Picture of boy by Kati Neudert; political symbols by Emanuele Gnani
At age three, Rick Santorum may have been suspicious of others and easily offended. A three-year-old Ted Kennedy, on the other hand, may have been proud of his accomplishments and insistent on his independence and autonomy. How the little ones grow and change.
A study published late last year in the Journal of Research in Personality reported a link between certain childhood personality traits and adult political orientation in a test group followed over two decades. As nursery schoolers, the future conservatives were described as easily victimized, indecisive, rigid, fearful and inhibited. The budding liberals were described as self-reliant, prone to developing close relationships, energetic and somewhat dominating.
“These unusual data cleanly reveal in these samples of young women and young men an undeniable linkage between early childhood character structure and much later adult orientation toward political issues and political choices,” author Jack Block, a retired UC Berkeley psychology professor, wrote in the study. “It would appear that early identifiable personality characteristics…seem to influence an approach to the world and a reaction to the world that tends, over the years, to evolve into a worldview, a weltanschauung, on a wide variety of issues, many of them political.”
Block and his wife, Berkeley psychology professor Jeanne H. Block, (now deceased) collected evaluations of 95 subjects of who attended one of two nursery schools in the urban Oakland and Berkeley areas in the early ‘70s. Each child’s personality was evaluated by six experienced, independently functioning nursery school teachers who had known each child for at least seven months. The subject group was diverse in social class and parents’ educational levels.
Around 1989, when the participants were 23, six experienced psychologists again rated their personalities. Block also evaluated their political orientations on a five-point scale using a variety of measures including self-identification, the Kerlinger Liberalism and Conservatism Scales and a questionnaire on issues that divided the Republican and Democratic parties at the time. The Kerlinger scale allowed participants to express their opinions on issues such as socialized medicine, racial equality, capitalism and moral standards.
Block segregated the results by gender and compared personality traits with political orientation to find the reported correlations.
In 2003, New York University psychology professor John Jost published a review paper with similar results. He analyzed studies on personality traits and political leanings that had been conducted within a 44-year period in 12 different countries involving over 22,000 individual subjects.
Jost said his study found that an adult displaying heightened needs to manage uncertainty and threat was associated with an attraction to conservative ideas, while openness to new experiences and cognitive complexity correlated with liberal ideas.
“The results of [Block’s] study and our meta-analysis are quite compatible,” Jost said via e-mail. “He is observing the same sorts of correlations in children who ultimately become liberal or conservative that we have observed in adults who have already become liberal or conservative.”
Block’s study has unsurprisingly drawn criticism from conservatives since a March article in The Toronto Star brought it into the public eye. Some have noted that the Berkeley-based sample is small and unrepresentative of the country as a whole.
Block acknowledges that his sample skews left and his subjects’ hometowns are “appreciably different from much of America,” but he maintains that his results are valid at least within his geographical area. Jost, meanwhile, suggested that researchers conduct similar studies in different locations and political eras, noting that his own conclusions were based on a diverse sample of thousands of people from all over the world.
Conservative critics also claim that both Jost and Block are biased, unabashed liberals. They note as evidence a follow-up to Jost’s 2003 study where the researcher linked Hitler, Mussolini, Ronald Reagan and Rush Limbaugh—saying they were all right-wing conservatives because they preached a return to an idealized past and condoned some form of inequality. The correlations’ attackers say Block revealed his bias when he wrote in his paper that conservatives would support “decisive (if self-appointed) leaders.”
If Block and Jost’s apparent bias offends your sensibilities, if you feel victimized, if this study scares you, and if you’re a three-year-old in the Bay Area, well, you just might be a conservative.
Originally published April 9, 2006