Politics and morality are often paired together and have a great deal of influence on each other. Whenever there are decisions to be made, people try to figure out which side of the discussion fits best with their own morals. Each side tries to pinpoint their opponent’s moral stance and demonstrate how their own stance is better.

A study from the University of Southern California tested how people’s morals and emotional responses to moral-breaking scenarios varied based on their political identification. The study involved 600 participants, half of which self-identified as Democrats and the other half identified as Republicans. They were then randomly assigned to five equal groups each focused on one of five moral conditions: care, fairness, loyalty, authority, or purity.

The participants were asked to read short vignettes for each moral condition, containing a scenario where the moral in question is violated. They were asked to rate from 1-5 how morally wrong the depicted behaviour was (1 = not wrong, 5 = very wrong) and how much of an emotional response was felt anywhere in the body from reading the vignette (1 = weak, 5 = strong).

They were also asked to self-report where exactly they noticed bodily sensations after reading the vignettes. To obtain a map of sensations, the participants were asked to use a computer program that displayed two silhouettes on either side of the screen that they could use to map their own experiences. On the left silhouette, they coloured in the areas where sensation in the body increased and on the right silhouette, they coloured in the areas where it decreased.

Next, the participants were instructed to place themselves on two political spectrums based on their political affiliation (1 = Strong Democrat, 7 = Strong Republican) and their level of conservatism (1 = Very Liberal, 7 = Very Conservative). This allowed each participant’s data to be properly matched with their political affiliation and how they self-report their level of affiliation.

Finally, the participants were assessed for their moral decision-making skills via a 30-item questionnaire to see how important each of the five moral conditions were to the participants.

The results showed that across every moral condition, people experienced many similar sensations. For example, everyone experienced high activation in the head and face, but also reported deactivation of sensation in the limbs.

 However, the data shows notable differences in the reports of sensation for liberals and conservatives. For example, liberals reported much more sensation related to violations of loyalty in the head and chest than the conservatives. In contrast, the conservatives reported more activation in the head from violations of purity than liberals. While most violations warranted activation in the chest, purity violations uniquely caused more activation in the abdominal area instead.

What do these results tell us? The high activation found in the head and face likely indicates greater activity in these areas, specifically the higher cognitive processing power needed to understand the moral violations found in the vignettes. The results of the moral questionnaire paired with the sensation maps show that individuals who report certain moral conditions as more important have greater responses to the corresponding moral violations.

So, when liberals have higher activation for violations of loyalty, we can see that certain political affiliations are related to greater moral outrage for certain morals. In saying this, the sensation maps show that everyone on both sides of the political spectrum reacted to the vignettes and felt that each described act was morally reprehensible, only conservatives and liberals reported different expressions of those emotional responses.

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