On Being a Statistical Outlier

I never know what to make of the field of political psychology; there just seems to be something so indefinably wrong about it. Maybe it’s just because the results (or at least their publication in the media) always seem to include a certain degree of smarmy condescension, usually against conservatives (at least in the admittedly somewhat left-leaning newssources that I frequent): “oh, those conservatives: they’re so closed-minded, lol!” Maybe it’s just because describing political preferences in terms of inate psychology, while it may be legitimate, seems to run contrary to the fundamental assumptions of democracy* (which only works insofar as the majority of people are rational actors, changing their minds based on available evidence). Or maybe, it’s simply because I’m suspicious of the extent to which it is even possible to apply scientific methodology to human affairs in an unbiased manner.

Case in point, this study, which tries to map-out the correlations between right-left political ideology** and psychological factors–“temperamental, developmental, biological, and situational – that contribute to the formation and maintenance of partisan political beliefs.”

In any case, I’m always amused by results like these:

Liberals reported greater openness, whereas conservatives reported higher conscientiousness. This means that liberals (at least in their own estimation) saw themselves as more creative, flexible, tolerant of ambiguity, and open to new ideas and experiences. Across the political personality divide, conservatives self-identified as more persistent, orderly, moralistic, and methodical.

Evidence suggests that these personality differences between liberals and conservatives begin to emerge at an early age. A 20-year longitudinal study by Jack and Jeanne Block showed that those who grew up to be liberals were originally assessed by their preschool teachers as more emotionally expressive, gregarious, and impulsive when compared to those who became conservatives, who were considered more inhibited, uncertain, and controlled.

I had to chuckle at this–for two reasons: first of all, because it’s actually a fairly good (if stereotypical) description of most of the liberals and conservatives that I know, and secondly, because in spite of my actual politics, my psychology actually seems to place me on the extreme conservative end of the spectrum.

Looking at it, I think that the difference may be this:

On the flip side, conservatives may be organized, stable, and thrifty, but also have stronger just-world beliefs (leading to a greater tolerance for inequality), and stronger fears of mortality and ambiguity. [Emphasis Mine]

And assuming that this study is legitimate, this would probably be what prevents me from being a conservative: I have never operated under the illusion that the world is a just place, and I don’t really fear death or ambiguity either.


*Once again though, that’s not to say that such descriptions are illegitimate; fact must always win over ideology, after all; but it nevertheless makes me uncomfortable

**This is actually another reason why I’m mistrustful of these studies: the right-left political spectrum has always seemed arbitrary and constantly changing to me.


About thevenerablecorvex

I have the heart of a poet, the brain of a theoretical physicist, and the wingspan of an albatross. I am also notable for my humility.
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2 Responses to On Being a Statistical Outlier

  1. Pingback: Does Political Psychology Make Sense? « Clarissa's Blog

  2. Lindsay says:

    From the political-psychology studies I’ve seen, the field doesn’t seem any more or less bogus than social psychology in general. Both generate all manner of funky observed correlations between things you would’ve guessed were unrelated (to make an example up on the spot, let’s say … handedness and attraction to bespectacled women) among college freshmen in the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, etc. (and sometimes a few non-Anglophone Western European countries). Both are limited in their generalizability* by the extreme homogeneity of their sample population. And both are limited in their ability to explain the observations they make. But I do think those observations can be very interesting, and that some of the more unexpected correlations might spur people to pursue lines of inquiry about what makes people tick that they might otherwise never have thought to consider.

    I would expect that, as the group of college students these observations about personality and politics were undoubtedly gleaned from is probably 90+% neurotypical, autistic folks like you, me, or Clarissa are probably not going to fit the pattern very often.

    *It is too a word.

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