Voting your personalityPosted: September 30, 2008
One of the myths that I talk about in my Brain Myths class is that some people are right-brained and some people are left-brained. Left-brained people are supposed to be more creative, free-thinking, open to new experiences, etc., while right-brained people are more rigid, better at math, more analytical, etc. Or maybe that’s the other way around. I’ve never paid attention. The implication is that you rely exclusively on one half of your brain and don’t use the other half for anything other than keeping your head from caving in. Turns out that if you look at the long list of left/right traits (I’m not going to link to any, but you can google it and find one pretty easily), there are some traits on the left column that would describe you and some on the right. That’s because we’re not talking about your brain, we’re talking about your personality. And your personality has more than one dimension, so you need more than one continuum to describe it.
It turns out that you need about 5 different dimensions to describe your personality. These are called the big 5 personality factors: Neuroticism, Extraversion, Openness to Experience, Agreeableness and Conscientiousness. You can be at one end or the other of the spectrum on each of these traits; they tend to be independent of one another.
I’ve recently heard a lot about one of these traits, Openness to Experience, and it’s got me thinking. First, a definition from wikipedia:
Openness is a general appreciation for art, emotion, adventure, unusual ideas, imagination, curiosity, and variety of experience. The trait distinguishes imaginative people from down-to-earth, conventional people. People who are open to experience are intellectually curious, appreciative of art, and sensitive to beauty. They tend to be, compared to closed people, more creative and more aware of their feelings. They are more likely to hold unconventional beliefs.
People with low scores on openness tend to have more conventional, traditional interests. They prefer the plain, straightforward, and obvious over the complex, ambiguous, and subtle. They may regard the arts and sciences with suspicion, regarding these endeavors as abstruse or of no practical use. Closed people prefer familiarity over novelty. They are conservative and resistant to change.
We all know people who are high and people who are low on this personality trait. We all know artists and we all know accountants. There are people who like to eat at Applebee’s and people who like sushi.
The funny thing is is that openness tends to be a pretty good predictor of your politics. Here is a map of openness on a state-wide basis from a recent paper in the journal “Perspectives on Psychological Science” by Peter Rentfrow et al.:
The black states on the map have the highest state-wide openness rating. The lighter the gray, the lower the openness score. Does this remind you of another map?
They look pretty similar, huh? Part of the reason for this has to do with the way that Rentfrow and colleagues defined openness. They took liberal voting as an index of openness. So, it’s a bit circular to conclude from these data that the personality factor openness to experience predicts whether someone will vote liberal or conservative. There are, however, other data that do support this conclusion:
(Sorry, the video is about 20 min, but it’s really interesting. Especially the first 5 min or so, which is about personality theory. You can skip to the end after that.)
My question is, why would there be geographic variations of the personality trait? It seems reasonable that if you’re open to experience you’d be more willing to move out of state, and you might even be drawn to cosmopolitan areas (where there are art museums, modern dance concerts, etc.). But what about people who are low on openness to experience who start out in blue states? Are they just outnumbered? What do you think?