Is There a Relationship Between Politics, Religion, and Personality?
Personality, Politics, Religion
What Does the Research About Personality Show Us?
Research studies have consistently shown an association (a correlation) between personality and political and religious views. Conservatives are different from liberals. Likewise the non-religious, the mainline religious, and the fundamentalist religious differ from one another.
These studies have found that certain types of personality traits are more likely to found among one group of people than in others. Correlation does not mean that everyone in a particular group has the trait associated with that group—political and religious identity is complicated and dependent on more than just personality. And most importantly, correlation is not causation.
How can we explain these correlations? (1) Does a certain type of person choose to become part of a particular group? (2) Does being a member of a particular group mold one’s personality in a particular way? (3) Are the correlations spurious—is a third factor that is correlated with both personality and politics/religion is causing the latter to be correlated with the former? (4) Do people chose to belong to groups where there are a lot of people like themselves? (5) Is there a feedback loop wherein being a member of a group causes a change in one's personality so that the person more closely resembles the norm for the group?.
The most likely explanation may be: All of the above.
How is Personality Measured?
Most research in this area asks the study subjects to take a personality test and also assesses their political or religious beliefs through a series of questions.
There are two main types of tests used to assess personality. One is the Meyers-
Briggs Assessment and the other is the Big Five Factors or the Hexaco Test. (These last two are very similar so for convenience I will lump them together.)
The Meyers Briggs Assessment measures eight personality traits using four pairs of traits consisting of one trait and its opposite trait. Each trait is denoted by a letter. The four pairs are
- Extraversion (E) – Introversion (I) (Where you focus your attention)
- Sensing (S) – Intuition (N) (The way you take in information)
- Thinking (T) – Feeling (F) (How you make decisions)
- Judging (J) – Perceiving (P) (How you deal with the world)
The end result is 16 personality types assigned according to which one of the traits from the eight pairs is dominant. For instance, I am a ENTJ, described at the “Commander”—a bold, imaginative, strong-willed leader.
Since 16 types can be a little unwieldy, they are often reduced to four broad types, by assigning each of the 16 types into one of four broad types. These four types are:
- Analysts (Intuitive and Thinking)
- Diplomats (Intuitive and Feeling)
- Sentinels (Sensing and Judging)
- Explorers (Sensing and Perceiving)
For example, since I am a ENTJ, I belong to the “Analysts” category.
My Meyers Briggs personality identification probably explains why I worked in the field of market research my whole life and ran my own market research company for the last 25 years.
The Big Five/Hexaco
The “Big Five” personality traits (as quoted from Wikipedia) are:
- Openness to experience: inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious
- Conscientiousness: efficient/organized vs. easy-going/careless
- Extraversion: outgoing/energetic vs. solitary/reserved
- Agreeableness: friendly/compassionate vs. challenging/detached
- Neuroticism: sensitive/nervous vs. secure/confident
The Hexaco traits (as quoted from Wikipedia) are:
- Honesty-Humility (H): sincere, honest, faithful, loyal, modest/unassuming versus sly, deceitful, greedy, pretentious, hypocritical, boastful, pompous
- Emotionality (E): emotional, oversensitive, sentimental, fearful, anxious, vulnerable versus brave, tough, independent, self-assured, stable
- Extraversion (X): outgoing, lively, extraverted, sociable, talkative, cheerful, active versus shy, passive, withdrawn, introverted, quiet, reserved
- Agreeableness (A): patient, tolerant, peaceful, mild, agreeable, lenient, gentle versus ill-tempered, quarrelsome, stubborn, choleric
- Conscientiousness (C): organized, disciplined, diligent, careful, thorough, precise versus sloppy, negligent, reckless, lazy, irresponsible, absent-minded
- Openness to Experience (O): intellectual, creative, unconventional, innovative, ironic versus shallow, unimaginative, conventional
How Do Personality and Politics Align?
The very words used to identify the two opposing political groups show an intuitive understanding of the differences in the personality traits that define each group. Liberal implies openness and conservative implies tradition and discipline, and that is exactly what researchers have found.
- Liberals generally score higher on “Openness.” They are more curious, innovative, and unconventional. These traits make them more open to new ideas and more tolerant of uncertainty. They also score higher for compassion.
- Conservatives on the other hand, score higher on “Conscientiousness” They are more organized, disciplined, conventional, and even more polite. Their desire for orderliness makes them less tolerant of ambiguity and change. They want to preserve the status-quo and tend towards authoritarianism.
One researcher looked at traits and politics by state, comparing the residents of blue states to those of red states. He found that blue states scored higher for “Openness” while red states score higher for “Conscientiousness.”
Another study measured reaction to fear stimuli. They measured how much people sweat when shown scary visual images and how strong their startle response was to loud noises. Liberals showed less sensitivity to fear.
- People who supported liberal policies such as foreign aid, gun control, generous immigration plans, and pacifism were less fearful.
- People who supported policies associated with conservatism such as higher defense spending, capital punishment, and greater approval of war showed higher levels of fear. Conservatives see the world as a more-threatening place compared to liberals.
How Do Personality and Religion Align?
The Meyers-Briggs personality groupings show that religious people are most like to be “Sentinels,” while the non-religious tend to be “Analysts.”
- “Sentinels” like guidelines, tradition, standards, and loyalty. They tend to be inflexible.
- “Analysts” require evidence for their beliefs. They like to think things through for themselves instead of just accepting standards and traditions.
Using the Big Five personality groupings show the same results.
- Religious people score high for “Agreeableness” and “Conscientiousness.” Agreeable people value social harmony and we can see that religious people follow social norms (like belief in God). Conscientious people are probably drawn to religion because they value order and discipline.
- The non-religious score high for Extraversion and Openness. Humor, play, and social change are more important to them.
- Fundamentalists have the lowest scores on openness, consistent with their strict norms about conformity and adherence to authority.
By the way, the personality traits of the conservatives line up nicely with those of the religious, just as the personality traits of liberals line up with those of the non-religious. I guess that is why we have the “religious right” and “Godless left.” However, while most conservatives are religious, only a very small proportion of liberals are “godless.” This is because atheists/agnostics are such a small proportion of the population.
By the way, Donald Trump is clearly someone who is an authoritarian personality. Did he win the support of Evangelicals, despite flaunting the "Christian values" they hold so dear, because fundamentalists want a strong authority figure.
How Does Intelligence Align with Religion?
Religion also appears to be correlated with intelligence. Specifically, religious people tend to have lower IQ’s. It is usually assumed that IQ determines religiosity and not vice versa. This is because IQ remains stable throughout life whereas one’s degree of religiosity can vary at different times of one’s life.
Intelligent people are less likely to be drawn toward religion because they place a high value on data and evidence and a low value on conformity.
- Intelligent people tend to rely on data for their beliefs. As we have seen, non-religious people are more likely to be “Analysts,” a group defined by this trait. Thus intelligent people may be less likely to be attracted to religion which places a high value on faith, not evidence.
- Intelligent people tend to be intellectual and curious. They also tend to be non-conformist. Religious people score low on Openness and high on Conscientiousness, the opposite of what we see in intelligent people.
But bear in mind, there are plenty of people who are both smart and religious just as there are plenty of people who are atheist/agnostic and stupid.
Fox News May Be Dangerous
Can Politics Change a Person’s Personality?
So far, the evidence is anecdotal, but it appears very persuasive. The personality change may not be due to political identity per se, but due the consumption of media that targets a certain political identity.
Specifically, conservative media is having a negative impact on personality. Perhaps Fox News and Rush Limbaugh should come with a warning, such as: Warning excessive consumption of this show may be hazardous to your health.
I could find no reports of liberal media (like MSNBC) having a negative impact on personality. Perhaps because this is because liberal media is more conscientious about sticking to actual facts along with opinion.
Here are three anecdotes:
- In 2016, Jen Senko published a documentary, The Brainwashing of My Dad, about how her father began listening to Rush Limbaugh on his car radio during his commute to his job. Soon after he started watching Fox News. Here is how she described how her father’s personality underwent a radical change from easy-going to obnoxious.
Jen wrote on The Daily Beast website:
”Slowly, my Dad’s openness to all people began to change. He started mocking feminists and defending SUVs.… my Dad became angry all the time, argumentative, and hateful of particular groups of people. Of all things, he began lashing out against gay people.…He railed against “liberal universities.” He railed against illegal immigrants and Mexicans, and literally started telling my mother she should wait on him because he was the man of the house.”
- In 2011, Richmond Ramsey wrote an article on the FrumForum—a site edited by David Frum which according to the home page is “dedicated to the modernization and renewal of the Republican party and the conservative movement.” Ramsey wrote a piece a called The Geezer Syndrome. He wrote:
“Over the past couple of years, I’ve been keeping track of a trend among friends around my age (late thirties to mid-forties). … over how our parents have become impossible to take on the subject of politics. Without fail, it turns out that our folks have all been sitting at home watching Fox News Channel all day – especially Glenn Beck’s program. It wasn’t that I disagreed with [my parents’] opinions – though I often did – but rather that I found the vehemence with which they expressed those opinions to be so off-putting…Then I flew out for a visit, and observed that their television was on all day long, even if no one was watching it. What channel was playing? Fox. Spending a few days in the company of the channel– especially Glenn Beck, it all became clear to me. If Fox was the window through which I saw the wider world, for hours every day, I’d be perpetually pissed off too."
- In 2012, Karoli Kuns wrote on the website Crooks and Liars about a facebook post that was written by Tracy Knauss. Tracy wrote:
“I know this personally. FOX News killed my precious mother, Hallie. She watched FOX religiously. And when she fell ten days before she died, she refused to go to the doctor because, ‘I don't want Obamacare to get all of my information!’ she declared, recalling the warnings from FOX News ‘anchors.’ She was emphatic… And her last protestation dealt with ‘Obama's death panels.’ Mother died just days later. I hold FOX News responsible for my mother's death.”
“Don't write this woman off as some ignorant back-country hick. She clearly wasn't. She owned a company at one time. She paid attention to events and politics in the news… She, like most of her neighbors, voted Republican. But until Fox News came along, Republicans weren't stupid. They had different philosophies about government and its role, but they weren't blatantly invested in advancing a lie-based ideology….”
I had the opportunity to speak with Tracy Knauss and I learned that his mother was not an isolated case. He told me, "Since that article was published at least two dozen people contacted me saying similar things happened to their parents who were brainwashed by Fox News."
These stories remind me of the time a few years ago when I had left the television on and went to my desk in another room to work. I could still hear the TV. I don’t know why, but Glenn Beck was on. Glenn Beck was actually getting me scared until I remembered that it was Glenn Beck, a purveyor of bizarre conspiracy theories. I got up and turned the TV off.
It Takes All Kinds
We should be careful not to assume that one type of personality is better than another. Every personality type has something to contribute. The world functions best when all the different types cooperate and collaborate with one another.
By the way, the personality traits of the conservatives line up nicely with those of the religious line up as do those of the liberals and non-religious. I guess that is why we have the “religious right” and “Godless left.” However, while most conservatives are religious, only a very small proportion of liberals are “godless.” This is because atheists/agnostics are such a small proportion of the population.
What Do You Think:
Do you think that your personality has influenced your beliefs?
Questions & Answers
© 2017 Catherine Giordano