Discussions of contemporary politics often equate the “left” and the “right” with political parties. However, the spectrum of political ideas is far more complex and nuanced than partisan labels. What divides and defines “conservatives” and “liberals,” as well as a host of other identities, is the underlying ideology that governs their beliefs and motivations. But sometimes we misconstrue the concept of ideologies, as well – conflating religious and political conservatism, for example. So, how can we steer clear of misleading conflations and accurately measure ideology so that we can understand the patterns of ideological differences? What insights about the human mind from cognitive science or social psychology can help answer these questions?
Spectrums approaches the questions of political and religious differences by combining a deep dive into social-psychology research literature with quantitative tools that provide a detailed image of personal ideology. The basic assumption of the Spectrums team is that ideology and political conflict must be understood through a biocultural lens, taking seriously the evolutionary basis of human thought and behavior as well as the effects of cultural context and conditioning. The project draws upon a long history of philosophical and psychological research on ideology, such as the openness/disorder dichotomy of John Jost and Moral Foundations theory developed by Jesse Graham and Jonathan Haidt.
The Spectrums team has developed the Multidimensional Religious Ideology survey, which measures religious ideology along the three dimensions of Belief, Practice, and Morality, each of which has multiple subdimensions.
In a lengthy piloting process, the team collected demographic information about the participants, including self-ratings of political alignment, religious orthodoxy, and religious service attendance. This enables testing of relationships between ideas about religious beliefs (such as the literalness of scripture), and morality (such as the importance of respecting tradition), as well as demographic factors such as age or gender, income, or residential location.
This survey is an advance over previous research on religious ideology due to its careful parsing of different subdimensions rooted in evolutionary biology and cognitive science, and the way it builds on other quantitative tools in political psychology. Importantly, despite the sensitivity to individual differences associated with multiple dimensions, the MRI is also a summative instrument, yielding a single simple measure of location on the simplest left-right ideology spectrum. Just like the neuroimaging tool with the same name, MRI combines precise x-ray like insights and a simple summative result. By developing this tool, Spectrums can dig beneath the surface of ideology to find the deeper layers of motivations and orientations.
The Spectrums team has gone through several stages of piloting with the MRI and is analyzing the resultant data. Here are two illustrative findings.
First, we discovered a key difference between religious ideology and political ideology. Existing social-psychology research established that conservatives have a personality type low in Openness to new experiences and high in Conscientiousness. But religious conservatives and liberals tend to be equally conscientious, probably due to the kinds of virtues prized and cultivated in religious communities. So the distinction between liberals and conservatives on conscientiousness disappears when we move from political to religious ideology. The distinction on Openness remains important, but that seems to be the only strong personality marker of liberal-conservative difference in the domain of religious ideology.
Second, MRI overall results correlate robustly with existing measures of religious ideology, providing strong validation that it is accurate when treated as a summative scale producing a single number on a left-right ideology spectrum. That means that we should expect a linear organization of the data in a three-dimensional grid, stretching from liberal in belief, praxis, and morality up to the diagonally opposite corner on the cubic grid corresponding to conservative in all three. And that’s what we do see when we look at three-dimensional scatter plots. Note, axes are as follows: mri1_6totb=belief, mri1_6totp=praxis, and mri1_6totm=morality, and each one ranges from –6 (extremely liberal) to +6 (extremely conservative).
Just as expected, our pilot studies found that most of the responses were concentrated along the diagonal, meaning that people tend to be liberal or conservative in all three dimensions to about the same degree. The first and second diagrams show two views of the same data, with the second graph rotating the axes to stare directly down the diagonal of the cube. By looking down the diagonal, we see a group of outliers, highlighted in the third diagram. In the fourth diagram, we dig down into the details to find out more about the religious ideology of this group of people: they scored as liberal in the morality dimension (vertical axis) but conservative in the belief dimension (horizontal axis).
Taking a deeper look at some of the more specific MRI items, we discover that these people are typically quite liberal in interpreting sacred texts but also strong believers in supernatural worldviews. This supports a similar idea from the cognitive science of religion, namely, that our powerful cognitive tendency to embrace supernatural beliefs is far more difficult to change than attitudes towards the proper interpretation of sacred texts or moral behavior.
These examples show that the different layers of the MRI can generate diverse and novel insights that are important for understanding religious ideology and ideological conflict. Making such discoveries is what the Spectrums team set out to do.
The MRI is intended to be an instrument for sociologists, anthropologists, and psychologists interested in conducting research at the intersection of politics and religion. In addition, its insights into differences in religiosity provides a useful perspective for religious or spiritual leaders who seek to combat polarization within their religious communities.
Overall, the MRI contributes to a more complex and nuanced view of the currents of the human mind that give rise to the political and religious rivers that carve our social landscape.