The conscientious conservatives?

1.The relationship between conscientiousness and conservatism is very small

I was talking with a friend the other day when I casually mentioned that there are no large correlations between big-five personality traits and political beliefs. He jumped in to correct me saying that obviously I didn’t mean to include conscientiousness, which was strongly correlated with conservatism, to which I replied that, no, it doesn’t. There is some evidence to suggest a correlation exists, but the correlation is extremely weak, and of a magnitude that makes it quite likely to be an artefact of something else.

A 2012 meta-analysis of 73 studies examining the relationship between political beliefs and personality traits found an average correlation of R=.1 between conservatism and conscientiousness. By squaring R (the Pearson correlation) we derive R², or the portion of variance explained. Thus these results would indicate that 1% of the variance in conservatism is explained by conscientiousness.

Now in the past I’ve argued that even small correlations can be meaningful, giving the example of two obviously conceptually related (in a way, near identical) questions which only explained sixteen percent of the variance in each other. But one percent is very low, however diced. An average of 385 subjects would be needed to have even a 50/50 chance of detecting it using the standard threshold for significance.

2. Cashflow as catastrophic confound of conscientious conservatism

The problem here is not merely that 1% is too small to matter in a practical sense, it’s that when we get down to relationships this small there’s a very strong chance that a small artefact or phenomena might be behind the apparent relationship.

The biggest potential confound I can see is economic situation. A good economic situation breeds conservatism- we know this not just through correlational studies, but also through quasi-experimental studies like this one of lottery winners. Meanwhile conscientiousness is linked to higher income, this might be for two reasons:

A.) The conscientious do better for themselves.

B.) Those who have done well for themselves think of themselves as conscientious because society tells us that being conscientious is a requirement for success. Many questions in standard personality tests of conscientiousness essentially involve assessing how responsible you are, if you’re doing well, you’ll more likely believe yourself to be a responsible person, even if this isn’t the case.

3. So just control for income stupid!

It’s not that simple. One would hope that these studies control for income, although several I checked didn’t seem to, and the meta-analysis itself doesn’t mention income at all. The problem is that even if we control for income, economic situation, considered as a whole, goes far beyond income and is very difficult to measure. It encompasses income, assets, liabilities, perceived future prospects, job security, recurrent expenditures and and so on. Consider:

  1. Bill earns 20,000 a year, Jack earns 45,000, but Jack will earn this all his life, while Bill is completing a Juris Doctorate and knows he will soon earn much more.
  2. Samantha earns 50,00 while Belinda earns 70,000, but Samantha knows that she will one day soon inherit a vast amount of money.
  3. Susie earns 65,000 while Jessica earns 75,000, but Jessica has three children with severe disabilities who need constant medical care.

So while income is an important part of one’s financial situation, we cannot rely on income as a control for financial situation. This is an issue that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, and it tends to suggest that we may be underestimating the broad effect of money and finances on a range of variables including happiness, political orientation, personality, religion, health and so on. I’m not sure how to collectively measure the dozens of important variables that influence financial well-being, but it is my belief that better measurement of real and perceived economic situation will show that material factors under-grid far more than is often realised.

4. And there are many other roads besides

Or maybe the connection isn’t explained by income- who knows? The worrisome thing remains that an effect of 1% could very easily be any old thing. Some triviality we haven’t even imagined might be driving the effect. Some odd aspect of religion, cultural groups, self-image or education too subtle to be easily controlled for, or which researchers haven’t even bothered trying to control for..

Or, it could even be real, but if so, so what? 1% is 1%. Humans have trouble understanding that a thing is real, but trivial when it relates to important, contested concepts. Psychology’s hunt for statistical significance, without regard to practical significance is simply another manifestation of this curse.

5. Why does it matter?

Why care? The most obvious reason if we’re being honest is that, generally speaking, conscientiousness is a good thing, I think the left is a good thing, and so it is in my interests to criticise inflated claims about a wedge between conscientiousness and the left. There’s another principle here to though which is worth mentioning. Making politics about something like conscientiousness depoliticises politics. It takes attention off the policy, off the power structures and relations and off the vital conflicts that make the substance of politics. Thus, if the evidence doesn’t support a meaningful link, there’s value in pointing this out.

None of which is to deny the importance of individual psychology to politics. Thinking about how political beliefs and values might interlace with individual differences in personality, in ways which tie together individual outlooks with collective aspiration and formations is fascinating.

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