The headlines are relentless:
The original research behind these headlines is equivocal at best, says no such thing at worst. See Part I of this series for more on these points.
One thing the articles and opinion pieces don’t mention is the decades of research on personality and political attitudes, covering tens of thousands of participants. And that research is, well, unequivocal: conservatism is not associated with anxiety or fear - it’s most strongly associated with Conscientiousness. For instance, in one rather large study (number of participants = 12,472), the authors found that, to quote:
“Conscientiousness is associated with, overall, social, and economic conservatism…Emotional Stability is associated with conservatism… [corroborating prior research finding] a relationship between Emotional Stability and overall conservatism. …[Plus! because] people who score high on Emotional Stability are less likely to feel anxious about their economic futures, they respond less favorably to redistributive policies intended to strengthen broad economic security.” Gerber et al, 2010
Well, that’s a different narrative! Instead of rejecting redistributive policies because they’re afraid of the new, conservatives are simply more content with how things are and see little need for redistribution. Because conscientious people tend to work hard and be more successful (e.g., see Kern et al, 2013), they are a bit less receptive to some safety net programs. As one group of researchers put it, Conscientiousness and economic conservatism are:
“…rooted in dispositions that lead people to respond unfavorably to policy stimuli that are seen as rewarding individuals who fail to do their part.” (Gerber et al, 2011)
What is “Emotional Stability”? Also known as “Neuroticism”, Emotional Stability includes several facets, including anxiety. Ok, so maybe conservatives are emotionally stable, high in all the other facets except for anxiety? Nope. There is no statistically significant association between anxiety and either social or economic conservatism (Gerber et al, 2011). There is, however, a “clear positive relationship between the Self-Discipline facet of Conscientiousness” and multiple measures of conservatism (Gerber et al, 2011).
Still, I’m willing to concede that some Conservatives may “pay more attention to the aversive” (Dodd, Balzer et al, 2012). But that doesn’t make them particularly anxious or fearful.
Next: Political rhetoric and the difference between anxiety, fear, and adaptive anticipation.
Dodd, M. D., A. Balzer, et al. (2012). "The political left rolls with the good and the political right confronts the bad: connecting physiology and cognition to preferences." Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 367(1589): 640-649. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2011.0268
Gerber AS, Huber GA, Doherty D, Dowling CM, Ha SE. (2010) “Personality and political attitudes: relationships across issue domains and political contexts.” Am. Polit. Sci. Rev. 104:111–33.
Gerber, A. S., G. A. Huber, et al. (2011). "The Big Five Personality Traits in the Political Arena." Annual Review of Political Science 14(1): 265-287. https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev-polisci-051010-111659
Kern, ML, Friedman, HS, Martin,LR, Reynolds, CA and Luong, G (2009) Conscientiousness, Career Success, and Longevity: A Lifespan Analysis, Annals of Behavioral Medicine, Volume 37, Issue 2, 154–163. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12160-009-9095-6