Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Child Development

Early Life Shapes Political Attitudes

When it comes to politics, your parents have the first word.

Whenever I teach a group of undergraduates I always hope that I will be shaping their young political minds in meaningful ways. I hope that our discussions in class will open their eyes to the various and important social issues of our time, and maybe lead to greater awareness of injustice, unfairness, and inequality in society. I've often thought that this is my most important role as a Professor. I also think that this is one of the concerns of parents who send their children to college--the fear is that the liberal education will forever change the political attitudes that will shape the rest of their adult lives.

While we don't know how much the college experience shapes political attitudes, new research published in Psychological Science, and written by researchers at the University of Illinois, suggests that liberal and conservative political beliefs are shaped by early childhood parenting environments.

In the research, R. Chris Fraley and colleagues examined a longitudinal study of around 700 children organized by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. In the study, parents provided information about their parenting styles along with parental reports of childhood temperament while their infants were 1-month old. The children were then contacted at age 18 to report on their liberal and conservative political beliefs on a survey that examined their views on a variety of social issues (e.g., death penalty, abortion).

When the researchers examined associations between childhood parent ratings and 18-year old political beliefs they found some clear associations. Specifically, parents who tended to be more authoritarian in their parenting styles--beliefs that children should always obey their parents, or that children should be taught obedience--tended to have 18-year olds with more conservative political beliefs. Moreover, these parenting styles predicted conservative beliefs in children after accounting for socioeconomic environment and childhood cognitive ability.

The researchers also examined associations between childhood temperament and 18-year old political beliefs. In terms of temperament, liberal 18-year olds tended to be more restless and active as infants. In contrast, conservative 18-year olds were more likely to have low attentional focus and high fearfulness as infants. These associations also held after accounting for cognitive ability and socioeconomic environment.

These compelling results suggest that many of our complex political beliefs come from our early childhood environments. Specifically, parents that stress obedience to authority tend to raise children who support conservative ideology--which broadly upholds values that stress obedience. In terms of temperament, it appears that infants with fearful temperament tend to be drawn more to political beliefs, that value rule following and social order, which may help to alleviate potential fearfulness while growing up. Whatever the interpretation we could muster for these patterns, one thing is clear from this study--much of what we believe politically is shaped by our early childhood environments and the way we respond to those environments.

I'm not sure how much my class or other teachers' classrooms impact political beliefs, but what is clear, is that these beliefs are founded much earlier than we might have expected. It seems that whether you vote for Obama or Romney next week, your vote may have been long decided years ago by your parents! In this way, Mom and Dad may still be with you when you enter that polling place on November 6th!

Were you surprised by these findings? How did your parents raise you and did it effect your political beliefs? Let us know in the comments!

Fraley, R., Griffin, B., Belsky, J., & Roisman, G. (2012). Developmental Antecedents of Political Ideology: A Longitudinal Investigation From Birth to Age 18 Years Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797612440102

More from Michael W Kraus Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today