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date: 23 October 2017

Personality and Political Behavior

Summary and Keywords

“Personality” refers to a multifaceted and enduring internal, or psychological, structure that influences patterns in a person’s actions and expressed attitudes. Researchers have associated personality with such attributes as temperament and values, but most scholarly attention has centered on individual differences in traits, or general behavioral and attitudinal tendencies. The focus on traits was reinvigorated with the rise of the Big Five personality framework in the 1980s and 1990s, when cross-cultural evidence pointed to the existence of the dimensions of openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and emotional stability. Studies have found these five trait dimensions to be highly heritable and stable over time, leading researchers to argue that the Big Five exert a causal impact on attitudes and behavior. The stability of traits also contrasts with more dynamic individual-level characteristics such as mood or with contextual factors in a person’s environment. Explanations of human decision-making, therefore, would be incomplete without attention to personality traits.

With these considerations in mind, political scientists have devoted an increasing amount of attention to the study of personality and citizen attitudes and behavior. The goal of this research program is not to claim that personality traits offer the only explanation for why some citizens fulfill the basic duties of citizenship, such as staying informed and turning out to vote, and others do not. Instead, scholars have studied personality in order to understand why individuals in the same economic and political environment differ in their political attitudes and actions. And accounting for the consistent influence of personality can illuminate the magnitude of environmental factors and other individual-level attributes that do shift over time.

Research on personality and political behavior has explored several substantive topics, including political information, attitudes, and participation. Major findings in this burgeoning literature include the following: (1) politically interested and knowledgeable citizens tend to exhibit high levels of openness to experience, (2) ideological liberalism is more prevalent among individuals high in openness and low in conscientiousness, and (3) citizens are more likely to participate in politics if they are high in openness and extraversion.

Although the personality and politics literature has shown tremendous progress in recent years, additional work remains to be done to produce comprehensive explanations of political behavior. Studies currently focus on the direct impact of traits on political attitudes and actions, but personality also could work through other individual-level attitudes and characteristics to influence behavior. In addition, trait effects may occur only in response to certain attitudes or contextual factors. Instead of assuming that personality operates in isolation from other predictors of political behavior, scholars can build on past studies by mapping out and testing interrelationships between psychological traits and the many other factors thought to influence how and how well citizens engage the world of politics.

Keywords: political behavior, personality, psychology, Big Five, comparative politics

Connecting Personality and Citizen Politics

Most of us have taken personality tests online, tests that purport to reveal matters such as which movie star, musical performer, TV character, or breed of dog we are most like. We also observe personality differences in our friends. We know which acquaintances tend to be outgoing, which are the most responsible, and which dissolve into nervous wrecks under the slightest of pressures. We probably can rate ourselves on these same criteria. These examples demonstrate that we encounter personality differences on a daily basis and that we tend to possess an intuitive understanding of what personality is and why it is important.

It is a small step from these everyday brushes with personality to appreciating how and why social scientists study the possible impact of personality on people’s attitudes and behaviors. Personality psychologists and researchers in many other fields have directed considerable effort toward defining personality, cataloguing personality traits, determining how best to measure those traits, learning about the origins of differences in personality, and gauging the extent to which personality influences how people think and act. Political scientists have conducted some of this research. Comparative political behavior scholars recognize that many factors contribute to differences in how citizens engage the political world. Increasingly, these scholars acknowledge that people’s fundamental psychological characteristics—that is, their personalities—are among those factors.

The present article provides a broad case for the value of incorporating personality in research on comparative political behavior. In developing this case, we address three issues. First, we examine what personality is. In the past 25 to 30 years, consensus has emerged that personality traits are central components, but not the only components, of personality. Moreover, consensus exists that the bulk of personality trait structure can be represented with information on a relative handful of dimensions.

The most prominent framework, and the one that has received the most attention in political science, is the Big Five, or Five-Factor, approach. This framework focuses on the trait dimensions of openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. We explain the logic of this perspective, and discuss its relative strengths and limitations.

Second, we discuss why personality is thought to be important for political behavior. Applied research has linked variation in the Big Five trait dimensions to a staggering array of phenomena. Within the realm of citizen politics, the list includes everything from core political values to decisions about whether to display political yard signs. We recap some of the most important findings from this literature and explain why these effects are presumed to exist. Third, we offer some thoughts on how personality and politics might be studied most productively. Research in the past decade has identified links between personality traits and many aspects of comparative political behavior. Moving forward, it is important that we think about how best to integrate these insights with our broader accounts of the factors that influence political behavior. We argue that careful attention must be paid both to how personality is conceptualized and to how we theorize and test its role in politics.

As this article proceeds, we present the material in a nontechnical manner. Our goal is to provide a conceptual overview of personality and politics, not to discuss the intricacies of particular studies. That said, we include citations to both foundational works in this area and to illustrative examples of successful research. We hope that readers develop an understanding of what personality entails, why variation in personality traits may be consequential for political behavior, and how we can most fruitfully incorporate personality into our broader accounts of citizens’ political attitudes and actions.

What is Personality?

Research on political behavior seeks to understand why people think and act the way they do when it comes to politics: why they identify as liberals or conservatives, why they approve or disapprove of the president or parliament, why they did or did not vote in the most recent election, why they follow news about politics closely or not at all. Underlying most of this research is a concern with the quality of governance. Scholars hope that by understanding why people behave as they do, research can foster more capable citizens, ultimately bringing better elected officials and more representative policies.

Like all human behavior, political behavior is influenced by a complex array of factors. Some of these factors are external to the individual, such as the structure of a nation’s political system, or the occurrence of an economic downturn. Others are more personal, such as one’s level of intelligence or the decision to get married or change careers. We also can differentiate factors on the basis of whether they are relatively permanent and stable, or momentary and changing. An adult’s level of formal education and a nation’s selection of political institutions generally fall into the first category, whereas policy proposals and people’s emotional responses to political events are more likely to change over time.

With these distinctions in mind, most of us likely would assume that people’s personalities are best conceived of as personal attributes rather than as forces external to the individual. And they are stable and enduring rather than temporary and fleeting. Such an understanding of personality is consistent with what empirical research has shown. Appreciation for what this implies for whether and how personality may influence political behavior requires that we step back and consider both the meaning of personality and the causes of variation in personality across individuals.

Personality can be defined as a multifaceted and enduring internal, or psychological, structure that influences patterns of behavior (Mondak, 2010). Several aspects of this definition require explanation. First, personality is internal to the individual. We are not assigned our personalities at work or school; instead, they are part of us, and we carry them with us as we move from situation to situation. Importantly, conceiving of personality as an internal psychological structure implies that personality cannot be measured directly. We cannot crawl inside a person’s head and spot the extraversion. Instead, personality is measured indirectly, with information about the general patterns of thought and action assumed to be related to different components of personality. A second key point is that personality endures and is highly heritable. The heritability of personality means that much of the variation in personality across individuals is rooted in biology (e.g., Riemann, Angleitner, & Strelau, 1997). To a large extent we are born with the tendency to be extraverted, to be conscientious, and so on.

A great deal of research also shows that personality as measured in early childhood corresponds closely with personality measured later in life. Personality does change incrementally over the life cycle; for example, people tend to become more conscientious and emotionally stable with age. But these changes happen to virtually everyone. Thus, if one friend is more conscientious than the other at age 15, she likely still will be more conscientious at age 50, even if both friends are more conscientious at 50 than they were at 15. When psychologists measure personality in individuals at repeated points over the course of several years, they observe very high correlations (e.g., Costa & McCrae, 1988). Not only is personality itself stable over time, so too are its effects on political attitudes and behavior (Bloeser, Canache, Mitchell, Mondak, & Poore, 2015).

Beyond being internal to the individual and stable over time, two additional aspects of our definition of personality require elaboration. First, personality is multifaceted. The bulk of our discussion focuses on personality traits, the aspects of personality that have received the greatest scholarly attention. Personality traits are psychological characteristics of individuals, which means they are basic units of personality. Personality psychologists note that most of the thousands of adjectives used to describe people—terms such as punctual, gregarious, and polite—represent personality traits. Apart from traits, there is debate about personality’s components, but researchers agree that elements such as motives, values, and perhaps even intelligence, are part of personality (e.g., Caprara & Vecchione, 2013).

The last noteworthy aspect of our definition is that personality influences behavior. This, of course, is why scholars outside of the field of psychology care about personality. If personality influences behavior, then information about an individual’s personality may help us understand how the person acts, and with what success, in contexts such as school, the workplace, social relationships, and the world of politics. As is shown in the next section, a wealth of research has identified links between personality and virtually all matters of interest to students of comparative political behavior.

The Big Five

Because thousands of distinct personality traits have been identified (Allport & Odbert, 1936), trait psychology would be a hodgepodge without some sort of ordering framework. Personality psychologists have recognized this circumstance for decades and have proposed models of personality trait structure ranging in size from two or three trait dimensions to 16 or more. The Big Five, or Five-Factor, perspective emerged out of research conducted on behalf of the U.S. Air Force in the late 1950s (e.g., Tupes & Christal, 1958), although it was not until the late 1980s that this approach truly took off among personality psychologists (e.g., Costa & McCrae, 1988). The derivation of the Big Five was empirical rather than theoretical. Researchers examined how people—in the earliest work, Air Force officers—rated themselves on a large number of adjectives and then administered a statistical technique, factor analysis, to determine how many underlying dimensions best represented the data’s structure. A five-factor structure was obtained. Today, the Big Five trait typology enjoys a dominant role in the field, along with corresponding popularity as a vehicle for applied research in political science and many other disciplines.

The Big Five trait dimensions are openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.1 We refer to these as trait dimensions rather than as traits because each is broad and encompasses several subsidiary facets. Researchers who make use of the Big Five contend that the framework captures the bulk of variation in personality trait structure. However, they do not assume that all aspects of personality, or even all personality traits, are represented by the Big Five. The Big Five approach thus constitutes a very good starting point for applied research on personality. But we should be aware of the possibility that, depending on our research questions, we might need to augment it with information on other traits. It is also possible that a framework superior to the Big Five eventually will emerge.

For students of comparative political behavior, an advantage of the Big Five is its cross-cultural applicability. Measures of the Big Five trait dimensions have been translated into dozens of languages, and researchers have administered these questionnaires throughout the world. More impressively, the same basic five-factor structure is observed in these applications (e.g., McCrae & Costa, 1997). This does not mean that personality structures are exactly the same everywhere. It may be, for example, that an unmeasured sixth or seventh trait dimension is prominent in a given nation. At the very least, the evidence shows that the dimensions of openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism are present in people across a wide array of language groups, cultures, and nations.

To illustrate average levels of the Big Five across countries, we refer to the 2010 AmericasBarometer. This survey fielded personality questions to residents of 24 countries in North America, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Respondents were asked two items for each of the Big Five. Their responses were logged, combined, and recoded to range from 0 to 1, with higher values indicating greater openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and emotional stability. 2Figure 1 depicts the responses to the personality items in four AmericasBarometer countries: Brazil, Jamaica, Mexico, and the United States. The dots in the figure represent the average score for that trait in the country, and the bars indicate the level of variation as measured by plus or minus one standard deviation. We find that answers vary somewhat from country to country, with Jamaicans providing slightly higher average responses for each of the Big Five than residents in the other three countries. Nevertheless, the degree of variation across individuals within each country is much greater than variation in the average response from one country to the next. This has two implications for cross-national research. First, in terms of personality, individuals of all types are found in each nation. Absent such variation, we might have questioned the value of obtaining information on personality, as there is little or no analytical benefit in studying “variables” that do not vary. Second, because there is considerably more variation within nations than between them, data on the Big Five facilitate the study of individual-level similarities and differences that transcend national boundaries.

Personality and Political BehaviorClick to view larger

Figure 1. The Big Five in Four Countries.

Source: 2010 Americas Barometer.

Note: Dots represent the average score for that trait in the respective country. Bars indicate the level of variation in the country (plus or minus one standard deviation).

We now turn to a brief discussion of each trait dimension.

Openness refers to a curiosity about the world and a corresponding willingness to learn about different perspectives and to participate in new activities. Individuals scoring high in openness to experience are described as being imaginative, analytical, and creative. Like all aspects of personality, openness is linked to behaviors we might view as desirable and others we might see as undesirable. For example, people with high levels of openness seek out information and thus tend to be well-informed (Mondak, 2010). However, these same individuals often show a heightened willingness to take risks, such as with respect to the consumption of drugs and alcohol (Booth-Kewley & Vickers, 1994).

Conscientiousness is a trait dimension that includes the disposition to be dependable, organized, and punctual and a volitional tendency to be hardworking and industrious. People with high levels of conscientiousness typically excel in domains such as school and the workplace (Barrick & Mount, 1991). Conscientiousness also is related to physical fitness, maintaining a healthy lifestyle, and the avoidance of personal risk (Booth-Kewley & Vickers, 1994).

Extraversion is the personality trait dimension with the longest history in academic research, with discussion of extraversion tracing back a full century. Although numerous other trait typologies preceded the emergence of the Big Five, nearly all have reserved a spot for extraversion (e.g., Eysenck & Wilson, 1978). Individuals scoring high in extraversion exhibit an inherent sociability. They are bold, outgoing, and talkative. Extraversion is associated with a preference for, and success in, activities that involve interaction with others (e.g., Barrick & Mount, 1991).

Agreeableness is the fourth Big Five trait dimension. Like extraversion, agreeableness is seen primarily in the context of individuals’ interactions with others. Adjectives used to represent those scoring high in agreeableness include “warm,” “kind,” “sympathetic,” and “generous.” High levels of agreeableness correspond with success in interpersonal relationships and collaborative ventures and with attachments to others such as those manifested in feelings of sense of community and trust (e.g., Lounsbury, Loveland, & Gibson, 2003).

Neuroticism, the final Big Five trait dimension, is also sometimes referred to by its opposite, emotional stability. Terms such as “tense” and “emotional” are used to represent neuroticism, whereas terms such as “calm” and “relaxed” indicate emotional stability. Like extraversion, research on neuroticism dates back a full century and explores a number of outcomes. High levels of neuroticism correspond with an increased risk of depression, whereas low levels correspond with certain career choices, such as becoming a surgeon or member of the clergy (Francis & Kay, 1995).

Research abounds on the meaning and significance of personality and on personality frameworks such as the Big Five. Given the enormity of the research record, we have presented a necessarily brief and simplified overview. This introduction hints at why political scientists increasingly consider personality when attempting to understand variation in people’s political attitudes and behaviors.

Why Study Personality and Political Behavior?

Differences in people’s personalities are hardly the only sources of variation in political behavior. To the contrary, we know that patterns of political behavior vary with demographic attributes, socioeconomic status, aspects of the social context, media exposure, enduring values and political orientations, and more. With that in mind, what is to be gained by adding personality to the mix? What would factoring in personality teach us about the bases of political behavior, and what, if anything, might attention to personality reveal about all of the other factors thought to matter for how citizens engage the political world? This section reviews what empirical research has shown regarding relationships between the Big Five and the sorts of variables of interest to students of comparative political behavior.

Personality variables should not be thought of as replacing other predictors of political behavior. Attention to personality does not imply that past research is somehow incorrect for focusing on variables such as age, income, interest in politics, and partisanship. Instead, it is more appropriate to suggest that personality researchers feel that past accounts have been incomplete because psychological factors have been downplayed or ignored. We noted earlier that the factors thought to influence political behavior can be differentiated on the basis of whether they are relatively permanent and stable or momentary and fleeting, and whether they are mostly internal or external to individuals. Personality traits are psychological structures that are relatively stable over long periods of time and that are mostly internal to individuals.3 Attention to personality helps us represent this quadrant of influences on political behavior, but in doing so it in no way diminishes the importance of other predictors.

Political behavior has an inherently dynamic quality to it. People form new attitudes and change old ones. Events burst onto the political scene, captivating the public’s attention for some time, before eventually drifting away. Prominent parties alternate between majority and opposition status. Given this fluidity, it might seem odd to endeavor to explain political behavior via something as enduring and intransient as personality. After all, change cannot be explained with a constant. Although this is a sensible basis to question the utility of research on personality and politics, we see two reasons why such research is likely to be fruitful. First, by parsing out the underpinnings of political behavior that do not change, we may be able to gain greater insight on the workings of those that do. This was a central point in a study by Bloeser et al. (2015). Using data from the British Household Panel Survey, the authors demonstrated that personality traits exerted an inertial influence over the course of several years, even while many individuals’ attitudes and behaviors changed. If change occurs despite the anchoring tug of personality, it follows that other predictors produce even stronger dynamic effects than we have previously suspected.

A second rationale for attention to personality is rooted in the fact that people respond differently to the same external stimuli. For example, when new information becomes available about a given issue, some people may change their attitudes, but others may not. Likewise, all voters experience the same national economic conditions, but only some turn out to vote at election time. If we do not account for individual differences, then we impose the simplifying assumption that everyone responds to contextual factors in the same manner. Attention to personality can enrich our understanding of these circumstances and their effects. It could be, for instance, that variation in personality explains why some people update their opinion on an issue in response to new information, or why some citizens are politically engaged during poor economic times. Personality traits themselves may be relatively stable, but they still can help us to make sense of the differences we observe between individuals when people respond to similar situations.

Sorting political phenomena into a few simple groupings can help us get a sense of what types of personality effects we might observe. We will consider effects in three categories: the acquisition of political information; political values, orientations, and attitudes; and various forms of political participation. Although most research on the Big Five and political behavior dates back only about a decade, there is already a vast body of findings. Rather than recount each individual effect, we focus on findings that are especially sensible and intuitive, that have been seen consistently across multiple studies, and that are particularly intriguing or illuminating.

Political Information

Information arguably constitutes the lifeblood of democracy, and certainly information holds a central place in any meaningful discussion of citizen competence. If they are to make the sorts of high-quality decisions that foster political accountability, citizens must seek out objective sources of news about politics, they must process that information in a diligent and objective manner themselves, they must draw on that information when forming judgments about policies and about elected officials, and, ideally, they will use that information as the starting point for conversations about politics with their fellow citizens. We know, of course, that all citizens are not equal when it comes to the fulfillment of these tasks. At question is whether variation in personality partly accounts for the differences we observe in media use, knowledge about politics, and patterns of political discussion.

Of the Big Five trait dimensions, the one that is the most plausibly related to the acquisition of political information is openness to experience. Individuals with high levels of openness exhibit a general curiosity about the world, one that often manifests itself in a thirst for information on all subjects. Politics should not be any different. Evidence from multiple surveys reveals that openness corresponds with levels of attention to politics, levels of political knowledge, and the tendency of individuals to hold opinions on political issues. These relationships are observed with data on survey respondents’ self-reports, as well as survey interviewers’ ratings of respondents’ levels of political interest, knowledge, and opinionation (e.g., Gerber, Huber, Doherty, & Dowling, 2011; Mondak, 2010).

As to the social dimension of political information, many scholars have examined the effects of personality on political discussion (e.g., Gallego & Oberski, 2012; Gerber, Huber, Doherty, & Dowling, 2012; Hibbing, Ritchie, & Anderson, 2011; Mondak, Hibbing, Canache, Seligson, & Anderson, 2010). Openness again plays a role, with individuals high in openness being the most likely to have conversations about politics. Not surprisingly, a similar positive relationship exists between extraversion and political discussion. The characteristically talkative nature of extraverts brings them to take up multiple topics of conversation, including politics. One particularly important aspect of political discussion is participation in conversations in which disagreements are aired. Such conversations can help participants to learn about, and ultimately appreciate, the bases of viewpoints different from their own. Some evidence shows that the influence of personality can depend on the size of an individual’s discussion network. For extraverts, a large discussion network provides more opportunities for interaction and disagreement. The impact of extraversion on exposure to disagreement becomes more positive as one’s discussion network grows. Meanwhile, agreeable individuals generally prefer to associate with like-minded citizens. As a result, the impact of agreeableness on exposure to disagreement becomes more negative as the size of one’s discussion network increases.

Political Values, Orientations, and Attitudes

Research on political attitudes examines variation in people’s beliefs about all things political, from core moral and economic values to political ideology to appraisals of public officials and policies. In 2005, political scientists’ views on these matters received a jolt when Alford, Funk, and Hibbing (2005) showed that political ideology is highly heritable—that is, that 50% or more of the variation across individuals in ideology stems from biological differences. This finding implies that young adults do not enter the political world as blank slates, but instead carry with them relatively intransient predispositions about that world, and especially predispositions to be ideologically liberal or conservative.

This finding gave rise to a flurry of interest in how biology comes to matter for ideology—few scholars suspect that the answer is something so simple and direct as a “liberal gene”—and the related question of whether internal psychological structures also predispose individuals toward particular political views. Personality psychologists had long argued that biology shapes personality, which, in turn, influences orientations such as political ideology.4 The Alford et al. (2005) study reinvigorated interest in these relationships, particularly among political psychologists.

In applications of the Big Five to political dispositions and attitudes, the preponderance of attention has focused on openness and conscientiousness. Scholars have presumed that openness would correspond with the belief that a more active government would support social progress—an orientation in line with a traditional conception of ideological liberalism. Conversely, the cautiousness and restraint associated with conscientiousness presumably matches the belief that government should take small, prudent steps—hallmarks of traditional ideological conservatism. Using these hypothesized relationships as starting points, researchers have widened their inquiries by considering whether openness and conscientiousness are also predictors of values such as moral traditionalism and judgments regarding specific policies.

Although most research examining whether openness and conscientiousness influence political ideology has appeared only within the last decade, support for the expected openness-liberalism and conscientiousness-conservatism links already is voluminous. These relationships have been documented in multiple studies in Belgium, Germany, New Zealand, and especially the United States (e.g., Gerber, Huber, Doherty, Dowling, & Ha, 2010; Sibley, Osborne, & Duckitt, 2012). Of all the relationships scholars have examined between the Big Five and aspects of political behavior, the associations between openness and conscientiousness and political ideology arguably are the best established.

Consistent relationships involving Big Five trait dimensions also have been observed for other political attitudes and dispositions. Openness to experience and conscientiousness yield strong effects, again in opposing directions, on measures of moral traditionalism and moral judgment and attitudes regarding social, economic, and security issues (Gerber et al., 2010; Mondak, 2010). Extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism are also sometimes significant correlates of political views. However, these relationships appear more sporadic, and substantively less impressive, than the effects of openness and conscientiousness. Research on personality and political attitudes will benefit from the development of stronger and more cohesive theoretical rationales for why particular relationships should be expected, as well as continuing efforts to replicate initial findings across different periods of time and national political contexts.

Political Participation

The third category of research includes political participation. Participation involves a tremendous variety of actions—in essence, all manners in which individuals engage the political world that entail something more active than taking in information or forming an opinion (see van Deth, 2017). One grouping includes individualistic acts such as donating money to a candidate or cause or displaying bumper stickers on one’s car. These acts engage the political world, yet do not necessarily bring individuals into personal contact with others. Other forms of political participation involve interaction with other people: contacting public officials, attending social and political meetings, volunteering to work on campaigns, and joining political protests. Between these extremes is voter turnout, which requires no more social interaction than the brief conversations that occur at the polling place.

Scholars have posited that high levels of openness and extraversion affect most forms of political participation. Openness carries with it a drive to acquire and share information and to work toward solutions to perceived problems. Extraversion is expected to be positively linked with social forms of political participation, but not necessarily with more individualistic acts. This is because extraverts are thought to be drawn to political participation not by politics per se, but rather by the opportunity to interact with others.

In addition, it might seem that individuals high in conscientiousness would feel obligated to be good citizens, and thus to participate. Weighing against this is the reality that it is difficult for anyone to be conscientious at everything. If people prioritize their families and their jobs, for example, then political engagement might be cast aside. This suggests that some conscientious individuals—those who feel a duty to be politically engaged or who feel that political participation will be fruitful—will be especially likely to participate. However, other people high in conscientiousness might direct their energies elsewhere. Last, for acts of participation outside of the mainstream, such as engaging in political protest, a negative relationship with conscientiousness should be expected, because the follow-the-rules nature of individuals scoring high on this trait dimension should discourage them from bucking the system.

The empirical record provides strong, although less than universal, support for these expectations. Many tests of the relationships between openness and various forms of political participation have shown significant positive links, including to individualistic acts such as donating to candidates and social acts such as attending rallies (e.g., Ha, Kim, & Jo, 2013; Mondak et al., 2010). However, in some instances the relationships are substantively weak, and other tests have failed to find significant relationships. Several cross-national studies have identified relationships between extraversion and both conventional and unconventional social forms of political participation. Extraversion generally has not been found to be related to individualistic forms of political engagement, and the impact of this trait dimension on the semi-individualistic act of voting is inconsistent across studies.

Conscientiousness shows a strong negative relationship to participation in political protests (Mondak, Canache, Seligson, & Hibbing, 2011; Mondak et al., 2010). For conventional participation, the evidence reveals conditional effects. Conscientious individuals who feel that their voices will be heard—meaning they rate high in external efficacy—are especially likely to attend a rally, work on a campaign, and engage in other activities, but conscientiousness is inconsequential among individuals low in efficacy (Mondak, 2010). Another conditional effect is seen in a study of citizen response to jury summonses (Bloeser, McCurley, & Mondak, 2012). High conscientiousness is found to be positively related to summons compliance, but only among individuals who see jury service as a civic obligation.

This section briefly reviewed research on the relationships between the Big Five and variables pertaining to political information, attitudes, and participation. Research in these areas is growing quite rapidly, and thus it is important to keep in mind that we only have provided illustrative examples of what has been found, not an exhaustive review. The relationships we have noted hopefully provide a good sense of the sorts of applied projects on personality and politics that scholars are conducting, along with the early insights from this research. Although the first wave of research has yielded a wealth of intriguing findings, we see the potential for even greater value.

How to Incorporate Personality in Research on Political Behavior

When new research streams emerge, there is a tendency for scholars to leap before they look. After a key initial study or two, new ones come flooding in. Although this can be an exciting time for researchers, this pell-mell approach is not necessarily the most conducive to scientific progress. With a bit of reflection and careful planning, scholars can map out more cohesive and forward-looking research agendas. With those goals in mind, the present section suggests some basic perspectives and principles that might improve research on personality and political behavior.

Our first suggestion is that researchers not lose sight of their dependent variables. The fundamental purpose of studying political behavior is to improve our understanding of how, and how well, people perform the tasks of citizenship, ideally with the goal of contributing to the betterment of democratic governance. Attention to our explanatory variables, including personality traits, is a means toward those ends. The value of applied research on personality is that it adds depth and nuance to our understanding of key aspects of human behavior. There is a subtle but important difference between striving to identify dependent variables that are influenced by personality and calling on personality as part of our effort to explain variation in certain dependent variables. The latter mindset is preferable because it keeps us focused on explaining political behavior, and it deters us from trying to fit our research questions to our preferred predictors. Ideally, a researcher will ask not “What political behaviors does personality predict?” but, instead, “Given my interest in explaining variation in (political knowledge, ideology, protest behavior, etc.), might it be that people’s personalities play a role?” With this perspective, we will not be disappointed when personality turns out to be unrelated to some phenomena, and we will continue to be motivated to push forward and improve the quality of our explanations.

Our second suggestion is that students of personality and politics not lose sight of their other independent variables. Given that the bottom line is to improve our understanding of the bases of political behavior, it would be counterproductive to cast aside old independent variables just because new ones have become available. We have argued that personality traits are central among variables, and certainly among psychological variables, that can be classified as constituting individuals’ core enduring characteristics. Even if personality traits represented the entirety of this quadrant of predictors—and they do not—it still would be the case that short- and long-term environmental influences, and short-term personal attributes such as mood, would merit consideration in any holistic model of political behavior. Human behavior is complex, and no one variable, or even one class of variables, will provide more than a partial explanation.

A corollary to the previous point is that researchers must thoughtfully combine personality traits and other variables in their empirical models. If the Big Five are heritable and precede individual-level predictors of political information, attitudes, or participation, then attitudes and other personal attributes could mediate the relationship between personality and the outcome of interest. Running a single regression with all independent variables, therefore, could overlook potential mediation and underestimate the effects of personality (Mondak et al., 2010). Instead, we encourage political psychologists to keep the possibility of mediation in mind by developing and testing hypotheses about the intricate pathways between personality and political behavior.5

Third, researchers must explore formal interactions between traits and other antecedents of political behavior. We might theorize that political participation is influenced by variables such as personality, education, wealth, the availability of discretionary time, and the salience of politics in a person’s local context. This would lead us to include measures of each of those constructs in our statistical models. But these factors, and others, do not operate in isolation from one another or solely in terms of mediation from personality to political behavior. For example, if politics is particularly lacking in salience in a given context, perhaps only a few diehard super-citizens will be politically engaged. Conversely, if politics is highly salient, perhaps virtually everyone will participate. From these scenarios, it follows that the explanatory power of variables such as personality, education, or the availability of discretionary time might be the greatest when the salience of politics is between these two extremes. Similarly, it is conceivable that at some point the lack of discretionary time can become so severe as to trump all other factors. Variation in personality or education may not matter to the person who is working 80 hours per week, or who is the live-in caregiver for a gravely ill relative, because these commitments severely constrain the possibility of political engagement.

This discussion has implications for theory-building, as conditional relationships require that scholars devote careful consideration to the ways in which psychological factors and other sorts of variables may magnify or mute one another’s effects. The field needs to move toward development of richer theories. There are many ways that such theory-building can proceed, but the essential requirement of each is that when contemplating the potential impact of any given variable, we ask questions about whether that impact should be consistent across individuals. Should the impact be expected to be roughly the same for everyone, or, instead, should it be expected to vary systematically as a function of characteristics of the individual, the period in time under consideration, or the social and political context? Thinking through the logic of variable effects is much more challenging than assuming our factors all operate in manners wholly isolated from one another, but such effort is essential in order to offer comprehensive accounts of the antecedents of political behavior.

This attention to conditional effects suggests the need not only for more nuanced theories, but also for more intricate empirical research. When cataloguing the possible variable effects of our predictors, the systematic sources of variation we envision become testable hypotheses. To examine those hypotheses, we first must be sure to use appropriate research designs—if the time period and the social context might matter, then we have to make sure we have data from multiple time periods and multiple contexts—and then we must construct statistical tests that permit us to test whether two or more variables do, in fact, interact. This is especially important in the case of personality variables because the expression of personality effects is always contingent on people’s other characteristics and on the features of the particular situations people are in.6

Our final point pertains to the value of broad-scale models of personality. A great deal of current research, including much of our own, makes use of the Big Five approach. We are not wedded to the Big Five to the exclusion of other trait taxonomies, and we recognize that improved frameworks are likely to be developed. But we do advocate that applied research on personality and politics make use of broad frameworks, even if only as a starting point, rather than homing in on the one or two personality traits that seem to be the closest matches to our dependent variables.

Two interrelated benefits come with use of broad personality taxonomies. The first is that such an approach contributes to a cumulative understanding of the role of personality. Thousands of adjectives describe personality traits. If different teams of scholars each focus on the one or two traits seemingly most pertinent to their research questions, those scholars inevitably will speak past one another. There will be no unifying framework to help us see how one set of findings connects to the next. This was the state of research on personality and politics in the 1960s and 1970s, giving the field what noted political psychologist Paul Sniderman (1975, p. 16) referred to as “a jerry-built appearance.” Looking back on that same era, personality psychologists bemoaned the field’s lack of a common language. Whether it is the Big Five or some alternate, the use of a broad model of personality trait structure steers us away from these problems.

A second advantage of the use of holistic models is that doing so helps to avoid the generation of tautological findings. If we want to identify the factors that influence why some people choose to drive red sports cars, a measure of whether people like red sports cars would not be especially useful. Liking red sports cars is undoubtedly correlated with driving them, but pinpointing that correlation would teach us little. Instead, it would merely raise deeper questions about why people like red sports cars. The identified relationship would provide the illusion of understanding, but in actuality it only would kick the can down the road. Unfortunately, some research in political psychology resembles this example. For instance, research on the underpinnings of political tolerance has pointed to dogmatism as a possible influence, with dogmatism measured by the extent to which people agree or disagree with statements such as “A group which tolerates too many differences of opinion among its own members cannot exist for long.” The upshot of that work is that intolerance “predicts” intolerance—a true tautology. Similarly, and unsurprisingly, other research shows that a psychological predisposition toward authoritarianism strongly predicts citizens’ attitudes toward authoritarian leaders.7 We can avoid such tautologies by using models that encompass a large portion of personality trait structure and that include independent variables that are conceptually distinct from the behaviors and attitudes we are seeking to explain.8

The issues discussed in this section hopefully will encourage scholars to consider the most productive ways to study personality and politics. Our purpose in offering these suggestions is not to chastise researchers who have followed different courses. In our view, all work that pays serious attention to personality helps to add psychological realism to our explanations of political behavior. Moreover, given the still early state of the newest wave of research in this area, it is understandable that there have been both hits and misses. We are convinced that scholars working in this area can look forward to dramatic advances in the near future. With sufficient reflection on how best to study personality and politics, those advances hopefully will be larger in scope and sooner in coming.

Conclusion

Each of us possesses psychological tendencies, or personality traits, that help give rise to our characteristic ways of acting and thinking. We might be generous, impulsive, contemplative, or cantankerous. As political scientists, we care about personality because we seek to identify the many factors that lead to differences in how people engage the political world, and we expect personality traits to be among those factors. Personality is a fundamental source of trans-situational consistency in behavior within individuals and of systematic variation in behavior across individuals.9 As such, research on personality can help us to understand basic differences in human behavior, including behavior that takes place in the realm of politics.

We have outlined a rationale for why personality traits can be important variables in research on comparative political behavior. More specifically, we have discussed the origins and content of the popular Big Five model of personality trait structure, we have reviewed that model’s applications in the study of political behavior, and we have offered a series of suggestions we feel may help future research in this area to be more fruitful.

One goal of this article is to present the logic of applied studies on personality and politics in the hope that readers will think both creatively and critically about the value of such research. But a second, and perhaps more important, goal is to situate personality within the expansive array of factors that shape human behavior. Personality matters. But so, too, do many other attributes of individuals and the contexts they inhabit. Personality is a piece of the puzzle, but true progress on any puzzle requires not only that we identify the pieces but also that we discover how they go together. We encourage students of comparative political behavior to consider the possible impact of psychological differences, and especially to do so in a manner that acknowledges that those differences are part of a complex, multifaceted, and dynamic analytical landscape.

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Notes:

(1.) A sample Big Five questionnaire can be found at http://www.outofservice.com/bigfive/.

(2.) We logged the responses to address concerns about socially desirable responding. For more on this matter, see Mondak (2010).

(3.) There is at most only scant evidence that everyday occurrences can alter an individual’s personality. Nonetheless, we describe personality as “mostly” rather than “wholly” internal to individuals because extreme environmental shocks—occurrences such as moving from one country to another very different one during one’s formative years (McCrae, Yik, Trapnell, Bond, & Paulhus, 1998)—can imprint lasting changes on at least the expression of personality traits.

(4.) Hans Eysenck, one of the foremost figures in research on personality psychology, posited that biology influences broad psychological structures such as personality traits, which, in turn, affect more concrete constructs such as political ideology and attitudes. In short, personality plays a mediating role between biology and political views (e.g., Eysenck & Wilson, 1978, pp. 219, 308). Similar perspectives are seen among leading proponents of the Big Five. For example, Robert McCrae is an important figure in the development of the Five-Factor framework. McCrae sees the Big Five trait dimensions as primarily rooted in biology and argues that an observed relationship between openness to experience and ideological liberalism signals the workings of a “psychological cause” on an “ideological effect” (1996, p. 326).

(5.) For empirical examinations of personality and mediation in political science, see Gallego and Oberski (2012) and Mondak et al. (2010).

(6.) Applied personality research is beginning to examine the conditional effects of personality from a theoretical and empirical perspective. For examples, see Bloeser et al. (2012), Mondak (2010), and Sibley et al. (2012).

(7.) To be sure, not all personality research on authoritarianism focuses on tautological findings. Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski, and Sulloway’s (2003) prominent review of personality and political conservatism, for instance, identifies a number of significant nonredundant relationships involving personality variables associated with authoritarianism (e.g., the correlation between need for cognitive closure and self-reported conservatism).

(8.) Researchers interested in the aspects and facets of the Big Five thus should be cautious of generating tautological findings or ignoring past work on the main factors. Nevertheless, studies on trait aspects and facets can be valuable if they seek to corroborate, challenge, or clarify past findings based on the broad dimensions of the Big Five. Hirsh, DeYoung, Xu, and Peterson (2010), for instance, argued that previous studies had obtained null findings for the relationship between agreeableness and political ideology because they had failed to account for the conflicting influences of the trait dimension’s politeness and compassion aspects. According to Hirsh and his colleagues, politeness (compassion) is associated with higher scores of the conservative (liberal) value of order-traditionalism (egalitarianism).

(9.) If you can always count on Alice to be well prepared, that exemplifies trans-situational consistency. No matter the context, Alice behaves similarly. If you can always count on Alice to be well prepared and on Amber to be unprepared, that exemplifies systematic variation between individuals. No matter the context, Alice and Amber behave differently.