Bleeding-heart liberals and hard-hearted conservatives: Political dehumanization in the United States

My previous blog post covered new research showing that liberals and conservatives are prejudiced against one another to an equal degree. In this post, I will review evidence that liberals’ and conservatives’ prejudices lead them to dehumanize their political opponents—that is, to see them as less than human.

According to dehumanization theory (Haslam, 2006), people dehumanize others along two separate dimensions of humanness: human nature and human uniqueness. Human nature (HN) encompasses traits that are seen as essential and fundamental to human beings (e.g., friendly, impatient). In contrast, human uniqueness (HU) entails traits that are seen as unique and distinctive to human beings, separating us from non-human animals (e.g., polite, shallow). Mechanistic dehumanization involves denying HN traits to groups, thereby characterizing those groups as unemotional, cold, and rigid, and likening them to machines. On the other hand, animalistic dehumanization involves denying HU traits to groups, thereby characterizing those groups as overly emotional and instinctual, and likening them to lower forms of animal life or children.

My colleagues and I recently examined how these different types of dehumanization can be seen in liberals’ and conservatives’ beliefs about each other (Crawford, Modri, & Motyl, 2013).  We reasoned that common stereotypes of liberals, such as “bleeding hearts”, reflect animalistic dehumanization, in that liberals are seen as lacking HU qualities, and possessing an over-abundance of HN qualities (e.g., passionate; trusting). In contrast, popular notions of conservatives as “rigid”, “self-interested”, and “hard-hearted” reflect mechanistic dehumanization, in that conservatives are seen as lacking HN qualities, and possessing an over-abundance of HU qualities (e.g., cold, organized).

There is also anecdotal evidence that political elites adopt these forms of animalistic and mechanistic dehumanization of liberals and conservatives, respectively. For example, President Obama’s re-election campaign successfully cast his opponent Mitt Romney as an “out-of-touch fat cat”, and Obama reportedly joked privately that Romney was “not human enough” to be elected President (Martin & Thrush, 2012). By contrast, Republican Senator John McCain’s 2008 campaign advertisements appeared to trivialize then-Senator Barack Obama by likening Obama to vapid and unserious celebrities.  

To test these ideas, we asked survey participants to rate liberals and conservatives on several HN and HU traits. As expected, people assigned more HN traits to liberals than to conservatives, and more HU traits to conservatives than to liberals. Looked at another way, people assigned more HN than HU traits to liberals, and more HU than HN traits to conservatives. Interestingly, these trait associations did not depend on the participants’ ideology—both liberal and conservative participants associated HN traits with liberals, and HU traits with conservatives. Thus, people do indeed hold different stereotypical beliefs about liberals and conservatives.

Moreover, we looked at what effect prejudice towards liberals and conservatives had on these HN and HU trait ratings. We found clear evidence of antipathy-based dehumanization. Specifically, liberals were more likely to associate negative HU traits (e.g., cold; hard-hearted) with conservatives, and this association was driven by prejudice against conservatives. Thus, liberals’ dislike of conservatives explains why they think of them as cold and unfeeling. Even more interestingly, conservatives were more likely to associate positive HN traits (e.g., passionate; fun-loving) with liberals, and this association was driven by prejudice against liberals. Thus, somewhat paradoxically, conservatives’ prejudice against liberals manifests in associating them with positive traits.  However, these positive traits (e.g., fun-loving; trusting; passionate) essentially function to belittle and trivialize liberals.

Together, these findings are consistent with the ideological conflict hypothesis (Brandt et al., 2014) discussed in my previous blog post, in that political prejudice occurs across the political spectrum. It builds on that work by showing the different ways in which liberals’ and conservatives’ prejudices manifest in ways that subtly dehumanize their political opponents.

There are two limitations to this work that I think should inspire future research. First, this study was conducted with U.S. participants evaluating U.S. political groups. Will these findings replicate in other political contexts, especially those in which there are more than two major political parties or divisions? Second, while political ideology is often thought of as unidimensional (i.e., left to right), many political psychologists are beginning to recognize the importance of a multi-dimensional account of political ideology that distinguishes between social and economic ideology (a topic I will cover in an upcoming blog post). Might patterns of political dehumanization further depend on which dimension of ideology (i.e., social or economic) is being considered? Answers to these and other interesting research questions will help us further develop our understanding of political prejudice and its consequences. 


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., Modri, S.A., & Motyl, M. (2013). Bleeding-heart liberals and hard-hearted conservatives: Subtle political dehumanization through differential attributions of human nature and human uniqueness traits. Journal of Social and Political Psychology, 1(1), 86-104. doi: 10.5964/jspp.v1i1.184

Haslam, N. (2006). Dehumanization: An integrative review. Personality & Social Psychology Review, 10, 252-264.

Lakoff, G. (2002). Moral politics: How liberals and conservatives think. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Martin, J., & Thrush, G. (2012). POLITICO ebook: Plenty of 2012 pitfalls for Obama and Romney. Retrieved April 25, 2013 from