Does politics reflect personality?

by on January 11, 2007 at 6:08 am in Political Science | Permalink

A new article in Psychology Today suggests the following:

†¢    Liberals are messier than conservatives. Their rooms have more clutter, more color.  Conservatives’ rooms are better organized, more brightly lit, and more conventional.  Liberals have more books and their books are on a greater variety of topics.
†¢    Compared to liberals, conservatives are less tolerant of ambiguity, a trait researchers say is exemplified when George Bush says things like, "Look, my job isn’t to try to nuance. My job is to tell people what I think," and "I’m the decider."
†¢    Conservatives have a greater fear of death.
†¢    Liberals are higher on openness, which includes intellectual curiosity, excitement-seeking, novelty, creativity for its own sake, and a craving for stimulation like travel, color, art, music, and literature.
†¢    Conservatives are higher on conscientiousness, which includes neatness, rule-following, duty, and orderliness.
†¢    Conservatives have a greater need to reach a decision quickly and stick to it.
†¢    When people are prompted to think about death–a state of mind  psychologists call mortality salience–they actually become more conservative.
†¢    Conservatives are more likely to have been insecure as kids, whereas liberals are more likely to have been confident as kids.

I can assure you my room is messy, and I wonder if more finely grained categories would have been useful.

1 superdestroyer January 11, 2007 at 7:18 am

Isn’t this just another “liberal=hip” meme that has been around for decades.

I would also assume that the author manages to find a way to exclude almost all blacks and hispanics from the “liberal” category even though they are overwhelmingly Democratic party voters.

2 Paul McMahon January 11, 2007 at 7:45 am

My liberal friends tell me I’m very conservative, yet not one of them would support the notion that my desk was ever neat (save for the first and last hours at it in my career). More, in a recent move, my books required about 50 boxes and covered a lot of topics from math and statistics through economics and history, as well as an assortment of fiction.

And that last item sounds like that bogus study done at a particular California day care center.

And some wonder why Psychology has a reputation for vapidity.

3 J. January 11, 2007 at 8:23 am

Liberals are more likely than conservatives to publish self-congratulatory studies.

4 theCoach January 11, 2007 at 8:39 am

Tyler, you are NOT a conservative, although, despite your protests, you ARE a Republican! (Voting for GWB, WPE, is sufficient)

Funny the reactions here. I do not how reliable this test is, but it would not suprise me, but I thought this was a libertarian-ish site, which would thoroughly reject the more general conservative mindset, which is obviously, protect me from change, and provide order. Libertarians, despite their silliness standing awthwart history, would be, in this type of categorization, on the liberal side of the ledger, so you guys get to have the good sex too!

5 Peter January 11, 2007 at 9:09 am

Conservatives have a greater fear of death

Whoa. That doesn’t make sense. As conservatives are more religious than liberals, they should have less fear of death.

6 michael vassar January 11, 2007 at 9:17 am

I’m just seconding “theCoach” here, but
Tyler, you are not Conservative.

Steve Sailor wrote

“There are three obvious ways to get rich as a nonfiction writer.

Flatter conservatives that they are more moral, patriotic, and practical-minded than liberals.

Flatter liberals that they are more ethical, cosmopolitan, and high-minded than conservatives.

Give people advice, especially on how to make more money.”

I think that that summarizes fairly well.
If you are more flattered by being called ethical, cosmopolitan, and high minded than being called moral, patriotic, and practical minded, your a liberal. Your just a bit confused about the liberality of the current administration vis-a-vis the Democrats.

It actually reminds me of WWII US propaganda and Japanese propaganda. Both sides agreed on the main points. The US is individualistic, diverse, etc, and the Japanese are cooperative, united, etc. They just differed in what they were and wanted to be. It’s the same with conservatives and liberals. The cultural conflict is very real, and much older and deeper than the politics, dating to well before the English Civil War.

7 AWT January 11, 2007 at 9:22 am

Or perhaps, Peter, Conservatives are religious *because* they fear death.

8 paulo January 11, 2007 at 9:47 am

So, basically, the “study” implies that “conservativeness” is a result of a series of psychological problems while liberalness is composed of cool, messy, open-minded and fearless people…

yeah, right!

9 Todd Fletcher January 11, 2007 at 10:40 am

“When people are prompted to think about death—a state of mind psychologists call mortality salience—they actually become more conservative.”

My wife’s breast cancer has caused her to go from a socialist liberal to a values conservative.

10 Van January 11, 2007 at 11:14 am

Also keep in mind that conservatives who read this site (and liberals, for that matter) probably lean more towards libertarianism that the majority of their party. Considering this is not the mainstream Republican position (especially in today’s GOP), haven’t conservatives who espouse more libertarian tendencies already demonstrated a greater open mindedness and intellectual curiosity than is normal, as opposed to simply toeing the party line?

My point being that conservative readers of this site are probably more likely to be outliers and thus able to present counter factual anecdotes.

11 Rich Berger January 11, 2007 at 12:25 pm

Isn’t this study just an ad hominem argument done the modern way? Actually not so modern – I remember liberal critics claiming that Barry Goldwater’s philosophy was due to early (strict) toilet training.

12 DK January 11, 2007 at 12:31 pm

dsquared, I think it is blog commenters who are more likely to believe that anecdotes can trump data.

13 Rich Berger January 11, 2007 at 12:37 pm

Oh, BTW-

Mike M – that was good. Mike V – oh, yeah, that’s right, WWII was just a clash of perceptions. Where was Rodney King when we needed him?

14 cllam January 11, 2007 at 2:00 pm

To sum up:

Liberalism is the logical result of optimism, however foolish it may be. Conservatism is the logical result of fear, however prudent it may be.

15 liberty January 11, 2007 at 2:13 pm

16 Patinator January 11, 2007 at 2:42 pm

Using today’s terms, what if I am fiscally conservative, but socially liberal? Can I just pick the ones I like? I am open to that, but would like a little less ambiguity about it.

17 anon January 11, 2007 at 4:37 pm

Sounds like the sample size for this study was limited to the two characters in Apple’s “Get a Mac” adverts.

18 Patrick R. Sullivan January 11, 2007 at 5:45 pm

‘Liberals are higher on openness, which includes intellectual curiosity…’

Obviously they’ve never met a lefty econ blogger.

19 Paul N January 11, 2007 at 9:19 pm

Wow, I’m a liberal on every account and I’ve never once voted for a Democrat.

20 michael vassar January 11, 2007 at 10:11 pm

Rich Berger, you are an illiterate moron. I said the exact opposite of what you claimed I did, e.g. that WWII was NOT a clash of perceptions but rather that both sides shared common perceptions but disagreed about actual fundamental values. Ditto with conservatives and liberals.

21 Brian Moore January 12, 2007 at 9:49 am

Of course politics reflects personality. But this article perhaps does a bad job of generalizing this — just about any self-defined conservative or liberal (both touchy terms to define already) will look at that list and say “okay some apply, but some don’t.”

22 General January 12, 2007 at 12:31 pm

Not only are generalizations generally not true, the anti-dogmatic ones tend towards dogma.

23 Stuck January 12, 2007 at 12:35 pm

Superdestroyer proclaimed:
Isn’t this just another “liberal=hip” meme that has been around for decades.

No, not at all, this is a much more scientifically rigorous work than what you describe. Not only does this prove that liberals are open minded, generous, accepting of differences, and thus all around more gooder than conservatives, if you dig into the study you find that liberals are rubber, while conservatives are glue…

24 Taeyoung January 12, 2007 at 2:30 pm

I would also assume that the author manages to find a way to exclude almost all blacks and hispanics from the “liberal” category even though they are overwhelmingly Democratic party voters.

Well, on average, they’re not really cultural “liberals” in the same way that White liberals tend to be, are they? On social issues, my recollection is that surveys have majorities of both Hispanics and Blacks coming out in roughly Republican/Conservative territory. Those would be issues like gay marriage, abortion, religion in public life, etc. On the other hand, majorities of both Blacks and Hispanics support (I think) government mandated redistribution and other liberal economic policies. In any event, excluding Blacks and Hispanics from the “liberal” category, if the study authors did in fact do this, doesn’t seem particularly indefensible. Conventional liberals may constitute the mover-shaker elite of the Democratic party, but that doesn’t mean that the people under them who vote for Democrats are particularly liberal in that sense.

25 MattXIV January 12, 2007 at 4:43 pm

I don’t put much stock in these studies because the premise that there is a intrinsic ideological division between conservatives and liberals rather than that the groupings are the result of historical processes that is incorporated into their design is spurious. The point about musical preference in particular seems like it simply stems from the geographic distribution of conservatives and liberals, which doesn’t have much to do with the intrinsic characteristics of the ideology, and the point about media format preferences could also largely be attributed to what outlets each group has historically had a lot of commentators in.

It’s also necessary to consider how local politics and in-group/out-group dynamics work. Take the daycare center study for example – if the center was in the bay area (which would be expected if the profs are at Berkeley), the poltical norm the children would experience growing up would be liberalism, so children who don’t fit in will be more likely to relate to conservativism, by virtue of it providing an identity which justifies their rejection of the dominant social structures they experience. I wonder if there may actually be a systemic bias introduced by virtue of college towns and their immediate surroundings having predominantly liberal politics? Also, the interest in these types of studies seems to rise and fall with how much authority conservatives have in the contemporary government, which may skew the body of results in the published literature regarding conservative attitudes towards authrority.

Finally, attitudes towards authority need to be separated from attitudes toward ideology, which has almost never been done in these studies. On the contrary, these studies tend to categorize deference to authority as a trait of conservative ideology, then beg the question by arguing a correlation between conservativism and authoritarianism. Adorno is bad about this and Altemeyer is even worse – the traits they group together for their descriptions of authoritarian personalities tend to include a mix of questions about policy, moral positions, and attitudes towards authority. Some of the question begging is ludicrous – one of the traits said to stem from a RWA/F-type personality homophobia, for example, but one of the questions you find on an F-scale test (see example here asks directly about attitudes towards homosexuality Another questions are either directly or partially about about strength of religious belief, which strongly correlates with conservativism on its own right. The sneakiest ones are those statements which an agreement could stem either from ideological, religious, or authoritarian attitudes, which get counted as a manifestation of all 3.

26 Valuethinker January 13, 2007 at 10:20 am

I’d add to that that one thing that did come out of the Kerry v. Bush Campaign (as the article notes) was the liberal-conservative stereotype split: Bush as the decider, faith-driven and firm in his believes, and Kerry as the (overly) thoughtful and perhaps indecisive (shades perhaps of Jimmy Carter).

That was more important to the electorate than the thing which I thought said more about John Kerry’s psychology than anything. Tired of being pot-shotted by enemy gunners in his Swiftboat in the Mekong Delta, he methodically planned an ambush response. The next time a B40 rocket launcher took a potshot at him, he beached the boat, and pursued the gunner into the jungle and shot him down. Whatever else Kerry was, and is, he was a cold-blooded killer. Everything about the guy said ‘low reacter’ and if you’ve ever worked with one of those in a crisis situation, they can do quite incredible things. They’re strange to work with, as you never really feel you can engage with their emotions. They only come alive when it really hits the fan.

27 Elliot Reed January 13, 2007 at 2:39 pm

From barely skimming the article it looks like the root research was a metaanalysis of a bunch of psychological studies. In some ways those tend to have much better methodology than research performed in the other social sciences (economics included) because psychologists do actual experiments. However, the experimental subjects tend, to be undergrads and graduate students taking psychology classes – not exactly a representative sample of the population. So the generalization to “conservatives” and “liberals” generally is problematic.

Incidentally, aren’t conservatives much more likely to believe in the doctrine of Hell? The prospect of eternal torment could easily make you more afraid of death. Even the conservative evangelical protestants who believe in salvation by faith alone usually believe that people can lie to themselves about whether they have real faith in Christ, the result being that you can never be really sure that you’re not going to Hell.

28 Valuethinker January 14, 2007 at 4:19 am


Your definition of Conservative (ie as particularly religious) strikes me as more of an American thing than a European one. Even amongst the mainline churches in Europe (aligned with Christian parties in some cases) I wouldn’t think a personal fear of hell is a big factor. That strikes me as more of an evangelical/born again thing.


Fear of the unknown. Or perhaps fear of change.

There are complexities. I often think of the environmental movement as the most conservative group of people I know. Basically, they fear the loss of any species, and the degradation (change) of any natural environment.

(it’s been interesting in that context to see some of the US outdoors groups ie pro hunting and fishing, begin to make noises about global warming, and also some US evangelical groups).

So we could argue (in your framework) that those who don’t think global warming is a worry, are basically welcoming change, and those who do, fear it?

However that wouldn’t align with conventional conservative-liberal politics re global warming.

29 Mike January 15, 2007 at 12:05 pm

I think the study has merit…Liberals are always thinking of creative ways to take money from people (conservatives) who worry about the future, plan and act accordingly in order to clean up the messes they, the liberals, make of their lives and futures.

30 Sharon January 21, 2007 at 1:17 am

I grew up in a conservative family, but I’ve always had a liberal approach to life. Generalizing the views in this article and assuming that 100% of liberals or conservatives behave in certain ways would be foolish. We all know that there are many shades of gray between black and white. However, the truth is that a lot of the facts mentioned here are true. From experience, I would say that many conservative people are more structured, have more rigid routines, go to church religiously, fear death?, yes because they are thought that after death comes judgement, and because there is uncertanty about going to hell or heaven.
Many children may be less self-confident because the notions of sin and punishment are so strong that insecurity seems to weaken the eagernes for discovery and exploration of new things.
Sex may be less enjoyable for some conservatives because it may be consider taboo or because nudity may be viewed as something very private.
On the other hand, for many liberals rigid routines and one-sided points of view may not be the best approach to life. Messiness may be considered a sign of freedom or creativity. Liberal children are most likely to be thought the difference between acceptable and unacceptable behaviors or actions in different social circles, giving them the flexibility to adap, explore and discover.
Sex may be more enjoyable for some liberals because they may see it as something natural, spiritual, good for the body and soul. Nudity is probably more acceptable too.
At one point I felt oppressed by conservationism, but as years have passed I have been able to find a healthy balance between liberalism and conservationism. Nevertheless, I still feel more comfortable with my liberal points of view. By the way, I am not comfortable with rooms where everything is in place, almost like if nobody lives there!!!!

31 Anonymous October 22, 2008 at 9:57 pm

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