The dual evolutionary foundations of political ideology


Research over the last fifty years has suggested that political attitudes and values around the globe are shaped by two ideological dimensions, often referred to as economic and social conservatism. However, it remains unclear why this ideological structure exists. Here we highlight the striking concordance between these dual dimensions of ideology and independent convergent evidence for two key shifts in the evolution of human group living. First, humans began to cooperate more and across wider interdependent networks. Second, humans became more group-minded, conforming to social norms in culturally marked groups and punishing norm-violators. We propose that fitness trade-offs and behavioural plasticity have maintained functional variation in willingness to cooperate and conform within modern human groups, naturally giving rise to the two dimensions of political ideology. Supported by evidence from across the behavioural sciences, this evolutionary framework provides insight into the biological and cultural basis of political ideology.

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Fig. 1: The number of scholarly and newspaper articles mentioning unidimensional and multidimensional approaches to political ideology.

Data availability

Dataset for the literature review in Fig. 1 is available at

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R code to reproduce Fig. 1 is available at


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We wish to thank A. Aktipis and members of the Language, Cognition, and Culture Lab at the University of Auckland for helpful comments on preliminary versions of this manuscript. This work was supported by a Royal Society of New Zealand Marsden Fund grant (#17-UOA-074) and a Rutherford Discovery Fellowship (#11-UOA-019) to Q.D.A. The funders had no role in the preparation of the manuscript or the decision to publish.

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S.C. and Q.D.A. drafted the manuscript, with significant input from K.F, A.C. and C.G.S.

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Correspondence to Quentin D. Atkinson.

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Claessens, S., Fischer, K., Chaudhuri, A. et al. The dual evolutionary foundations of political ideology. Nat Hum Behav 4, 336–345 (2020).

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