In the era of US President Donald Trump and the UK’s vote to exit the EU, many are wondering about intrinsic differences between the right and left and where political preferences come from. In a paper about to be published in Elsevier’s Journal of Economic Behaviour and Organisation, researchers Kaj Thomsson and Alexander Vostroknutov explore this question through the lens of giving: How is sharing shaped by our political inclinations? Does how the direction in which we lean politically influence how much we give?
The paper is the result of a decision to combine two strains of study. “Alexander has been working for a long time at a very deep level on social norms and intrinsic differences in why people give to others for seemingly altruistic reasons,” Thomsson says, “and I’ve been doing political economy things, the interaction between politics and economics. We thought it would interesting to take what he’s been doing but put it more in a political context, and try to understand if there are any intrinsic differences between people who self-identify as conservatives and liberals—to use the American terminology—but we relabeled this ‘right-wingers’ and ‘left-wingers’ to fit a non-American context.”
In the end, Thomsson and Vostroknutov did not find any general differences between self-identified right- and left-wingers in their willingness to give to others. They did, however, conclude that they are differences in why they give.
“We find that self-proclaimed right-wingers, when choosing the amount to share, follow the social norm they believe to be in place, and we also find that they react more strongly to the norm when they are the type of individual who generally follows rules,” Thomsson says. “In addition, in what we consider to be perhaps the most novel contribution of the paper, we find that right-wingers also care about the receiver’s beliefs.”
Specifically, he says, right-wingers are concerned with whether the receiver knows where the money comes from, while the same was not observed in left-leaning individuals. “Left-wingers do not follow social norms to the same extent and seemingly care less about the beliefs of others,” Thomsson says.
The study suggests that right-wingers, when it comes to giving, are driven by a desire to avoid disorder (by following norms) and to maintain reputation (by not making the receiver angry). “We propose that our findings on the behavior of the political right may be explained by the ‘small world’ concept,” Vostroknutov says. “This concept says that right-wing individuals tend to make sharing decisions using moral judgements based on emotions that are evoked by their current social situation, taking into account the reactions of others as if they were living in a small community.”
Left-wing individuals, on the other hand, appear to use a moral reasoning based abstract ideas regarding redistribution in the society.
While Thomsson’s and Vostroknutov’s research stopped at examining attitudes to sharing, their findings may be placed in a broader context—such as how right- and left-wing individuals react to shifts in the social context and challenges to beliefs and social norms brought on by globalization and immigration.
“There is a connection between how much emphasis is placed on social norms and social context, and people’s reaction to pressures from globalization,” Thomsson says. “If right-wingers find their local communities and norm systems challenged, it might fundamentally shape their idea of what a good society and a good policy response is.”
How this research links to Trump, Brexit and populism more generally isn’t exactly clear at this time, but Vostroknutov says it is fertile ground for more research: “We’ve been struck by the positive response and interest in this article, not only within academia but also from non-academics finding it online. It’s clear that people at the moment are really interested in how political preferences are formed. It’s one of those rare moments where you have a chance to reach the general public directly with your academic research.”
Read Thomsson and Vostroknutov’s paper, Small-world conservatives and rigid liberals: Attitudes towards sharing in self-proclaimed left and right, in full here.
Kaj Thomsson is an Assistant Professor of Economics at the School of Business and Economics at Maastricht University. Read more about him on the UM Expert Guide. Alexander Vostroknutov is a research fellow at the Center for Mind/Brain Sciences, University of Trento, Italy.