Thursday, August 12, 2010


Our personalities play a role in every aspect of our lives, from friendships to hobbies, from whom we marry to what we do for a living.

It’s only natural, then, that personality should also play a role in our political beliefs and behavior, says Jeffery Mondak – yet it’s long been ignored as a subject of study.

Until very recently, this is.

In one of the first books on the subject, Mondak, a University of Illinois professor of political science, makes the case that certain personality traits can sway us to be more liberal or conservative, to be more or less likely to attend a protest march, more or less likely to ignore politics altogether.

With the understanding that we’re born with most of those traits, that means we’re born with certain political tendencies, said Mondak, the James M. Benson Chair in Public Issues and Civic Leadership. And knowing that, he thinks, could make a difference in everything from how political campaigns are run to our view of the partisan shoutfest.

His conclusions in “Personality and the Foundations of Political Behavior” (Cambridge University Press) come from more than 13 years of study at the intersection of psychology and politics, and draw on his own research and that of others.

“We’ve had decades of research on political participation where we’ve not even acknowledged the possibility that people have basic psychological tendencies,” said Mondak, who also is a faculty affiliate of the university’s Cline Center for Democracy.

Instead, political scientists have explained political behavior almost exclusively by looking at aspects of people’s environment, such as where they live, their incomes, years of schooling, or their life experience, Mondak said.

People have been considered “blank slates” who were “identical at the moment of birth, or identical at the moment that they first encountered politics,” he said.

Those environmental factors do matter, but they are not the whole story, Mondak said.

Extroverts, for instance, are much more likely to participate in political activities that involve direct interaction with other people, such as marches, rallies, protests, and door-to-door canvassing, Mondak said. They’re no more likely, however, to give money or display a bumper sticker, he said.

People who are more responsible or conscientious are more likely to show up for jury duty but actually less likely to vote, Mondak said. It may be the non-voters among this group have thought carefully about it, believe they can make little difference, and so have decided politics is not worth their time, he said.

Those who rank high in their openness to experience are very likely to be liberal, even more so if they’re also low in conscientiousness, Mondak said. Those high in conscientiousness are very likely to be conservative, even more so if they’re also low in their openness to experience.

Personality may also explain why research on the effects of negative advertising has produced contrary findings, Mondak said. Rather than making everyone more or less likely to vote, it could be that negative ads motivate some and turn off others, he said.

Mondak’s research is based around a breakthrough in the psychological study of personality going back about two decades, known as the “five factor” or “Big Five” approach. It provides a structure for grouping what were hundreds of personality traits under five broad dimensions: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism (or emotional stability).

Numerous psychological studies have served to reinforce this approach, giving researchers a practical tool for collecting information about personality traits along with other information, Mondak said. Surveys can now include a reasonable five or 10 questions related to personality, whereas it previously would have required hundreds.

“We get a sense of the whole picture now because of the structure provided by these five broad-scale dimensions,” Mondak said.

Studying the connection between personality and politics could matter for a variety of reasons, one of them being the way we view political opponents and the extremes of today’s ideological food fights, Mondak said. “If we can grasp the fact that some people just behave differently, just think differently, or are just oriented differently than others, then I think that has the potential to promote understanding, and to me that’s a positive,” he said.

Also, political organizers might want to note that one size does not fit all when it comes to getting people involved, Mondak said. Not everyone wants to go to a protest rally, for instance. “And so if all they do is show up and ask you to go to the protest rally, you’re going to say no, and then you’re not engaged and then they’ve not benefited from your potential involvement.”

(Photo: L. Brian Stauffer)

University of Illinois

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