When it comes to estimating the values of the British public, liberals tend to get it wrong. Our new research reveals why this may undermine liberals' motivation to become politically involved. The story goes that liberals have a soft, idealistic view of human nature, while conservatives have the more hardened view that people are essentially competitive or out for their own gain. Is this true? Researchers in the past, looking at ideology, trust and social responsibility, conclude that the ‘misanthropic conservative’ is basically a myth. Our research on values goes a step further, suggesting that, if anything, it’s liberals who are most likely to underestimate their peers.
People's perceptions of other people’s values
In a recent blog, we shared some results of a survey conducted by Ipsos-MORI on behalf of Common Cause Foundation. We asked UK citizens what they value, and what they think other people in Britain value. We found that most people (77.6%) have an unnecessarily pessimistic view about the values of a typical Brit. Most people under-estimate the importance of self-transcendence values to their peers (that is, values that are generally concerned with the wellbeing of others), and overestimate the importance of self-enhancement values (that is, values focused on the pursuit of personal status and success).
This is unfortunate, because besides going through life with a sadly pessimistic view of other people, this misconception may also be linked to a person’s motivation to become involved in various forms of civic engagement. So, for example, we found that a person’s perception of other people’s values is a significant predictor of his or her motivation to vote.
What about liberals and conservatives?
In our survey, we also asked people about their political views. As might be expected, we found that conservatives and liberals differ in the values that they hold - although this difference isn't big. Someone who identifies himself or herself as having a more politically conservative outlook is slightly less likely to attach importance to self-transcendence values – that is, values associated with greater concern for social and environmental problems. (We found no relationship between political orientation and self-enhancement values).
But we also found that liberals and conservatives differ in their perspective of others’ values. The more liberal someone is, the more likely he or she is to believe that other citizens hold self-enhancement values to be important. (The opposite is true of conservatives). In this respect, a liberal’s perception of a typical citizen’s values is less accurate.
How might this affect voting?
On the basis of their own values, we’d predict that politically liberal people would be more likely to vote. More liberal people hold self-transcendence values to be more important, and these values are associated with higher civic participation.
However, on the basis of their misperception of other people’s values, we’d predict the very opposite – that liberals would be less likely to vote. More liberal people perceive others to attach greater importance to self-enhancement values, and our research finds that this is associated with lower motivation to vote.
It seems that otherwise politically engaged liberals may be ‘held back’ by what they assume the British public values.
This result may have important implications for progressive parties advocating policies that appeal to liberal voters. Such parties may be receiving lower levels of support at the polls than they would otherwise secure, if – as our data suggests - people who support them suffer the misperception that most other people hold self-enhancement values to be more important than is actually the case.
Could this be part of the reason that progressive political movements aren’t doing better than they are?
What might be done?
Progressive political parties would do well to adopt strategies to convey to potential supporters that their own values are to a large extent aligned with the values of other Brits.
In doing so, it will be important to target sympathetic, but currently unengaged, voters. There are many ways in which this might be done. Here are some.
- Showcase the activities & values of ordinary constituents.
Constituency newsletters and political candidates’ speeches could focus at least as much on the great things that ordinary constituents are doing, off their own bats and outside formal political process, as they do on the great things that the candidate has done himself or herself. Such materials should provide an opportunity to show-case the reality that most people hold self-transcendence values to be the most important.
- Stop ‘othering’ other people.
Party communications could avoid reinforcing the idea that liberals are up against it, fighting a lonely moral crusade. Liberals aren’t a minority group, in terms of their value priorities. So while the ‘beleaguered liberal’ is perhaps an important aspect of some people’s self-identity, it may also undermine many people’s support for liberal politics.
- Draw attention to the difference between perceived values and reality.
Party websites could include a page inviting visitors to do a short quiz on their own values and their perceptions of a typical citizen’s values. People who completed this questionnaire would then be presented with a graphic showing how their values and their perception of others’ values, compare to the values actually held by the average Brit. Most visitors would probably be surprised to find that they had significantly under-estimated the importance that a typical Brit places on self-transcendence values.
There is already research demonstrating that such ‘values self-confrontation’ techniques can have a powerful influence on behaviour. This is because people care what other people value. If liberals aren’t voting because they underestimate their peers, then progressive parties have much to gain from conveying a more accurate understanding of most people’s values.