Will Bunnett

Politics • Branding • Psychology

Why Are White People Conservative? Part 1 of 3

While not every white person is a conservative, the polls show that almost all conservatives are white — and Latinos, African-Americans, and Asian Americans are all much more likely to be liberal.

Although whites currently make up the majority of the three major voting blocks, Latinos, African-Americans, and Asian Americans all devote a higher share of their votes to Democrats than whites.

Although whites currently make up the majority of the three major voting blocks, Latinos, African-Americans, and Asian Americans all devote a higher share of their votes to Democrats than whites.

It could just be a cultural thing — white people do more frequently exhibit a worldview that values hierarchies, belief in a naturally just world, and familiar experiences (all psychological traits associated with conservatism).

But factors rooted deep in our evolutionary psychology could also be playing a crucial role here. In future posts, I’ll explore the roles of aging (Part 2 of 3) and intra-family birth order (Part 3 of 3) in determining our politics. But for today, I’ll look at why certain ethnic groups might score differently for certain personality traits — traits that are closely associated with different political ideologies.

Openness and Conscientiousness and Immigration

Of the “Big Five” personality traits that psychologists like to boil us all down into, two correlate the most significantly with political attitudes. Openness is associated with (social) liberalism, and Conscientiousness is associated with (social) conservatism.

There are lots of ways to measure these traits (including online quizzes, if you want to find out how you stack up), but they’re so pervasive that political scientists have even found that having things like travel books in your room correlates with liberal political attitudes (because it means you’re “open” to new experiences and cultures) while having more calendars in your room correlates with conservative political attitudes (because it means you’re “conscientious” about your obligations).

So let’s start the wild extrapolating: If being open to exploring new countries means you’re more likely to be liberal, then what about packing your things and outright moving to a new country? You’d have to be pretty open to do that, right? Some groups with higher percentages of recent immigrants, like Asian-Americans and Latinos, have also been observed to vote more liberally than whites, so maybe there’s a relationship there.

When Prince Hakeem came to America, as an immigrant he had to be open to new experiences, like Sexual Chocolate.

Survey Says…

I actually got some good data on this point. If you’ve taken that quiz I linked to above, then thank you — the data I got came from the guy who runs that quiz. Btw, he says the differences in these data may be small but “will be quite reliable.”

Openness and Conscientiousness Among U.S. Ethnic Groups

Source: Potter, J., Gosling, S. D., Gebauer, J. E, Bleidorn, W., & Rentfrow, P. J. (2014). Race difference norms in personality. Unpublished data.

How about that: White Americans really do score quite highly on conscientiousness, beating out every group besides African-Americans. That might seem counterintuitive, since African-Americans as a group are some of the most reliably Democratic voters in the country. But bear in mind that conscientiousness is more predictive of social conservatism than economic conservatism, and African-Americans as a group do tend to be more conservative than other Democratic voters on social issues like gay marriage.

Sometimes white people can be open to new experiences too -- like when the Griswalds went to Europe.

Sometimes white people can be open to new experiences too — like Rusty Griswald in Germany.

That’s all well and good — except whites actually scored more highly on openness than most other groups, too.* And more to the point, most Latino and Asian groups didn’t score particularly highly at all.

The data seem pretty confounded. A number of other factors, like income, education level, or gender, could be skewing these results. But to control for them and isolate race as a predictive factor in people’s personality traits…I’d have to do some serious regression analysis. Nuts to that.

Verdict: undecided. We’ll have to look at some other evolutionary psychology reasons to see why white people are so conservative — starting with the impact of aging on political beliefs. My next post will be part 2 of 3: how could age factors be making whites more conservative?

*  Middle Eastern Americans being a glaring exception. I’m not enough of an expert on the culture of Middle Eastern Americans to speculate about why they would score so differently, but since their scores are also so much higher than other groups associated with more recent immigration, I take it to be an outlier for my purposes.

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