Do Basic Human Values “Level the Ideological Playing Field?”

Paul Goren, Brianna Smith, & Matt Motta [corresponding]

Political behavior research has long cast doubt on the idea that most Americans – especially those who are the least attentive to politics – think about the ideological labels with which they identify (symbolic ideology) and the policy issue stances they hold (operational ideology) using abstract political principles (e.g., knowledge of where the two major parties in government stand on key policy debates).

However, an emerging line of work considers the possibility that Americans rely on abstract standards that are not expressly political to inform their ideological orientations. For example, people in nearly all societies have been shown to express ten “Basic Human Values” – beliefs about desirable individual/social behavior that transcend politics. Previous research has found that others-focused (sociotropic) values shape how people across the globe place themselves on left-right continuum.

Specifically, people who strongly value universalism – i.e., people concerned about the well-being of all people, animals, and the environment  –  tend to be more likely to place themselves on the ideological left. On the other hand, people who strongly value conservation – i.e., who appreciate cultural/religious tradition, and who seek social order and security from threats – are more likely to self-place on the right.

Extant research, however, is much less clear about whether more (vs. less) politically sophisticated people: (1) hold similarly-structured and internally consistent human values, and (2) are more likely to connect those values to how they think about politics. As a result, scholars could be under-estimating the extent to which less sophisticated people ground their ideological preferences in abstract principles.

Our new research investigates this possibility. We suspect that, because human value expressions tend to emerge in adolescence, and are reinforced throughout routine social interaction, value structure and crystallization should be similar for most people.

However, when it comes to the political application of those values, Sophistication Interaction Theory (SIT) suggests that people who are more politically sophisticated may be more likely to understand how abstract orientations relate to ideological positions and debates, and therefore more likely to use human values to inform their symbolic and operational ideological orientations.

We test both of these possibilities in a large (N = 10,765) and nationally representative sample. The size of our sample is advantageous, because it allows us to draw comparisons between people who earn very high (vs. very low) scores on two indicators of political sophistication; political interest (i.e., those who are “extremely interested” vs. “not interested at all”), and education (i.e., people with doctorate degrees vs. those without a high school degree).Our study provides limited  evidence in favor of SIT, and strong evidence in favor of the idea that most people both understand and apply basic human values in the same way. Specifically, we find that:

  1. Human Values are Structured Similarly for Most People. In multiple group confirmatory factor analyses, we find that multiple-item indicators of both universalism and conservation values load strongly onto single factors, for low and highly sophisticated individuals alike.
  2. Most People Hold Highly Crystalized Value Preferences: Similarly, we find that indicators of both values display strong and nearly-identical levels of internal consistency for low and high sophisticates.
  3. Most People Connect Human Values to Symbolic Ideological Orientations: In multivariate regression models, we find that individuals across the sophistication spectrum are more likely to consider themselves to be ideological liberals if they hold highly universalistic value orientations, and more likely to label themselves as conservatives if they score highly on conservation value measures. We find little evidence of stratification by interest or education.
  4. Some Evidence of Sophistication Stratification for Operational Ideology: However, when it comes to people’s stances on major policy issues, we find some evidence consistent with SIT. Although people scoring highly on universalism (conservation) are significantly more likely to hold operationally liberal (conservative) stances across sophistication subgroups, we find some evidence that highly sophisticated individuals tend to do so more strongly. This may suggest that connecting abstract principles to policy stances is a somewhat more difficult or cognitively demanding task than applying those principles to symbolic ideological orientations.

Overall, our work suggests that values are structured similarly for most people, and give structure to both symbolic and operational ideological orientations across the sophistication spectrum. Basic human values, in order words, “level the ideological playing field.” Everyone, even the least politically sophisticated, makes use of extra-political values to inform their symbolic identities and operational positions, and does so in similar ways.

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