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Does Cultural Exposure Partially Explain the Association Between Personality and Political Orientation?

January 17, 2014

By Xiaowen Xu (University of Toronto), Raymond A. Mar (York University), & Jordan B. Peterson (University of Toronto)

Differences in political orientation have an important impact on people’s attitudes and behavior. Given the evident political divide regarding various social issues, there is little doubt that liberals and conservatives differ in how they approach the world. But what are the underlying factors that contribute to these political differences? What exactly makes one person liberal and another conservative?

One key factor in predicting differences in political orientation is personality. The two personality traits most commonly associated with political orientation are Openness to Experience and Conscientiousness. Specifically, people who are politically liberal tend to be higher on Openness to Experience, a trait that emphasizes creativity, intellect, curiosity, and the desire to be exposed to new ideas. In contrast, people who are politically conservative tend to rate themselves as higher in Conscientiousness, which is characterized by a preference for structure, rules, and organization, and the orderly pursuit of goals (Carney, Jost, Gosling, & Potter, 2008).

Although the link between political orientation and personality is consistent, it is still unclear how exactly differences in personality traits cause political orientation. One potential explanation could be that personality differences drive exposure to cultural products and activities (e.g., reading books, watching films), which then in turn shape political orientation. This assumption is sensible, seeing as how cultural exposure plays an important role in how people acquire knowledge and perceive social and political information. Furthermore, preferences for different types of cultural products and activities have been linked to personality.

In our own research (Xu, Mar, & Peterson, 2013), we examined whether cultural exposure might provide a partial explanation of the relationship between personality and political orientation. Specifically, we focused on exposure to books (Study 1) and films (Study 2) as two examples of cultural products that could help account for this association. As well, we examined whether one potential outcome of increased cultural exposure, namely increased historical knowledge (Study 3), might also help explain the association between personality and political orientation. We predicted that people who are higher in Openness to Experience would show increased exposure to culture, which would then predict an increase in political liberalism. In contrast, we predicted that individuals who are higher in Conscientiousness would report decreased cultural exposure, which would then predict an increase in conservatism.

In our first two studies, we examined whether increased exposure to books and films might partially explain the link between personality and political orientation. Books and films both constitute major forms of cultural products, and both reading and film viewing have the potential to change the way people think and behave across many domains of life. In the first study, we assessed participants’ exposure to books by asking them to select, from a list of names, those that they recognized as belonging to authors and writers. In the second study, exposure to films was measured by asking participants to identify the films they had personally viewed from a list of film titles. As well, we measured the participants’ personality traits and political orientation. We found that participants who rated themselves as being high in trait Openness to Experience also recognized more author names and viewed more films, and this greater exposure to books and films was related to increased liberalism. On the other hand, we found that participants who were higher in Conscientiousness recognized fewer author names and viewed fewer films, and these lower levels of cultural exposure predicted more conservative political orientations. These relationships were robust even after taking into account the potential influence of other variables, such as age, gender, education, and intelligence. In sum, these patterns of associations are consistent with the idea that cultural exposure can partially account for how personality traits shape political orientation.

Lastly, we examined whether one potential outcome of increased cultural exposure (i.e., increased American historical knowledge) could also help to explain the relationship between personality traits and political orientation. To measure knowledge of American history, participants were required to indicate recognition of names belonging to American historical figures from a list that included American scientists, politicians, inventors, et cetera. Similar to the first two studies, higher Openness to Experience predicted better recognition of American historical figures, and this increased historical knowledge predicted higher levels of political liberalism. Furthermore, these results remained even after accounting for the influence of age, gender, education, and intelligence. In contrast, however, knowledge of American history did not help to explain the link between trait Conscientiousness and political conservatism.

Thus, across three studies, we found evidence suggesting that certain personality traits, specifically higher Openness to Experience and lower Conscientiousness, were related to increased exposure to culture, which in turns predicts greater political liberalism. People who are higher in trait Openness to Experience tend to be more inquisitive and curious, and would be more motivated to seek out new experiences and information, which can be found in cultural products and activities. Cultural exposure, then, would likely lead to new and diverse information and perspectives, which may then foster more liberal political beliefs. In contrast, people who are higher in trait Conscientiousness place greater value on order, structure, and goals, and may therefore engage in cultural activities less frequently, in order to maintain familiarity and avoid distraction from goals. The desire for familiarity and stability is consistent with more politically conservative ideals (Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski, & Sulloway, 2003). Increased cultural exposure, then, provides one potential explanation for how differences in trait personality influence political orientation and beliefs.

Author Information

Xiaowen XuXiaowen Xu is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto. She is interested in studying how differences in political orientation manifest in people’s beliefs, social behaviours, and trait personality. As well, she is interested in examining how individual differences (e.g., personality traits, political orientation) may affect people’s responses to different types of meaning threats.

Raymond MarRaymond A. Mar is an associate professor of psychology at York University in Toronto.  He employs the methods of personality psychology, social psychology, and neuroscience to research the real-world influence of imaginative experiences, including engagement with fictional narratives in various media (e.g., novels, films, videogames). Dr. Mar is a co-editor of, an on-line magazine on the psychology of fiction.

Jordan PetersonJordan B. Peterson is a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, with two main areas of study: the psychology of belief (including religion, mythology and political ideology), and the assessment and improvement of personality (including the prediction of creative, academic and industrial performance).


Carney, D. R., Jost, J. T., Gosling, S. D., & Potter, J. (2008). The secret lives of liberals and conservatives: Personality profiles, interaction styles, and the things they leave behind. Political Psychology, 29, 807-840.

Jost, J. T., Glaser, J., Kruglanski, A. W., & Sulloway, F. (2003). Political conservatism as motivated social cognition. Psychological Bulletin, 129, 339–375.

Xu, X., Mar, R. A., & Peterson, J. B. (2013). Does cultural exposure partially explain the association between personality and political orientation? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39, 1497-1517.

Image Credit: By Kittisak, published on 12 November 2011 Stock Photo – image ID: 10064370

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