Character  &  Context

Judging Political Hearts and Minds

Image of silhouettes of people protesting

By: James Cornwell

Are Republicans from Mars and Democrats from Venus?  Much of our contemporary research about the psychology of politics focuses on the differences between Republicans and Democrats.  This approach suggests that Republicans and Democrats are fundamentally different in basic ways.  The prevailing theory is that political beliefs and political identification are products of different basic motives and personality variables that drive us toward favoring one political approach or the other.  The emphasis is on fundamental differences motivating adoption of different beliefs.

But what if many of these differences aren’t fundamental and are, instead, transient in nature?  What if, rather than reflecting deep-rooted and stable personality differences, many of the differences we see between the behaviors of Republicans and Democrats were merely a product of the current political environment?  What if many of the differences we see in our research between liberals and conservatives are “top-down” rather than “bottom-up?”

In a series of studies, Allison Turza Bajger, E. Tory Higgins, and I took on this research question.  We wondered whether there were significant political differences between Republicans and Democrats in their preferences for judging others according to warmth (beliefs about whether an individual means well and is friendly and kind) or competence (beliefs about whether an individual is capable, independent, and equipped for the challenges at hand).  We were puzzled by the fact that the popular myths about liberals and conservatives didn’t just present a muddled picture: they flatly contradicted one another.

One popular myth holds that Democrats favor warmth and Republicans favor competence.  For instance, Republican Mitt Romney ran a presidential campaign in 2012 aimed at projecting the competence and expertise of someone familiar with business and finance in trying economic times and Democrat Barack Obama won reelection by handily scoring the votes of those who felt as though he cared about people like them.  This is consistent with the old adage: if you’re 20 and a conservative, you have no heart; if you’re 40 and a liberal, you have no brain.  In our research, we found that, when considering the 2012 election, Democrats favored the warmth over the competence dimension when judging the character and ideology of politically engaged fellow citizens, whereas Republicans favored the competence over the warmth dimension.  In other words, they each privileged the social judgment dimension that would presumably favor their preferred candidate.

However, there is a strong competing myth that Democrats should favor competence and Republicans should favor warmth.  Democrat John Kerry in 2004 pressed his foreign policy bona fides and military service during an election cycle in which the Iraq War was in the forefront of voters minds, but in the end, the voters went with the candidate that they felt shared their values: Republican George W. Bush.  This approach is consistent with a possibly-apocryphal quote from former Senator Alan Simpson, a life-long Republican: “There are two parties in America: the Evil party and the Stupid party.  I’m a proud member of the Stupid party.”  In our research, we found that, when considering political messages concerning the 2004 candidates, Democrats favored the competence dimension when judging politically engaged fellow citizens, whereas Republicans favored the warmth dimension.  Once again, both Republicans and Democrats privileged the dimension of social judgment which presumably favored their preferred candidate.

To resolve this apparent contradiction, we presented participants in a final study with two different potential election match-ups in 2016: Democrat Joe Biden versus Republican Chris Christie, or Democrat Andrew Cuomo versus Republican Mike Huckabee.  Pilot testing showed that the former match-up pitted a warmth-advantaged Democrat against a competence-advantaged Republican, whereas the latter was a competition between a competence-advantaged Democrat and a warmth-advantaged Republican.

Consistent with a “top-down” hypothesis, in the Biden versus Christie election, Democrats favored warmth in their judgments of politically engaged fellow citizens, whereas Republicans favored competence, both, once again, privileging the social judgment dimension that presumably would cast their preferred candidate in the best light.  But in the Cuomo versus Huckabee election, many of those tendencies reversed.  It seemed that the political dynamics of the potential 2016 election match-ups were driving the differences between favoring warmth or competence in judging others—perhaps through activation of one or the other opposing myths of partisan differences—rather than stable and fundamental individual differences between Republicans and Democrats.  If anything, these results suggest that Republicans and Democrats share at least one particular core value: striving for political superiority.

We tell ourselves a lot of stories to try and make sense of the fact that intelligent, well-meaning people can actually disagree about issues as central to common life as national security or social and economic policies.  But what these narratives may miss is that many differences  between liberals and conservative are not fundamental—coming from the person on up—but are instead dependent on the current context—coming from political dynamics on down—mixed with our shared natural tendency to compete.
This is not to say that fundamental differences between Republicans and Democrats don’t exist—they certainly may, and probably do.  However, it does mean that we need to be careful to look for effects to replicate consistently across election cycles before we draw any hard and fast conclusions about how different people are more or less likely to vote different ways.  And, if we can all at least see that we share a fundamental desire to win, well, at least that’s one value we can claim to hold in common in an era of increasing ideological division.

James Cornwell is currently an Assistant Professor in the department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership at the United States Military Academy.  He received his PhD in Psychology in 2014 from Columbia University.  His research focuses on moral judgment and moral character, the influence of motivational processes on well-being, and attitudes towards different public policies, moral beliefs, and political ideologies. He can be reached at

Blog Category: 

About our Blog

Character & Context is the blog of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP). With more than 7,500 members, SPSP is the largest organization of social psychologists and personality psychologists in the world.   

Learn More ›

Questions ›

Writing Resources ›

Contribute to the Blog ›

Get Email Updates from the Blog