Personality and politics

When I can find the right book for the class, I love to have “book club” where we spend a week discussing a single book, primarily in small groups.  Almost always has worked great.  Last semester, we used Identity Crisis for PS 302 Campaigns & Elections and it was excellent.  This semester for PS 411 Public Opinion & Media was another big winner, Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler’s Prius or Pickup.

Image result for prius or pickup hetherington

I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned their work a few times in quick hits, but never given the book a post.  This was a book that was written for a general audience and is surprisingly well-written for being by two political science professors.  My 13-year old son actually enjoyed reading the first 50 pages or so.  Anyway, Ezra Klein just had a great post where he discusses this work, and some other really good related work on personality/worldview and politics, so I would be remiss if I did not recommend it.  Here’s some highlights from Ezra’s take:

In their book Open Versus Closed, Christopher Johnston, Christopher Federico, and Howard Lavine write that “Democrats and Republicans are now sharply distinguished by a set of basic psychological dispositions related to experiential openness — a general dimension of personality tapping tolerance for threat and uncertainty in one’s environment.”

A similar argument, using slightly different data, can be found in Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler’s Prius or Pickup:

Of the many factors that make up your worldview, one is more fundamental than any other in determining which side of the divide you gravitate toward: your perception of how dangerous the world is. Fear is perhaps our most primal instinct, after all, so it’s only logical that people’s level of fearfulness informs their outlook on life.

In Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political DifferencesJohn Alford, John Hibbing, and Kevin Smith write:

Numerous studies have linked these personality dimensions to differences in the mix of tastes and preferences that seem to reliably separate liberals and conservatives. People who score high on openness, for example, tend to like envelope-pushing music and abstract art. People who score high on conscientiousness are more likely to be organized, faithful, and loyal. One review of this large research literature finds these sorts of differences consistently cropping up across nearly 70 years of studies on personality research. The punch line, of course, is that this same literature also reports a consistent relationship between these dimensions of personality and political temperament. Those open to new experiences are not just hanging Jackson Pollock prints in disorganized bedrooms while listening to techno-pop reinterpretations of Bach by experimental jazz bands. They are also more likely to identify themselves as liberals.

These differences show up in surveys, in experiments, and in lifestyle choices. People high in openness are more likely to enjoy trying new foods, traveling to new places, living in diverse cities, keeping a messy desk. They’re less sensitive to threatening photos and disgusting images, even when measuring physical indicators like skin connectivity, eye tracking, and saliva.

At the core of this worldview divide is hope, in its most basic, literal form. Are you hopeful about new things, new people, new places? Does change excite you? Does difference? If it does, you are more likely to be liberal. If you look at the new, the different, and feel a spike of fear, you’re more likely to be a conservative.

Not every liberal is high in this kind of openness, and not every conservative is low in it. But these associations are present and strong across huge numbers of studies spanning dozens of countries. In one meta-analysis of the literature, John Jost, Chadly Stern, Nicholas Rule, and Joanna Sterling looked at 134 surveys in 16 countries and found “a significant association between subjective perceptions of threat and conservatism.”

Over the past 50 years, America’s political parties have increasingly sorted themselves into ideologically and demographically distinct coalitions, and part of that sorting has been psychological. As the Democratic Party has diversified, it’s become particularly attractive to people who see difference as strength and who are excited by the idea of a changing country. The Republican Party has experienced the same process in reverse…

All this has supercharged America’s psychological sorting. Johnston, Federico, and Lavine find that the more politically engaged someone is now, the more intensely correlated their psychology and their voting behavior becomes. Hetherington and Weiler, who measure a related basket of traits they call “fixed” and “fluid,” find that now, “among the fixed, 84 percent of those who chose one of these two labels chose conservative,” while “among the fluid, 80 percent of those who chose one of them chose liberal.”

Lots more good stuff in Ezra’s piece.  You really should read the whole thing.  And, yes, I’m thinking of you who doesn’t read the links you know you should.  (Also, here’s two excellent Thomas Edsall pieces that address it significantly that I’m pretty sure I’ve linked before.  But I particularly enjoyed how much I’ve been thinking about the basic fluid/fixed, open/closed concept in my daily life recently.  It really does seem to explain so much.  And everybody (i.e., my social circle) to whom I’ve given Hetherington and Weiler’s four questions to has turned out fully “fluid.”  My wife was all like, “seriously, do you really have to go to the trouble of asking.”

A real lasting question I have on all this is the nature/nurture element of it, though.  I feel pretty confident that 30 years ago I would have been mixed, and quite possibly leaning fixed.  Now, I am thoroughly in the fluid camp.  I cannot but think an entire adult life in large metro areas and universities, i.e., areas where fluid people self-select to live their lives, has contributed to me becoming more fluid.  The whole concept is also a great example of selection bias.  We all know which type of people choose to stay in the small town and which choose to live in and embrace the big city.

Anyway, really interesting stuff.  Would love to know your thoughts on it and if you are somehow a “fixed” liberal or “fluid” conservative (I highly doubt it, though).

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