In my forthcoming book, Personality and Political Attitudes: Civic Capacity and the Challenges of Democratic Politics (to be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2017), I examine the influence that the Big Five personality traits (Openness to Experience, Agreeableness, Extraversion, Conscientiousness, and Emotional Stability) have on the ability to understand political issues and party behavior. Specifically, I look at how well individuals know factual information about five different issue areas and then how well they are able to connect their own personal policy preferences to the correct party. The five issue areas are same-sex marriage, U.S. energy production, drug testing welfare recipients, food stamps, and healthcare.
Just the Facts
I administered a survey in July of 2014 and asked respondents seven factual questions about the five issue areas. (1) Are welfare recipients more likely to use drugs than the general populous? (2) Which party is more likely to support drug testing? (3) Do you get help paying for health insurance? (4) Has U.S. oil production gone up or down since President Obama took office in January 2009? (5) Can religious organizations refuse to marry same-sex couples? (6) What percent of food stamp recipients live in a household with an income? (7) What percent of food stamp recipients, not living with dependents, and capable of working are not earning an income?
The survey also measured respondents’ personalities and a number of other standard demographic and political variables. So, which personality traits were associated with incorrect responses? The answer here boils down to two primary drivers—extraversion and openness. What is interesting is that they had opposite effects. The more extraverted one is, the more questions one is to get wrong. The more open one is to experiences, the fewer questions one is likely to get wrong. Figure 1 shows the effect of extraversion conditional on whether one is low or high in openness. As can be seen, the effect of an increase in extraversion is primarily found among those low in openness. Substantively, for someone low in openness, as their level of extraversion goes from 2 to 10 on the extraversion scale (which runs from 0 to 12), the predicted number of wrong answers increases by nearly .5, which is a bit more than 7 percent of the scale. As a comparison, a similar move in one’s level of political knowledge (as measured by their answers to other factual questions on the survey) from low to high would decrease the predicted number of incorrect responses by 1.1, which is about 14 percent of the scale.
Figure 1: Extraversion and Openness’ Effect on the Predicted Number of Incorrect Responses
Ideal Democratic Citizen?
Ultimately, the overall story is quite consistent across both of these attempts to measure individuals’ ability to behave as ideal democratic citizens. Extraversion tends to increase the probability of getting things wrong, while openness tends to decrease it. Thus, in combination, the results provide solid evidence that these two personality traits are particularly important contributors to citizens’ proper understanding of public policy and the political process. The effect of openness is not too surprising given its origins and connection to intelligence. However, the performance of extraversion is surprising, especially because it is typically viewed as a positive quality, which is why the trait is labeled extraversion and not introversion. These results clearly paint this personality trait in a bad light.
Beyond the specific implications of these findings, my book points to a need to look beyond the notion that we are consciously in charge of our civic engagement. Personality is not generally thought to be under our control and yet it has a significant influence on our ability to understand and engage in politics. Of course, this unconscious influence on our behavior is not limited to our personalities. There is a mountain of work that continues to grow across numerous disciplines documenting the role of automaticity (i.e., the automatic brain processes that influence our understanding of all topics) in politics. For those of us interested in improving political discourse in this country, these results demand a fundamentally different way of looking at the problem.
I argue in the final chapter of my book that instead of looking to change individuals, we need to change the political process. Our political system was designed based on the notion that citizens could behave like ideal democratic citizens, e.g., know factual information about important political issues and know which party aligns with their personal policy preferences. But this is simply not the case for just about everyone. (Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels’ new book Democracy for Realists provides a masterful discussion of this topic.) If we want to improve public discourse and civic engagement, we need to redesign the political process with real humans in mind.
Assistant Professor of the Department of Political Science
Indiana University School of Liberal Arts