Personality and Political Attitudes: Relationships across Issue Domains and Political Contexts

This is a review of Personality and Political Attitudes: Relationships across Issue Domains and Political Contexts (2010) by Alan S. Gerber, Gregory A. Huber, David Doherty, Conor M. Dowling, and Shang E. Ha. American Political Science Review 104 (February): 111-133. You can find the original in Google Scholar.

Conservatives are hard-working, organized, closed-minded, and emotionally stable. Liberals are lazy, disorganized, open-minded, and neurotic. Let’s see how the punditocracy spins that one.

Yesterday I wrote about Mondak et al.’s recent APSR article about personality and political participation. On the very next page of the same issue of APSR, you’ll find a closely related article by Gerber et al. Where Mondak et al. used the “Big Five” personality traits to predict participation in politics, Gerber et al. use the same “Big Five” traits to predict ideology.

Together, these two articles are a must-read. They help explain why genes and other biological factors might influence our political leanings. Biological factors (especially genetics) are the dominant cause of these Big Five personality traits, which then remain stable throughout life. In turn, these Big Five traits influence our political leanings (Gerber et al.) and our political activity (Mondak et al.).

The Big Five personality traits

Both articles adopt the “Big Five” approach that, they claim, has become widely accepted among psychologists. Quoting two psychologists, Gerber et al. sum up these big five traits as follows:

The Big Five - Gerber et al., pg 113

The Big Five - Gerber et al., pg 113

As Mondak et al. note, these Big Five traits are often summed up as OCEAN: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, Neuroticism (where neurotic is the opposite of emotionally stable).

Effects of personality on ideology

Gerber et al. argue that these Big Five personality traits influence our political leanings. Each trait may have different effects on our economic ideology (free market vs interventionist) as well as on our social ideology (pro-choice/pro-equality vs pro-life/pro-tradition). They expect four of the five traits to influence ideology. The only exception is extroversion, which they expect to influence political participation (as Mondak et al. show) but not ideology. Their predictions:

Trait Economic policies Social policies
Conscientiousness Lean right
(favor hard work, organization)
Lean right
(adhere to norms and rules)
Openness (to experience) Lean left
(willing to try new programs or interventions)
Lean left
(tolerance for complexity and novelty)
Agreeableness Lean left
(altruistic, wanting to help the disadvantaged)
Lean right
(desire to maintain social harmony and traditional communal relationships)
Emotional stability Lean right
(comfortable with economic risk)
Lean left
(comfortable with socially risky changes in the status quo)
Extroversion No effect No effect

Using a very large sample drawn from the Cooperative Campaign Analysis Project (CCAP), the authors confirm most of these predictions. I’ve pasted below their Figure 1. All hypotheses are confirmed. Their only error was in predicting that emotional stability would cause folks to lean left on social issues. As it turns out, emotionally stable folks lean right on both dimensions and neurotic folks lean left on both dimensions. So we learn that Conservatives are hard-working, organized, closed-minded, and emotionally stable. Liberals are lazy, disorganized, open-minded, and neurotic. Let’s see how the punditocracy spins that one. The effects of personality rival the effects of education and income.

Figure 1 from Gerber et al. 2010

Figure 1 from Gerber et al. 2010

Contextual effects

Gerber et al. also argue that these effects can be contextual, although they seem less committed to this possibility than Mondak et al, for whom environmental interactions were a critical part of the story. In particular, they argue that race might matter. For example, blacks tend to view poverty as caused by systematic forces rather than by laziness; as such, conscientiousness may have a weaker pull among blacks toward economic liberalism. Likewise, blacks tend to be surrounded by liberalism; thus, “openness” might actually lead blacks to question the liberalism that surrounds them rather than pulling them toward the left. Gerber et al. find support for these contextual interactions with a series of figures like the one below. When I look at these figures, though, it doesn’t look so much like an interaction to me–rather, it looks like it’s just harder to predict ideology using personality among blacks than it is among whites.

Figure 2a from Gerber et al 2010

Figure 2a from Gerber et al 2010

Comment and Criticism

This article, together with the similar one by Mondak et al., is a must-read. I’m not sure whether I’m persuaded yet that I need to demand a personality index on every poll I work with. But these two articles introduce us to a new psychological approach that I’m sure we’ll see much more of.

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