Past research has suggested a link between childhood personality and adult political ideology. However, a recent study published in the Journal of Personality only finds very weak or inconsistent evidence that this is the case, casting doubt on whether there is an association at all.
“One of the central questions political psychology tries to understand is how we can understand ideological differences between citizens. A long literature in political psychology puts forward that personality is 1 of the factors that could help explain differences between those on the left and right,” said study author Bert N. Bakker (@bnbakker), an associate professor at the University of Amsterdam.
“Yet, most of this work (including my own) is based upon cross-sectional studies where adult ideology is correlated with adult personality. Cross-sectional correlations do not provide sufficient support for causal relationships. Therefore, scholars look to panel studies that follow individuals from childhood to adulthood as offering a stronger basis for the relationship between personality traits & political ideology. A few studies (3 to our best knowledge) published a link between childhood personality and adult ideology.”
“For instance, the well cited work by Block & Block (2006) ‘Nursery school personality and political orientation two decades later’ in the Journal of Research in Personality. A close inspection of these studies showed that they were conducted in 1 context (US) and especially the work by Block & Block had a very small sample size (95 participants). To cut a long story short, I was curious about the extent to which this would be a replicable finding. I had some doubts but was mostly just curious. In our paper we report the results from two longitudinal studies (combined N=13,822) conducted in the United Kingdom, one of which was pre-registered.”
Bakker and colleagues looked at data from the National Child Development Study (NCDS) which followed 17,415 people born in a single week of 1958 in Great Britain. An initial assessment at birth, and reassessments at ages 7, 11, and 16 using parenteral interview, as well as interviews at ages 23, 33, and 42 were conducted. Childhood personality and adult ideology were assessed at ages 7 and 11, and 41-42 respectively.
Based on the analytical results from the NCDS, Bakker et al. pre-registered their research plan for the data from the 1970 British Cohort Study (BCS70). This study likewise followed over 17,000 individuals from Great Britain, in this case, born in a single week of 1970. Childhood personality was assessed at ages 5 and 10 via parents, and ideology was measured at ages 16 and 26, and 42 or 43. Due to attrition and unresponsiveness, the final combined sample of these two longitudinal studies was approximately 14,000 individuals.
The researchers expected to find that negative childhood traits, including “restlessness, fidgetiness, willingness to fight, worries, solitary, irritability, miserableness, [and] disobedience” would predict general conservatism, social conservatism, and economic conservatism in adulthood.
I asked Bakker what we can learn from this research. He responded, “That in two large studies (combined N=13,822) in the UK, there is basically no consistent association between childhood personality and the political ideology people have in adulthood.”
“So whether or not you observe a kid who is very anxious and rigid, or is very open and curious at age 5, 7 or 11 has no meaningful and systematic association with the political preferences expressed in early and middle adulthood. To conclude: while a few earlier studies have documented a link between early childhood personality and adult political ideology, we find no consistent relationship between childhood personality and political ideology in adulthood.”
The researchers largely found evidence for the null hypothesis — that is, a lack of association between childhood personality and adult political ideology — when conducting Bayesian analyses as well.
What questions still need to be addressed? Bakker responded, “One should consider our study a conceptual replication of the earlier studies that were conducted in the US. We find it unlikely that our null findings are driven by the particular context (the UK) or by differences in the measurement of personality and/or ideology. But there is no way to know this for sure unless one conducts a direct replication using the exact same measures.”
“We think, however, that we need to understand the mechanisms that link distal causes, like personality, to ultimate effects. A life span approach with attention to triggers in the environment that contribute to whether and how personality shapes political ideology is one way forward.”
As for his final reflections, the researcher said, “It is not always easy to convince journal editors and reviewers that replication studies are meaningful. I am happy the Journal of Personality allowed us, after multiple rounds of rigorous peer review, to publish our work in the outlet. I am also happy that you, as a well-read platform, have interest in this paper. Too often we only focus on the shiny new work. At the same time, we need more, not less, replication studies.”
The paper, “Inconsistent and very weak evidence for a direct association between childhood personality and adult ideology”, was authored by Neil Fasching, Kevin Arceneaux, and Bert N. Bakker.