BU Today


POV: How a Liberal Learned to Like Conservatives

Traditional cultures educate a devoted liberal


Should a twentysomething information technology specialist, a competent employee, be able to dye her hair purple without getting grief from management? That question was at the heart of the conversation recently for a group of intelligent and age-diverse women.

“Management went apoplectic,” the woman recalled. “Sure, they said my hair wasn’t relevant to my job performance; they agreed I did my job well. But I had to dye it back.” The group rolled their eyes in sympathetic outrage. The owner of the hair didn’t even interact with the public! The business didn’t have a published dress code! To redye hair, it has to be bleached, and that’s a health risk!

I kept quiet. Inside, however, I was coming down on the side of management, and here’s why: dyeing your hair purple shows a lack of respect to your managers and fellow employees. It makes you stand out. You are defiantly not fitting in with the group. My thoughts, very different from what they would have been a few years ago, were changed largely by my readings in social and cross-cultural psychology and my experiences in other cultures.

In 2008, I returned from a semester-long sabbatical in China, which sensitized me to the virtue of minimizing individualist displays and respecting the desires of those above one in the social hierarchy. In the collectivist cultures of East Asia, people have been less concerned with expressing their individuality and more concerned about harmonious relations with others, including being sensitive to negative appraisal by others. One result is a well-behaved classroom of 30 preschoolers led by one teacher and an assistant.

I’d also learned from the writing of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who says liberals focus on justice, fairness, and compassion for others. Conservatives have these values too, he says, but they are influenced by three other moral systems: respect for hierarchy, favoring one’s in-group over the out-group, and valuing purity (sexual propriety, nobility, and avoiding disgusting objects).

I had previously considered respect for authority, in-group favoritism, and purity as parts of collectivist cultural groups, which are usually associated with developing nations and often described in opposition to the individualist values that are hallmarks of modern, developed regions.

Cross-cultural psychologists do not view either individualism or collectivism as inherently superior or inferior, understanding that each system has evolved to solve the problem of how individuals can benefit from living in groups and seeing both as having pros and cons. Individualist societies like ours allow people to pursue their dreams (pro), but when big aspirations crumble because of bad luck or intense competition, they may lack a safety net, either in terms of government services or family support (con). In individualistic societies, transactions are abstract and conveniently monetized (pro). But when we don’t trade our labor and time with our neighbors for mutual benefit, we miss an opportunity for friendships to be built around helping each other (con).

In collectivist societies, the familial ties and deep friendships that arise from never leaving your hometown and investing daily in relationship management provide a buffer against loneliness and depression. The downside is that these cultures can have an oppressive small-town mentality that punishes nonconformists who challenge religious, gender, or sex role norms.

As a liberal, my current, more sympathetic understanding is that the central goal of collectivist societies and social conservatism—reserving resources for the in-group—was necessary in earlier eras when the neighboring tribe encroached on your territory and daily survival was uncertain. Purity rules and obedience to authority help small-scale societies increase group cohesion and survival. For the majority of cultures that have thrived on our planet, socially conservative political views made a lot of sense.

But what really made me more tolerant was rubbing shoulders with scholars self-identified as centrist, middle-of-the-road, politically moderate, religious, and even conservative when Wesley Wildman, a School of Theology professor, asked me to become a research associate at the Institute for the Bio-Cultural Study of Religion. At meetings with fellow members of the institute’s Spectrums Project, whose goal is to find strategies for mitigating religious extremism and polarized religious discourse, I was able to ask hard questions of people I respected. For example, why are ideological conservatives pro–big business, slashing food stamps in order to “shrink government” while subsidizing agribusiness?

One could even say that conservatives in Congress prioritize supporting their in-group, and their in-group is pro-business. Free-market capitalism does seem to be a different beast from social conservatism. A conservative colleague pointed me to enlightening essays about this in the American Conservative, a magazine I found to be far more reasonable than expected. Now, instead of inching away when I meet someone who expresses conservative political values, I take the opportunity to learn. And not just because some conservatives join forces with liberals by being against patriarchy, racism, and my-country-first patriotism. There’s something else about conservatives that is interesting: they’re happier than liberals.

Circle the answers you think best complete this sentence: If you are the houseguest of a friend-of-a-friend, your stay might be physically and socially more comfortable if your hosts are a) liberal b) conservative, but the conversation will be more intellectually stimulating if your hosts are a) liberal b) conservative.

If you answered b and a, then your intuitions are consistent with a growing literature on how personality and cognitive function match up with ideological beliefs. Conservatives are (on average) sociable, agreeable, and conscientious, as well as concerned about pleasing and fitting in with others of their group. When compared to conservatives, liberals are (on average), less socially astute and less attuned to the needs of others, less agreeable, and overall, less happy. On the intellectual side, liberals, compared to conservatives, prefer abstract, intellectual topics, as is consistent with their broader moral scope. Liberals are concerned with starvation in Africa, climate change, the threatened biosphere, factory farming, and issues that, important as they are, are far removed from the ordinary American’s day-to-day existence.

Does big-picture, abstract thinking cause liberals to be less happy, limiting the ability to appreciate our lives in the here and now? Or is it conservatives’ concern with lasting marriage, strong family cohesiveness, and day-to-day sociality that tips the scales toward greater daily contentment?

These ideas have been at the heart of my personal and intellectual journey in the last decade, during which I got married and gave birth to twin boys. It makes more sense to me now to incorporate into one’s tool kit all the strategies for a fulfilling life. When we understand more of the full set of ways to be human, we can be more human.

Catherine Caldwell-Harris, a College of Arts & Sciences associate professor of psychology, can be reached at charris@bu.edu. A version of this article was originally published in the Fall 2013 Bostonia.

“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact Rich Barlow at barlowr@bu.edu. BU Today reserves the right to reject or edit submissions. The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not intended to represent the views of Boston University.


32 Comments on POV: How a Liberal Learned to Like Conservatives

  • Matt on 01.28.2014 at 7:38 am

    This is an interesting and well-written perspective Catherine. But as a conservative grad student here at BU, I have to say: if I wanted to better fit in, I would Absolutely be, or act, liberal. And in saying “fitting in”, I mean with both classmates and faculty. AND I’m in the MBA program. Have to think it’s hard to find a conservative grad student at the CAS who enjoys a sense of conformity.

    • Mara Mellstrom on 01.28.2014 at 2:23 pm

      Haha! Well said, Matt. If you’re trying to be conspicuous, don’t be a conservative in Boston!

    • Cindy on 07.19.2014 at 9:42 am

      @Matt I agree with you! I was assistant director of a grad program at a land grant university as well as a clinical adjunct faculty member — until I could not longer bear the social aspects of my position. I was a “closet” conservative. As such, I heard my colleagues candid disparaging remarks about conservatives. However, I love intellectual conversations and being within the university world fed my mind, which was and is always hungry. To be accepted on campus and on my team,I kept any thoughts that were conservative at all in nature to myself. And I had to watch my facial expressions and body language also out of fear I would give myself away.

      I believe that diversity of thought should exist on a campus in order to deepen and broaden knowledge. But the thoughts of conservatives are deemed by liberals to belong to people who are intellectually shallow. It was crystal that any conservative views that might be expressed by me would be met with unwelcoming reactions, perhaps not spoken but definitely present. I made that mistake once or twice and learned.

      In the 60s, this was not the case. Conservative and liberal thinkers co-existed on campuses. That to me is a far more stimulating environment than the echo chamber that exists on campuses today.

      I miss being part of the university community. My mind misses it. But who I am is not accepted on campus and I could not bear to live my life there pretending. I left.

  • Jeffrey Spiegel on 01.28.2014 at 7:59 am

    How remarkable and revealing that it is newsworthy when a professor learns that an individual with social or political views different from the liberal mainstraim of academia do not necessarily require one to “inch away”.

    The author has clearly improved her intellectual honesty by recognizing that perhaps the liberal position is not the definitive truth, but rather a perspective that may not be best in tune with the needs of all individuals or societies at all times.

    Touched upon, but lacking in a short format article like this, is understanding that true conservatives desire improved lives for all people (starving Africans, those threatened by factory farming, and those not affiliated with big business included). However, conservatives differ in how to best achieve these goals. Believe it or not, studies often show that, for example, raising the minimum wage, enacting certain environmental controls, and other liberal mainstays seem to have the opposite of the desired effects when subjected to critical scientific scrutiny.

    It’s great to want the betterment of your fellow men and women, but better to critically appraise outcomes and not to blindly adhere to dubious policy interventions. Surprisingly, it may be possible to help those in need best through support of apparently detestable organizations such as business and industry.

    Hopefully, this article will allow some to open their minds and will allow campuses to recognize their need to broaden their faculty by adding more conservative thinkers.

    Anybody who has gotten this far in my comments is urged to review the writings of Professor Thomas Sowell – available at tosowell.com

    • Mara Mellstrom on 01.28.2014 at 2:30 pm

      As if Thomas Sowell’s works will make it onto a campus like BU. Throughout my time here, I’ve read the Communist Manifesto 10+ times and the American Constitution 0.

      • Mark on 01.28.2014 at 3:06 pm

        Curious as to who is stopping you from reading the Constitution on your own?

        • Jeffrey Spiegel on 01.28.2014 at 10:43 pm

          I believe the point is that the Constitution is a more important document for human rights than the communist manifesto, yet it is taught less at BU. Certainly, reading the Constitution is obviously beneficial for one’s education and could be a more common part of the curriculum.

        • Jack on 01.29.2014 at 12:15 am

          Mara did not imply anyone stopped her from reading the Constitution, the point is the BU syllabus emphasizes Marx over the Founding Fathers.

      • PhD Student on 01.29.2014 at 10:04 am

        This is probably going to vary a lot depending on the courses you’re taking. One of the goals of a university education is to expose you to ideas and writings you otherwise might not encounter. You probably read & studied the constitution in high school but not Marx & Engels. But Marx & Engels were also highly influential for many academic fields because they proposed theories that explained major social processes so it may be important to cover their work in order to understand arguments going on in your area of study. Even if you end up disagreeing with their arguments you still have to understand something before you can competently debate it.

        The Constitution, in contrast, was less influential in the sense that it does not propose a theory about human nature and societies. That’s not to say it wasn’t an incredibly important document, but the founding fathers didn’t come up with those ideas on their own. They were influenced by major philosophers like Hobbes and Locke. In other words, the constitution is a *product* of philosophy and social theory, unlike Marx & Engels’ work which is *proposing* a philosophy & social theory. The communist equivalent would be the Russian constitution of 1918.

        However, history and pre-law courses should cover the Constitution where relevant. And certainly if your department makes you read Marx & Engels that often they need to rethink their approach because that is just boring and unproductive.

  • Ryan on 01.28.2014 at 8:54 am

    Some points the author makes in this article concern me. One of them is that she seems to nearly efface any normative distinctions between different liberalism and conservativism, apparently preferring to merely describe their differences and explain them in quasi-naturalistic terms (“Cross-cultural psychologists do not view either individualism or collectivism as inherently superior or inferior, understanding that each system has evolved to solve the problem of how individuals can benefit from living in groups and seeing both as having pros and cons.”)

    But it’s not clear to me that this kind of analysis–important as it is–gets to the heart of debates about these two views. For example, we can give increasingly detailed descriptions of how conservatives typically value family ties more than liberals do, but how useful is this analysis when valuing family ties is taken to imply that same-sex relationships–especially those that can’t reproduce–are inherently inferior, or worse, deviant? This question becomes especially pressing when we start taking the author’s language of ‘purity’ seriously. Whether you’re a conservative or a liberal, using this word to describe a facet of one’s worldview is ill-advised.

    This suggests that perhaps the most significant shortcoming in this article is that the author’s distinction between ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ worldviews is too facile. These categories, often so crude and divisive, do little to help us understand the normative dimensions of our commitments, and they too easily allow us to naturalize these commitments and thereby impede critical thought about whether they’re actually warranted or can withstand scrutiny.

    If, on the other hand, the author is merely intending to describe differences between views but not adjudicate between them, then the article is to some degree accurate, but unilluminating.

  • someone_you_probably_know on 01.28.2014 at 9:24 am

    I have to say, I am of two minds on the article. One the one hand, it is pleasing to see someone stepping forward and promoting an understanding of disparate points of view. One the other hand, the glib voice of the title and, to a lesser degree, the article presents is rather grating. The entire subtext seems to be: “Its amazing! I actually looked to the Right and I found actual people there. Intelligent people even.”

    Of course, I have read my share of articles where the subtext is identical, but the direction is opposite.

    To me, articles like this are analogous to having a charming dentist. Sure, the visit starts out pleasant. In the middle though, you just feel numb. And by the end you’re in pain and wishing you’d not come at all.

  • Jonathan Donald on 01.28.2014 at 9:42 am

    This is a an enjoyable perspective. Thank you for writing it.

  • Bob on 01.28.2014 at 9:43 am

    Some good points, but the first four paragraphs gave me the creeps. Dyeing your hair shows a lack of respect for your manager? Come on. Maybe she just likes purple. I’m sure that a quiet classroom full of fearful sheep is a plus for those in charge, but I’ll take freedom of thought and expression any day.

    • XYZ on 01.29.2014 at 9:57 am

      Exactly. Dying your hair, or any choice of personal expression, is a reflection of the person not their manager. Perhaps if management didn’t walk around thinking itself the center of the universe this wouldn’t be an issue at all. How is having purple hair disrepect? The writer never explains other than to suggest that not looking like everyone else is somehow an affront. In this example, conservation for the sake of itself is irrational. Anyone looking down on said manager because their employee has purple hair is maintaining the same failed logic.

    • Asli on 02.07.2014 at 10:33 am

      And while she might find dying the hair into purple unnecessary (which I do, too – but I would save this to myself in order not to oppress others), where will it stop? Who has the right to determine what is disrespect or being not in compliance with the norms of the community you live in?
      In Arab or in Middle Eastern countries, or even in some parts of Turkey now, you are an outlier if you do not carry a headscarf. This is seen as disrespect to the community/religion values – so, should a woman close her hairs, then, because it makes her stand out?
      Or what about gays/lesbians? Is it disrespect to the fellow employees and managers, if a lesbian wears male clothes, because it makes her stand out?
      I think we should discuss why something makes somebody to stand out – is it the person’s or the community’s problem?
      Also, as a native of a developing country, I can definitely say it is not good if everybody fits the norms. Because this can only happen if there is a very strong leader and many sheep who do not question the authority.
      In short, if there is no clothing norm, you can not impose any rule – she should have been noted of this before starting her job, so she could decide for herself whether to become an employee there or not.

  • etseq on 01.28.2014 at 10:06 am

    Was this one giant plug for Haight’s book because it reads like a clifff notes version – right down to thee personal anecdote about the trip to a non-western country which serves as some sort of post-colonial morality tale. The problem with Haight and his ilk is that they confuse descriptive analysis with normative prescription and attempt to reduce macro level cultural analysis to black and white rules for politics and other social interaction. The glib mixture of facts and values violates the basic rules of social science going back to Durkheim.
    The end result is a smug essay that manages to insult both liberals and conservatives (how exactly these categories are defined is another fatal flaw) but allows the author to claim moral superiority as the platonic ideal of centrism.

  • Neena on 01.28.2014 at 10:07 am

    I’d be interested to know exactly what “growing literature” suggests liberals are “less attuned to the needs of others, less agreeable, and overall, less happy.” Is this self reported? Based on mental health statistics? How exactly has this been concluded?

    Conventional wisdom suggests otherwise, and the latest Gallup-Healthways poll, at least, gives us a list of happiest/unhappiest states that is blue heavy up top and red heavy as you move towards the more miserable. Seven of the 10 “happiest” states went to Obama in the last election according to that poll, including notorious bastions of liberalism Hawaii (#1), Vermont (#5), and Massachusetts (#10). Conversely, Obama only carried 2 of the “least happy” states, and those two unhappy places are really battleground states (Nevada and Ohio). http://www.foxnews.com/health/2013/02/28/happiest-us-state-is/

    Things like social intelligence and happiness aren’t easy to define, so it’d be nice if you could provide some sources for your assertions that liberals are one way versus conservatives as the other, or at least better explain how you are defining those things. Stereotypes and generalizations, particularly if they are unfounded, don’t really do anything to help opposing groups like liberals and conservatives come together.

  • PhD Student on 01.28.2014 at 10:07 am

    As a liberal, a PhD student at Boston University, and a scholar focused on studying human cultures I’m very disappointed to discover this was authored by a professor at our university. It reveals an incredibly biased and limited viewpoint and is poorly thought out & argued.

    It is incredibly simplistic and incorrect to lump all humans into conservative and liberal as if they are clear and defined categories with values that are set. Throughout this article the terms used are poorly if at all defined. The author seems to erroneously assume that a small yet vocal set of contemporary American Republicans represent the entire spectrum of peoples who identify as conservative. Also, the arbitrary and stereotypical terms the author uses to identify who counts as conservative & liberal are obviously problematic. Even if you take the author’s incredibly narrow view of this political spectrum compassion is not limited to liberals nor is disgust avoidance limited to conservatives (in fact, most anthropologists would argue it is a cross-cultural norm to avoid taboo & culturally “gross” things.)

    I am also deeply concerned with the stereotyping and outdated descriptions of “East Asian cultures.” Her discussion reads like something from the 1940s and I hope it does not represent how cross-cultural psychology actually approaches studying cultures today. Boston University is home to some wonderful scholars of East Asia and often offers courses about the cultures of places such as China & Japan. Perhaps the author should sit in on such a course to learn a bit more about those societies in a more nuanced and accurate way.

    I do agree that it is important for students and professors to engage meaningfully with people who have different viewpoints. I hope that most Boston University students are not so judgmental and bigoted that they would dismiss friendship with and opinions from someone who has different political ideas. It is worrying that someone who held such views teaches students here. Conversations with people holding different religious views, political viewpoints, cultural backgrounds, ethnic heritages, and economic situations enrich our understanding of humanity and increase our compassion. But for those conversations to be productive we shouldn’t start from a place of assuming difference because it sets people up to be defensive and antagonistic. Instead, we should encourage people to talk to one another as just that – people.

    • Innocent on 03.27.2014 at 3:35 pm

      Lol, I agree and disagree with PhD student. Basically you are suggesting that people are not individual complexities but multiple complexities. Which is a lot like saying, ‘If I turn a light on I can see’ the professor above did not need to go into the fact that for instance I am a Conservative that LOVES having dynamic discussions on Global Warming, Food Production methodology, Water Conservation and a host of other concepts and ideas and do so frequently in polite and thoughtful ways.

      But your point on ‘not so judgmental and bigoted that they would dismiss friendship with and opinions from someone who has different political views amuses me because that is all to often what happens. It has to do more then anything with the concept of Tribeing and Liberals are as guilty of it as any human being out there. This is true regardless of whether they are a student or not.

  • Josh on 01.28.2014 at 11:22 am

    “Liberals are concerned with starvation in Africa, climate change, the threatened biosphere, factory farming, and issues that, important as they are, are far removed from the ordinary American’s day-to-day existence.”

    Try telling a black male between the ages of 18 and 35 that the issue of for profit prisons doesn’t affect their day to day life. Try telling someone who had their medical issue cause them to file for bankruptcy (60% of bankruptcies in the US are caused by medical bills, after all), that the for profit healthcare system isn’t an issue that effects their day to day. To say nothing of abortion rights, sexual violence, food stamps…

    This is an article heavy on handwaving and light on thought.

  • Jessica on 01.28.2014 at 12:16 pm

    I’m an administrative assistant in the Dean’s Office in SMG and I have brightly colored hair! Fortunately my boss here did not find my individual hair choice do be an affront to herself or her department. There’s no uniform here and we are all encouraged to engage with other folks in ways that show our personalities. I have a great deal of respect for management here, especially since I am accepted and encouraged to stand out in many different ways.

  • Mark on 01.28.2014 at 3:12 pm

    Someone who wants to have purple hair is not equivalent to someone wanting reproductive or same-sex marriage rights. It is a trivialization of the important and basic rights that right wing ideologues attempt to block in the U.S. everyday.

  • R on 01.28.2014 at 10:43 pm

    I enjoyed this article however I find it pretty sad an entire article needed to be written about “wow, I actually discovered some conservative individuals weren’t unintelligent devil’s spawn!” I myself am a ‘liberal’ (another problematic thing was, as others have noted, the too-general labeling) and sincerely hope that other young liberals, as well as conservatives find healthy discussion, friendship, and understanding not as rare as the author apparently does.

    While I do have to agree that many American republican politicians certainly do not display the legitimate and intelligent philosophies behind conservative political philosophy (and actually drive many away from learning more by erring their archaic ideas about women, sexuality, race, sexual violence, foreign policy and on…and on…), the belief that the deeper-rooted ideologies are somehow outdated or maladaptive as a whole isn’t accurate at all. This is one reason why I wish we, political science undergrads, had more opportunities to study conservative literature and philosophy. One can only beat the dead horse so long complaining about the hot water some contemporary republicans have steeped themselves in, in the last 1-2 decades. BU should do a better job with offering a wide variety of viewpoints- even if teachers themselves hold specific beliefs one way or the other.

    • Innocent on 03.27.2014 at 3:40 pm

      I think you confuse airing archaic ideals with the press finding and talking up those that are foolish and making them the character for the entire group. While ignoring and not giving time to those that espouse in a a more fluent manner the actual beliefs and concepts behind those beliefs.

      The same COULD be done of Democrats and Liberals however, and if you do not know this reference it is very much because the press did not play it up, I highly doubt Guam will sink into the sea if we a few hundred more troops stationed on it.

      I take solace in the fact that you would like to actually hear real political and thought and philosophy. However I doubt that you would get it from BU.

  • nathan on 01.29.2014 at 9:03 am

    Back in the 60s they said “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” and this is a good example why. As people age, a lot of them seem to exhaust their compassion. Failing to see the world with the freshness of youth, they fall back into conservative “values” that value their personal comfort levels about change and fashion over the “others” values of expression, comfort and survival.

    Have you ever met a “compassionate conservative?” The cultural values of selfishness and fear are part of a mental old age. Sorry you lost your youth.

  • John on 01.29.2014 at 2:42 pm


    This is a quote attributed to Churchill:

    “If you are not a liberal at 20, you have no heart. If you are not Conservative by 40, you have no brain.”

    That rings true for many of us. It is about living and learning. It is about thinking through issues instead of feeling through issues. And the most compassionate people I know are conservative.

    Conservatives donate 30% more than liberals and are 17% more likely to donate blood. The list goes on.

    It is a thoroughly documented fact that conservative are significantly more generous despite being, generally, less affluent than liberals.

    Liberals (not classic liberals) tend to be more generous with other people’s money and often confuse holding certain political views strongly and donating $20 a year to NPR with compassion. Conflating strong opinions with compassion just means that your youth has not allowed your brain to develop to maturity.

    • Neena on 01.30.2014 at 11:37 am

      Conservatives love trotting out the one study that suggests they are more charitable than liberals, but that myth has since been debunked. Sorry.


      The publicly derisive attitude of representatives elected by conservatives towards the needy and less fortunate directly contradicts this compassion they supposedly have. The “more affluent” liberals who support paying higher taxes and the distribution of those taxes being directed at combatting poverty, inadequate education, and inequality versus the conservatives who aim to defund programs that feed and educate the poor are evidence of where compassion lies, not how much you give your church.

      • John on 01.30.2014 at 5:28 pm

        The devil is in the details. Your study is the one that has actually been debunked. They threw out one of the largest segments of conservatives – religious conservatives – to make it work. Which is not only flawed but dishonest. So, objectively, conservatives still give a significantly higher amount than liberals statistically.

        Affluent liberals support failed policies that make them feel good about themselves with no self sacrifice. Paying taxes is not charity. Liberal social policy has vastly increased not only poverty, but multi-generational poverty.

        • Asli on 02.07.2014 at 10:39 am

          John, can you give a reference to your claims?
          “So, objectively, conservatives still give a significantly higher amount than liberals statistically.”
          According to “your” objectivity? Are there any scientific studies you can share with us? You know, gut feelings can not be generalized.
          You are also mentioning below that the quote is right, but you are not supporting it. Right or wrong, at least Neena gave a reference…

        • Asli on 02.07.2014 at 10:46 am

          Now that you said details, can you please point me out in the original article where you saw that they omitted the religious conservatives in the study?

    • Neena on 01.30.2014 at 11:37 am

      Also, Churchill didn’t say that.


  • John on 01.30.2014 at 5:29 pm

    Yeah. That is why I said “This is a quote attributed to Churchill” not a quote from Churchill. Regardless, whoever said it was right.

Post Your Comment

(never shown)