Liberals in Disguise?

Our podcast “The Truth Is Out There…Isn’t It?” showed that even very smart people can fool themselves into confirming their own beliefs, especially when surrounded by peers with the same beliefs. reports on new research that shows young Americans self-identify as more conservative than they actually are:

“Commentators have presumed that America is a ‘center-right’ nation,” write psychologists Ethan Zell of the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and Michael Bernstein of Pennsylvania State University-Abington. “The present findings challenge this assumption.”

Their three surveys featured, respectively, 199 students at a Southeastern university, 360 adults recruited on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (with a mean age of 28), and 154 students from two universities. The final group was weighted so that there were an equal number of people in each of seven political categories, ranging from very liberal to very conservative.

In each case, participants revealed how they define themselves politically on that seven-point scale. They then completed a quiz developed by the Pew Research Center for the PBS Newshour, in which they indicated their views on 12 major issues, including welfare and gay marriage.

Results were consistent across the board: Participants rated themselves as more conservative than their positions on the issues would indicate.

The researchers concluded that, even though there’s some confusion over what liberals and conservatives stand for, those in their study still preferred labeling themselves as conservative:

In addition, they found many hard-core conservatives mistakenly label liberal positions as conservative—“a mismatch associated with religiosity, low political interest, and low political knowledge.”

This suggests a whole lot of Americans don’t really understand what liberals or conservatives truly stand for, but prefer the label conservative. They may respond positively to the philosophy in the abstract, or simply wish to blend in with what they perceive as the majority culture.


Another way to summarize this story is to say that despite self identifying as conservative, most people actually support more liberal positions on a variety of socio-political issues. People in general are TERRIBLE at self evaluation.

Charles Ingram

I think we are all confused about what is and isn't Conservative these days the way the far right of the Republican Party has skewed the party's plank away from it's traditional core beliefs and off into fundamentalist religious dogma. I've been an economic and rights Conservative but a religious liberal all my life, so by today's standards I would be judged somewhere far left of center. I think many of us are lost these days and have trouble identifying ourselves with either Party.


I agree, for as long as I can remember I think the winning candidate in most elections would be 'none of the above'. Don't feel as if either party represents me.


"In the context of scientific research, Oakley notes…

'…that those possessing altruism bias would be most strongly biased to object to the very concept of altruism bias. Research has shown the near impossibility of reaching biased individuals using rational approaches, no matter their level of education or intelligence; such attempts can be likened to squaring the circle. '"

Liberals seem to be unreachable in their own confirmation bias.

Oliver H

I'd say the bias is squarely on the side of the author who cherrypicks his data to suit his agenda and ignores empirical data demonstrating he is flat out wrong. But then, economic idelogues were always good stating that if reality contradicts their dogma, reality must be wrong.


My parents who are reasonably in tune with current events self identify as liberals, and are life long Democrats. However, if you were to have a conversation with them you would assume they were conservatives based on their views on issues such as immigration, gun control, size of government, abortion and gay marriage. However, it is Democrat's support for the unions that have kept them in the fold all of these years. The image of the Republicans as the 'rich fat cats' and the Democratic party as the one who cares about 'the working man' is forever etched into their psyche.

Tom S

For me, my tendency to label myself "conservative" even though compared to the country I'm liberal comes from my (often joyful) association with people on the far left, who often make me feel like Karl Rove by comparison.

Voice of Reason

I think that I've just noticed in general that the Democratic party has a stronghold on so many different types of views, and so many views that would have been considered radically left-wing years ago are the norm (full acceptances of gay marriage, interracial marriage, civil rights, etc.), but yet the election results are still more or less split down the middle (well, maybe 52% Democrat). But yes, but the way people talk, you would think that it would be 80% Democrat.


Here's another thought that seems obvious to me but isn't mentioned in any of the comments. Tell me if I'm missing something...

When people are asked to identify themselves with words or on a scale in a general sense that are answering in a very relative fashion. If you reluctantly voted for McCain but everyone in your family still gives money to Sarah Palin then your family would refer to you as "liberal" or maybe "moderate." If you interacted with nobody else then that would be your only understanding.

If someone in the survey was a 4 (with 0 being the most liberal, 10 being the most conservative) but spent all their time watching Jon Stewart, Modern Family and Saturday Night Live they could easily be convinced they are more like a 6. They would answer that way in general terms and then when pressed into more specific answers come up as a 4 which they really were all along.

I think the young people in the survey are identifying that they are right of most of the voices they hear, which is true and yet still "left of center." It is my theory that this captures only the power of the cultural milieu in which all of us (especially people in their 20's) live.