Does Cultural Exposure Partially Explain the Association Between Personality and Political Orientation?
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.
Xiaowen 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 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 OnFiction.ca, an on-line magazine on the psychology of fiction.
Jordan 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.
By Katherine S. Corker (Kenyon College), M. Brent Donnellan, and Ryan P. Bowles (Michigan State University)
For many college students, the new year signals the start of the new semester, and with those new classes comes the possibility of new goals. College students are vowing to strive for mastery of course material, to best their classmates in terms of performance, or both. Others are just trying not to perform poorly or to avoid failing to learn important course concepts. But for all the opportunities for goal change, do these academic goals (known to researchers as achievement goals) actually change that much? The results of a recent study recently published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggest that the magnitude of change depends on the goal in question.
Study author Katherine Corker (of Kenyon College), together with Michigan State University colleagues Brent Donnellan and Ryan Bowles, wanted to understand more completely how achievement goals develop over time in college students. Previous studies had largely neglected college students, preferring instead to study goal change in childhood. The few published studies of college students typically lasted just one semester (Senko, Hulleman, & Harackiewicz, 2011).
By contrast, Corker and colleagues surveyed a representative sample of 527 incoming Michigan State University students over the course of four years when students were in their in their first, second, fourth, and eighth semesters of college. The students completed a 12-item questionnaire each semester that asked them about their goals for their courses, generally, in terms of whether they were trying to learn course material, outperform peers, avoid failing to master course content, or avoid poor performance (Elliot & McGregor, 2001).
The researchers examined whether students, on average, tended to increase, stay the same, or decrease their level of endorsement of these four goals. The results showed that three of the four goals tended to decrease over the course of college, and most of the change occurred in the first two years of the study. That is – students tended to enter college rating their goals to learn course material, avoid failing to master course material, and avoid poor performance relatively high, but these goals declined as they progressed through school. The one exception to this trend was the goal to outperform peers. This goal stayed at a relatively high and constant level over the course of college.
The researchers also examined goal stability or how consistently students were ranked in terms of their goals. When stability is high, students tend to maintain more or less the same ranked standings on a given goal, and when stability is low, rankings are inconsistent. Low stability implies that students are frequently changing up their goals, perhaps in idiosyncratic ways. However, and perhaps contrary to intuition, all four of the goals investigated were remarkably stable over time, implying that students are fairly consistent in terms of the goals they adopt.
Considering these results, educators might be interested to know that students’ motivation for learning course material dips later in college compared to initial levels. With this finding in hand, curricula might be restructured in such a way as to make upper level classes especially interesting and applicable for junior and senior students. Further, parents can rest assured that students’ initial worries about performing poorly in classes and failing to master course material will likely subside from the first to the second year of school. Finally these results suggest that goal choices are fairly stable individual differences – suggesting that goal change, as with behavioral change, may be more difficult to execute than imagined.
Katherine S. Corker is assistant professor of psychology at Kenyon College, where she runs the Personality, Achievement Goals, and Education Research (PAGER) lab. Her current research considers how changes in student characteristics are reciprocally linked over time. Her blog is http://scienceofpsych.com.
M. Brent Donnellan is associate professor of psychology, Michigan State University. Dr. Donnellan is Senior Associate Editor for the Journal of Research in Personality and maintains a blog, The Trait-State Continuum (http://traitstate.wordpress.com/). His research examines lifespan personality development with a focus on measurement and methods.
Ryan P. Bowles is assistant professor of Human Development and Family Studies, Michigan State University. Dr. Bowles is the co-director of the Early Language and Literacy Investigations laboratory at MSU. His research investigates the development of literacy in children using modern statistical techniques (see http://www.ellilab.com for more information).
Corker, K. S., Donnellan, M. B., & Bowles, R. P. (2013). The development of achievement goals throughout college: Modeling stability and change. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39, 1401-1417.
Elliot, A. J., & McGregor, H. A. (2001). A 2 x 2 achievement goal framework. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 501-519.
Senko, C., Hulleman, C. S., & Harackiewicz, J. M. (2011). Achievement goal theory at the crossroads: Old controversies, current challenges, and new directions. Educational Psychologist, 46, 26-47.
Image Credit: Photo by Lori Ann of MamaWit (http://flic.kr/p/b4J12v). Creative commons license 2.0.
By Samantha Joel, Emily Impett, & Geoff MacDonald (University of Toronto)
Imagine that your partner uproots his or her life and joins you in your home city, leaving behind friends and family to start completely over. But after a few months, you begin to feel unhappy with your partner and the relationship. Would you end the relationship because of your unhappiness, or would your partner’s great sacrifice motivate you try to find a way to work things out?
People tend to invest a great deal into their romantic relationships, such as time, energy, emotions, material possessions, and sacrifices such as the one described above. Past research has focused entirely on the consequences of investments for the self: how do my investments affect my feelings toward the relationship? Such research has converged on the idea that a more invested partner is a more committed partner (Le & Agnew, 2003). However, no past research has examined the consequences of a partner’s investments for your own commitment. Beyond making your partner feel more committed, will your partner’s investments also make you feel more committed to the relationship?
We predicted that they would (Joel, Gordon, Impett, MacDonald, & Keltner, 2013). Specifically, we hypothesized that people would feel more appreciative of romantic partners who are willing to put more resources into the relationship. In other words, a highly invested partner is a partner worth committing to. Overall, we expected that when people perceive that their partners have put a great deal into the relationship, those investments would lead them to feel more grateful for their partners (i.e., to value their partners more), thus motivating them to continue the relationship.
We tested these hypotheses in a series of three studies. Study 1 was an online experiment conducted with participants currently in relationships. Some people were randomly assigned to think about the various ways in which their partners had invested in their relationships, whereas others were assigned to think about all the ways in which they themselves had invested into the relationships. A third group of participants skipped this manipulation entirely. Then, we asked participants a number of questions about their relationships, such as how appreciative they felt of their partners, and how committed they felt to their partners. Participants who thought about their partners’ investments subsequently felt the most committed to their relationships – even more committed than participants who had thought about their own investments! As predicted, thinking about the partners’ investments made participants feel more appreciative of their partners. These feelings of gratitude helped to explain why the participants who completed this exercise subsequently felt the most committed to their relationships, compared to participants who thought about either their own investments, or no investments at all.
For Studies 2 and 3, we recruited people in relationships and asked them to report back to us daily about how much their partners were investing in their relationships for either seven days (Study 2) or 14 days (Study 3). We then followed up with them either nine months later (Study 2) or three months later (Study 3) to see if their commitment to the relationship had changed. In both studies, when people thought that their partners were putting more into their relationships on a daily basis, their own commitment to the relationship tended to increase over the course of the study. This was explained by feelings of appreciation: participants felt more appreciative of more highly invested partners, thus leading them to feel more committed to the relationship.
Together, these studies show that when one partner invests time, energy, emotions, and other resources into the relationship, the other partner is likely to appreciate that person more and subsequently be more willing to stay in that relationship. Importantly, both gratitude (Gordon et al., 2012) and commitment (Rusbult et al., 2004) are associated with positive relationship outcomes. So, one implication of this work is that investments can be helpful for relationships: they elicit positive relationship feelings that are known to have downstream benefits. Joint investments in particular – such as merging finances, moving in together, or getting married – may produce powerful boosts in relationship wellbeing by making both members of the couple feel more grateful for, and committed to, one another.
On the other hand, the effects in all three of these studies extended even to participants who were less satisfied in their relationships. In other words, even people who were unhappy with their relationships felt more committed to those relationships if they felt their partners were more invested. Thus, investment decisions may be a double-edged sword in that although they promote gratitude and commitment, they may also motivate people to persevere even with chronically unfulfilling relationships. So, as conventional wisdom would predict, upping the relationship ante (by getting a house, or a pet, or a child) really may not be the best move for couples who are on the rocks. Such decisions may carry the risk of motivating people to stay in bad relationships not only because of their own investments, but because of their partners’ investments as well.
Samantha Joel is a Ph.D. candidate in the Psychology Department at the University of Toronto. Her research examines how people make decisions about romantic relationships, such as whether to pursue a love interest, whether to invest in a foundling relationship, or whether to break up with a romantic partner.
Emily Impett is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto Mississauga. Her research focuses broadly on interpersonal relationships and well-being, and she is particularly interested in understanding when “giving” in relationships contributes to versus detracts from the quality and success of relationships.
Geoff MacDonald received a Ph.D. in social psychology from the University of Waterloo in 2000. He is now an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto. His research focuses on relational insecurity and experiences of intimacy.
Joel, S., Gordon, A. M., Impett, E. A., MacDonald, G., & Keltner, D. (2013). The things you do for me: Perceptions of a romantic partner’s investments promote gratitude and commitment. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39, 1333-1345.
Gordon, A. M., Impett, E. A., Kogan, A., Oveis, C., & Keltner, D. (2012). To have and to hold: Gratitude promotes relationship maintenance in intimate bonds. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103, 257-274.
Le, B. M., & Agnew, C. (2003). Commitment and its theorized determinants: A meta-analysis of the investment model. Personal Relationships, 10, 37-57.
Rusbult, C. E., Olsen, N., Davis, J. L., & Hannon, P. A. (2004). Commitment and relationship maintenance mechanisms. In H. T. Reiss & C. E. Rusbult (Eds.), Close relationships: Key Readings (pp. 287-303). New York: NY: Psychology Press.
Image Credit: By nixxphotography, published on 19 January 2012
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