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Personality predicts politics

September 22, 2004 By Helen Pearson This article courtesy of Nature News.

Pollsters may be aided by test of how judgmental voters are.

A personality trait has been identified that seems to predict whether people will vote or engage in politics. A test for it might be used to improve opinion polls or increase voter turn-out, say US psychologists.

In the run up to the US presidential election, campaigners are focusing on the voters wavering between George W. Bush and his rival John Kerry. But, as widely differing opinion polls reveal, political scientists lack a foolproof way of predicting which box these voters will tick, or whether they will vote at all.

Now psychologist Richard Petty of Ohio State University, Columbus, and his colleagues have found an aspect of our personalities that seems to foretell some aspects of our political behaviour. They call it a person's 'need to evaluate' (NE), and it describes how much he or she forms opinions about things encountered in everyday life.

A person with a low NE tends to glance at a shirt, for example, and describe it as a shirt, but someone with a high NE calls it a ghastly or great shirt. The latter group tend to make more judgements about what they see.

Petty's team examined whether a person's tendency to evaluate situations matched their political behaviour. The researchers measured the NE of around 3,000 people using two specific questions in larger surveys that tracked people's political attitudes and behaviour before and after US elections in 1998 and 2000. They gave each individual an NE score.

Personality matters in politics.
Psychologist Richard Petty
Ohio State University, Columbus
People with a high NE were much more likely to ally themselves to either the Republican or Democratic party, be a political activist or glean political information from the media, Petty reports in the Journal of Personality1 . They were also simply more likely to vote. This was true even once their age, sex, income and education level had been taken into account. "Personality matters in politics," Petty says.

Campaign prop

Psychologists have long been interested in how personality affects an individual's political behaviour, but recently this area has received little attention. One body of work, for example, suggests that those brought up to follow strict rules tend to favour harsh punishments for others, as do those with low self-esteem.

Researchers say the new study could find a variety of uses in political campaigning. At present, for example, opinion polls are notoriously variable, partly because it is difficult to gauge whether people are going to vote, even when they say they will. "It's one of the most controversial areas," says Jon Krosnick, a political scientist at Stanford University, California, who was involved with the recent study.

In future, pollsters might judge whether people are likely to vote by asking a couple of questions to estimate their NE, Krosnick suggests. This could help campaigners concentrate their efforts on those people who are undecided but are still likely to vote.

The finding might also help refine political advertising, Petty suggests. People with a low NE may watch a string of allegations against George W. Bush, for example, but form no opinion on the basis of them. Such voters might be better persuaded by a clear bottom line, such as "This is bad for the country."

Political scientist Michael Traugott, who studies mass media and polls in US politics at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, says that polling organizations or advertisers would need a more rigorous demonstration that NE can improve their results before they would adopt it. "It's likely it would add something but it's difficult to know how much," he says.

And psychologists can only speculate why certain people do not form opinions, even if they have all the information they need to do so. They may, for example, have been discouraged from expressing attitudes as a child, Petty says.


  1. Bizer G. Y., et al. J. Pers., 72. 995 - 1028 (2004).


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