Media Releases

Moments of spirituality can induce liberal attitudes, U of T researchers say

February 26, 2013

TORONTO, ON — Peo­ple become more polit­i­cal­ly lib­er­al imme­di­ate­ly after prac­tic­ing a spir­i­tu­al exer­cise such as med­i­ta­tion, researchers at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to have found.

“There’s great over­lap between reli­gious beliefs and polit­i­cal ori­en­ta­tions,” says one of the study authors, Dr. Jor­dan Peter­son of U of T’s Depart­ment of Psy­chol­o­gy. “We found that reli­gious indi­vid­u­als tend to be more con­ser­v­a­tive and spir­i­tu­al peo­ple tend to be more lib­er­al. Induc­ing a spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ence through a guid­ed med­i­ta­tion exer­cise led both lib­er­als and con­ser­v­a­tives to endorse more lib­er­al polit­i­cal atti­tudes.”

Lead author Dr. Jacob Hirsh of U of T’s Rot­man School of Man­age­ment explains that “while reli­gious­ness is char­ac­ter­ized by devo­tion to a spe­cif­ic tra­di­tion, set of prin­ci­ples, or code of con­duct, spir­i­tu­al­i­ty is asso­ci­at­ed with the direct expe­ri­ence of self-tran­scen­dence and the feel­ing that we’re all con­nect­ed.”

In three stud­ies, the researchers – Hirsh, Peter­son, and Megan Wal­berg, exam­ined their par­tic­i­pants’ polit­i­cal views in rela­tion to their reli­gious­ness and spir­i­tu­al­i­ty. In the first study, they asked 590 Amer­i­can par­tic­i­pants whether they iden­ti­fied as Demo­c­rat or Repub­li­can. In the sec­ond study, they mea­sured 703 par­tic­i­pants’ polit­i­cal ori­en­ta­tions and sup­port for the major Amer­i­can and Cana­di­an polit­i­cal par­ties. The researchers con­firmed that reli­gious­ness was asso­ci­at­ed with polit­i­cal con­ser­vatism, while spir­i­tu­al­i­ty was asso­ci­at­ed with polit­i­cal lib­er­al­ism. These asso­ci­a­tions were in turn due to the com­mon val­ues under­ly­ing these ori­en­ta­tions: con­ser­vatism and reli­gious­ness both empha­size the impor­tance of tra­di­tion, while lib­er­al­ism and spir­i­tu­al­i­ty both empha­size the impor­tance of equal­i­ty and social har­mo­ny.

In the third study, the researchers recruit­ed 317 par­tic­i­pants from the U.S. and asked half to com­plete a spir­i­tu­al exer­cise con­sist­ing of a guid­ed med­i­ta­tion video. Those who watched the video were asked to close their eyes and breathe deeply, imag­in­ing them­selves in a nat­ur­al set­ting and feel­ing con­nect­ed to the envi­ron­ment. They were then asked about their polit­i­cal ori­en­ta­tion and to rate how spir­i­tu­al they felt. The researchers report­ed that, com­pared to those in the con­trol group, par­tic­i­pants who med­i­tat­ed felt sig­nif­i­cant­ly high­er lev­els of spir­i­tu­al­i­ty and expressed more lib­er­al polit­i­cal atti­tudes, includ­ing a reduced sup­port for “tough on crime” poli­cies and a pref­er­ence for lib­er­al polit­i­cal can­di­dates.

“Spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ences seem to make peo­ple feel more of a con­nec­tion with oth­ers,” says Hirsh. “The bound­aries we nor­mal­ly main­tain between our­selves and the world tend to dis­solve dur­ing spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ences. These feel­ings of self-tran­scen­dence make it eas­i­er to rec­og­nize that we are all part of the same sys­tem, pro­mot­ing an inclu­sive and egal­i­tar­i­an mind­set.”

The researchers hope that these find­ings can not only advance our under­stand­ing of spir­i­tu­al­i­ty, but also help future polit­i­cal dia­logue.

“The con­ser­v­a­tive part of reli­gious belief has played an impor­tant role in hold­ing cul­tures togeth­er and estab­lish­ing com­mon rules. The spir­i­tu­al part, on the oth­er hand, helps cul­tures renew them­selves by adapt­ing to chang­ing cir­cum­stances,” says Peter­son. “Both right and left are nec­es­sary; it’s not that either is cor­rect, it’s that the dia­logue between them pro­duces the best chance we have at get­ting the bal­ance right. If peo­ple could under­stand that both sides have an impor­tant role to play in soci­ety, some of the unnec­es­sary ten­sion might be elim­i­nat­ed.”

“Spir­i­tu­al Lib­er­als and Reli­gious Con­ser­v­a­tives” was pub­lished in the Decem­ber edi­tion of Social Psy­cho­log­i­cal and Per­son­al­i­ty Sci­ence.


For more infor­ma­tion, con­tact:

Jacob Hirsh
Rot­man School of Man­age­ment, Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to
Tel: 416–978-3219

Jes­si­ca Lewis
Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to
Tel: 416–978-8887