As election season descends upon the United States, 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. 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.
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 or she 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.
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.
- Graham, J., Haidt, J., Nosek, B. A. (2009). Liberals and conservatives rely on different sets of moral foundations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96(5), 1029-1046. doi: 10.1037/a0015141
- Haidt, J., Hersh, M. A. (2001). Sexual morality: The cultures and emotions of conservatives and liberals. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 31(1), 191-221. doi: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.2001.tb02489.x
- Personality predicts political preferences. (2010, June 10). ScienceDaily. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/06/100609111312.htm
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