A Global Assessment of Personality & Sociopolitical Attitudes
Authored by Halbert Bai. Special acknowledgment to Matthew Samson and Leor Zimgrod for their guidance on this research project. Funded by the Thouron Family Trust and the University of Cambridge.
Employing the Five Factor Model (or “Big Five”), psychologists have shown that people across the world exhibit stable ideological preferences (Carney, Jost, Gosling, & Potter, 2008; Fatke, 2016; Jost, 2006). The emerging field of biopolitics has gone further to connect political dispositions to inherent genetic traits and influences (Alford, Funk, & Hibbing, 2005; Funk et al., 2013). Neurobiological factors have also been found to influence political orientation along the conservatism-liberalism spectrum (Mendez, 2017). Yet, there remains considerable skepticism that most people can be ideologically differentiated, especially across the left-right political divide. A major aim of this study is to further dispel the “end-of-ideology” myth by investigating political preferences across a large cross-national sample (Aron, 1968; Bell, 1960; Jost, 2006).
An abundance of literature has demonstrated two fundamental differences between liberals and conservatives: (1) attitudes toward inequality and (2) preferences for change (Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski, & Sulloway, 2003). Compared to liberals, conservatives tend to reject change and accept inequality. Although there are certainly individual and context-dependent manifestations of left-right political ideology, genetic and cross-cultural consistency of the ideological divide suggests that core ideological predispositions could be embedded within stable personality traits. Political preferences and behaviors then emerge from the confluence of genetics and environment, leading ultimately into a more or less coherent stance either on the left or the right of the political spectrum.
Theories of political ideology span nearly a century (Carney et al., 2008; Jost et al., 2003). Yet, few theories besides Jost’s Motivated Social Cognition (MSC) Perspective have as comprehensively described and explained right-wing political ideology. MSC synthesizes cognitive-emotional process frameworks and sociopolitical theories and proposes three broad social-cognitive motives for conservatism: epistemic, existential, and relational (Jost, 2017). Individual differences in the levels of these needs determines preference for right-wing ideology.
Specifically within the cognitive-emotional perspective, the theory integrates the prominent Terror Management Theory (Greenberg, Pyszczynski, & Solomon, 1986; Greenberg, Pyszczynski, Solomon, Rosenblatt, & et al, 1990) that posits cultures and their associated worldviews serve to buffer against the salience of mortality. Cultural institutions, according to this view, serve as means of coping against chronic existential anxiety. Within TMT and MSC, there is a perennial debate between the worldview-defense hypothesis and the conservative-shift hypothesis—hypotheses on ideological responses to existential threats. The worldview-defense hypothesis (known also as cultural worldview defense) supposes that invoking the fear of death will cause one to shift further within one’s political ideology. That is, liberals will shift further left and vice versa. On the other hand, the conservative-shift hypothesis posits individuals primed with their own mortality will become more conservative regardless of their original political orientation. There still remains little consensus on this issue although MSC adheres to the conservative-shift hypothesis (Castano et al., 2011; Huddy & Feldman, 2011). From the sociopolitical perspective, Jost et al. (2003) drew predominantly from Social Dominance Theory (SDO) and System Justification Theory (SJT). SDO holds hierarchy as central to the minimization of group conflict by employing “legitimizing myths” to justify the existing social order (Sidanius, Pratto, & Bobo, 1996). Although similar to SDO, SJT focuses on the rationalizing people do on their own to support the status quo. Jost et al. (2003)’s meta-analysis provides further empirical support that conservatism is correlated with the psychological dispositions to avoid uncertainty and ambiguity; support order and closure; maintain self-esteem; and justify the system.
Besides confirming known characteristics of the left/right, research into the liberalism/conservatism dimension presents an avenue into understanding the intensifying political polarization in the Western world (Abramowitz & Saunders, 2008; Fiorina & Abrams, 2008; Inglehart & Norris, 2016). The “rise of populism” and the shift in public opinion toward the right after the September 11th terrorist attacks give credence to the conservative-shift hypothesis.
In political science, the recent surge of populism in the West, especially on the right, has led to a renewed interest in research on the phenomenon. Two major perspectives dominate explanations of populism: (1) the economic insecurity perspective (also known as the economic inequality perspective) and (2) the cultural backlash thesis that derives from “silent revolution” theory (Inglehart & Norris, 2016; 2017; Norris, 2017). The economic insecurity perspective aligns with the traditional left-right divide based on economics whereas the cultural backlash perspective argues that allegiance with populist parties stems as a reaction against progressive value change. The Silent Revolution perspective argues that high levels of existential security and prosperity enable people to be “more open to new ideas and more tolerant of outgroups,” allowing Post-materialist values to take root (Inglehart & Norris, 2017). Consistent with TMT, Inglehart and Norris (2016) found greater support for the cultural backlash perspective. This also parallels the conservative shift hypothesis that argues people on the right will be more xenophobic when faced with existential anxiety. However, rather than merely a reaction toward existential threats, the cultural backlash thesis extends TMT by pointing to cultural change, not economic insecurity, as the primary catalyst of populism and for that matter, conservatism.
The Left-Right Divide & Personality
The twentieth-century political label of the “left” and the “right” rose to prominence during the French Revolution (Bobbio, 1996; Jost, Nosek, & Gosling, 2008). The right-wing embodies views that are conservative, hierarchical, and supportive of tradition. Bobbio (1996) defines conservatism purely as “Nothing outside or against tradition, everything within and for the sake of tradition.” In contrast, left-wing views tend toward social equality and change. However, this underlying left-right political axis can be traced much further historically (Hibbing, Smith, & Alford, 2014). Where one falls on the spectrum from support for stability and tradition on the one hand and preference for progress and equality on the other could strike at a universal psychological dimension.
Investigations into the relationship between political orientation and innate characteristics has a storied and complicated history that began with observations by Aristotle and empirical study by scholars of the Frankfurt School (Jost et al., 2003; Sibley, Osborne, & Duckitt, 2012). In recent years, three major perspectives have emerged that considers values (Schwartz & Bilsky, 1990), personality traits (Jost et al., 2003), or morals as precursors of political ideology (Graham, Haidt, & Nosek, 2009). We will take a personality approach using the Five Factor Model that has been widely embraced to study personality differences in political orientation (McCrae & Costa, 1997; McCrae & John, 1992). Dimensions of the Big Five include openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Each of the five factors consists of six subsidiary facets. Of these five traits, openness to experience has been consistently found to correlate with liberalism and conscientiousness with conservatism (Duckitt, 2016; Jost, 2006). Beyond personality, recent studies have shown conservatives and liberals differ also across measures of emotional regulation, problem-solving, memory, and attention (Fowler & Schreiber, 2008).
This study had three motivating aims: (1) to further dispel the “end-of-ideology” notion by conducting the largest cross-national survey of political ideology and personality, (2) to determine whether psychological dispositions apply to people’s self-perception, and (3) to investigate right/left-wing attitudes toward social equality and immigrants. Political psychology studies have found consistent patterns in political orientation differences across samples. Understanding the bases of political ideology is just the beginning. Previous research has also posited many associations between personality and political ideology, yet few studies have determined whether characteristics for those on either side of the political spectrum are acknowledged by the participants themselves. We refer to self-perception here as whether conservative/liberal individuals view themselves as indeed more predisposed to certain characteristics (e.g. views on gender equality). Relating political ideology to attitudes toward social equality and immigrants can reinforce research on the cultural backlash perspective of right-wing populism.
Few large cross-national studies have investigated the relationship between personality and political leanings. Most samples have been biased, non-representative, or “WEIRD”––Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. (Henrich, Heine, & Norenzayan, 2010). In our literature search, we found only three recent cross-national studies. Stankov (2017) studied U.S. community college students (N = 2,325) from 35 countries and university students (N = 8,883) from 33 countries. The studies conducted on these samples determined the existence of a “Conservative Syndrome” that encapsulates Religiosity, Nastiness/Social Dominance, and Social Awareness/Morality (Stankov, 2017; Stankov & Lee, 2015). Of these three underlying constructs, religiosity was found to be the most closely associated with conservatism. They also determined that individual differences contributed more to conservative/liberal differences than cross-cultural variations. The second study by Fatke (2016) claimed to be the first global assessment of the Big Five and political ideology. Making use of the World Value Survey’s (WVS) condensed Big Five Inventory 10 (BFI-10), Fatke related personality to political ideology in 21 countries (N = 27,384). The study confirmed prominent findings on the Big Five and conservatism/liberalism. That is, conscientiousness is strongly correlated with the right and openness to experience is strongly associated with the left. Agreeable and neurotic individuals also tended to identify as liberal. Additional analyses modeled the moderating role of country context, and found that the association between the five-factor model and political orientation varies by country. Thirdly, Jost et al. (2003) conducted a meta-analysis of 88 samples (N = 22,818) from 12 countries. This was the foundational paper for Jost’s MSC Perspective and it confirmed several predictors of conservatism including openness to experience, uncertainty tolerance, and death anxiety, among others. Our study is the first in-depth investigation that employs comprehensive metrics on personality and political orientation across a large multi-national and representative sample. See Table A1 (in the Appendix) for details on the psychological tests used in each country.
We sought to test known and relevant associations between personality and political ideology. These relationships included political ideology correlations with the Big Five. To test people’s self-perceptions of their ideological characteristics, we assessed views toward social equality, specifically gender equality. According to System Justification Theory, in-group favoritism and homophily emerges from a need to maintain order and hierarchy (Jost, Banaji, & Nosek, 2004). This need leads to conservatives developing negative attitudes toward out-groups. We sought to confirm this theoretical prediction by testing the association between liberalism and pro-immigrant attitudes.
We also conducted tests on our measures of political ideology, specifically liberalism, the notion of the Right/Left, and, for the United States, the Republican/Democrat label. Previous researchers have called for an expansion beyond the unidimensional left/right divide to describe political ideology (Duckitt, 2001; Greenberg & Jonas, 2003) and others have argued that conservatism is an ambiguous label (Muller, 2015). We hypothesized that there would not be a strong association between liberalism and the right/left distinction because of the heterogeneity of conceptions of the right/left across the world. Therefore, we expected only a weak positive correlation between liberalism and left-wing ideology. In the United States, where participants were asked to what degree they were a Republican or Democrat, we hypothesized a strong positive association between liberalism and Democratic political orientation. Conservatism/right-wing ideology has also been shown to link closely with Right-Wing Authoritarianism (RWA). We hypothesized that there is a positive association between conservatism/right-wing ideology and RWA despite disagreement on the nature of conservatism itself.
The current study was part of a larger research program that aims to create a multi-national dataset of millions of people by using publicly available Twitter data and users’ responses to surveys. Employing Clint’s and Tellwut’s online panels, participants (N = 36,498, 47.5% women, Mage = 34.6 years, age range: 18-86 years) were recruited from 33 countries encompassing 14 different languages. Survey items were not entirely political or personality in nature. Questions also concerned gender equality, gender stereotypes, cognitive emotion regulation, coping, global health, and well-being among others were also included. See Table 1 for countries in which each psychometric scale relevant to this study was used. Upon completion of the surveys, participants were provided with immediate feedback on their IPIP-NEO-120 scores. We retained participants who completed > 70% of the items, spent more than 5 minutes, and had > 0.25 variance in responses to the 120 NEO personality items. Existing and validated translations of the survey items were used whenever possible. If these were not available, questions were translated and then back translated by at least two different native or expert-level speakers of the language.
We ensured that every country, both genders, and ages by decade were equally represented in our data by generating weights. Extreme weights were truncated with their upper limits reduced to one standard deviation above the mean. All variables with skew > |1| were log transformed. Missing values for each variable in a given country were imputed using “Multiple Imputation with Chained Equations” (mice) package with its default specifications in R. “mice” assigns values that reflect a variable’s original distribution of scores from the responses of other participants while accounting for randomness in responding (van Buuren & Groothuis-Oudshoorn, 2011).
Every numeric variable was then group-mean z-scored by country (Mean = 0; SD = 1). This ensured that our analysis would only assess the effect of a characteristic’s relative strength within a country instead of its absolute strength independent of a participant’s country of residence. To account for socio-demographic factors, we employed a Multi-Level Model (MLM) in which we specified random intercepts and fixed slopes for each variable using the “lme4” package in R. Individual-level controls consisted of age, survey duration, exercise, fruits and vegetables consumption (“greens”), sex, and social class. National-level controls include well-being (Gallup Well Being Index, 2014; World Database of Happiness) as well as United Nations data on civil liberties, GDP per capita, literacy, and life expectancy. Upon implementing these controls, we found the intra-class correlation coefficient (ICC) < .001, suggesting that the variance attributable to country of residence was negligible. Therefore, we focused on effects at the individual-level.
Five control variables significantly (p < .01) influenced liberalism (NEO_OPN6) with t-values > |3|. These included age, greens, national civil liberties, national GDP per capita, and national life expectancy with corresponding t-values that can be found in Table 1. With each unit increase in a fixed variable, there is a one standard deviation increase in liberalism.
Primary Outcome Measure. The primary outcome was liberalism. It was measured with the standard IPIP-NEO-120 for assessing the five-factor model. The scale comprises of four items for each facet of the Big Five, thereby totaling 120 items. Liberalism (α = 0.17) is a facet of openness to experience. Whenever feasible, given our data set, we also tested our hypotheses using results from questions pertaining to political orientation that were asked in some countries (see “Political Orientation” and “Republican or Democrat” in Table A1). This helped ensure construct validity. Direct political orientation questions were of two types. Participants were either asked (1) on a 100-point Likert scale “how would you describe your political views” (0 = Extremely Left; 100 = Extremely Right) or (2) select on a 100-point Likert scale “Republican vs Democrat” (0 = Strongly Republican; 100 = Strongly Democrat). We henceforth denote the former question as the Left/Right Orientation Scale. The latter item (hence, Republican/Democrat Scale) was asked only in the United States.
Big Five Factors and Relevant Facets. To assess the five-factor model for each participant, we employed the IPIP-NEO-120. Items pertaining to these facets and factors were scored on a seven-point Likert scale (1 = Strongly Disagree; 7 = Strongly Agree). Besides liberalism, the five dimensions and their facets relevant to this study are as follows: Neuroticism versus emotional stability (N; α = 0.83), Extraversion/energy (E; α = 0.87), Agreeableness versus antagonism (A; α = 0.83), Conscientiousness (C; α = 0.83), Openness to experience (O; α = 0.83), the orderliness facet of conscientiousness (α = 0.83), the achievement-seeking facet of conscientiousness (α = 0.32), and the assertiveness facet of extraversion (α = 0.52). As an added measure of reliability, we also used the condensed 10-item Big Five Inventory (BFI-10) in some countries (see Table A1). The inventory uses two items score on a five-point Likert scale (1 = Strongly Disagree; 5 = Strongly Agree) to assess each factor (N, α = 0.54; E, α = 0.47; A, α = 0.24; C, α = 0.45; O, α = 0.32).
Measures of Social Equality & In-Group Favoritism. As a proxy for assessing social equality, we employed four metrics measuring attitudes toward gender equality: a cultural gender orientation scale, a support for gender equality scale, a stereotypical gender roles scale, and the Neosexism Scale (NSS).
The Cultural Gender Scale measures to what extent participants support traditional gender norms. Items were scored on a five-point Likert scale (1 = Strongly Disagree; 5 = Strongly Agree). Within the cultural gender scale, we specifically examined questions related to system justification (α = 0.40; e.g. “Society works for good purposes”), character traits (α = 0.13; e.g. “I expect leaders to be men”), stereotypes (α = 0.30; e.g. “Women are emotionally weak”), and binary beliefs (α = 0.16; e.g. “men and women are opposites”). Four items were asked of system justification, two of character traits, twelve of stereotypes, and two of binary beliefs.
As the name suggests, the Support for Gender Equality Scale determines to what extent participants support gender equality. We used two constructs within the scale, specifically general support for gender equality (α = 0.78; e.g. “supporting gender equality is important to me”) and public support of gender equality (α = 0.91; e.g. “I initiate conversations about gender equality in my workplace”).
The Stereotypical Gender Role Scale (α = 0.76) assesses to what extent certain roles should be taken by a man versus a woman. Participants were asked to rate items such as “prepare meals” and “propose marriage” on a five-point Likert scale (1 = should always be done by a man; 5 = should always be done by a woman).
The Neosexism Scale measures gender prejudice, specifically neosexist beliefs (Tougas, Brown, Beaton, & Joly, 2016). Although gender equality is gaining greater explicit support, Tougas and colleagues point to the appreciable sex discrimination still evident in labor statistics. An apparent disconnect between explicit endorsement of gender equality and the gendered reality served as the basis of the scale’s development. Participants were asked to rate on a Likert scale (1 = Strongly Disagree; 7 = Strongly Agree) statements that were positively coded such as “it is difficult to work for a female boss” and those that were negatively coded such as “in a fair employment system, men and women would be considered equal.”
Measures of Sentiment Toward Immigrants. To determine attitudes toward immigrants, participants were asked to respond to the following question with a binary Likert scale (0 = No; 1 = Yes): “Do you think your country’s government should encourage foreign immigrants to become full citizens?”
Measure of Right-Wing Authoritarianism. We employed the standard 15-item short version of the Right-Wing Authoritarianism scale (Altemeyer, 1998; Zakrisson, 2005).
Personality & Political Ideology
We first conducted regression analyses relating each individual personality factor to the liberalism facet of openness to experience. For comparison and to ensure reliability, we tested personality associations with self-identified left-right political orientation and, within the United States, the Republican/Democrat Scale. We confirmed previous findings that openness to experience positively correlates with liberalism/left-wing political ideology (see Table 2). Of note, the IPIP-NEO-120 measure of openness to experience strongly correlated (r = .63) with being a Democrat in the United States. The results for conscientiousness were mixed. The liberalism scale and the Left/Right Orientation Scale yielded correlations consistent with existing literature. That is, conscientiousness positively correlates with conservatism. The positive association with the Republican/Democrat Scale, however, poses a contradiction, suggesting that Democrats tend to be higher in conscientiousness. Extraversion and agreeableness related inconsistently with conservatism/liberalism. The scales for liberalism and left-right political ideology showed that extraversion was positively correlated with liberalism/left-wing political orientation while the Republican/Democrat Scale gave diverging results when using the two personality scales. When correlated with the Republican/Democrat Scale, the IPIP-NEO-120 measure of extraversion suggests that Democratic political orientation associates with extraversion while the BFI-10 indicates the opposite—Republican orientation correlates with extraversion. Reflecting current ambiguity over the relationship between agreeableness and left/right orientation, we found that agreeableness is also poor predictor of political ideology. Previous research has sought to link neuroticism to liberal political ideology, but our results suggest otherwise. Correlations between neuroticism and left/right orientation were small (| r | < .01) with the exception of the neuroticism factor measured with the IPIP-NEO-120 that suggests neuroticism, in fact, correlates positively (r = .28) with Republican political ideology.
A multiple regression analysis was then used on the Big Five to predict participants’ political orientation. To test the full predictive power of the five factors (liberalism is a facet of openness to experience), political orientation was assessed only with the results of the Left/Right Orientation Scale and the Republican/Democrat Scale. This analysis allowed us to estimate the unique statistical contribution of each of personality dimension while accounting for the effects of the other four factors. We found that the five-factor model assessed using the IPIP-NEO-120 predicted left-right political ideology (R = .28, F (30, 11573) = 32.01, p < .001) and explained 7.7% of the variance. Employing the Republican/Democrat Scale as the outcome significantly improved the predict power of the IPIP-NEO-120 measured Big Five (R = .70, F (30, 2057) = 65.41, p < .001) and accounted for 48.8% of the variance.
We conducted similar simultaneous regression analyses with the BFI-10 inventory. The Left/Right Orientation measure was not used because the BFI-10 was not employed in the same countries. Using the Republican/Democrat Scale as the outcome of the BFI-10 inventory (R = .27, F (5, 2082) = 31.84, p < .001) explained 7.1% of the variance. Using the liberalism facet measured using the IPIP-NEO-120 as the outcome, we found that the BFI-10 inventory was a poor predictor of political orientation (R = .13, F (5, 16660) = 56.75, p < .001) and accounted for 1.8% of the variance.
Attitudes toward Sociality Equality & Immigrants
For the Cultural Gender Scale, regression analyses were conducted with liberalism and the Left/Right Orientation Scale as metrics of political ideology. The System Justification component yielded a negative correlation with liberalism (r = -.190, p < .001) and a positive association with left-right political ideology (r = .126, p < .001), indicating system justification is positively associated with conservatism. The Character Traits component measures adherence to stereotypical male/female character traits such as “I expect men to be leaders.” Both the liberalism measure (r = -.130, p < .001) and the Left-Right Orientation Scale (r = .072, p < .01) suggest that endorsing gender stereotypes is associated with right-wing political orientation. To further ensure convergent validity (Campbell & Fiske, 1959), we utilized the Stereotypes and Binary Beliefs components of the scale. As hypothesized, we found that endorsement of cultural gender stereotypes is negatively associated (r = -.067, p < .01) with liberalism and is positively associated (r = .051, p < .01) with the Left-Right Orientation Scale. Likewise, the adherence to binary beliefs of gender roles is negatively correlated (r = -.184, p < .01) with liberalism and is positively associated (r = .105, p < .01) with right-wing political ideology.
Employing the Support for Gender Equality Scale, which measures explicit attitudes toward gender equality, we found consistent results. Liberalism associated positively with both gender equality in general (r = .210, p < .001) and in public (r = .273, p < .001). Again, “general” equality scales measured individuals’ sentiment toward achieving gender equality and “public” scales ask participants to report their willingness to engage in actions or activities to promote gender equality (e.g. political activism, initiating discussions, supporting gender equality in the workplace).
The Stereotypical Gender Role Scale and the Neosexism Scale (NSS) reinforced construct validity by asking items that were oriented toward social inequality. The Stereotypical Gender Role Scale assesses the extent to which participants endorse certain roles to be completed either by a man or a woman. The NSS measures the degree to which participants believe the current system is just toward women. Consistent with our earlier results, liberalism was negatively correlated with the endorsement of stereotypical gender roles in the household (r = -.192, p < .001) and also negatively associated with the NSS (r = -.161, p < .001). The NSS was asked of participants in countries where the Left/Right Orientation Scale was also employed. We found consistent results in an analysis of NSS and the Left/Right Orientation Scale. As hypothesized, the NSS positively correlated with right-wing political ideology (r = .097, p < .001).
Confirming previous research, we found that positive attitudes toward immigrants were positively correlated with liberalism (r = .173, p < .001). The Left/Right Orientation Scale and the Republican/Democrat Scale were not employed in the countries where questions pertaining to attitudes toward immigrants were also assessed.
Construct Validity & Right-Wing Authoritarianism (RWA)
In support of our hypothesis, we found a poor negative association between liberalism and the Right/Left Orientation Scale (r = -.205, p < .001), and a strong positive association between liberalism and the Republican/Democrat Scale (r = .610, p < .001). We also found a strong negative correlation between liberalism and RWA (r = -.414, p < .001), and a poor positive association between the Right/Left Orientation Scale and RWA (r = .192, p < .001).
This study demonstrated that there are indeed important psychological differences between liberals and conservatives across the globe. However, unlike previous research, the only Big Five personality factor that consistently associated with the right-left axis was openness to experience. Conscientiousness, a factor that has been previously correlated with conservatism, revealed inconsistent results in our data. Openness to experience may very well be the underlying psychological characteristic that distinguishes those on the left and the right. The “Silent Revolution” theory from political science supports this notion. Combined with high degrees of existential security, Post-materialist values such as openness to outsiders, freedom of expression, and gender equality are thought to emerge. Our finding also reflects Jost’s MSC perspective in which core ideological characteristics predispose people to either stability/tradition or progress/equality. Openness to experience as a universal measure of political ideology confirms that the “end of ideology” notion is invalid. Individuals do indeed exhibit stable ideological preferences.
We employed attitudes towards gender equality as a proxy for assessing preferences for social equality. Being conservative predicts justification of the status quo, expectation that men and women ought to adopt traditional gender roles, and less support for gender equality in general and in public. According to the MSC perspective, conservatives tend to have higher levels of existential anxiety. Minimizing threats to tradition and order through means such as justification and adherence to traditions of social inequality enable a sense of safety and security (Jost, Stern, Rule, & Sterling, 2017). From TMT and the similar cultural backlash perspective, we find threats that invoke existential anxiety result in a shift toward traditional values, xenophobia, and conformity to group norms (Inglehart & Norris, 2017; Jost et al., 2003). Our analysis, previous research, and theoretical models all affirm an association between conservatism and support for social inequality. Future studies should investigate the directionality of this association and conduct large cross-national studies to see if this relationship holds for other issues besides gender equality such as freedom of expression and health equity. There may also exist nuances across cultures and countries. For instance, conservatives in the United States are often thought of as hardline “free speech” or First Amendment adherents but theories from political psychology and political science suggest otherwise. That is, conservatives need for order, tradition, and conformity constrains their ability to express freely.
Although we did find a positive association between liberalism and pro-immigrant attitudes, the other two measures of political orientation were not employed in the same countries of interest. According to theoretical perspectives, a positive correlation between left-wing political orientation and positive sentiment towards immigrants is consistent. Our result is a preliminary finding, which future empirical research ought to explore. The perspective of minority and immigrants themselves should also be investigated further. SJT argues that disadvantaged groups can paradoxically be the strongest proponents of the status quo (Jost et al., 2003). Large cross-national studies would help determine if this is a localized phenomenon or a human universal. The psychological mechanism for this paradox could stem from the cognitive dissonance resulting from competing desires to assimilate culturally and to advance economically.
Given that people exhibit stable ideological predilections, it is then natural to hypothesize that the manifestation of political dispositions on the left/right match people’s perception of their own personalities. We found that this is indeed the case. People’s self-perception aligns with their psychological characteristics. Being open to experiences positively predicts your acceptance and advocacy of gender equality. Self-assessment of political orientation aligns with whether you view immigrants positively or negatively.
Our study relies heavily on the liberalism facet of openness to experience as a proxy for political orientation. Relating sociopolitical attitudes to a facet of personality poses a dilemma. Does liberalism in fact measure political orientation? The weak association between liberalism and the Right/Left Orientation Scale suggests further research is needed to determine whether the liberalism facet of openness to experience indeed reflects the left/right notion of political orientation. Furthermore, the discrepancy in the predictive power of liberalism for the Left/Right Orientation Scale and the Republican/Democrat Scale suggests that there is unaccounted for complexity in current understanding of the conservatism/liberalism spectrum.
While a strong correlation was found between liberalism and RWA, we found only a weak association between the explicit measure of left-right political orientation and RWA. This suggests that the left-right axis can serve as a preliminary measure of sociopolitical attitudes and personality, but as Feldman and others have argued, the unidimensional conception of the right and the left should be untangled and perhaps overlaid with orthogonal dimensions such as economic and social attitudes toward the left/right (Feldman & Johnston, 2013; Inglehart & Norris, 2016).
Because of the cross-sectional nature of the study, we are not able to establish the causality of personality and political ideology. While personality is often thought to develop early and political preferences later in life, whether an underlying fixed trait mediates the development of both remains unclear. Longitudinal, genetic, and experimental designs are needed.
Our statistical analysis controlled for cross-national differences and sociodemographic variables. Nations differ in their mores, political systems, and attitudes toward the left/right. Accounting for these cross-cultural nuances could inform and refine political psychology theory. For example, the liberalism facet of openness to experience could be viewed differently across countries. Certain semantic aspects of our scales could also have been lost in translation.
We conducted the largest cross-national study of personality and sociopolitical attitudes. Our findings contribute to the growing body of literature on the underlying personalities and preferences of conservatives/liberals. It also adds to a greater understanding of the cause for the current surge in populism sweeping across the Western world. By employing three measures of political orientation and two widely used measures of personality, we ensured construct and convergent validity. The divergence between liberals and conservatives on openness to experience suggests that people, regardless of their political participation, hold stable ideological preferences that manifest into measurable attitudinal differences toward social equality and immigrants. Adherence to conservatism correlates with less acceptance of gender equality and less positive attitudes toward immigrants.
Theories of political psychology including MSC, TMT, and SJT predicted our primary findings. Openness to experience could prove to be a psychological basis for the cultural backlash perspective found in political science. Further research needs to be done to determine the malleability of the openness to experience personality trait and especially the mechanism through which the conservative shift process occurs.
The left/right divide has been employed in political psychology over many decades, yet there still remains debate over what the axis fails to capture including cultural, political, and regional differences. It is about time that political science, political psychology, and biopolitics draw consensus on a mapping of political ideology with consistent dimensions derived from prevailing notions of sociopolitical, economic, and cultural conditions. Just as the Big Five has clarified and standardized the study of personality, political ideology too needs a more cross-national and empirically informed model with overarching themes and subsidiary facets that can more fully account for individual- and group-level differences in political orientation regardless of nationality, culture, or historical period.
The author would like to thank Matthew Samson and Leor Zmigrod for their guidance on this research project. He would also like to thank Geeta Kasanga, Rosie Lawrence, Sir Roger Tomkys, Jan Thouron, and Rupert Thouron.
This research was funded by the Thouron Family Trust and the University of Cambridge.
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