Thursday, December 1, 2011

Personality and Political Knowledge

As a budding doctoral student I was trained in personality research from a heavy social psychological perspective (all hail Dr. Mary Ann Ferguson!).  I moved on, but I've always found the topic fascinating.  And as we all know, the Big 5 Personality Traits are a major focus of scholars and here's one study in American Politics Research that looks at these traits and how they line up with political interest and knowledge.

As an FYI, according to that source of all information (Wikipedia), the five traits are: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.  You can look 'em up if you like.

Back to the study.  It finds:
... that underlying personality traits affect whether people are attracted to political information and what types of information sources they are most likely to use. We find clear evidence that Openness and Emotional Stability are positively and strongly associated with interest in and knowledge of politics. 
But it's not that simple.  Although they found a positive relationship between Openness and watching TV news, "we find a negative relationship between this trait and watching local news programs."  Why?  These folks want diverse and challenging sources of information, the authors argue, and local TV news hardly qualifies as such.

Not surprisingly, they also find some interactions between ideology, the personality traits, and watching satirical faux news programs.  This gets a bit complicated.  Basically, Openness is more associated with being liberal and is positively associated with satire programs, while Conscientiousness, more associated with conservatism, is negatively associated with watching the same shows.  As Table A6 in the study shows, these relationships disappear (Conscientiousness) or are moderated (Openness) with controls are included for ideology.  Simply put, ideology steals much, if not all, of the variance explained by personality traits.

Still, it's a neat idea.  Most political research fails to account for individual differences beyond party identification, internal efficacy, or, sometimes, authoritarianism.  I'd love to see more of this kind of stuff.

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