Sex, Power, and Partisanship: How Evolutionary Science Makes Sense of Our Political Divide - Hector A. Garcia 2019
Openness to Experience
Left, Right, and Mother Nature
Human personality traits represent distinctive patterns of thought, emotion, and behavior that characterize each individual's adaptation to life circumstances. Personalities are detectable in early childhood and to a certain degree remain stable across one's life span. They are also heritable—estimates based on twin research indicate that 40—60 percent of the variance in personality styles can be attributed to genetic inheritance.1
Social scientists have developed various models for understanding human personality, the most widely researched of which is known as the “Big Five.” These dimensions include openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism (or OCEAN). Cross-cultural research has consistently found evidence of the Big Five dimensions around the globe—one study, for example, found the Big Five in fifty societies and across six continents worldwide.2 The ubiquity of these findings strongly suggests that the Big Five patterns of interfacing with the world are genetically based universals. Not surprising, then, personality dimensions tend to fall along the natural curve. This means that there is a great deal of variation within societies (and similar curves across societies). While we will explore other personality dimensions throughout this book, openness to experience merits some special attention here.
If there were a human analogue to our first river-crossing wildebeest, it would probably be people high on openness to experience. This personality construct includes a general appreciation for novelty and adventure, things like world travel, trying new foods, listening to different kinds of music. Those with high “openness” are also described as abstract thinkers, creative, curious, imaginative, independent, and as being more sensitive to emotions. While the Big Five factors are generally considered distinct, there is a moderately high correlation between openness to experience and another dimension in the model, extroversion—the tendency to be talkative, to be assertive, to seek social interaction, and to have high social ability.3 Openness is also related to sensation-seeking, or a drive to experience sensations that are “varied, novel, complex and intense,” and by the readiness to “take physical, social, legal, and financial risks for the sake of such experiences.”4 While risk-taking is not a central feature of openness, the construct does correlate with measures assessing risk-taking tendencies.5
Those scoring low on openness, on the other hand, are described as being closed to experience. Closed individuals tend to choose routine over new experiences, prefer predictability, and tend to be more traditional in their thinking. Think of the person who would rather stay at home, watching his or her favorite shows over the weekend, or dine at the same café that he or she always does, versus someone who would rather try a new ethnic food restaurant, or even kayak the Grand Canyon. If we could test the personalities of the wildebeest lingerers, they would probably score low on openness to experience.
As it turns out, human personality traits, in particular openness to experience, reliably correlate with political orientation. In one revealing longitudinal study, researchers started by conducting personality assessments on nursery school children.6 Some children were described with adjectives such as “initializing,” “impulsive,” “curious,” “talkative,” “confident,” “openness in expressing negative feelings,” and “autonomous,” among other descriptors. Other children were described as “anxious when confronted by uncertainties,” “distrustful of others,” “indecisive and vacillating,” “ruminative,” “self-unrevealing,” “shy,” “fearful,” “neat,” “compliant,” and “adult-seeking.” Before we get hung up on how negative the adjectives describing the latter group of children sound, consider that, as in the case of the wildebeest lingerers, these personality traits arise directly from their survival utility. In any case, the traits described in these preschoolers were observable long before they developed what we could call political identities.
Twenty years later, these same individuals were rated on their political orientation. The ratings were fairly thorough—they included self-identification on a liberal-conservative continuum, political participation, along with a variety of psychometric instruments measuring agreement on attitudes about things like socialized medicine, racial and gender equality, affirmative action, welfare, and military spending.
What the researchers found was that preschoolers who were rated as curious, impulsive, talkative, and so on reliably grew up to be liberals, whereas those who were described as shy, distrustful of others, compliant, and adult-seeking grew up to be conservatives. The ability of childhood personality traits to predict politics across such an impressive time span shows that genetic predispositions can influence our political orientations. Indeed, a large volume of research has found that openness is associated with tendencies like self-identifying as liberal,7 voting liberal, and supporting liberal policies.8
One large study of over twelve thousand Americans examined the Big Five personality traits as predictors of core political values, such as economic attitudes (e.g., increasing taxes on the wealthy, government involvement in healthcare), social attitudes (e.g., on abortion and supporting civil unions), as well as on self-reported ideology (a five-point scale ranging from very liberal to very conservative).9 The authors found that higher openness was associated with greater liberalism across all three of these means of measuring orientation. The authors explain that “political issues and ideological labels are ’stimuli’ to which the Big Five traits shape responses,” and “it follows that this attraction to novelty and tolerance for complexity encourage not only overall liberalism, but also support for liberal social and economic policies, which typically involve new programs or interventions that overturn existing practices.” Crucially, this personality dimension reflects openness not only to things like new policies or programs but also to other people.
Consider another study in which researchers rated how liberals and conservatives interacted with confederates (researchers posing as non-researchers).10 The researchers found that while conservatives tended to be reserved, socially distracted, and withdrawn, liberals smiled more and oriented their seats in the direction of the confederate more. In the same study the researchers examined offices and bedrooms of liberals and conservative for what they called “behavioral residue” of openness. They found that the personal spaces of conservatives were, on average, more likely to have group-oriented paraphernalia like American flags and sports teams memorabilia, which suggests an orientation toward people comprising one's in-group—known people, rather than those in the out-group. Conservatives’ rooms were also neater, better organized, more conventional, and less stylish.
Personal spaces of more liberal subjects were more likely to contain books on travel, travel documents, international maps, cultural memorabilia, CDs that include world music and a wide variety of music, and an overall greater number and variety of books. Their spaces also were rated as more colorful and stylish. Again, a prominent thread in the tapestry of openness is an attraction to new people, new cultures, and traveling to distant lands (where you find new people). The attraction to and interest in outsiders, which we see so strongly among liberals, has been termed xenophilia.
Conversely, a strong current in the literature points to conservatives being more xenophobic, far beyond the shy, mistrustful preschooler or the socially distracted research subject, as I elaborate below. Before we explore this literature, it is worth emphasizing that conservative xenophobia should not be reduced to simple racism, a dislike of an outside people who have different skin, hair, or body features than one's own; it often extends to differences in language, custom, dress, sexual orientation, religion, nationality, political party, or even sports team. And xenophobia also results not only in a dislike of outsiders but also a corresponding preference for in-group members and values. This preference often manifests as a sense of patriotism and loyalty, of which the sports memorabilia and national flags that conservatives collect are small examples.