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).

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

6 Responses to Personality and politics

  1. Nicole K. says:

    Jonathan Haidt basically makes the same points from the perspective of social psychology rather than political science. His work helped me to realize that I really was not a conservative no matter how much I tried to force myself to be one.

    It sure is nice to have let go of all that cognitive dissonance I was forcing on myself. I can definitely say that I am much happier not trying to be someone else.

  2. homeys44 says:

    Pretty divisive stuff, under the guise of “academia”. At least when Bill Maher trashes rural white America, he’s not pretending to be anything but a hack. As someone who’s lived in an urban Democrat area for 20 years, I chuckle at how white liberals portray it as the mecca of enlightenment.. Its divisive. Btw, theres far more SUV’s than Priuses here. Anyway, stop the “if you vote different from me, you’re a psychological mess” pseudoscience,please

    • Nicole K. says:

      It is not divisive to suggest that one segment of the country prefers trucks and the other Priuses. Give me a break. And conservatives constantly complain about liberals being over sensitive… It’s a bit of imagery that people can relate to in the vain of men are from Mars women are from Venus. It is not meant to put anyone down. Did you even bother reading the post?

      • homeys44 says:

        It certainly wasn’t just about cars, More about personality/psychological traits. Like fixed or fluid or fear and openness, As Dr Greene says. “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.”.As a conservative who has lived in a major city for 20+ years, I’d love to hear the answer on that. Anyway, I don’t think this type of thinking is helpful in politics. Its divisive. Stick to issues, not profiling people.Judging by the huge SUV’s in my liberal area, they can’t even get cars right.

  3. Nicole K. says:

    It’s not divisive to point out that conservatives and liberals actually think differently. You can predict if a person is liberal or conservative accurately by their answers to the four questions he mentioned.

    Which one you think is more important for a child to have.

    Independence versus respect for elders
    Obedience versus self-reliance
    Curiosity versus good manners
    Being considerate versus being well behaved

    This is not about hurting anyone’s feelings. It is just not.

    I know that I am wasting my time responding to you, but I figured I would try once more.

    • homeys44 says:

      There are many negative Amazon book reviews similar to mine.Same goes for negative comments in the NYT’s link. I’ll bet many were written by non-Trump voters. So, I’m not the only person that finds psychological profiling of people that vote different than you a pretty gross area for academics to pursue.

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