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Deep-Rooted Politics

Clues about what makes us red or blue

Where we fall on the political spectrum may be more than the result of rational thought. Political ideologies appear to fit with certain “psychological needs,” according to research by a team of psychologists, including Brian Nosek, a UVA assistant professor of psychology who studies implicit cognition, or how thinking is shaped by social context.

Writing in the March issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science, Nosek and colleagues at New York University and the University of Texas-Austin found that the core tenets of conservatism and liberalism appear to be more deeply rooted than previously believed. Conservatives, they found, are more “conscientious” than liberals. Liberals, on the other hand, are more “open to experience.”

“Ideological self-placement on a liberalism-conservatism scale explains an astonishing 85 percent of the statistical variance in Democratic versus Republican voting intentions in presidential elections between 1972 and 2004,” they write.

In two large studies of University of Texas students, the researchers found liberal preferences for foreign travel and unusual foods as well as greater tolerance for tattoos and foreign films. Conservative students preferred mainstream activities such as fishing and watching television and were more likely to join fraternities or own an SUV.

And data from 12 countries confirms that emotionally secure people seem to be more able to tolerate a bit of unpredictability in their lives, while conservative politics seemed to indicate a need for structure and stability.