The moral roots of socio-political attitudes: how moral foundations theory can help to understand contested scientific issues and political ideology

Isabel Rossen

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

2852 Downloads (Pure)


In recent years, the study of morality has changed in several important ways. First, research shows that rather than being a reasoned process, moral judgements are based on fast, emotion-laden processes, and are often subject to motivated reasoning. Second, it has been proposed that the moral domain consists not only of concerns about whether someone is harmed or treated unfairly, but also concerns about maintaining the integrity of the social order. A growing line of enquiry has applied these insights to understand the intractable nature of political conflict, as one of intuitive, moral divisions over the ideal nature of society. In the current thesis, Moral Foundations Theory, an influential taxonomy of morality in this vein, is employed to understand the unique moral underpinnings of socio-political attitudes.
In the first half of the thesis, Studies 1 and 2 explore the moral and political profile of two contested scientific issues – climate change and vaccination. Given that climate change scepticism is primarily found among those who identify as right wing, Study 1 explores the role of two moral domains proposed to underpin political conservatism. Results show that climate change scepticism is not only predicted by morality aimed at maintenance of the social order, but also independently by morality concerned with the right to liberty. Implications for the development of climate change communication are discussed.
In Study 2, the dispositional and moral profiles of those who hold anti-vaccination views are modelled. Results show that anti-vaccination attitudes are predicted by psychological reactance, through the moral endorsement of liberty. Anti-vaccination views were also positively associated with purity related moral concerns and negatively associated with authority related morality. Thus, I argue that caution should be applied with communication or policy initiatives that restrict freedom or invoke the likelihood of contamination.
Arising out of Studies 1 and 2, the next three studies explore the structure of political attitudes in Australia, and the moral foundations associated with the political attitude structures identified. This line of enquiry was partly derived from Studies 1 and 2, which demonstrated that the single item measure of political ideology, ranging from left wing to right wing, may obscure important distinctions in the structure of political ideology, in particular, the separation of social conservatism and libertarianism, identified in Studies 1 and 2. Therefore, Studies 3-5 report the development and validation of a comprehensive and multidimensional measure of political attitudes, the Political MAP. Most importantly, the Political MAP is employed to demonstrate the utility of a more fine-grained understanding of political ideology by showing four distinct and theoretically meaningful factors of political attitudes with unique relations with socio-political orientations, personality traits, and importantly, moral preferences, that are otherwise masked by the dominant uni-dimensional political ideology self-placement item.
Together, the findings of the current thesis contribute both to our understanding of the moral underpinnings of specific politicised issues, and the structure of political ideology more broadly. I show the utility in employing Moral Foundations Theory to understand climate change scepticism, anti-vaccination attitudes and a multi-dimensional structure of political attitudes.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
  • Lawrence, Carmen, Supervisor
  • Dunlop, Patrick, Supervisor
  • Lewandowsky, Stephan, Supervisor
Publication statusUnpublished - May 2015


Dive into the research topics of 'The moral roots of socio-political attitudes: how moral foundations theory can help to understand contested scientific issues and political ideology'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this