Personality Traits And The Dimensions Of Political Ideology

Alan Gerber

Yale University – Department of Political Science

Gregory Huber

Yale University – Department of Political Science

Shang E. Ha

Brooklyn College – CUNY

Conor Dowling

Yale University

David Doherty

Yale University

March 31, 2009


We use three large N nationally representative surveys to investigate the relationships between the Five Factor Model personality traits and political ideology. Prior examinations of the relationships between personality traits and political ideology have yielded mixed results. Numerous studies have shown that ideology is associated with the personality traits Openness and Conscientiousness, but the relationships between the other three personality traits (Agreeableness, Extraversion, and Emotional Stability) and ideology are weak and inconsistent across samples. We find that the failure to link these traits to political ideology is an artifact of the coarse measurement of political ideology used in prior work. Once ideology is decomposed into social and economic dimensions there is a strong association between economic attitudes and Agreeableness and Emotional Stability. Our finding that four of the five personality domains are strongly linked to political ideology implies that the role of personality in political attitudes may be substantially stronger and more general than suggested by previous research.

Personality Traits And The Dimensions Of Political Ideology – Introduction

Recent advances by personality psychologists present an exciting opportunity to improve our understanding of the origins of political attitudes. A growing body of research finds that measures based on the Five Factor Model (FFM) of personality predict a broad range of behaviors, from the kind of music a person likes and how often they smile (Gosling 2008), to occupational choice and health behaviors (Borghans, Duckworth, Heckman, and Weel 2008). In recent years, evidence has accumulated showing a strong association between two of the personality traits in the Five Factor Model (Openness [to Experience] and Conscientiousness) and whether a person is liberal or conservative (see Jost, Federico, and Napier 2009 for a recent review). Although researchers occasionally identify significant relationships between the other three traits captured by the Five Factor Model (Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Emotional Stability) and ideology, these relationships have been much less consistent across studies and most studies find ideology to be unrelated to these personality traits (e.g., see the array of results reported in Carney, Jost, Gosling, and Potter 2008, Table 2).

The strength of the association between ideology and the personality traits Openness and Conscientiousness suggests that personality is a powerful factor shaping political attitudes. In fact, these traits can affect outcomes such as political ideology as much or more than canonical predictors such as education and religiosity (Gerber et al. 2008), a surprising finding in light of the near complete neglect of personality over the past several decades. The mixed evidence for the remaining three personality dimensions, however, raises a puzzle. Does the absence of a relationship between three of the five personality traits and ideology suggest that only some aspects of personality matter, or rather that the measure of political ideology used in previous research is too crude to capture the relationship between personality and political views? In particular, if we were to decompose ideology into issue domains such as economic and social issues, would we find that most personality traits do not matter or rather that personality matters quite a bit, but there are cross pressures leading to ambiguous and weak relationships between personality and overall “liberal” or “conservative” ideology?

Political Ideology

In the present article we “unpack” the relationships between the Big Five personality traits and political ideology by using three recent national surveys to examine the relationships between not only the Big Five and overall ideology, but also between the Big Five and economic and social issue attitudes. As the bulk of existing work on personality and political attitudes has focused on the relationships between personality traits and ideological self-placement, this paper represents a crucial next step toward understanding the relationships between personality traits and political attitudes. Our findings indicate that the effects of personality traits on attitudes vary substantially across issue domains. Relying on a simple left-right measure of overall ideology masks substantial variation across issue domains. Openness and Conscientiousness are the only traits consistently associated with attitudes on social issues (e.g., abortion, gay marriage, stem cell research). In contrast, we find evidence that attitudes on economic issues are affected by each of the Big Five traits—a finding that corrects a potentially misleading impression that Openness and Conscientiousness are the only traits that meaningfully affect political attitudes. These differences across domains suggest that the effects of personality traits on political attitudes depend upon the characteristics of the issues.

More broadly, our analysis highlights the importance of considering individual-level psychological traits in models of political outcomes. In many ways, the focus on the individual-level differences we measure here parallels what is occurring in a range of other research areas. For example, for decades, researchers interested in explaining the occurrence of infectious disease focused on how pathogens in the environment can make people sick. However, recently researchers have turned their attention to how essential individual-level genetic characteristics affect susceptibility to these pathogens (Casanova and Abel 2007). Similarly, for decades political scientists have examined how socioeconomic status, media exposure, campaign activity, and a variety of other environmental factors affect political attitudes and behaviors. The strong association between personality and political attitudes suggests that additional attention should be directed to questions about how enduring individual-level differences might affect the political response to these environmental factors or political interventions, including investigation of which sort of people are most susceptible to different political communications, how different kinds of people respond to political performance, and how personality moderates the effect of group affiliations. In contrast to group affiliations, socioeconomic status, and other environmental factors, personality traits appear to be heavily influenced by genetics and, thus, capture how people differ from one another independent of their environment (e.g., Bouchard 1997; Plomin, DeFries, McClearn, and McGuffin 1990; Van Gestel and Van Broeckhoven 2003).

Political Ideology

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