Personality and Political Inclinations
What makes people lean to the right or the left in their political opinions? Political psychologist Christopher Federico and his students are working to determine what causes differences in political opinions.
"Researchers in political psychology study how thoughts, feelings, and behaviors change in political contexts, and how their environment influences what political choices people make," Federico explains. "Political contexts include everything that has a political dimension, for example, voting behaviors, attitudes toward government, political campaigns and political candidates, and attitudes toward other countries, racial and ethnic attitudes, attitudes toward gender issues and religion, etc."
Recently, Professor Federico and his students looked at how the relationship between certainty and political leaning is conditioned by other characteristics of the political environments that people find themselves in. They argue that those relationships exist, but they are not a fact of nature; instead, these characteristics are constructed. "What we are finding in particular is that for personality variables, like needs for certainty and what predicts people’s political attitudes, is that they have to be exposed to a lot of discourse about politics. So these things don’t form automatically," he says. By studying how much exposure people have to politics, Federico’s research team found out that involvement and attention to political campaigns play a huge role in people’s relationships with a party.
"We know in psychology that people’s personalities differ over time. For example, some people are more strongly inclined to want certainty—meaning they want to feel certain about things. Other people are less concerned about that; they can deal with not having a clear answer to things," Federico says. "Our research has discovered that there are certain differences among individuals that are reliably associated with particular political beliefs. We found that people who have a strong need for certainty are more likely to affiliate on the political 'right,' or be politically conservative."
Professor Federico and his students expanded their research to discover whether people’s attitudes toward one political candidate changes over the course of the campaign. "We found that political campaigns actually increase the relationship between basic personality factors and evaluations of candidates," he says. "At the beginning of the campaign, the relationship between the need for certainty and preferring conservative political candidates is relatively weak. But by the end of the campaign, after you’ve been exposed to all this information and you are faced with the need to make a decision about whom you are going to vote for, that relationship is pretty strong."