This article is written by Manuel Galvan in collaboration with Dr. Jake Womick


Are liberalism and conservatism distinct sets of ideological perspectives that are associated with unique psychological tendencies and behaviors? Or are the extreme left and right mirror images of each other? The political psychology literature sometimes characterizes this question in terms of ideological symmetry vs. asymmetry. According to the asymmetric perspective, the two political ideologies result from different motivations and satisfy different psychological needs. For example, there may be an asymmetry such that conservatism is associated with less flexible thinking and liberalism is associated with more warmth in people’s interpersonal relationships (Figure 1, top). In contrast, the symmetric perspective suggests that the same psychological motives and needs drive people to political extremes, whether it is to the right or the left of the political spectrum. Using the same example from before, this perspective would suggest that extremists on both sides are less flexible and less warm in their interpersonal relationships (Figure 1, bottom). The symmetric perspective is often referred to as the “horseshoe theory,” a term attributed to the French philosopher Jean-Pierre Faye, because the far-right and far-left closely resemble each other, analogous to the ends of a horseshoe. 

graphs depicting Ideological Asymmetry and Symmetry Hypotheses
Ideological Asymmetry and Symmetry Hypotheses

Irrespective of the terms used to describe these two theoretical perspectives, people’s perceptions of conservatism and liberalism as symmetrical or asymmetrical colors their perception of the political landscape. For example, if you see the two political parties as essentially the same with only minor differences in what shirts are worn at political rallies or what slogans are shouted at political opponents, then you might not see a reason to choose one over the other in the voting booth. If both parties are equally irrational or biased, you might perceive outrage from one side on issue X as equally valid as outrage from the other side on issue Y. Thinking through the similarities and differences between political parties can be an important part of making up your mind about your own ideological perspectives and participating in the voting process.

As with many debates in the social sciences, one can point to different research to find evidence for either the symmetry or asymmetry perspective. Researchers often describe political symmetry or asymmetry in terms of cognitive dimensions (i.e., how people think) and affective polarization (i.e., how people feel about their ideological opponents). Asymmetry proponents often cite research finding that unique psychological variables predict political conservatism. For example, the need to reduce uncertainty and ambiguity, to experience order and closure (i.e., definitive knowledge on something), and to defend one’s status are correlated with political conservatism. Conservatism is also argued to be built upon a distinct set of moral foundations–which includes purity, sanctity, and in-group loyalty–compared to liberalism. Indeed there is a rich history of investigating the psychological profile of conservatism as associated with emphasizing tradition, conformity, security, power and achievement, having more rigid thinking, and perceiving the world as more threatening and dangerous, but also see the inequalities of the world as more justified

While this first body of research suggests that liberals and conservatives are quite distinct, there is a second body of research that challenges these data and proposes that liberals and conservatives engage in many of the same cognitive biases. Is dogmatism really a feature of the political right if extremists on both sides of the political spectrum feel superior about their beliefs? Why is it that supposedly open-minded liberals are similarly motivated to avoid exposure to opinions from the other side? Liberals and conservatives also engage in motivated disbelief in politically convenient ways. Both sides find it equally difficult to identify flaws in arguments from the other side and struggle to find the flaws in their own ideological arguments. A recent meta-analysis of 51 experimental studies showed that both liberals and conservatives tend to evaluate identical information more favorably when it is consistent with their beliefs and preferences.

This second body of research supports the symmetry perspective and suggests a similarity in the cognitive profiles of those who identify as liberal vs. conservative, with those on the extreme ends of the political spectrum showing the same kind of inflexibility. Researchers also found consistencies in how ideologically-driven humans engage those with whom they disagree. For example, research consistent with the symmetry hypothesis shows that liberals and conservatives both report prejudice against their ideological opponents. Put simply, those on the left and right hate each other to similar degrees. However, much of this research hasn’t taken into consideration the implications of such prejudice. The demographic compositions of one’s political opponents are quite different, depending on whether you are on the left or right. Voters who identify as Republican are more homogeneously white, wealthy, male, Protestant and older. Democratic voters are a more diverse group, composed of most of the country’s Black, Hispanic and Asian voters, most of the college and postgraduate educated voters, most of the Jews and Hispanic Catholics, and the majority of LGBT folks. Thus, while it may be true that both groups engage in discrimination or prejudice against their ideological opponents, the targets of that prejudice are quite different.

Because of their respective demographic makeups, when conservatives hate liberals, they are holding prejudices against historically marginalized groups and the policies they support. When liberals hate conservatives, they are holding prejudices against groups that wield disproportionate power in society. This dynamic may partly explain why researchers do not find ideological symmetry in racism, sexism, homophobia, or any form of prejudice towards a group based on immutable characteristics. Conservatism is uniquely linked to more racial resentment, more sexist attitudes, and more homophobic attitudes. Conversely, claims of anti-white, anti-man, and anti-straight biases and their link to liberalism remain unsubstantiated. Although these biases may very well exist, they are not situated in the context of historical and systemic inequalities that amplify the consequences of bias toward historically marginalized groups.

Clearly, understanding similarities and differences between those on the political left and right is complex. After reviewing all of the evidence, can we definitively say whether liberals and conservatives are psychologically asymmetrical vs. symmetrical? The answer is not straightforward. In some ways, we find evidence of symmetry; and, in others we find evidence of asymmetry. We have seen that liberals and conservatives both fall prey to the same kinds of biases. Those on the left and right also show the same kinds of prejudices against their ideological opponents. Yet, due to differences in the demographic composition of these groups, the consequences of these prejudices are asymmetrical. In other words, there is evidence of asymmetrical marginalization such that conservatives, relative to liberals, will be more likely to hold biases against people from marginalized backgrounds and their views.

As we continue to advance our understanding of politics and partisanship, we must keep these complexities in mind. We must focus on understanding the asymmetrical downstream consequences that arise from symmetrical cognitive and interpersonal biases. Because the prejudice partisans hold towards each other implicates different groups, it may be that such animosity arises from different underlying motives and needs on the left vs. right. For instance, if those on the left indeed show anti-white, anti-man, and anti-heterosexual biases, these may stem from an interest in advancing an egalitarian redistribution of power and wealth in society. Or, they may simply reflect an intolerance of perceived intolerance. In contrast, the animosity held by those on the political right towards historically marginalized groups may arise from zero-sum beliefs, where attempts to increase equality are seen as “unfairly taking” from those who have a privileged status now. This is consistent with research showing that perceptions of anti-white discrimination are due to seeing racial biases as zero-sum, such that white Americans see falling bias against Black people as a sign of rising bias against White people. It is clear that there is still much to learn about the psychology of politics. As we embark on advancing our scientific understanding of these issues, we must keep in mind the reality of asymmetrical marginalization and leverage these insights to build a more equitable, fair, and just society.

Edited by: Jeanne-Maria McPherson

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