Personality traits predict authoritarian tendencies, study finds

Researchers are finding more evidence that our personality influences our political beliefs.

A new study published in the journal American Politics Research has found that two personality traits in particular are consistently predictive of political attitudes.

“I wrote my dissertation on the ways in which contextual cues in the environment (such as rhetoric and imagery) lead people to form and express opinions utilizing group stereotypes as opposed to the other possible ingredients that could influence opinion, such as partisanship or values,” said Carl L. Palmer of Illinois State University, the study’s corresponding author.

“As scholars in political science began introducing personality traits as a possible independent variable (and one that is likely a precursor to many attitudes, including political orientations), it seemed a natural link to study whether personality traits, that emerge so early in life could lead people to be more or less prone to rely on stereotypes as they formulate opinions on issues.”

The researchers analyzed data from 5,914 respondents in the 2012 American National Election Study, which included a measure of the Big Five personality traits (neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness).

They found that higher levels of openness predicted lower levels of authoritarianism while higher levels of conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism all predicted higher levels of authoritarianism. Conscientiousness was associated with Republican identification while neuroticism was associated with Democratic identification.

“Two traits, openness to experience (an appreciation of things like intellectual complexity, artistic expression, etc.) and conscientiousness (organization, dependability, and self-reliance) are the most consistently predictive of political attitudes,” Palmer told PsyPost. “In this paper, we show that both traits are also predictive of an individuals’ tendency to hold group-centric policy attitudes, albeit indirectly, by influencing an individual’s party identification.”

Conscientiousness predicted more conservative and authoritarian views, which in turn predicted an increased likelihood of opposition to affirmative action programs, opposition to increased welfare spending and support of capital punishment. Openness to experience predicted liberal views, but had a much weaker effect than conscientiousness.

“Personality is a challenging construct to measure,” Palmer said. “Psychology has repeatedly shown that each of the ‘Big Five’ traits are made up of additional sub-dimensions. Our study takes advantage of a nationally representative survey that unfortunately only uses very brief measures, meaning we could be overlooking interesting additional relationships between personality and group-centric thinking.”

The study also found that agreeableness was associated with reduced stereotyping of African Americans as lazy and unintelligent, while neuroticism was associated with increased stereotyping.

“One additional take-away that we hope readers have from our study is that stereotyping behavior is at least partially a function of inherent personality traits that develop at a very young age,” Palmer said. “This is not meant to excuse stereotyping, but rather to underscore findings from psychology and political science that understanding stereotyping and discrimination requires us to look not only at situational and structural factors, but individual differences as well.”

The study, “The Prejudiced Personality? Using the Big Five to Predict Susceptibility to Stereotyping Behavior“, was also co-authored by Philip G. Chen.