16 March 2019

Neuroticism Predicted Presidency

Given the tone and nature of Trump’s populist presidential campaign, it’s not surprising that the voters’ neurotic traits--fear, lost pride, loss aversion--could have predicted the outcome of the election. 

On 16 June 2015, Trump announced his candidacy for president, stating, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best…They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” (from video of PBS News Hour coverage, www.youtube.com/watch?v=SpMJx0-HyOM, 46:33 min.)
Welcome back. An international study, led by a researcher from Australia’s Queensland University of Technology, examined the psychological factors underlying voting behavior in both the U.S. presidential election and the U.K. vote on Brexit. Bowing to space and focus, I’ll stick with the U.S. election; the methods and results were similar.

Associating politics with the Big Five personality traits--Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism--is nothing new. But the established personality correlates of voting are Openness and Conscientiousness (e.g., conservatives are typically characterized by low openness and high conscientiousness). Linking voting behavior to Neuroticism is new.

General descriptions of Big Five personality traits.
(from nobaproject.com/modules/personality-traits)
Personality Trait Data
To model the effects of Neuroticism, the researchers used personality data from the Gosling-Potter Internet Project, a noncommercial website on which people can voluntarily complete a questionnaire on socio-demographic variables, personality traits and, since 2003, zip codes.

The study’s sample population, collected between 2003 and 2015, included 3,167,041 respondents from 2,082 counties (nearly 70% of the total), averaging 1,521 respondents per county; the average age was 26 and 64% were female.

Sub-facets of Neuroticism. (from
The researchers focused on neurotic traits--Neuroticism as the broad trait and Anxiety and Depression as sub-facets. Trait scores were aggregated by county to relate to voting data.

Election Vote Data
Two types of election data were obtained from open sources: Trump’s share of the two-party 2016 vote and the change in the Republican share of the two-party vote from the previous presidential election, Obama vs Romney in 2012.

In modeling, the researchers attempted to control for factors which might explain voting behavior. For example, to capture the effect of a region’s industrial decline, they included the manufacturing and mining share of employment in 1970. Since racial composition can predict voting, they included the proportion of white inhabitants. For level of education, they added the proportion of the population with a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Wrap Up
Demonstrating that Trump’s populist campaign played on voters’ fears, the study found counties high in Neuroticism were more likely to vote for Trump. Neuroticism positively predicted voting behavior in electing Trump and even more so in predicting Trump’s gains over the 2012 election.

Although the effect of Neuroticism was reduced when socioeconomic control factors were added, it still persisted. Similar results were also found for the Neuroticism sub-facets Anxiety and Depression.

The researchers posited that Neuroticism may exert a “sleeper effect” and potentially have a profound impact on the geopolitical landscape with the rise of populism. Questioning whether Neuroticism can be harnessed by any political campaign, they judged that campaigns built on fear and threat are better suited to conservative than liberal campaigns. I suspect that may not be true if Trump runs again.

Thanks for stopping by.


Study of Neuroticism and voting behavior in Social Psychological and Personality Science journal: journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1948550618755874
Article on study on ScienceDaily website:
Gosling-Potter Internet Project: www.personality-project.org/

A version of this blog post appeared earlier on www.warrensnotice.com.

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