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Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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Thinkers, not feelers

The psychology of libertarian views

My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal finds that just as liberals and conservatives have predictable personalities, so do libertarians:

 

An individual's personality shapes his or her political ideology at least as much as circumstances, background and influences. That is the gist of a recent strand of psychological research identified especially with the work of Jonathan Haidt. The baffling (to liberals) fact that a large minority of working-class white people vote for conservative candidates is explained by psychological dispositions that override their narrow economic interests.

In his recent book "The Righteous Mind," Dr. Haidt confronted liberal bafflement and made the case that conservatives are motivated by morality just as liberals are, but also by a larger set of moral "tastes"-loyalty, authority and sanctity, in addition to the liberal tastes for compassion and fairness. Studies show that conservatives are more conscientious and sensitive to disgust but less tolerant of change; liberals are more empathic and open to new experiences.

But ideology does not have to be bipolar. It need not fall on a line from conservative to liberal. In recently published paper, Ravi Iyer from the University of Southern California, together with Dr. Haidt and other researchers at the data-collection platform YourMorals.org, dissect the personalities of those who describe themselves as libertarian.

These are people who often call themselves economically conservative but socially liberal. They like free societies as well as free markets, and they want the government to get out of the bedroom as well as the boardroom. They don't see why, in order to get a small-government president, they have to vote for somebody who is keen on military spending and religion; or to get a tolerant and compassionate society they have to vote for a large and intrusive state.

The study collated the results of 16 personality surveys and experiments completed by nearly 12,000 self-identified libertarians who visited YourMorals.org. The researchers compared the libertarians to tens of thousands of self-identified liberals and conservatives. It was hardly surprising that the team found that libertarians strongly value liberty, especially the "negative liberty" of freedom from interference by others. Given the philosophy of their heroes, from John Locke and John Stuart Mill to Ayn Rand and Ron Paul, it also comes as no surprise that libertarians are also individualistic, stressing the right and the need for people to stand on their own two feet, rather than the duty of others, or government, to care for people.

Perhaps more intriguingly, when libertarians reacted to moral dilemmas and in other tests, they displayed less emotion, less empathy and less disgust than either conservatives or liberals. They appeared to use "cold" calculation to reach utilitarian conclusions about whether (for instance) to save lives by sacrificing fewer lives. They reached correct, rather than intuitive, answers to math and logic problems, and they enjoyed "effortful and thoughtful cognitive tasks" more than others do.

The researchers found that libertarians had the most "masculine" psychological profile, while liberals had the most feminine, and these results held up even when they examined each gender separately, which "may explain why libertarianism appeals to men more than women."

All Americans value liberty, but libertarians seem to value it more. For social conservatives, liberty is often a means to the end of rolling back the welfare state, with its lax morals and redistributive taxation, so liberty can be infringed in the bedroom. For liberals, liberty is a way to extend rights to groups perceived to be oppressed, so liberty can be infringed in the boardroom. But for libertarians, liberty is an end in itself, trumping all other moral values.

Dr. Iyer's conclusion is that libertarians are a distinct species-psychologically as well as politically.