Results and Interpretation of a Comprehensive Study Comparing Liberals and Conservatives

Mehrabian, A. (1996). Relations among political attitudes, personality, and psychopathology assessed with new measures of libertarianism and conservatism. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 18, 469-491.

Summary of Findings Reported in the Study Cited Above

The relation between new scales of Libertarianism-Totalitarianism and Conservatism-Liberalism was explored in four studies. One important group of findings consistently showed that conservatives were more libertarian than moderates and liberals. And, moderates and liberals did not differ significantly from one another on libertarianism-totalitarianism.

A second important group of findings dealt with political orientations in relation to personality and temperament characteristics. The three general approaches used to describe and measure personality and temperament were (a) the Big-five personality factors, (b) the Nurturance and Dominance factors of the Circumplex, and (c) the Pleasure-Arousability-Dominance (PAD) Temperament Model. Across four studies, the Libertarianism and Conservatism scales were consistently and strikingly unrelated to personality and temperament factors; nor were they related to measures of psychological adjustment-maladjustment (Depression, Trait Anxiety, Panic, Somatization) or to measures of substance abuse (Alcohol Use and Drug Use).

For readers who have an interest in psychological measurement issues, we should note that the Libertarianism and Conservatism scales were free of social desirability bias. This means that the two scales were constructed in such a way that it would have been difficult for participants in the study to know how they should slant or fake their answers so as to appear to have socially desirable characteristics.

Added Insights Into the Findings From the Aforementioned Study

1. Historically, the social science literature has tended to cast conservatives in a negative light. A precedent-setting example was the publication in 1950 of the Authoritarianism Scale or F-Scale (with F standing for Fascism) that purportedly described conservatives. Contrary to the preceding portrayal of conservatives, my data were highly consistent in showing an absence of any consistent personality or adjustment-maladjustment differences between liberals and conservatives or, for that matter, between libertarians and totalitarians. One highly general quantitative system of personality measurement (the PAD Model), used in all four of my studies, includes three basic dimensions of temperament that, in various combinations, yield assessments of an unlimited number of specific personality traits (e.g., friendliness, achievement orientation, dependency, depression, anxiety, empathy, conscientious, optimism, extroversion).

Description of Albert Mehrabian's Pleasure-Arousal-Dominance (PAD) Temperament Model
Considering that, in addition to the PAD Model, two other general systems of personality description and several specific measures of psychopathology were used, absence of significant personality or psychopathology correlates of liberalism-conservatism shows, for instance, that liberals are not necessarily more compassionate, empathic, sociable, dependent, or giving than conservatives; nor are conservatives necessarily more achievement and goal oriented, conscientious, self-sufficient, selfish, or frugal than liberals. There clearly are no consistent personality differences of any kind between liberals and conservatives. Additionally, liberals and conservatives do not differ in overall level of psychopathology; nor do they differ with respect to specific aspects of psychopathology such as anxiety, depression, panic, somatization or hypochondria, alcohol use, or recreational drug use.

In short, no personality or maladjustment differences can be ascribed to political orientation. Apparently, people do not vote one way or another because of their personality traits or because they are psychologically disturbed or healthy. This leaves some of the following alternative factors as possible determinants of political orientation: family history and tradition, ethnicity, source of economic support (employed versus welfare recipient), type of employment (government work versus private enterprise), age (found to relate positively to conservatism in my study), and religiousness (also a positive correlate of conservatism in my study).

2. All four studies consistently showed that liberals and moderates are less libertarian than conservatives. According to this striking and consistent result, it is liberals and moderates, not conservatives, who are likely to find intellectual and emotional justification for use of laws and government institutions to forcefully impose the will of one segment of society on another, thereby limiting individual freedom or confiscating property.

Respondents in the study were given an opportunity to express wide ranging levels of agreement versus disagreement with various elements of totalitarian versus libertarian thought. Surprisingly, on average, the entire group of respondents only disagreed very slightly with totalitarian ideology. Stated differently, the entire group agreed very slightly with libertarian ideology, thus showing a lack of strong appreciation for liberty and freedom. This finding, in itself, speaks volumes about the tragic failure of our current political and educational systems to impart and nourish the foundations of US culture and tradition that cherish individual freedom and liberty . Findings for conservatives were only slightly more encouraging and showed that they disagreed slightly with totalitarian ideology (Compare this with "disagreed very slightly" for the entire sample of respondents.)

Extrapolating to the general public, these findings show that Americans, in general, are lukewarm in their support of libertarian ideology and lack awareness of basic libertarian underpinnings to the U.S. constitution that was designed carefully to limit the power and scope of government and to maximize individual freedom.

3. Positive relations between conservatism and libertarianism, evidenced by correlation values of .21 to .48 across four studies, also have important implications about effects of libertarian-like third parties on elections. Insofar as most political races are won by a difference of a few percentage points, libertarian-like parties are likely to siphon off critical segments of the most conservative vote, yielding victories to Democrats.

To forestall splitting the conservative vote, libertarians could compete within Republican primaries, essentially running as Republican candidates, and help reshape conservative political ideology. This strategy would give libertarians a voice among conservative ranks, move libertarians toward center stage in national politics and, most importantly, help deter some of the totalitarian urges that emerge on the right side of the political spectrum as well.

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