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The Student Newspaper of Mississippi State University

The Reflector

The Student Newspaper of Mississippi State University

The Reflector

Personality predicts your political beliefs

Political Personality

How much control do you have over your preferences? This existential-angst-inducing question immediately brings the interaction between “nature” and “nurture” to mind; it remains a complex relationship the sciences and philosophy still have yet to unravel. It might be easy at times to compartmentalize this debate and slip into a comfortable, everyday fantasy— the illusion we are in complete control of our thoughts and the variables which impact our preferences are under our conscious command. But try as we might to rationalize ourselves into this fantasy, the fact remains that unconscious psychological traits have a real influence on our daily decision-making. 

Perhaps political decisions are among the most seriously-considered choices we make, and rightly so; selecting the most qualified candidates is of inestimable importance in maintaining a democratic society. But how much of this political consideration is based on conscious thought? In what way might the characteristics of our personalities predispose us to hold particular political views?

Personality traits are extremely variable, having a tendency to defy systematic characterization, but the Big Five personality traits model has gained widespread acceptance within psychology, and has proven to be quite useful in studying the correlations between personality and political preference. 

According to Lewis Goldberg’s “The Developing- Structure of Temperament and Personality from Infancy to Adulthood,” the Big Five model creates a taxonomy of major personality traits, consisting of five categories: openness to experience, agreeableness, extraversion, neuroticism and conscientiousness. Of course, each of these is a relatively broad category— sufficiently broad in some cases to obfuscate any political correlation. However, some general relationships have been discovered, and parsing the Big Five down into additional facets can reveal even more.

Individual preferences for sociability exist on a spectrum: extraverted-leaning people prefer more social stimulation and can act more assertively whereas introverted-leaning people prefer a more limited degree of social stimulus and choose to avoid the proverbial spotlight. 

As noted by Alan Gerber, Gregory Huber, David Doherty and Conor Dowling in their annual literature review, a sample of politicians proved to be more extraverted than the general population, and when people assess political candidates, they often interpret extraversion as indicative of the candidate’s “energy.” 

This is something we all tacitly recognize. The politician who appears reserved, withdrawn and generally unenergetic is likely to lose votes to a candidate who, by contrast, exudes an extraversion-fueled charisma and vivacity. This attraction to extraverted political candidates is even stronger in people who are extraverted themselves, since voters tend to choose candidates with personalities similar to their own.

Conscientiousness is associated with responsibility, productivity and identification with social hierarchy. A conscientious person is likely to find comfort in a relatively rigid social structure. Social conservatism itself, which can be thought of as a prescription for orderly societal roles and hierarchies, naturally follows, then, as a conscientious voter’s political preference. Certainly this is not always the case, but the annual literature review does note evidence establishing this correlation in large sample populations. 

By contrast, high openness to experience is associated with social liberalism, which typically eschews rigid prescriptions for societal roles. Perhaps a person with a high degree of openness to experience, being highly receptive to novelty, is unlikely to vote for restrictions on “unconventional” behavior. This preference for relatively unconstrained activity also may extend to a preference for liberal economic policies.

Each of the Big Five traits can be conceptualized as existing on a bell curve. The vast majority of people are relatively average in their personality traits while at either end of the bell, there are a small number of outliers at the extreme termini of the trait spectrum. It is conceivable these outlier groups are especially predisposed towards certain political views, perhaps even to the point of becoming ideologically eccentric. 

For instance, a person who is extremely low in agreeableness is generally not very trusting of others. In the political arena, this could be manifested as skepticism towards governmental or industrial initiatives. A set of policies created to mitigate climate change by reducing fossil fuel consumption, for instance, might be viewed by such a person as stemming not from genuine environmental concern but rather from a hidden set of ulterior motives. 

According to a study by Corey Cook, Yexin Li and Steve Newell published in Sage Journals, this heightened perception of negative agency can create a “belief in a dangerous world,” which is correlated with increased prejudice against certain outgroups, as well as a predilection for right-wing authoritarian policies. 

So how much conscious control do we actually have over our political preferences? This might depend on how much we can consciously shape our own personalities. According to Thomas Bouchard Jr. and Matt Mcgue in their analysis published in Research Gate, each of the Big Five personality traits is about 50% genetically inheritable. The remaining 50% is comprised of environmental factors, our conscious thoughts being but one component of this array. 

While I think it is a bit defeatist to believe our political views are simply psychological predispositions, the influence of our personalities on our decisions is significant and stands firmly in the way of the somewhat arrogant assumption that we arrive at all of our conclusions via nothing but careful, objective analysis.

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Personality predicts your political beliefs