Study: Democrats value communal personality traits while Republicans value agentic traits

A new study published in Social Psychology Quarterly provides evidence that Republicans and Democrats in the United States tend to value different personality traits.

“My broad research interest is the human tendency to develop systems of beliefs. By a system of beliefs, I mean a set of beliefs that are logically independent (i.e., there is no contradiction in holding one belief and not another), yet tend to coincide within individuals,” said study author Kimmo Eriksson of the Centre for the Study of Cultural Evolution.

“I am interested in the organizing principles of such systems of beliefs (i.e., which beliefs tend to go together) and the psychological mechanisms and cultural processes that result in these particular organizing principles (rather than the countless alternative ways in which beliefs could be organized).”

“This paper deals with a special case: beliefs about which personal characteristics are more valuable to society.”

Eriksson’s research consisted of three studies with 1,269 participants in total. He found that Republicans tended to view agentic traits as more important than communal traits. The opposite was true for Democrats.

“If someone believes ‘Society would be better if the average person were more broadminded,’ that person is also more likely to believe ‘Society would be better if the average person were more warm,’ but less likely to believe ‘Society would be better if the average person were more hardworking.​'”

“Moreover, that person is more likely to be a Democrat than a Republican. In other words, partisans tend to differ in how they value personal characteristics, with Democrats putting greater value on what social psychologists call communion traits (broadminded, warm, curious, fun-loving, sociable, etc) and Republicans putting greater value on agency traits (hardworking, determined, ambitious, thorough, organized, etc).”

Eriksson also found that Republicans tended to view their fellow Republicans as having superior agentic traits compared to the average American. Democrats, on the other hand, tended to view their fellow Democrats as having superior communal traits.

“These valuations carry over to what social psychologists call ingroup bias in attribution of these traits to Democrats and Republicans,” he explained. “Thus, Democrats tend to think that the average Democrat has much more communion traits than the average Republican, while Republicans think the average Republican has much more agency traits than the average Democrat.”

“Importantly, I also asked the same respondents how much of these traits they had themselves. Then the same pattern did not show up. That is, although Democrats rated the average Democrat very high on communion, they did not rate themselves any higher on communion than Republicans did. This finding supports that the ingroup bias is indeed a bias.”

In other words, it doesn’t appear to be the case that Democrats really possess more communal traits.

“It would be great if lay readers would take away that their notions of how their political ingroup differs from their political outgroup on personal characteristics are probably wrong,” Eriksson said.

“For those who are interested in political analysis, I think my study offers a promising framework. There might be many issues on which different valuations of personal characteristics play a role in shaping political positions.”

The study — like all research — has some limitations.

“Many questions should be addressed to increase our understanding of partisan valuations of communion and agency,” Eriksson said. “To mention two: Are differences driven mainly by ideology or by party identification? And are effects tied to words describing communion and agency, or would the same differences be observed also in studies where participants need to infer characteristics from observing actions played out (say, on video)?”

“Stay tuned for more exciting research on political psychology coming out soon from my group!”

The study, “Republicans Value Agency, Democrats Value Communion“, was authored by Kimmo Eriksson.