Cognitive Style: Left-Liberals Most Feminine, Libertarians Most Masculine

The Empathizer-Systemizer scale (adapted from Baron-Cohen, 2004) measures the tendency to empathize, defined as "the drive to identify another person's emotions and thoughts, and to respond to these with an appropriate emotion." and to systemize, or "the drive to analyze the variables in a system, and to derive the underlying rules that govern the behavior of the system." In short, empathizing is about understanding the social world whereas systemizing is about understanding the world of inanimate objects and nature. We selected 20 items from the full 40-item empathizer scale, and 20 items from the full 75-item systemizer scale to create a single survey that could be completed in less than 10 minutes. The measure was completed by 9,634 participants (5,067 men, 7,854 liberals, 1,010 conservatives, and 770 libertarians).

Results. Figure 10 shows that libertarians score the lowest of any group on empathizing, and the highest on systemizing. In fact, libertarians are the only group that scored higher on systemizing than on empathizing. Given that these traits are known to differ between men and women, it is important to examine these effects in each sex separately. Table 2 shows that the same effects hold when looking only at men, or when looking only at women.

Interpretation. Research by Baron-Cohen (2004) has shown that relatively high systemizing and low empathizing scores are characteristic of the male brain, with very extreme scores indicating autism. We might say that liberals have the most “feminine” cognitive style, and libertarians have the most “masculine.” These effects hold even when men and women are examined separately, as can be seen in Table 2. These differences have many obvious connections to gendered political issues, such as women’s rights, animal rights, and social welfare policies. Indeed, the “feminizing” of the Democratic party in the 1970s (Winter, in press) may help explain why libertarians moved increasingly into the Republican party in the 1980s.


Table 2: Cohen's d-scores for scales in Study 2

Libertarians Compared to Liberals

Libertarians Compared to Conservatives
Scale Overall Men Women

Overall Men Women
Empathizer -0.73 ** -0.57 ** -0.62 **

-0.41 ** -0.35 ** -0.36 **
Systemizer 0.50 ** 0.23 ** 0.44 **

0.31 ** 0.15 * 0.42 **

Note: * p<.01, ** p<.001 (two tailed)


Figure 10: Baron-Cohen Empathizer-Systematizer Scale

Compared to liberals and conservatives, libertarians score higher on systemizing and lower on empathizing. This is consistent among both men and women sub-samples. (N=7,854 liberals, 1,010 conservatives, and 770 libertarians).

-- Ravi Iyer , Spassena Koleva , Jesse Graham , Peter H. Ditto , Jonathan Haidt

from "Understanding Libertarian Morality: The Psychological Roots of an Individualist Ideology"

Quoted on Sun Sep 11th, 2011