Will Bunnett

Politics • Branding • Psychology

Why Are White People Conservative? Part 2 of 3

In my last post, I found that while psychological traits like Openness and Conscientiousness usually correlate with liberal and conservative ideologies, respectively, they don’t seem to correlate much with the ethnic groups that are most associated with those ideologies (Part 1 of 3).

But immigration status isn’t the only thing that could cause traits like Openness and Conscientiousness to be distributed differently across different ethnic groups. Today, I’m looking at age (Part 2 of 3). In my next post, I’ll look at intra-family birth order (Part 3 of 3).

Maybe you’ve heard some variation of the old saw about partisanship (often misattributed to Winston Churchill): “If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain.”

Winston Churchill may not have said all the witty things you think he did.

Well, despite being pretty patronizing, there might actually be something to that expression, at least as a description of people’s normal political trajectory through life. Openness is, in fact, relatively more associated with youth, and conscientiousness is relatively more associated with aging.

From Our Political Nature, by Avi Tuschman, we get a sense of why that might be:

Robert McRae, for instance, has speculated that “Openness” (in addition to the Big Five trait of “Extraversion”) is higher during youth because being outgoing helps young adults to find mates… An increase in ‘Conscientiousness’ in the late twenties, on the other hand, would better suit parents to the task of raising a family; being a good parent requires a great deal of responsibility…

With parenthood, then, comes the need to protect a young child who has minimal defenses against the threats in his or her environment. As parents become attuned to these “new” threats, their attention focuses more and more on the dangerous elements of the world. Since “dangerous world” thinking is associated with a more self-interested view of human nature, parenthood increases conservatism…Along with their conservative focus on a dangerous world, parents are people who have become the prototypical authority figure. So parents are more likely to identify with societal authorities.

Now get this: the median age of the population of the United States’ is 37 years — but the median age for hispanics is 27 years.

Hispanic and black ethnic groups have some of the largest percentages of young members.

Hispanic and black ethnic groups have some of the largest percentages of young members.

Since the average hispanic is so much younger than the average white, the comparative youth of the hispanic population could be pulling it to the left, which the higher average age of the U.S. white population could be pulling it to the right.

Only one problem: the Hispanic population doesn’t appear to score any more highly on Openness than the white population:

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.

I used this same chart in my last post, and I’ll probably use it in Part 3. About all I know about the chart is that Potter told me the data should be quite reliable. However, I know two other things as well:

  1. Hispanics are known (from voting data) to be more liberal, on average, than whites.
  2. Openness is known to correlate with liberal views in other situations.

Immigration status and average age are two pretty good reasons why Hispanics overall might be more inclined to Openness, but it doesn’t seem to be showing up in these data. Hmm. Something’s gotta give. Maybe looking at family size and birth order will help break the stalemate? We’ll find out next time!

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