How Our Moral Values Can Make Us Intolerant

“We know nothing about them, their language, their history or what they look like, but we can assume this: they stand for everything we don’t stand for. Also, they told me you guys look like dorks.”
Cpt. Zapp Brannigan

I usually cringe when I hear the word “values” uttered by a politician. I view the term as one of those empty buzzwords that people throw around when they’re either trying to get elected or to justify something. I am, admittedly, a cynic. What concerns me as a researcher whenever “values” becomes a political topic is how easily it can be used to divide people and justify intolerance towards others. I feel this topic is especially timely given that the United States is using the 2016 Presidential Election as a way to re-enact, on a mass scale, this scene from Ghostbusters.

Our values are often rooted in our morality; that is, they reflect our fundamental beliefs concerning right and wrong, good and evil (see Atran & Ginges, 2012; Haidt, 2008; Rokeach, 1973; Schwartz, 1994). They help us to define who we are and shape with whom we want to associate. Research shows that we tend to like those who share our moral values (e.g., the sanctity of human life; individual liberty) and dislike those who we see as not sharing these values, or, worse yet, violating them.

You may be thinking, “well duh, Andrew, that’s just common sense.” What I want to impress upon you is the subtly of the mechanisms involved here and how they contrast with the profundity of their social consequences. It is not just that we don’t like those who have different or opposing values than us. The problem is that we tend to view such people as inherently threatening, regardless—and here is the crucial part—of whether they actually intend to do us any harm. How do we usually react when were being threatened?

Option 1: “Flight”

Let’s say, for the sake of an example, that you are strongly pro-life when it comes to your views on abortion. You start your first day of college and meet your roommate. You two share similar interests, and he/she seems to have a high moral character. The only problem is that he/she is strongly pro-choice. Do you want to keep that person as your roommate?

Some of you may have the warm and fuzzy response that college should be a time of exposing yourself to new ideas and different people. You would, therefore, love to have that person as a roommate. Many of you, however, will experience hesitation and entertain the idea of changing roommates. Such a response is typical.

Using a sample of University of Virginia undergraduates, Haidt, Rosenberg, and Hom (2003) found that while demographic differences had little effect on whether a participant wanted to interact with a stranger, moral differences made participants less willing to interact with a stranger. This effect becomes stronger the more intimate the setting becomes. In other words, while we may hesitate to have the hypothetical pro-choice person as a roommate, we’ll have less of a problem if he/she is just a classmate of ours.

Option 2: “Fight”

Beyond distancing ourselves from those with different values, we also want to make sure they’re kept in a low position in society. As such, we are more likely to oppose any policies or candidates that will may help them. Research on “symbolic racism” illustrates this process.

In contrast to the ole’ fashioned kind of racism depicted in cringe-worthy cartoons from the 1940s, “symbolic racism” is characterized by the belief that Black Americans violate cherished values. It is often coupled with the view that minority groups do not respect standards of morality and justice, are too pushy, get more economically than they deserve, and have no legitimate grievances (Brandt & Reyna, 2012; Kinder & Sears, 1981; McConahay, Hough, 1976).  Research shows that people who hold such beliefs are far less likely to support a Black candidate over a White one. Other studies have found that symbolic racism predicts opposition to affirmative action or other policies that are viewed as disproportionately favoring minority groups (Brandt & Reyna, 2012).

This relationship also exists outside the context of race. During the health care debate of 2008, Wetherell, Reyna, and Sadler (2012) found that the belief that those most likely to benefit from the policy (e.g., poor, unemployed, etc.) violate values regarding hard-work and self-reliance was a factor in people’s opposition to the public option. This finding, moreover, was strongest among conservatives. Our position on a policy measure, therefore, depends more on what we believe about those likely to benefit from it rather than its merits. Simply put, if they don’t share our values, we’re not going to support the policy regardless of the overall benefit it may provide to society.

Liberals Can Be Intolerant Too

My research frequently involves getting people to admit that A) they don’t like a particular group, and B) they support harming or restricting the rights of the members of that group  (e.g., restricting their right to vote). With that said, the two things I have learned while doing this type of research is that 1) it’s not hard to get people to admit to A or B, and 2) people don’t like it when I get them to admit A or B. This reaction is understandable, if not predictable. What was surprising to me was the political orientation of those who were the most, let’s say, “vocal,” about their discomfort.

There is an assumption, both within and outside the academy, that political conservatism is inherently linked to political intolerance. Being liberal, in contrast, means being open-minded and accepting. Research, however, shows that our intolerance towards who do not share our values emerges regardless of our political leanings. This result appears when researchers ask participants to identify those groups with whom they disagree (see Sullivan, Piereson, & Marcus, 1979). When using this method, both liberals and conservatives show a similar to desire to protect their values towards groups they perceive as opposing or violating them (Brandt, Reyna, Chambers, Crawford, & McWhiete 2013; Crawford & Pilanski, 2014; Wetherell, Brandt & Reyna, 2013).

It’s Not All Bad

I do want to end the post on some hopeful notes. Atran and Axelrod (2008) point to some ways that values can be used to foster compromise and improve relations between people rather than drive them apart. This process involves, among other strategies, reframing values so they seem less oppositional as well as being sure to recognize that although certain values may be less meaningful to us personally, others may view them as important.

Values can be mobilized to bring people together and get them to engage in collective action. Just as people can talk about values to justify keeping another group down, they can also be used to lift that same group up.


Atran, S., & Axelrod, R. (2008). Reframing sacred values. Negotiation Journal, 24(3), 221-246.

Atran, S., & Ginges, J. (2012). Religious and sacred imperatives in human conflict. Science, 336(6083), 855–857.

Brandt, M.J., & Reyna, C. (2012). The functions of symbolic racism. Social Justice Research, 25 (1), 41-60.

Brandt, M. J., Reyna, C., Chambers, J. R., Crawford, J. T., & Wetherell, G. (2014). The ideological-conflict hypothesis: Intolerance among both liberals and conservatives. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23(1), 27-34.

Crawford, J.T. & Pilanski, J.M. (2014). Political intolerance, right and left. Political Psychology, 35(6), 841-851.

Haidt, J. (2008). Morality. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3(1), 65-72.

Haidt, J., Rosenberg, E., & Hom, H. (2003). Differentiating diversities: Moral diversity is  not like other kinds. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 33(1), 1-36.

Kinder, D. R., & Sears, D. O. (1981). Prejudice and politics: Symbolic racism versus racial threats to the good life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 40(3), 414-431.

McConahay, J. B., & Hough, J. C. (1976). Symbolic racism. Journal of Social Issues, 32(2), 23-45.

Rokeach, M. (1973). The nature of human values. New York: Free Press.

Sullivan, J. L., Piereson, J., & Marcus, G. E. (1979). An alternative conceptualization of political tolerance: Illusory increases 1950s-1970s. The American Political Science Review, 73(3), 781-794.

Wetherell, G. A., Brandt, M. J., & Reyna, C. (2013). Discrimination across the ideological divide: The role of value violations and abstract values in discrimination by liberals and conservatives. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 4 (6), 658-667.

Wetherell, G., Reyna, C., & Sadler, M. (2013). Public opposition versus the market: Perceived value violations drive opposition to healthcare reform. Political Psychology, 34(1), 43-66.


Founder and administrator of the Moral Communities Project. Currently a post-doctoral researcher at IDC Herzliya.

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