Personality and political views

You may remember hearing about some work that looked at different aspects of morality and found that people who are politically liberal emphasize certain of these aspects, and those who are politically conservative tend to consider them all. (Liberals emphasize caring for others/avoiding harm and fairness/reciprocity, whereas conservatives also consider in-group loyalty, purity, and authority/respect.) A new study expands our knowledge of the relationship between personality traits and political views.

The new work looks at several of the Big Five personality traits: Openness/Intellect, two different aspects of Agreeableness (Compassion and Politeness), and the Orderliness aspect of Conscientiousness. Previous work had indicated that a conservative political outlook was negatively correlated with Openness/Intellect and positively correlated with Conscientiousness. The current work adds a little nuance: the negative correlation between conservatism and Openness/Intellect still holds, and a positive correlation between Orderliness (rather than overall Conscientiousness) was found. Furthermore, a liberal/egalitarian outlook was linked to higher levels of Compassion and a conservative/traditional outlook with higher levels of Politeness.

“Level” is a key word here, it seems to me. With personality traits, everyone falls somewhere on a continuum, so even those who are, say, profoundly introverted still enjoy spending time with others—just not nearly as much as those who are highly extroverted. So these differences are not apples and oranges, exactly; we should in theory be able to find some common ground and at least understand the other side’s point of view, even if we disagree with the degree to which they emphasize one thing or another. This article from Science Daily closes with a quote from one of the new study’s authors to the effect that we appear to need both the liberal and the conservative mindset in any society.

So why are these differences in mindset so sharply and painfully divisive in US politics at the moment? I think part of what is going on is that because political views are linked to personality traits, they often feel like self-obvious views of how the world is and how things work. They’re taken for granted like the water a fish swims in. It can be very difficult to examine them rationally and be prepared to compromise to accommodate the fact that the world and how it works look very different from behind another set of genetic and environmental influences. This leaves aside nasty tactics such as dishonesty or pandering to prejudice, ignorance, or selfishness, the need for an educated citizenry to make a democracy work, and things like the confirmation bias, which tends to make us notice the evidence that confirms our views and discount the evidence against them. I think all these other things come into play partly because our beliefs about the relative importance of fairness, order, or compassion are so inherent to us that we have a hard time taking other rankings of them seriously. I don’t know if it’s a failure of the melting pot, a failure of education, or some more fundamental human flaw, but somehow we haven’t really developed the capacity to use both mindsets productively rather than set them at each other’s throats. Maybe they can’t be consciously accommodated in a single society but must battle it out, back and forth, over and over again?

Oh, yeah. The paper itself is:
J. B. Hirsh, C. G. DeYoung, Xiaowen Xu, J. B. Peterson. Compassionate Liberals and Polite Conservatives: Associations of Agreeableness With Political Ideology and Moral Values. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2010; 36(5): 655. DOI: 10.1177/0146167210366854


  1. It seems like some liberal researcher saw the results indicating liberals are not conscientious and said “like hell!” and then dug up this orderliness category to explain why liberals are not inferior after all.

    I’ve been thinking about why I cannot take inventory tests. When I read “I prefer”, I lose faith because “prefer” doesn’t exist any more than “try.” It’s just a piece of bullhooey invented by people to talk about things we don’t understand which are happening inside of us. In particular, I don’t know whether to answer “I prefer to ___” as “When I was more ignorant in the past, I tended to ___” or “Now that I know all that I know today, I tend to ___” or even “I try to ___” or “I wish I ___” or “Other people tell me I ___.”

    I think one of the base reasons that these inventories are so often stuck on “I prefer” language is that they are fundamentally inventorying the wrong thing. We can objectively measure the fact that our perceptions have only a most tenuous connection to reality. Perhaps this connection is in fact the root of personality? Perhaps these tests should be measuring our perceptions, rather than our preferences? You know, like ink blots.

    Anyways, perceptual differences are certainly the base of most political differences.

  2. We are taught to think of “conservative” and “liberal” labels as given attributes of individuals, like blue and brown eyes, whereas in fact they are very different from any other personality dimension or physical attribute. They are politically defined and mediated, and they have no consistent material basis to anchor them to a shared reality so they really only reflect political in-grouping and out-grouping at a particular social moment. Political scientists have documented how the introduction of “wedge issues” like gay marriage and abortion can redefine liberal and conservative to serve the interests of particular election campaigns; they have suggested other, more specific terms that would translate better across national boundaries; they have introduced the three-dimensional political compass with its axes of economic and social issues to replace the relatively meaningless dichotomy of liberal and conservative; and some have even gone so far as to empirically investigate people’s political views only to find that they don’t line up with these categories at all. But, these terms are entrenched and they are politically useful, so they stick. And every year there are studies about the deep psychological underpinnings of liberals and conservatives, ignoring the backstory of what these terms really represent.

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