In social psychology, it's no surprise to see conflicting, counter-intuitive results. That's possible because studies are primarily based on surveys. So one psychologist will claim conservatives are more obedient to leadership, yet in practice conservatives tend to be anti-leadership. In American culture, it tends to be liberals who are more social authoritarian and rely on government to control behavior.

That is the problem with trying to map simple politics to actual underlying psychological science. Liberals want to ban guns and conservatives want to ban gay marriage makes for an easy narrative, depending on which side of the political aisle the journalist is stumping for.

Psychologists do believe that liberals have a more difficult time unifying under a platform. Anti-GMO and anti-vaccine activists have had some success getting Democrats in Congress to push laws forward but it tends to be token support, while global warming and health care have had greater uptake. Conservatives tend to be more willing to compromise, a position that liberals will deny (see?), say psychologists who try to figure it all out in two Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin papers.

Credit: NYU

Loyalty to leadership

Historically, conservatives were viewed as being more obedient and more respectful of leadership and liberals tended to be associated with protests and acts of rebellion. Obviously that is not the case in the modern era. When Senator Obama was elected president nothing much changed in policies but anti-war protests and complaints about government interference in science halted immediately. Rebellion was just well-funded campaigning, though the protesters were not aware of it.

Previous surveys led psychologists to suggest that the act of obedience is divisive, and that this cultural war among liberals and conservatives may stem from the fact that obedience elicits different emotional responses. Researchers at the University of Winnipeg delved further into this perception of obedience to authority and found that liberals and conservatives are more similar than they may appear. 

Lead researcher Jeremy Frimer explains; "beneath the surface of some of these ideological debates is a fundamental need to belong to a group that has a strong leader. Both sides feel the need. And both sides believe that people should do as their leader tells them to do. The difference between the groups is not whether they value obedience to authority. Rather, the difference is about which authority they think is worthy of obedience." 

In surveying participants, the researchers found that the act of obedience itself elicits similar moral sentiments from both conservatives and liberals; the differences sparked only when participants perceived the authorities to advance a political agenda. Testing the participants perceptions proved trickier than expected, because the researchers found that the concepts of authority and obedience automatically elicit thoughts of a conservative authority. They believe that this finding may explain why obedience to authority appears to be a concept conservatives favor over liberals, even while they lobby for less authority.

Getting beyond the cognitive baggage of the term 'authority' in the first two surveys, the third and final  illustrates that liberals and conservatives do value obedience equally. Authorities with a conservative agenda, such as religious leaders and commanding military officers, elicit a positive moral response from participants who are politically conservative.

Authorities with liberal agendas, such as environmentalists and civil rights activists, elicited positive moral sentiment from liberal participants. Neutral leaders, like office managers and janitors, were equally positive for both liberals and conservatives. Obedience itself is not ideologically divisive, but rather depends on how similar the authority is in their viewpoints and opinions, and conservatives will call for rebellion when the authorities are from the 'other team.' 

Agreement and consensus

Researchers at New York University and the University of Toronto explored the concept that conservatives desire to share reality more strongly than liberals. The perception of in-group consensus can help mobilize group members toward collective efforts and a stronger intention to vote in a particular election.

 "Individuals can attain a sense of shared reality through perceiving that other people hold similar beliefs as they personally do," lead author Chadly Stern explains. "For example, we found that conservatives, more than liberals, perceived that politically like-minded others made similar judgments concerning whether a target person was born in November or December, simply based on seeing a picture of the person. Even though this judgment was devoid of political meaning, conservatives' perceptions of similarity were associated with the feeling that they "shared reality" with other conservatives." 

The findings suggest that perceiving consensus on non-political judgments, like guessing someone's birth month, has implications for outcomes that are politically meaningful. Liberals appear to be more motivated to perceive their beliefs as relatively unique, which can undermine the development of a cohesive movement. A stronger desire for shared reality among conservatives may be why the Tea Party gained more momentum than the Occupy Wall Street movement. Though the movement last decade was as successful as the Tea Party movement, until they were caught in corruption.