On May 7 general elections will take place in the United Kingdom. While politicians are campaigning and commentators are predicting the outcome, one might wonder why people prefer one party to the others. Are there fundamental differences in people that influence their preferences for certain parties? Or are party preferences simply determined by income and education and by life-cycle events, such as having children, losing a job or going into retirement?
It appears that, in England at least, part of the answer is “personality.” The so-called Big Five personality traits help predict, on the one hand, the partisan preferences of core voters, and, on the other hand, whether an individual gets attached to a party in the first place. Personality of the voters really matters.
Psychologists emphasize five core personality traits – the Big Five Traits – as powerful tools for encapsulating an individual’s personality. The traits are:
- Extraversion: Having an energetic approach toward the social and material world.
- Agreeableness: Having a pro-social and communal attitude toward others rather than being antagonistic.
- Conscientiousness: Having socially proscribed impulse control that facilitates task- and goal-directed behavior.
- Neuroticism: Having negative emotionality rather than being even-tempered.
- Openness to experience: The breath, depth, originality and complexity of an individual’s mental and experiential life.
Unlike other traits that evolve over the life cycle of an individual, the Big Five are considered to remain constant features of an individual’s personality throughout adulthood once they have been fixed early on. James Heckman and co-authors have demonstrated that the Big Five influence earnings, occupation, marriage, smoking and crime. Likewise, research in political science has demonstrated that the Big Five affect political behavior such as voting, ideological disposition and political engagement amongst others.
The British Household Panel Survey and the UK Household Longitudinal Study (1991-2012) follow the same individuals over time. With these data, we can estimate “how close an individual feels to one of the three main parties” (the Conservative Party, the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats) or to “no party” and isolate the effect of personality traits from life-cycle events.
In our new working paper, we do this in two steps. First, we identify the part of an individual’s party preference that can be explained by life-cycle events and control for this in our analysis. This allows us to isolate the intrinsic, unchanging component of an individual’s party preference. Second, we relate measures of the Big Five (along with average income, income volatility, measures of cognitive skills in math and verbal communication and other characteristics that do not vary over time) to these intrinsic party preferences.
Figure 1 illustrates the results. It shows for each of the main parties and for the “no party” how a change (of one standard deviation) in the index measuring the five personality traits affects the likelihood that an individual has a strong intrinsic preference for that party. The height of the bars can be interpreted as the percentage point change in the probability of having a strong intrinsic preference. The two bars that are patterned are not statistically distinct from zero; the others are.
The results are striking: Stark and systematic differences between the personality traits of the core supporters of the three parties emerge.
The Conservative core supporters are antagonistic toward others (low agreeableness); they are energetic and enthusiastic (high extraversion); and they are goal-orientated (high conscientiousness) and even-tempered (low neuroticism). In contrast, the core supporters of the Labour Party have a pro-social and communal attitude (high agreeableness); they are open to new experiences and ideas (high openness); but they are more anxious (high neuroticism) and less prone to goal-directed behavior (low conscientiousness).
The core supporter of the Liberal Democrats has similar traits to the typical core Labour supporter, with two exceptions. First, they do not show any particular tendency toward pro-social and communal attitudes (insignificant agreeableness). Second, they are more reserved and introverted than the more extraverted supporters of either the Conservatives or Labour (low extraversion).
The group of individuals without strong ties to any of the parties, in turn, is associated with a very different set of traits. They are relatively closed to new experiences (low openness), and they are unenthusiastic, introvert and unsociable while being goal-driven (high conscientiousness). About half of these individuals vote and thus constitute, at least approximately, the “swing” voters. An implication, then, is that core and swing voters are fundamentally different in their personality traits.
Importantly, these English results are in line with evidence from the United States and Italy. This suggests that the Big Five traits predict individuals’ alignment to political parties independently of differences in the make-up of the political system or political culture. The core personality of an individual is a significant predictor of his or her party preference. Different combinations of personality traits make some parties more appealing than others. Maybe campaign chiefs would do well to consider this.