Saturday, March 25, 2006

Conservative and Liberal Personalities

Lots of publicity over a study purporting to find personality differences in liberals and conservatives:
Remember the whiny, insecure kid in nursery school, the one who always thought everyone was out to get him, and was always running to the teacher with complaints? Chances are he grew up to be a conservative.

At least, he did if he was one of 95 kids from the Berkeley area that social scientists have been tracking for the last 20 years. The confident, resilient, self-reliant kids mostly grew up to be liberals.

The study from the Journal of Research Into Personality isn't going to make the UC Berkeley professor who published it any friends on the right. Similar conclusions a few years ago from another academic saw him excoriated on right-wing blogs, and even led to a Congressional investigation into his research funding.

But the new results are worth a look. In the 1960s Jack Block and his wife and fellow professor Jeanne Block (now deceased) began tracking more than 100 nursery school kids as part of a general study of personality. The kids' personalities were rated at the time by teachers and assistants who had known them for months. There's no reason to think political bias skewed the ratings — the investigators were not looking at political orientation back then. Even if they had been, it's unlikely that 3- and 4-year-olds would have had much idea about their political leanings.

A few decades later, Block followed up with more surveys, looking again at personality, and this time at politics, too. The whiny kids tended to grow up conservative, and turned into rigid young adults who hewed closely to traditional gender roles and were uncomfortable with ambiguity.

The confident kids turned out liberal and were still hanging loose, turning into bright, non-conforming adults with wide interests. The girls were still outgoing, but the young men tended to turn a little introspective.

Block admits in his paper that liberal Berkeley is not representative of the whole country. But within his sample, he says, the results hold. He reasons that insecure kids look for the reassurance provided by tradition and authority, and find it in conservative politics. The more confident kids are eager to explore alternatives to the way things are, and find liberal politics more congenial.
Thanks to one of Michelle Malkin's readers, the actual study can be viewed here.

One of the first things that I note about the study is its extremely small sample size: The researchers looked at 104 adults who had been subjected to personality tests while in one of two nursery schools in Berkeley and Oakland in around 1969-1971. The researchers admit that their sample was very liberal:
The sample, born in the late 1960s and achieving young adulthood about 1990, grew up in Berkeley and Oakland, an enveloping cultural context appreciably diVerent from much of America—a factor that should be taken into account. Widely and properly perceived as reflecting liberal, even sometimes extreme left political views, the San Francisco Bay Area provides a context that unsurprisingly and unembarrassedly encourages liberalism and looks askance at much of conservatism. Accordingly, it is understandable that, in its entirety, the present sample as young adults is liberally oriented.
Given the very liberal nature of the adults studied, I wondered exactly how many of the 104 people were "conservative." Oddly enough, the researchers apparently don't include hard numbers on that point. Instead, they say this:
The LIB/CON score distribution in this sample leans toward liberalism, with relatively few participants tilting toward conservatism. However, the crucial composite score, on which all data analyses are based, displays a wide, albeit somewhat skewed, distribution.
Relatively few? What does that mean?

For example, when the authors report in Table 1 that "conservatives" are 27% more likely to have been labeled as "suspicious, distrustful of others," this could mean merely that 20% of the liberal adults fit that characteristic while out of 10 conservative adults (let's say), 3 rather than 2 had been so labeled. In other words, the researchers could be perceiving a "correlation" based on the fact that one of the "conservative" adults had a nervous personality.

Given that the researchers don't report more of the data, I'm going to assume for now that the sample size of actual conservatives is embarrassingly small.

The second thing that I notice about the study is that the researchers are apparently doing a one-shot correlation. That is, they just look at childhood personality scores and correlate them with adult liberal/conservative scores. (See page 6 of the study.) I don't see that the researchers made any attempt to control for any other factors that might affect political alignment.


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