Personality and Civic Engagement: An Integrative Framework for the Study of Trait Effects on Political Behavior

This is a review of Personality and Civic Engagement: An Integrative Framework for the Study of Trait Effects on Political Behavior (2010) by Jeffery J. Mondak, Matthew V. Hibbing, Damarys Canache, Mitchell A. Seligson, and Mary R. Anderson. American Political Science Review 104 (February): 85-110. You can find the original in Google Scholar.

We cannot understand the effects of personality without accounting for the environment, and we cannot understand the effects of the environment without accounting for personality.

Political scientists pay very little attention to personality when they study political behavior. Instead, they prefer to look at environmental variables (campaign spending, personal income, personal education, candidate quality, electoral competitiveness, electoral system, etc.).

A few years ago,  Alford, Funk, and Hibbing challenged that environmental approach by showing that political orientations are genetically transmitted. Later work by Fowler and his colleagues has confirmed that our political leanings are genetically influenced. But although this genetic research has drawn our attention toward biological influences, it has not produced a theory that can explain why biology matters.

The goal of Mondak et al.’s recent APSR article is to develop a theory that can link these genetic studies with the more widespread environmental studies. The figure below (from the article) summarizes the theory. Note that they expect neither environmental factors nor personality traits to have much of a direct effect on political behavior. Instead, most of the effect is interactive. For example, if a person has an extroverted personality type, and if a form of political participation is social (e.g. a caucus as opposed to donating to a candidate via internet), then you will expect that person to participate. Here’s the figure:

Figure 1 from Mondak et al 2010

Figure 1 from Mondak et al 2010

By “personality,” the authors refer to the “Big Five” personality index widely used within psychological circles. The Big Five traits include these:

  • Openness to new experience. Folks who seek new experiences and information as opposed to folks content with their lot.
  • Conscientiousness. Organized, hard-working folks as opposed to lazy or sloppy people.
  • Extroversion vs introversion.
  • Agreeableness. Warm, kind, sympathetic, generous people as opposed to unkind, distant, cold, miserly people.
  • Emotional stability vs neuroticism. Calm, relaxed, stable as opposed to tense, nervous.

The authors stress a single main point: We cannot understand the effects of personality without accounting for the environment, and we cannot understand the effects of the environment without accounting for personality. They illustrate this argument by showing that certain types of political participation can be predicted well by interacting personality traits with environmental variables, but the empirical analysis seems peripheral here. As I understand it, the main goal of this paper is just to get political scientists thinking about the importance of personality.

They expect this personality research to supplant genetic research. The genetic research has shown an interesting relationship between biological factors and political behavior but without providing any sort of theoretical mechanism. By contrast, psychologists have shown that genes and other biological factors “account for most of the variance in personality traits” (p 89), but personality traits are the proximate cause of later behaviors.

Comments and Criticism

These are novel arguments, and I look forward to seeing how they influence future behavioral research. At the same time, I find myself wondering how much there is to gain by looking at personality. The authors have argued that personality can influence political behaviors (turnout and other political participation). But the genetic literature has shown that genetics influence political dispositions (liberal vs conservative, Republican vs Democratic). If Mondak et al. really want to show that personality is the real (proximate) cause of anything “caused” by genetics, then they need to show that personality influences political dispositions as well.

Update: See my review of a study that does just that–Gerber et al.’s “Personality and Political Attitudes.”

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