Monday, July 14, 2008

Human nature and political orientation: There seem to be two contrasting images of people on the political right. In a textbook on conservatives, you are likely to read that these folks believe that humans are naturally inclined to do bad things. People are always going to be that way to some extent, says the conservative, and institutions of social contral (if not God himself) are the source of any moral actions that can be wrung out of fallen Man.

But one can easily find among Americans who call themselves conservatives the idea that if society will only let people freely do their thing, social cooperation and order will spontaneously emerge. If you find any trouble among people, chances are that an alien, oppressive government is the culprit. In other words, human nature, if undistorted, freely gravitates toward order and cooperation.

I suppose the first view is the conservative one, while the second is libertarian, but you can find both views on the right, and I'm wondering if they offset each other making the right side of the political spectrum no different than the left on the question of the goodness of human nature.

General Social Survey respondents were asked the following question: "On a scale of 1-7 where would you place your image of the world and human nature between the two contrasting images: human nature is basically good (=1); human nature is fundamentally perverse and corrupt (=7)." I've listed the means below by race and self-identified political orientation (N = 11,254):

Mean human-nature-is-bad score

Extremely liberal
Whites 2.99
Blacks 3.99

Whites 2.81
Blacks 3.36

Slightly liberal
Whites 2.98
Blacks 3.64

Whites 2.98
Blacks 3.52

Slightly conservative
Whites 3.02
Blacks 3.63

Whites 3.28
Blacks 3.73

Extremely conservative
Whites 3.83
Blacks 3.79

All whites 3.04
All blacks 3.58

Overall SD 1.67

Let's mention race first. Blacks are clearly more cynical than whites: roughly 1/3 of a standard deviation difference between overall means. Whether this has something to do with the experiences of blacks in this country, I don't know. As mentioned by a reader regarding the earlier post on trust, the American ethnic groups with the least trust also have the highest prevalence of antisocial members, and people might form their views of human nature, not based on outgroups, but based on the people with whom you interact the most.

Turning to politics, it's really extreme conservatives, among whites anyway, who think that people tend toward evil. They match up best with what we think of as the conservative take on human nature. Generic conservatives have a view that is a bit darker than average, but everyone else has a rosy view. The real exception to this pattern is extremely liberal blacks: they even outdo hardcore conservatives. Anti-white ideology might magnify the pessimism among these folks.


  1. turkey3:28 AM

    Extremists are generally smarter and better informed than moderates. There should probably be a lot of horseshoe graphs when you compare the spectrum. Can't explain white extreme liberals, though.

  2. the difference here is less than you think. whats key is that both conservative AND libertarians have a similar concept of human nature, sometimes described as the "tragic" vision--ie, immutable and innate, containing contradictory elements, good and bad, violent and peaceful, loving and hateful etc. both believe that human nature can be prodded in various directions by incentives. whats different is that libertarians are more Amoral, tend not to have a strong sense of how the world SHOULD be and tend not to describe human nature and behavior in morally charged terms like "good and evil", preferring concepts like efficient or desirable.

    they tend to view ALL human behavior as a reaction of human nature to incentives (ie, given societal structure x, innate human nature will cause the population to engage in y behavior more frequently). when libertarians are describing what they believe humans would do in a libertarian society the behavior of the humans doesn't arise from any "good" part of their nature, but from how libertarians have determined human nature would react in a given set of circumstances. to the libertarian human nature just IS, no more or less than fish or lion nature--it's neither good nor bad.

    the religious conservative sees the same contradictory nature, but being more "normative" in character he is less concerned with describing how the world works and how humans behave and more concerned with how the world SHOULD work and how humans SHOULD behave.

    BOTH of these must be distinguished from THEIR opposite, which is the romantic rousseauvian tabula rasa vision of human nature, which holds that there IS no innate human nature and that man's behavior is infinitly malleable and ultimately "perfectable" by upbringing and government policy.

  3. Very interesting.

    I wonder how this interacts with the data that suggests conservatives are more altruistic (for example in donating blood, giving to charity etc.).

    Are the most altruistic conservatives thse with a darker view of huan nature, or the opposite?


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