How Early Childhood Shapes Your Political Views
The role of parenting style, temperament, and attachment.
Posted September 8, 2020 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
The political divide between conservatives and liberals in America seems to be widening day by day. But where do our political orientations come from? Research on this question points to early childhood experiences.
For instance, adults often adopt the political leanings of their parents. Nevertheless, there are plenty of exceptions to this tendency, and we’ve all experienced family gatherings that turned into fierce political debates.
Likewise, the region where you grew up is a strong predictor of your political orientation in adulthood, but again there are plenty of exceptions. If you were raised in rural Georgia or Arkansas, you’re likely quite conservative, and yet these regions also produced two Democratic presidents—Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Likewise, New Yorkers are notoriously liberal, yet our current Republican president hails from the Big Apple.
Personality factors, which are shaped through the interaction of genetic predispositions and early childhood experiences, play a role in determining political orientation as well. For instance, Republicans tend to be more fearful of the unknown, hence their desire to maintain the status quo. Meanwhile, Democrats tend to be more open to new experiences, hence their favorable view of progress.
Previous studies have also suggested that parenting styles may be a factor in shaping political orientation. For example, Republicans tend to recall their parents as being stricter and more authoritarian than Democrats do. However, psychologists understand that our autobiographical memories are prone to error, and they're often reshaped by later experiences and our current mood. So it’s unclear how reliable these results are.
To truly understand how childhood dynamics shape political orientation in adulthood, what we really need is a longitudinal study that first observes parent-child interactions and then decades later tests the grown child’s political affiliation as an adult. This is what University of California, Irvine psychologists Christopher Wegemer and Deborah Vandell have accomplished in a study recently published in the journal Developmental Psychology.
To start, the researchers took advantage of a child health and human development study conducted in the 1990s. This study observed various factors in early childhood development, such as the mother’s parenting style and sensitivity as well as the child’s temperament and attachment security. The researchers then tracked down as many of these children—now young adults—as they could, and assessed their political orientation.
For the current study, the researchers examined correlations between four measures in the original study with the participants’ political orientation as young adults.
The first measure was the mother’s authoritarian parenting beliefs. The mothers indicated their agreement with statements such as “Children shouldn’t question the authority of their parents.” The researchers found that mothers who held strong authoritarian parenting beliefs were more likely to have children whose political orientation was conservative as adults. This finding corroborates earlier findings that conservatives recalled their parents as being more authoritarian than liberals.
The second measure was observed maternal sensitivity, which is the degree to which a mother is responsive to the needs of her child. For example, some mothers are quick to respond when their baby cries or fusses, while others are slower. Some mothers also have better intuitions about their child’s needs.
Mother-child interactions were observed at regular intervals between the child’s age of 6 months and 54 months, and during each session the mother’s sensitivity was evaluated. The researchers found no evidence that maternal sensitivity influenced the adult child’s political orientation. This finding in itself was unremarkable, in that no previous work had suggested that it did. However, the researchers included this variable because of the role it plays in attachment security, as we’ll discuss shortly.
The third measure was the child’s temperament, a sort of proto-personality that infants are born with and that tends to persist through childhood and often adulthood as well. For instance, some toddlers are shier around strangers than others, and some are more fearful in general. Likewise, some youngsters are more active, and some are better at focusing their attention and following directions. Mothers reported on their children’s temperament when each child was four and a half years old.
Two aspects of childhood temperament predicted political orientation in adulthood. First, children who were high in fearfulness tended to become conservative as adults. This finding corroborates previous research showing that conservatives tend to be more fearful in general. However, the data also indicate that youngsters who were good at focusing their attention tended toward liberalism as adults. It’s not clear how to interpret this finding.
The final measure, and, as it turned out, the most important variable of all, was attachment style. During the first years of life, each child develops a sense of how trustworthy and reliable people are. It emerges through the multiple interactions between mother and child, in which the mother’s sensitivity plays against the child’s temperament. In sum, attachment provides a model for dealing with stresses in relationships, which the child then carries into adulthood.
About two-thirds of children develop a secure attachment style. They find their mother is responsive to their needs, and so they confidently trust others as they build friendships and intimate relationships. The results of this study show that securely attached children are equally likely to grow up to be liberal or conservative.
The other third develop an insecure attachment style, and this comes in two types. Both involve a lack of trust that others can be relied on to meet their needs, but their response is different. Those with anxious attachment try to get their needs met by being overly demanding, both as children and as adults. Conversely, those with avoidant attachment learn to self soothe and take care of their own needs, and as a result they shun intimacy in adulthood.
Of all the variables investigated in this study, attachment style was the strongest predictor of political orientation. Specifically, children with anxious attachment tended to be conservative as adults. This finding also aligns with the observation that conservatives tend to be more fearful in general. In contrast, children with avoidant attachment tended to grow up as liberals. Perhaps this is a reflection of the “live and let live” attitude that is so typical of avoidantly attached adults.
Because Wegemer and Vandell were making use of data collected over a quarter century ago, there was one major weakness in this report. Namely, the original study didn’t assess the mothers’ political orientation, and so there was no way for the researchers to compare that with their children’s liberal or conservative tendencies as adults. It’s certainly reasonable to suppose a connection between the two, but testing that hypothesis will have to wait for another study. Nevertheless, the current report does shed important light on how the dynamics of early chlidhood shapes our political orientations as adults.
Wegemer, C. M. & Vandell, D. L. (2020). Parenting, temperament, and attachment security as antecedents of political orientation: Longitudinal evidence from early childhood to age 26. Developmental Psychology, 56, 1360-1371.