Donald Trump supporters think about morality differently than other voters

Donald Trump supporters think about morality differently than other voters, by Emily Ekins and Jonathan Haidt, from Feb 2016.

One of us (Haidt) developed the theory in the early 2000s, with several other social psychologists, in order to study moral differences across cultures. Moral Foundations Theory (MFT) draws on anthropology and on evolutionary biology to identify the universal “taste buds” of the moral sense, while at the same time explaining how every society creates its own unique morality.

Think of it like this: Evolution gave all human beings the same taste receptors — for sweet, sour, salt, bitter, and umami (or MSG) — but cultures then create unique cuisines, constrained by the fact that the cuisine must please those taste receptors. Moral foundations work much the same way. The six main moral taste receptors, according to MFT, are:

  • Care/harm: We feel compassion for those who are vulnerable or suffering.
  • Fairness/cheating: We constantly monitor whether people are getting what they deserve, whether things are balanced. We shun or punish cheaters.
  • Liberty/oppression: We resent restrictions on our choices and actions; we band together to resist bullies.
  • Loyalty/betrayal: We keep track of who is “us” and who is not; we enjoy tribal rituals, and we hate traitors.
  • Authority/subversion: We value order and hierarchy; we dislike those who undermine legitimate authority and sow chaos.
  • Sanctity/degradation: We have a sense that some things are elevated and pure and must be kept protected from the degradation and profanity of everyday life. (This foundation is best seen among religious conservatives, but you can find it on the left as well, particularly on issues related to environmentalism.)

For this year’s US elections:

One surprise in our data was that Trump supporters were not extreme on any of the foundations. This means that Trump supporters are more centrist than is commonly realized; consequently, Trump’s prospects in the general election may be better than many pundits have thought. …

Politics is in many ways like religion: Voters reward candidates who are effective preachers for a set of moral concerns. … an effective political preacher offers a clear moral vision of America. That vision includes a historical narrative about where we went wrong, and then tells us how we can set things right. It also includes strong moral arguments that connect with and validate the moral judgments of voters.


This is a reconstruction of Haidt’s data from The Righteous Mind by Professor James Dalziel, Morling College, Sydney.

We earlier published a fascinating TED talk by Jonathon Haidt on the moral roots of liberals and conservatives.