Researchers examine influence of cultural exposure on political orientation

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Two women with a bookWhat makes a liberal a liberal and a conservative a conservative?

Studies have shown that political orientation is predicted by two of the “Big Five” personality traits, but there is still much to be learned about this relationship.

New research published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests that exposure to cultural products like books and movies is an underlying mechanism linking personality to political orientation.

“In the past, researchers have consistently shown that political liberalism is associated with higher Openness to Experience (characterized by preferences for creativity, curiosity, and new ideas), and political conservatism is associated with higher Conscientiousness (which values structure, organization, and order),” lead researcher Xiaowen Xu of the University of Toronto told PsyPost.

The three part study included a total of nearly 1,500 participants.

The first part of the study used the Author Recognition Test to examine whether reading books could explain the association between personality and political orientation. The second part used the Film Recognition Test to examine whether watching movies could explain the association between personality and political orientation. The third part used the Historical Figure Recognition Test to examine whether historical knowledge could explain the association.

The researchers controlled potentially confounding factors such age, gender, intelligence, education, and other personality traits.

“In our studies, we investigated whether exposure to cultural products (such as books and films), and a corollary of this exposure in the form of acquiring knowledge about American history, could explain the relationship between personality and political orientation,” Xu told PsyPost. “We found that individuals who describe themselves as being more open and less conscientious tended to be exposed to more books and films, which is then associated with more liberal political orientations.”

“Similarly, those who describe themselves to be more open also reported greater knowledge about American history, which is also related to higher liberalism,” she explained. “However, in the case of American historical knowledge, knowing more history did not explain the relationship between Conscientiousness and political orientation.”

“So the main idea of these studies is that specific personality traits, in this case high Openness and low Conscientiousness, are related to increased exposure to culture such as books and films, which are then related to greater political liberalism. In essence, increased cultural exposure provides one possible explanation of how personality influences political orientation.”

Individuals higher in Openness tend to be more intellectually curious, making them more likely to seek out a variety of cultural products. The diverse perspectives and beliefs found in various books and movies could explain why individuals higher in Openness tend to be liberal rather than conservative. Liberals tend to be more embracing of diversity and relativity, while conservatives favor tradition and well-grounded conventions.

“While increased cultural exposure helps explain the relationship between personality and political orientation, it is by no means the only mechanism for how personality predicts political orientation,” Xu told PsyPost. “An additional explanation could be the political orientation of a person’s parents, which would likely influence both the type of cultural exposure a person is exposed to, as well as the person’s own political beliefs.”

Different books and movies could also influence the relationship between personality and political orientation in different ways.

“The current studies examined cultural exposure in a broad sense, by looking at a person’s overall exposure to books and films across genres and domains. However, it is possible that different genres of books or films that people choose to be exposed to may also influence their political orientation,” Xu said.

The study was co-authored by Raymond A. Mar of York University and Jordan B. Peterson of the University of Toronto.