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Who Grows Up to Be Conservative or Liberal?

Early learning and behavior predicts later political views.

Now that the dust has settled on the last presidential election, it is clear that just about half of Americans are conservative and the other half are liberal. The views held by these two groups are quite different in a number of ways. Those who are liberal on social issues tend to favor equal opportunity and individual choice, while those who are conservative on social issues tend to focus on conformity to a set of social norms. Disagreements between these groups can lead to angry confrontations.

Psychologists have been interested in whether there are broader psychological factors that predict whether someone is likely to hold conservative or liberal political views. This work suggests that people with conservative political views are more likely to show respect for authority than those with liberal views. Conservatives are also generally lower on the dimension of Openness to Experience than liberals. This personality characteristic measures how much someone is willing to engage with new experiences. Finally, conservatives tend to be more anxious in situations in which there is ambiguity than liberals.

An interesting question explored in a paper in the December 2012 issue of Psychological Science by Chris Fraley, Brian Griffin, Jay Belsky, and Glenn Roisman is whether it is possible to predict which children will become conservative or liberal.

To examine this question, the researchers collected political views from over 700 children who had been part of a large-scale study of families that had children born in 1991. The researchers already had data on parenting styles of the parents and data on the children’s temperament at age 4 and a half. They collected data on the participants’ political views at age 18.

The measures of parenting style explored both how authoritarian the parents were and how egalitarian they were. Authoritarian parents want their children to obey them. Egalitarian parents generally involve their children in family decisions.

The measures of children’s temperament included measures of being restless, shy, having difficulty focusing attention, and being fearful.

In the analyses, the researchers first controlled statistically for factors known to influence political views like gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.

In these analyses, children with parents who were more authoritarian and less egalitarian tended to grow up with more conservative political views.

Children who were restless at age 4 and a half were less conservative than those who were more passive. Children who had difficulty focusing their attention on playing were more conservative than those who had less difficulty focusing attention. Finally, children who were more fearful were more likely to express conservative views than children who were less fearful.

It is important to point out that while these relationships are statistically reliable, the effects are not huge. That is, these early factors are related to later political views, but they do not determine them completely.

An interesting aspect of these data is that adult political views are affected by both learned and fixed components of behavior. Parenting style affects political views, and children are clearly learning from their parents. Temperament at age 4 reflects a mixture of genetic factors and early learning. It is interesting that these early behaviors have a reliable impact on later beliefs.

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