Skip to main content

'Belief Superiority' is Bipartisan

Study finds conservatives, liberals each believe they're right, the other is wrong

As the budget crisis drags on, at least conservatives and liberals have something in common: both believe their views on certain issues are not only correct but all other views are inferior.

A study from Duke University examined whether one end of the American political spectrum believes more strongly than the other in the superiority of its principles and positions. It found both sides have elements of "belief superiority," depending on the issue.

When asked about nine hot-button issues, conservatives feel most superior about their views on voter identification laws, taxes and affirmative action. Liberals feel most superior about their views on government aid for the needy, torture and not basing laws on religion.

The study, now posted in the online edition of Psychological Science, questioned 527 adults, (289 men, 238 women), ages 18-67, about the issues. It examined whether those who endorse the extremes of conservative and liberal viewpoints demonstrate greater belief superiority than those who hold moderate views.

The study asked participants to not only report their attitudes on the nine topics, but also how superior they feel about their viewpoint for each issue.

Researchers found that those at the extremes of the political spectrum on particular issues felt most superior about their beliefs.  Dogmatism -- defined as an arrogant assertion of opinions as truths -- was also greater among those who said their views were superior.

"These findings help to explain why politicians with more extreme views can't reach across the aisle," said Kaitlin Toner, who recently completed her Ph.D. at Duke University and was lead author of the study. "As more extreme candidates get elected to Congress, compromise becomes more difficult and deadlocks increase because those with more extreme views are more certain that they are right."

Dr. Mark Leary, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke who supervised the research, added that the findings capture nuances in the relationship between political beliefs and attitude entrenchment that previous research has not shown. "We are not talking here about one political party being more entrenched and dogmatic than the other," Leary said. "Instead, people on both sides who hold extreme beliefs are more certain that they are right."

The participants answered online questionnaires, with the first one measuring belief superiority on nine political issues on which conservatives and liberals tend to disagree:

-- health care (the degree to which health care should be covered by the government or by private insurance);

-- illegal immigration (the degree to which people who enter the country illegally should be dealt with more strictly or more leniently than at present);

-- abortion (the conditions under which abortion should be legal);

-- how large of a role the government should play in helping people in need;

-- voter identification (whether people should be required to show personal identification in order to vote);

-- the degree to which income taxes are too high;

-- the conditions under which torture should be used to obtain information from terrorists;

-- affirmative action;

-- the degree to which national and state laws should be based on religious beliefs.

"The tendency for people with extreme views to be overly confident is not limited to politics," said Leary.  "Any time people hold an extreme position, even on a trivial issue, they seem to think that their views are better than anyone else's."

Other authors of the study were Michael Asher, an undergraduate, and Katrina Jongman-Sereno, a graduate student, both in Duke's Department of Psychology & Neuroscience.<


CITATION: "Feeling Superior is a Bipartisan Issue: Extremity (Not Direction) of Political Views Predicts Perceived Belief Superiority," Kaitlin Toner, Mark R. Leary, and Michael Asher, Duke University. Psychological Science, October 2013; DOI: 10.1177/0956797613494848