructive Dialogue Institute (CDI), GFOA will start offering training sessions for local government staff to navigate polarizing debates among their leaders. In fact, they ran a pilot randomized control trial (RCT) on such training, successfully verifying its efficacy for mutual understanding.

A next step could be for professional associations of elected officials to offer such training to their members. The communication techniques offered by CDI’s training programs might not only help elected officials pass a budget or constructively steer other heated discussions, but it could also help promote understanding of their constituents who aren’t part of their voter base.

Survey Background

The research underlying this brief was built on data from a national random-sample survey of 249 local policymakers, fielded from September 2021 to November 2021. The sample frame draws on Power Almanac’s continuously updated contact list of government officials from counties, municipalities, and townships with populations of 1,000 or more. The survey was developed by Dr. Joe Vitriol and William Kidd and implemented by the CivicPulse Team.

Below is the key survey item used to generate the results:

When you decide whether something is right or wrong, to what extent are the following considerations relevant to your thinking? Please rate each statement.

  • Whether or not someone’s action showed love for his or her country

  • Whether or not someone violated standards of purity and decency

  • Whether or not someone cared for someone weak or vulnerable

  • Whether or not someone acted unfairly

  • Whether or not someone conformed to the traditions of society

Response options

  • Not at all relevant

  • Not very relevant

  • Slightly relevant

  • Somewhat relevant

  • Very relevant

  • Extremely relevant

Media Contact

Nathan Lee, PhD

Managing Director of CivicPulse

(618) 319-3404


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