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Social psychology and politics
Social psychology and politics

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2 Politics and personality

Social psychology has a long history of examining the relationship between the personal and the political. Much of this work has focused on the concept of personality – a highly familiar, and yet complex, psychological concept. Traditionally, personality is viewed by psychologists as the collection of traits, needs, values, self-beliefs, and social attitudes that make a person unique. This approach also suggests that each person exhibits consistent and stable patterns of behaviour across situations and contexts (McCrae and Costa, 2008). Researchers working with this approach explore differences between people at the level of their personalities, and how these individual differences have a meaningful and predictable impact on political attitudes and behaviours.

The earliest example of this approach is The Authoritarian Personality by Adorno, Frenkl-Brunswick, Levinson and Sanford (1950), who proposed a specific set of personality characteristics (the ‘authoritarian personality’) to explain why some people were drawn to prejudiced and anti-democratic political beliefs, while others were not. Although there have been serious criticisms of the work of Adorno et al. (Christie, 1954; Christie and Cook, 1958; Stone, Lederer and Christie, 1993), there have also been some significant findings in this field of research. For example, it is often the case that those who score highly on the right-wing authoritarianism scale are more highly prejudiced towards out-groups and minorities (e.g. Altemeyer, 1981).

Since this early work, there has been an explosion of research on the relationship between personality and politics including (but not limited to): whether people self-identify as liberal or conservative (Jost, 2006), who people choose to vote for (Caprara, Barbaranelli, and Zimbardo, 1999; Caprara, Schwartz, Capanna, Vecchione, and Barbaranelli, 2006; Schoen and Schumann, 2007), and what political candidates people prefer (Barbaranelli, Caprara, Vecchione, and Fraley, 2007). This research shows a relatively consistent pattern of findings, for example, that those who identify with, and vote for, left-wing political parties tend to describe themselves as more open-minded and creative, while those who identify with, and vote for, more right-wing political parties tend to describe themselves as more orderly, conventional and organised. What this suggests is that people who vote for different political parties are also different at the level of their individual psychologies, and this can explain differences in voting patterns.