New Research on the Moral Psychology of Libertarians

August 23rd, 2012 by Ravi Iyer

While some followers of this blog may be familiar with some of the ideas in this paper, the final version of our publication about libertarian morality has just been published in PLOS One.  You can read the full paper here.  In addition, in the spirit of the Khan Academy, I created the below video summary for more casual consumption.

Finally, here is the press release that is accompanying the paper, which is also a reasonable summary for those who do not wish to read the full version.

Press Release for Immediate Release: August 23, 2012

Newly Published Research Illuminates Libertarian Morality

A new set of studies published in PLOS One takes advantage of a unique sample of 11,994 libertarians to explore the psychological dispositions of self-described libertarians.  Compared to self-identified liberals and conservatives, libertarians showed 1) stronger endorsement of individual liberty as their foremost guiding principle, and weaker endorsement of all other moral principles; 2) a relatively cerebral as opposed to emotional cognitive style; and 3) lower interdependence and social relatedness.

“Data can tell you what is, but not what ought to be,” explained Ravi Iyer, the lead author of the paper.  “This is commonly known as the ‘is-ought’ problem, most clearly defined by Philosopher David Hume.  With data, we can objectively answer what the values that exist in the world are, and what personality traits often accompany those values.  We hope to help people understand why some people are libertarian, while others are liberal or conservative, by showing you what ‘is’ with respect to libertarians.”

Using the writings of libertarian thought leaders such as Ayn Rand and Ron Paul to generate hypotheses, the authors – which included Ravi Iyer, a research scientist at the University of Southern California and data scientist at, Spassena Koleva and Jesse Graham, who are respectively are a post-doctoral researcher and assistant professor in the Values, Ideology, and Morality Lab at USC, Peter Ditto, a professor at the University of California-Irvine, and Jonathan Haidt, a professor at New York University – found that libertarians were less concerned with being altruistic or loyal, and more concerned with being independent and self-directed.

Convergent with previous research showing the ties between emotion and moral judgment, libertarians displayed a more rational cognitive style, according to a variety of measures.  Asked directly, using a series of standard psychological measures available at, they reported being less neurotic, less disgusted, and less empathic, compared to liberals and conservatives, while also reporting a greater need for cognition and systematic understanding of the world.  When given moral dilemmas – e.g. being asked whether it is ok to sacrifice five people to save one – they reported fewer qualms than other groups, a pattern of responding that is consistent with a rational/utilitarian style.  Libertarians tended to do better on logic problems that included answers designed to fool more intuitive thinkers.

“Ideologies can be thought of as narratives that allow us to make sense of our beliefs, feelings and preferences,” said Iyer. “Naturally, we gravitate towards ideologies that are consistent with these dispositions.  This has been found consistently with liberals and conservatives across many research groups using many different methodologies.  The current research extends these findings to libertarians, which are an increasingly influential group in the US national discourse.”

Previous research has connected moral judgment to social functioning, theorizing that moral judgment arose in order to enable the current ultra-social modern society.  Libertarians, who generally were less morally judgmental, reported a corresponding desire for greater individualism and less attachment to their friends, family, community, and nation.

“This research is strongest when you consider it in context with other research on ideology and the origins or morality, which has found similar ties between emotion, social functioning, and moral judgment,” explained Iyer.  “All social science research methodologies have limitations, but the findings of the current research converge well with research using other methodologies, and the complete picture painted by recent moral psychological research hopefully gives people a greater understanding of the social and emotional origins of their own value systems.”

The paper can be read in its entirety at  More information about the findings, including a video explanation that can be embedded in online media can be found at  For press inquiries, please contact Ravi Iyer,

Posted in conservatives, liberals, libertarians, moral psychology, personality traits, political psychology, ron paul, yourmorals.org1 Comment »

One Response to “New Research on the Moral Psychology of Libertarians”

  1. Iain says:

    I cannot believe how fundamentally flawed this study is. Firstly, you do not understand libertarianism, you do not seem to understand values, morality, or any of the things you are talking about. Secondly, your overuse of Ayn Rand as a supposed proponent of libertarianism betrays your complete ignorance of libertarianism as a whole.

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