Political beliefs more likely to be rooted in personality traits among those who see politics as a means of self-expression

Conservatives who view their political beliefs as an important part of their identity have a greater aversion toward ambiguity and don’t like situations that are uncertain, according to new psychology research. But this doesn’t appear to be true for conservatives who don’t view their political beliefs as important to their identity.

“Psychologists and political scientists have argued more and more in recent years that people with different personality traits may be attracted to different political positions,” said the corresponding author of the study, Christopher M. Federico of University of Minnesota.

“For example, the trait we look at — the need for closure — refers to how much certainty people want to feel. Those who are high in the need for closure want to feel more certain about things, and a good bit of research suggests that people like this are more likely to be conservative. The idea is that sticking with the status quo — a defining goal of conservatism — helps people feel certain.”

“But we also know that people vary enormously in the extent to which they see politics as important or see their own political beliefs as important to their sense of who they are. In fact, a lot of research in political science suggests that much of the public does not see politics as important,” Federico explained.

“So, we thought it might be interesting to see whether people who see their political beliefs as important to their sense of who they are were more likely to ‘choose’ their political beliefs on the basis of personal traits. Individuals who see their political beliefs as more important to their sense of self should hold political beliefs that better reflect aspects of the self — like personality traits.”

An analysis of data from a nationally representative survey of 1,511 American adults confirmed that the need for closure was related to political ideology. The findings were published in the journal Psychological Science.

“We know from a lot of previous research that individuals who are high in need for closure — in other words, people who want to feel more certain about things — are more likely to have conservative beliefs,” Federico told PsyPost.

“What we show in our study is that this relationship is found mainly among people who see their political beliefs as important to their sense of who they are. Among people who see their political beliefs as important to their identity, need for closure predicts conservatism.”

In other words, the link between need for closure and conservatism mostly existed among those who agreed with statements such as “My political attitudes and beliefs are an important reflection of who I am” and “In general, my political attitudes and beliefs are an important part of my self-image.”

“However, among those who do not see their political beliefs as important to their identity, political beliefs do not seem to reflect personality traits like the need for closure much,” Federico noted.

The study, like all research, has some limitations.

“Our data are observational and come from a single study that examines attitudes at a single point in time,” Federico said. “So, while we find our results interesting, we are appropriately cautious. They need to be replicated in additional studies, and we cannot be sure that personality traits ’cause’ political beliefs rather than vice versa.”

The study, “The Political Self: How Identity Aligns Preferences With Epistemic Needs“, was authored by Christopher M. Federico and Pierce D. Ekstrom.