Does personality cause politics?

In the first stage of our analysis, we demonstrated that there are several substantively significant relationships between the personality traits and political ideology dimensions. Most notably, P [a complex variable, but derived from “Psychoticism”] is substantially correlated with conservative military and social attitudes, while Social Desirability is related to liberal social attitudes, and Neuroticism is related to liberal economic attitudes [emphasis added by TC]. Our findings at the phenotypic level are highly consistent with similar explorations in an Australian population (Verhulst, Hatemi, and Martin 2010).

The results are generated from twins data.  I found this discussion very interesting, as it shows the standard personality-to-politics chain is only part of a richer story:

These findings directly challenge the causal pathway assumed in the extant literature (e.g., Gerber et al. 2010; Mondak et al. 2010). Rather than personality traits causing people to develop liberal or conservative political attitudes, the current results suggest two alternative relationships. First, the combined Cholesky and DoC analyses suggest that a common set of genes mutually influences personality traits and political attitudes, implying the relationship between personality and politics is a function of an innate common genetic factor rather than a sequential personality to politics model (see the right panel of Figure 1). The results from the DoC analysis also suggest an alternative causal model. That is, the latent set of genes shared between political attitudes and personality traits directly influences attitudes and indirectly influences personality traits. In other words, the genetic component of political attitudes partially mediates the genetic influence on personality traits. This finding is completely opposite from the basic assumption in the most recent literature (e.g., Gerber et al. 2010; Mondak et al. 2010). Thus, it appears the genetic component of political attitudes measured relatively later in an individual’s life contributes to the development of an individual’s personality along the way. In this view, attitudes are more than what is expressed in adulthood, but part of one’s disposition which guides behavior and selection into environments, which later are recognized and measured as attitudes in adulthood. Regardless of whether the final analysis supports a latent genetic source of covariance or a mutual causal structure, both perspectives require a major revision to the prevailing assumptions about political attitudes and personality traits.

That is from Verhulst, Eaves, and Hatemi.


A very interesting paper. Although that quoted bit there seems to be implying that conservatives are psychotic while liberals are neurotic. Well, it could be.

The idea that political tendencies are genetic is pretty impressive - in terms of violations of the Group Think. It is brave. It is courageous. It might even be right. The problem is that even though they discuss the limitations of their study, their study is probably even more limited than they think. For instance the measure of "Openness" is clearly a clever little piece of self-congratulations by the sort of people who carry out these studies. Is it likely to be true? It is more likely to reflect the self-image of the people who use the concept.

I don't get it. Are you contending the existence of that statistical personality factor the Five-Factor Model? Or do you object to the implied value judgement of naming the factor "openness"?

Well both. More dubious about the implied value judgement. But also not happy about slapping labels on poorly understand mental processes and thinking we understand them.

However if we are going to try to understand choleric and sanguine personality types - and I don't think we have advanced much further than the Greeks - we should do so in a way that is obviously not question begging. Almost any personality trait can be labeled in a way that is more critical. What you might call Open Mindedness, I might call Feeble Mindedness. Certainly the Left has tried to pathologize much of what most people would have called normal as recently as the 50s.

I think it is worth adding that the right likes to pathologize things they don't like as well, for example recreational drug use (of the non life consuming variety) while non-Biblical sexual preferences are portrayed as "deviant" perhaps even requiring counselling (or perhaps even jail time, according to some) ... that's what comes to mind for now. I routinely encounter both radicals on both the left and right insisting that the people of the opposite ideological persuasion must be feeble minded or perhaps even completely mentally ill - some of this is just offensive people being offensive, but the tendency of radicals to pathologize all others, and for all others to pathologize the radicals of diverse persuasions, is not exactly rare.

And you're pathologizing the radicals!

Haha, just observing that others do. Radicals are often critical in breaking new ground in stuff and so it would be silly to pathologize radicals for the mere fact of being radicals, but even more often, I think they're out to lunch in some la-la land of ideological purity where no amount of rational discussion, evidence or reasoning can persuade them to moderate their positions at all. Often, this goes together with some sort of group identity which involves opposition to various perceived conspiracies and their inordinate strength of character in seeing the "truth" of things, which the rest of the huddled masses are to brainwashed to see.

You do not understand what pathologize means. The Right has not traditionally pathologized sexual deviance. They have condemned it as a sin and a sign of a weak moral character. That is, the Right tends to think of people it doesn't like as stupid. The concept of homosexuality was invented by well meaning liberals who assumed it was a disease that could be cured. And cure it they tried. That is, the Left tends to think of its enemies as sick or evil. Hence the Soviet psychiatric prisons - and the Left's effort to send anyone who disagrees with them to some sort of therapy.

None of which has much to do with anything I said.

(Debunked) gay conversion therapy, for example. To be fair, this isn't "right wing" so much as a thing for certain Christian communities/activists, which happen to also generally locate themselves on the right wing.

So you identify with being non-open, and are mad that the nomenclature being used implies that that's the wrong way to be?

"For instance the measure of “Openness” is clearly a clever little piece of self-congratulations by the sort of people who carry out these studies. Is it likely to be true? It is more likely to reflect the self-image of the people who use the concept."

There is a large body of empirical evidence that, among the "big five" factors of personality, the open that correlates most strongly to political affiliation is openness to new experiences. The others ( conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism) correlate as well. Note that these factors were defined and studied decades before correlations with political affiliation were sought. Also note that, as we see here, the same Big Five factors, indicate that liberals are more neurotic. Is that self-congratulatory?

There's a good case that the Big-5 Openness is a politically biased measure. Here are some items that are used to measure Openness:

1. I believe that we should look to our religious authorities for decisions on moral issues.

2. I believe that the different ideas of right and wrong that people in other societies have may
be right for them. (Agree-Up)

3. I believe that laws and policies should change to reflect the needs of a changing world.

4. I believe the new morality of permissiveness is no morality at all. (Agree-Down)

On one hand, I agree that this author's critique of the first listed question is appropriate. I also believe that part of the problem is that openness and closed-ness to new experience are loaded labels and more neutral terms would be prefereable. (There is also neuroticism, agreeableness and conscientiousness, which are also loaded.)

On the other hand, I am not convinced by the author's core argument, that there is circular logic here. Enthusiasm for change versus caution regarding change (my attempt at less loaded terms; there may be better phrases) is something that is highly variable in personalities. The fact that it correlates with political orientation should not dissuade psychologists from using it.

I wonder if they could get similar insights by asking less loaded questions, such as:

What kind of food do you like?
Do you have a hobby?
If you could live anywhere in the world for one month, where would you go?


There are far more benefits to neuroticism than most people realize.

kimock March 8, 2016 at 4:13 am

There is a large body of empirical evidence that, among the “big five” factors of personality, the open that correlates most strongly to political affiliation is openness to new experiences.

Indeed. If the researchers were (perhaps unconsciously) signalling virtuous thought categories, you would expect those thought categories would be popular among people who share that sense of virtue.

For someone who seems to think psychology is liberal BS, you sure do like referencing psychological concepts like signaling.

Three or four aliases ago I noted that genetic foundations in politics are important, but not static as they also follow a unique life-curve, that they don't map neatly into a two party reduction, and that they represent a much more diverse population dynamics. I predicted then that it would take at least one generation for this to sink in, to be fully processed.

To say "liberals are" or "races are" continue to be stupid reductions, not fully grasping the situation.

Note that anyone who does grasp this population dynamics thing will stop thinking that one way of thinking is correct. They will come to recognize that one way of thinking is represented in the population.

Indeed, while one may ponder where "average" lies in some grouping for some particular manifested attribute, in understanding the group, the full distribution and variety should be kept in mind.

Concur. Impressive idea, study worthy of causing thinking, but it is also clear to me that this should be an area of further research. This paper, and the Australian counterpart, can not be taken as definitive, I think. Exploratory would be a better characterization.

Certainly not a simple topic.

The conclusion of the paper is better written and more comprehensible:

"Researchers in personality and politics have assumed a causal link between personality traits and political ideology. The results presented here do not support this assumption. Rather, the primary connection between personality traits and political ideology rests on common genetic precursors of each. At this stage of research, we find no support for the reigning assumption that personality traits cause people to develop political attitudes.

"Our results imply that humans are, at heart, political animals. Political attitudes are not simply an afterthought and while largely measured in adulthood, the foundation elements exist as part of our core disposition and appear to be just as important to shaping our behavior as our personalities."

+1 for that summary by SS. Saved me having to read this pop psychology paper.

"humans are, at heart, political animals": that follows from their being social animals. In fact it probably means the same thing. Anyway, it's why I insist that people have Civil Rights, a function of the society of which they are part, and not Human Rights, an absurd quasi-religious dogma.

Case in point. Human Rights is an idea held by healthy and intelligent people in the population, therefore it is not wrong. It is only left, via democracy and voting, to see if it should drive policy. Similarly, Civil Rights.

There are bad ideas, held by healthy and intelligent people in the population, but the fundamental faith in a modern democracy is that public education and civil discourse will keep them in check.

(Thus, when a political or religious splinter-group moves to homeschooling, we should worry.)

Come on. If we assume that public schools are politically captured which I think it's safe to say is true, then it's definitely not the case that our public schools teach based on democratic acceptance so much as based on Democrat acceptence.

So, if political views are primarily genetically based, is the left going to see another revival of enthusiasm for eugenics in the near future?

Pretty sure the political left never entirely abandoned eugenics, they just changed some of the marketing an implementation.

I doubt it, as the true left were all big fans of the new Soviet man -

"Adherence to Marxism-Leninism, and individual behavior consistent with that philosophy's prescriptions, were among the crucial traits expected of the New Soviet man..."

Hmmm, yes that does sound like something that the true left would be big fans of.

This is supported by the fact that media preferences appear more fundamental than either personality or political affiliation. If personality "caused" politics, we wouldn't expect a third factor to be a better predictor.

And yet even as conservatives have more children, western society is increasingly adopting leftist policies.

Unless most people are indeed fundamentally or increasingly conservative but the (neurotic) left has captured the instruments of power (bureaucracy, media, academia) and the widening gap between what people want and what they are getting is where we are today, with populist leaders ascendant and the establishment on the run.

Most adults in Western European and North American countries were not raised by anything recognizable three generations ago as conservatives, and lots of liberals have lots of kids, they just don't happen to be upper middle class liberals.

Yep. The ones having most kids are hardly "conservatives", but the poor uneducated masses that vote Democrat on instinct. (this extends to Trump supporters, the "new conservatives", who are really the old Democrat party base of poor uneducated "blue collar" workers).

Despite genetics, people's politics can change with changing conditions. We are on a much smaller, flatter planet than even a few decades ago.

They're called Janissaries.

Well I am neurotic, and I was an Australian I am sure I would vote Lib.

But the only correlation seems to be toward "economic liberalism", but what if neurotics like choices because they are neurotics and value the market for its ability to cater to neurotics, as opposed to a more socialist way of life.

This paper might well explain many (most?) voters but it does not explain libertarianism which is objectively correct.

"Our findings at the phenotypic level ..."

So, he's assuming genetic determinants rather than social influences?

While I do not deny that genes exist and affect stuff, all this discussion about genes without actually identifying genes seems a little premature, to say the least. I mean, the article is essentially just as readable if you exchange "fudge factor" for "genetic factor" in every instance, and it would be a lot less like they're just making stuff up.

Wouldn't upbringing and peer effects (nurture) presumably dominate a lot of the nature stuff? Debatable, but to me it seems that they present it as a foregone conclusion that much or perhaps even 100% of the observed effect is genetic.

What next, genetic predisposition to religiosity, but pretend that parental and community involvement in upbringing is irrelevant?

Like, psychoanalitics is full of loads of bunk, but isn't it pretty ridiculous to imply that one's experience as a child is irrelevant to how you turn out as an adult? Say, children who are raised by conservative-minded authoritarian parents might be more likely to be conservative-minded authoritarians, and similarly for the other effects/factors. Or, picking one of the specific questions used in the survey, that one's views on whether or not it's OK to be rude have more to do with upbringing than genetics? The questions related to the P-factor seem especially unlikely to reflect genetic predisposition, except perhaps in the tiniest way.

After decades and decades of twin studies, after the nuture assumption, after reams of results showing zero contribution of shared environment to traits as robust as IQ and the big five, after the whole psychology replication fiasco where only psychometry emerged with its scientific credentials unshaken, after sophisticated statistical and genetic methods like GWAS and compressed sensing, and you still get people talking like this. Are you living under a rock?

There are people light years ahead of you. Go google. Those who dont bother to look dont deserve to get.

Two people in the same environment end up different. In which way does that negate the role of nurture? Observing my brother being like X, for example, I pursue individuality and we exhibit different preferences and outcomes, for example, despite a shared environment.

I mean, seriously? "zero contribution of shared environment"? Why not just place our children under rocks and wait for them to unfold according to their predestiny?

Zero contribution of the shared environment given the actually existing range of rearing environments. If parents commonly put their kids under rocks the results would be different.

Of course twins in different environments end up different. Everyone is different! The problem is, all the research shows repeatedly that socioeconomic position, IQ, and the big five personality traits of twins brought up in separate environments *in the United States* have no correlation with the environment in which they were brought up. The differences between the twins do exist, but they show zero correlation with the differences in their environments, *in the United States*.

Likewise, persons adopted into other families *in the United States* do not develop a similarity with their adopted family in those traits aforementioned. Whatever similarities exist continues to be with those of their birth parents.

Of course, if you have a country where half the people, randomly distributed, decided to bring up their children under rocks and another half didn't, this will suddenly make the heritability of psychometric traits drop to zero for that population. But hey, poor people in America are all bringing up their children under rocks aren't they.

On average, won't adopted twins end up in similar families, "in the United States"?

The vast majority of a given population's phenotypic differences, in political attitudes and everything else, exists within families (between siblings). That means that even if everyone was raised by the same parents, most differences that currently exist would remain. Moreover, siblings are generally more similar only because they share more genetic variants than strangers. Siblings are not similar because they are raised in the same environment. This does not mean that genes determine all differences. The non-shared environment is, together with genes, the major source of individual differences. The non-shared environment means those non-genetic influences that are independent of family background. Much of the non-shared environment is simply noise, either measurement error or random, non-systematic influences, whether biological or social.

BTW, Hatemi et al. have replicated their basic findings using parents and non-twin siblings of twins, finding that the twin model somewhat underestimates the influence of genes:

And by "genes", we really mean "unexplained factors".

No, by genes we mean DNA sequence differences between individuals.

Most of which contain no information.

Do you mean most variants do not have a function? Sure. Most environmental differences have no effect, either.

OK, let me know when the literature starts talking about actual genes instead of statistical residuals. Then I will pay more attention.

What "statistical residuals"? Plenty of genome-wide significant SNPs have been identified for many traits, but at the moment twin studies and the like are vastly more informative. Both 'genes as molecules' as 'genes as latent genetic factors' are (very useful) human-made social constructs; neither constitutes a "natural" level of analysis. One or the other may be more informative, depending on your research questions.

P - I mean where basically unexplained factors are grouped together as "genetic effect". If we're actually talking about manifested protein expression (the output of genes) where these proteins are known to influence certain emotions or cognitive function, that is an entirely different sort of analysis. Since you seem to have exposure to this and might know the right keywords for a search, perhaps you could post a link or two.

I think the last defense for a nurturist is that many environments are really bad. A homeless family living in a car is not in shape to actualize a child's genetic potential. And yet, the more extreme naturists would have us think there is nothing to do. That family is in that car because genes, you see.

I think this is more than a little self-serving and circular thinking, but even moderately high IQers do it. They wouldn't beat a dog and expect it to grow up healthy, but they are ready to roll back the food stamps, because what's the point ...

Behavior genetics deals with the major causes of population variation. It can't say anything about exceptional individual cases. Similarly, getting hit in the head with a sledgehammer probably has a very negative influence on your IQ and other mental attributes but given that getting hit by a sledgehammer is a very rare experience, its contribution to population variation in IQ and other phenotypes is indistinguishable from zero.

What an odd paragraph. The only way I can see to cut through it is that you wanted to say that the homeless family in a car doesn't matter to you, because they are not statistically significant.

Go you.

I don't see how you could read that into what I wrote. The point is simply that extreme deprivation, given its rarity in rich countries, does not invalidate the conclusions of behavior genetics.

It strikes me that it would have been very easy for you to get in front of this conversation. "Of course every child deserves a safe home ..."

Incredibly dumb not to. Indeed it reinforces my idea that an interest in behavioral genetics is linked to a lack of empathy. Can you introspect a bit on which came first? Did you start out with an insensitivity, or did it develop with study in the field?

If the extreme case is obvious, then by natural logical extension, the less extreme case is also relevant, ad infinitum, until we agree that the environment is important across the entire spectrum. Perhaps one day we will reach an era where all homes are roughly "good" (but none/few "amazing", say), which will make it a lot easier to untangle the role of genes.

Nathan, have you ever heard of non-linear functions?

anon is trying to shame P into submission, using moral arguments when rational ones don't work. Empathy? Really? I'm a physicist, should I feel outraged by the lack of empathy toward the Down quark?

Nathan W is even worse (or the same, but dumber). An infinite regress with a surreptitious insertion of "important" to prove a point that again is morally pleasing although against empirical evidence.

And no, it is not absurd to consider the possibility that homeless people are homeless because they carry certain genes that affected their behavior.

Too late - I don't think it is very controversial that SOME homeless people are in their situation due to having a genetic self which is not competitive in the present socio-economic environment. However, a) this is almost certainly not always the case, and b) most people would find it abhorrent to be indifferent to the children (innocents) who end up in such situations, often leading people to support moderate transfers to parents to ensure that children can access the basics.

And yes, I think it is good, correct, and intellectually honest to introduce moral reasoning to the debate. Those at the apex of intellectual thought through the ages have long had much pre-occupation with the moral and ethical dimensions of what they work on. It's almost like, contra, you're trying to shame people out of "silly moral ideas" or some such thing, whereas morality is indeed both an evolutionary shortcut to good relations in many ways (but don't be naive, there's another side to that coin) in addition to traditional knowledge passed on through the ages of how to have generally socially harmonious relations.

Science denier and an incompetent reader. My, my. The point of his post was obvious.

One of the goals of "Opening Doors" is ending youth homelessness in America by 2020. The HUD report on homelessness released Thursday said that January 2015 point-in-time counts located 180,760 homeless youth under age 25, including 127,787 homeless youth under 18 and 52,973. Among homeless youth, according to HUD data, 78 percent were part of a homeless family with children, and most unaccompanied homeless youth -- 87 percent -- were between the ages of 18 and 24.

Of course, that's the most extreme endpoint of poor environment for child development. I'm sure there are other sad numbers on poor nutrition, lack of ... everything else most readers of MR had on their path to self-satisfaction.

"127,787 homeless youth under 18"

That's 99.8% of people under 18 who are not homeless. Almost everyone who you would come across would be more likely to have their particular characteristics because of genes rather than because of shared environment.

And I couldn't care less about your moral preening. Virtue signalling is not a method for establishing facts.

I think you are digging deeper. Which has higher moral value, an IQ 90 worker who makes sure the soup kitchen is open on time, or an IQ 110 worker who crunches the data looking for pointless correlations? Pointless because if you aren't going full eugenics, you are going to have diverse populations forever. You are left with how to serve, or ignore them.

It's clear you've made your choice. Caring is preening.

Sorry, but flexing your supposed moral superiority on the internet is not "caring".

P - there is a continuum between on-the-streets-homeless and tiger parented children, for simplicity including things like "really bad", pretty bad", "sort of bad", "OK", "sort of good", "pretty good", "really good"... You are taking a very black and white view of a very grey matter.

Nathan, that's an empirical question and the results have been in for a while.

The left is painful. No one is making the argument anon is responding to. The argument is about genetic effects and these morons are like "yeah but what if you get sucked into a jet engine? See, I told you there are environmental effects." So. Stupid.

Thomas - way to super strawman the not-even-really-strawman. Are we seriously debating that there is a continuum from "really bad" to "really good" environments? This is a controversial point to some? Man, and you're calling THOSE people stupid. The world is not black and white.

Both sides of the argument already conceed that genetics dominate if basic needs are met. Living out in the rain and starving your first 15 years of life are as relevant to the discussion of genetic effects as getting sucked in a jet engine.

The continuum is a motte and bailey argument. You talk about growing up in a North Korean prison camp or growing up on the side of the road as evidence that genetic effects aren't significant, but what you really want to argue is that kids from families in the 80th percentile of household income have higher IQ than kids in the 20th percentile because of their environment - a claim for which there is no proof and a wealth of evidence against.

How can the genetic link be separated from the environmental/social link; after all, the former is at once (almost always) the latter. I grew up in the segregated south, and my father (and his father before him) employed many blacks in his business, mostly at low pay. Their attitudes about race were set by their own experience, as were their attitudes about politics, the latter conflicting in some ways with the former. Neither of my parents was a racist, as they treated their black employees almost like family, several generations of blacks often working for them at the same time, their children my playmates. Racist language was neither spoken nor tolerated in our house. My parents were moderate to liberal, supporting Adlai Stevenson and then John Kennedy. I only vaguely remember the Stevenson/Eisenhower campaigns but I distinctly remember the Kennedy/Nixon campaign. Supporting Kennedy in 1960 resulted in many broken friendships, and children (me included) ostracized for the political views of their parents. The vitriol directed at Kennedy was if anything even worse than the vitriol directed at Obama; in both cases, race, or views about race, being the motivation. My own attitudes were largely shaped during the 1960s, first with Kennedy and then, more directly, by the racist Southern Strategy adopted by Nixon and the Republican Party in 1968 and beyond. White Republicans coming of age later overlook the Southern Strategy or deceive themselves into believing that it wasn't about race, but for me, coming of age at the time, the behavior of Republicans was so revolting that I will never get over it, reinforced since 2000 by the vitriol directed at Obama by otherwise citizens of high standing in my low country community. Evolutionary psychology, genetics, whatever, academics can dress up racism any way they wish, but at bottom political views in this country are shaped by race. My parents died when I was a teenager and for a long time I had little contact with my southern roots. One time I visited one of my father's businesses and some of my father's black employees still worked there. It was an emotional reunion for all of us. When I asked about their children, my playmates long before, I was both surprised and heartened to learn that almost all of them had attended college and had promising careers, mostly elsewhere. The pride in their children's accomplishments was matched only by their affection for my parents. We are where we come from.

"How can the genetic link be separated from the environmental/social link; after all, the former is at once (almost always) the latter." Hence twin studies.

Adoption studies are interesting too. The career of, say, Tom Stoppard is a pretty fascinating example of the interactions of nature and nurture.

Now it all makes sense: Liberals become neurotic because they worry too much about (psychotic) Republican presidential candidates...

Has anyone bothered to think through what any of this means for wisdom of the masses, interest aggregation views of the political process? Surely it's a much deeper challenge that we're letting on.

'Neuroticism is related to liberal economic attitudes [emphasis added by TC]'
has a Straussian reading - 'I am not neurotic'

There are also important gender differences on the big 5 personality exams.

I think there's something to it. As a libertarian, when talking to most conservatives and progressives about politics I find them to be completely ignorant a-holes. I think to myself, "Is this person simply mistaken or was he just born dumb as a sack of hammers and can't help it?"

After some thought, my conclusion usually is that he is born that stupid.

We're all born stupid. Some of us, just never grow up.

It must be a coincidence that the people you think are least informed are those that disagree with you.

"Most notably, P [a complex variable, but derived from “Psychoticism”] "

"Psychotic behavior is rooted in the characteristics of toughmindedness, non-conformity, inconsideration, recklessness, hostility, anger and impulsiveness. The physiological basis suggested by Eysenck for psychoticism is testosterone, with higher levels of psychoticism associated with higher levels of testosterone."

So, testosterone "is substantially correlated with conservative military and social attitudes,".

I could buy that.

"Psychotic behavior is rooted in the characteristics of toughmindedness, non-conformity, inconsideration, recklessness, hostility, anger and impulsiveness"

Dang. That sounds exactly like ever GOP candidate on stage, and every "conservative" I've ever known.

Another interpretation is that masculinity is psychopathic. Another point in favor of the suggestion that all of these terms are politicized.

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