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The Psychology of Political Ideology

Illustration of vote sticker and United States map

As election season descends upon the U.S., emotions tend to run high. There will undoubtedly be thousands of furiously typed proclamations of, “You’re stupid!” on social networking sites before the final results come in on November 6. No matter what your political ideology is, it’s easy to believe that the other side has the facts wrong or has bad moral values. Although the two-party system in the United States does not account for many people’s beliefs—and many people identify as neither Republican nor Democrat—most of us fall somewhere on the continuum between liberal and conservative. As it turns out, psychological dispositions and personality traits may have a much stronger influence on political ideology than intelligence, religion, or interpretation of political facts.

Openness to Experience
A person’s openness to new experience is a personality trait measured by several respected personality tests. People who are more open tend to be more adventurous, thrill-seeking, and novelty-seeking. They also tend to be more likely to change their minds when given new information. While there are certainly thrill-seeking conservatives (as any Chuck Norris fan will point out), people who are open to new experiences are much more likely to be liberal. This may be because liberals tend toward changing traditions, something that is thrilling to some but frightening to others. Conservatives, by contrast, favor orderliness and predictability, which may account for their desire to maintain traditional beliefs.

As a corollary, people who have had a wide variety of novel experiences are more likely to become liberals. Many conservatives lament the liberalizing of college students, but this phenomenon may be due to the fact that college tends to open people up to novel experiences and perspectives.

Respect for Authority
People who respect authority tend to value rules, law, and order. Respect for authority is a strong predictor of conservative political beliefs. Interestingly, an authoritarian personality—one which seeks respect and obedience—is also a predictor of conservative political beliefs. While conservatives are certainly capable of questioning authority, liberals are more likely to prioritize this behavior as a political and personal goal.

Religion is a form of authority. The U.S. is a highly religious nation, and both liberals and conservatives tend to be religious. However, conservatives are more likely to fully accept religious authority, whereas liberals may question religious authorities and beliefs. This can strongly affect voting behavior.

Compassion, Empathy, and Equality
A study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin in 2010 found that, as a group, liberals are more likely to value traits such as compassion, empathy, and equality and tend to vote for candidates whose political platforms give these values primary importance. Conservatives, by contrast, are more likely to value justice and individualism. The liberal emphasis on equality may help to explain why liberals are generally more likely to see inequality. Liberals have a strong desire to uproot inequality, which gives them a motive to seek it out, while conservatives strongly value individual autonomy and are more likely to attribute success or failure to individual characteristics.

Sex
Views on sex can heavily impact political ideology. Indeed, some vote primarily based on issues of sexual morality. A liberal, for example, might support a candidate solely because he is pro-choice, while a conservative might choose a candidate who opposes gay marriage. Conservatives tend to be more critical of unusual sexual practices, whereas liberals tend to view sex as an important avenue for human expression. Views on gender also come into play here. Liberals tend to prioritize the abolition of gender traditionalism, while conservatives are more likely to support traditional gender roles. This may affect voters’ support for political measures that affect women’s equality as well as sexual privacy.

Dominance
While both liberals and conservatives have supported and started many wars, conservatives are generally viewed as the more hawkish political group. Liberals, by contrast, may be more likely to use diplomatic measures, and libertarians frequently wish to avoid intervening in other countries’ affairs entirely. Highly dominant personalities—who tend to resolve interpersonal conflict by force—are much more likely to become conservatives. Dominant personalities also tend to be less tolerant of conflict between groups and thus tend to be more likely to view another person’s behavior as threatening. This individual trait can affect a person’s perception of the threats posed by other countries.

References:

  1. Graham, J., Haidt, J., Nosek, B. A. (2009). Liberals and conservatives rely on different sets of moral foundations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology96(5), 1029-1046. doi: 10.1037/a0015141
  2. Haidt, J., Hersh, M. A. (2001). Sexual morality: The cultures and emotions of conservatives and liberals. Journal of Applied Social Psychology31(1), 191-221. doi: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.2001.tb02489.x
  3. Personality predicts political preferences. (2010, June 10). ScienceDaily. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/06/100609111312.htm

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Comments
  • Lily September 11th, 2012 at 11:57 AM #1

    Ever since my first election when I could vote, which was for Clinton in 1992, I have always known that I was probably much more liberal leaning than most of the people I encountered on a daily basis. This was kind of odd given that I was from a pretty rural area of the country and really have not done that much travel or anything like that, but I have always had a great deal of empathy with other people and their problems so I think that I tend to want equality across the board. That’s not something that I have ever really taken away from the conservative message. The liberal point of view just speaks to me more I guess, and although there are those people with whom I would love to srgue point by point it just feels like such a waste of time most of the time. I figure that all of us have a brain whether we choose to use it or not and they have to make their own decisions about who to vote for in the same way that I have the freedom to use mine.

  • Lisa September 11th, 2012 at 2:32 PM #2

    As long as someone has a REASON behind what they believe in then that’s fine with me, I can accept that even when I may feel differently.
    What bugs me though are those people who follow the mindless masses and simply believe what they are told. They have no resoning behind it other than that;s what so and so said so it must be true.
    Duh people! Wake up!
    They are telling you what they think you want to hear. At least before going out to vote do your homework and decide who really speaks to the issues that you care the most about.

  • Peter September 12th, 2012 at 12:42 AM #3

    I have never been an outright supporter of any one kind of politics or politicians. I don’t know why it’s said your political stance is dictated only by psychology. It is by a lot more.

    It could be due to a life experience, it could be due to growing up in a particular country or even a state, it could depend on our parents’ political affiliations and many many other things. Its the complete package, it’s not like we’re born and it is set deep in our minds what political party we are going to support when we grow up!!

  • sammy September 12th, 2012 at 4:17 AM #4

    So it’s your personality- who gives you that? Some would argue that this is a case of nurture, and that there are actually members of your family who could be at the root of how you feel about certain issues. That makes sense to me. You grow up in an environment where certain beliefs and ideals are espoused, then the chances are pretty great that this will become your views as well.

  • just a digit September 12th, 2012 at 5:54 AM #5

    I agree with Lisa and Lily.Everybody is free to choose their affiliations but don’t come and push it down my throat buddy,I enjoy having my own opinion just like you! Hate the people who try to act all smart and just cannot stop about politics but talk to them about one thing seriously, one issue or policy and they have no clue!

  • Phyllis September 12th, 2012 at 3:21 PM #6

    This particular election seems to be bringing out the very worst in everyone, and that kind of makes me sad. Instead of taking pride in the fact that we have free elections typically without violence and at the end of the day we unite as Americans, this time it feels like it is going to take a particularly nasty turn. I am so ready for November to come and go.

  • runninfast September 13th, 2012 at 4:35 AM #7

    I think what drives me nuttier than those old blowhards who think that we should all think the way that they do are the sheer lazy Americans who really don’t have an opinion at all.

    They are so apathetic and I just want to shake them and remind them that there are millions of people all over the world who would love to live in a country like ours with the freedom to speak our minds for the most part without the fear of being imprisoned or killed.

    There are just far too many things that we take for granted.

  • G B September 17th, 2012 at 10:38 PM #8

    Both of these two “choices” are Corporatist’s. I am already against their next war.

    If we keep voting for the lesser of two evils, we will always be desensitized and accept choosing one of the evils. A vote for Obama is a vote for Romney and a vote for Romney is a vote for Obama. They both work for Wall Street – definitely not Main Street or for you and me.

  • Dan C September 22nd, 2012 at 9:44 AM #9

    Let me summarize this pseudo intellectualism: conservatives are brutish, simple minded authority seekers. Liberals are open minded, equality seeking compassionate filled citizens.

    What an overly simplistic piece of liberal rubbish.

  • Jeff Kaylor, PsyD, ABPP September 30th, 2012 at 2:45 PM #10

    Well said Dan. Nonsense like this is why psychologists are not, and should not be, taken seriously.

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