Politics and personality

Personality Traits and the Dimensions of Political Ideology is a paper from a few years ago, where the authors analyze political tendencies in relation to the Five Factors Model of personality. It's nice to think that we take our political positions based on reason, or something, but we are reliant on our core personality traits to relate to the world, and our political traits are strongly affected by those.

I like the Five Factors Model better than other personality typing methodologies, such as MBTI, which I find mostly a way for businesses to have some consultants come in and waste staff time for a week.

If you're not familiar, the Big Five are openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism (this last makes some people nervous, so they flip the numbers and call it Emotional Stability...only a neurotic would worry about that).

I'll go over their findings, then reveal just a bit about how much my own Five Factor results agree with their theory.

The authors say:

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....Openness is negatively related to political conservatism, while Conscientiousness is positively related to political conservatism...

This has been known for some time.  But the authors found it odd that the other three traits seemed to have nothing to do with political attitudes. Then they decomposed issues into two domains: social and economic. They say:

...we focus on how personality traits affect attitudes in two important issue domains: (1) attitudes about economic policies such as health care and taxes and (2) attitudes about social issues such as abortion and gay marriage. Although the issues in these two domains may be constrained by an overarching ideological disposition, we see little reason to expect the traits that affect attitudes about tax policy will necessarily also affect attitudes about gay marriage. Indeed it is curious that we expect people who support less government involvement in the economic system to support more government involvement in other areas.

That, in fact, has always been my issue with putting myself on a political spectrum: I favor both personal freedom and economic freedom. Which means that disagreement with others is almost inevitable at some point. "Gay marriage and free markets? What kind of a jerk are you?" I also like nuclear power! But I'm aready giving away too much.

They found that in social attitudes, the general relationship held, with Openness being associated with liberalism and Conscientiousness with conservatism.

As for economics:

However, when we examined the relationships between personality traits and economic attitudes we found evidence of other important relationships. Specifically, we found substantial evidence that Emotional Stability is associated with conservative economic attitudes and Agreeableness is associated with liberal economic attitudes.

Or that Neuroticism is associated with liberal (ie., given our weird political lingo, anti-free-market) atttitudes, since the authors use the friendlier, more recent term.

Extraversion had a much smaller correlation to either stance.

Now, the natural thing to do is to use these findings to explain why "those other people" believe what they do, so Arnold Kling, whom I got the pointer from, says:

People who dislike markets tend to score higher on agreeableness, meaning that they like to be seen as pleasing to others. They tend to score low on emotional stability, meaning that they are prone to worry and fear.

I'm a big fan of Kling's. He does tends to dislike liberals, though he does his best to deal with it (his theories are interesting and enlightening, and I would like to get to those at some point). According to a source I will get to below

Agreeable individuals value getting along with others...Agreeable people also have an optimistic view of human nature...agreeableness is not useful in situations that require tough or absolute objective decisions.

I've left a lot of that definition out. Still, you can see that it much more complicated than Kling seems willing to admit. Although that attitude seems like it would be tied to a willingness to make mutually beneficial financial agreements. Why is it tied to trying to intervene to suppress markets instead?

As for Neuroticism, neurotics

...respond emotionally to events that would not affect most people, and their reactions tend to be more intense than normal. They are more likely to interpret ordinary situations as threatening, and minor frustrations as hopelessly difficult.

That is pretty much as Kling observes.

Maybe you need both Agreeableness and Neuroticism to make a liberal suspicious of free markets, Agreeableness to trust other people, Neuroticism to worry that others don't trust people as much as you do.

So how about me?  I took a test here, and this is where those definitions above come from as well. You can take the full 300 question inventory here, and I highly recommmend it.

Why? Because that many questions let the test break down each of the traits into subtraits.  And those subtraits are where the action is.

For example, for Extraversion, I come out as average, a not very helpful result. But broken down, a couple of things pop out.  I rate high on Friendliness, which means I have lots of friends and like hanging around with them, but low on Gregariousness and Excitement-Seeking, which means I dislike crowds and loud parties.  All of these things are true, but somewhat cancel themselves out in the overall measure.

For the politically significant traits, if you must know, I am above average on Openness, and average for the other three. So I guess that explains my political amphibiousness....or namby-pambiness, if you want to see it that way. For me, the key subtrait in Openness is Psychological Liberalism, which means a readiness to challenge authority and tradition. No surprise, mine is high, and I suspect that is a big one for making a political liberal as well.

Except that most liberals nowadays seem no more willing to challenge authority and tradition than conservatives.  They just have different authorities and traditions.

This is all extremely interesting. But anyone dealing with it should resist what I see as a universal tendency in the current political climate:  the urge to weaponize what is meant to be an analytical tool. It's a bit like a fight in a decaying marriage, which uses previous trusted confidences as weapons in the conflict: "You always told me you were worried about your sanity!"

And you snore. I know I always said you didn't. I lied.

Ah, politics.