Tell me who you are and I’ll tell you how you vote

Voting on the proposed reform of the pension system, September 24, 2017. Keystone/Gian Ehrenzeller

Open people are more inclined to vote left, while the conscientious are fans of law and order – the conclusions outlined by a Swiss political scientist in a new book draw a clear line between political leanings and personality.

This content was published on October 22, 2017 - 14:00
Lukas Leuzinger,

Was the pension reform that was put to referendum in Switzerland on September 24 last a balanced compromise? Or was it an irresponsible extension of a broken system at the expense of the youth? What if the answer we gave to this question was not based on rational interest-based considerations, but rather on our personality?

For Markus Freitag, a professor of political science at Bern University, character plays an important role in political decisions. On the pension reform, for example, someone who values equality and social justice will give a different answer from someone for whom upholding the rules and sustainable financing is important.

Freitag has just published a book outlining these issues, called “Die Psyche des Politischen” (The Psyche of Politics). Based on almost 15,000 interviews, it explores the effects of various personality traits on political views and decisions, and adds to international studies applying the so-called five-factor model of personality traits (see below).

Five-factor model

This personality model, elaborated and recognised by psychologists, distinguishes between the following types of people:

Open type: open to new and unknown experiences, very creative and likes to question existing ideas and habits.

Conscientious type: careful and accurate, likes to have order in daily life and prefers a stable family life.

Extrovert type: comfortable with other people and enjoys communicating.

Agreeable type: prefers harmony and avoids conflict.

Neurotic type: anxious, lacking confidence and easily provoked, as opposed to emotionally resilient people, who tend to be calm and level-headed.

These five characteristics are present to a varying degree in each person and all combinations are possible; for example, a person can be both open and conscientious, or extrovert and neurotic.

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Urban-rural divide

Freitag’s study is based on four large surveys carried out in Switzerland in recent years. According to the results, about half of Swiss people characterise themselves as conscientious. The second-most common characteristic is agreeableness, followed by openness and extroversion, while only a few of those surveyed see themselves as particularly neurotic.

But there are regional differences: people who live in the countryside tend to be more conscientious, while city-dwellers are more open. People from western Switzerland and Ticino placed a higher value, on average, on openness than German-speaking Swiss, who see themselves as more conscientious and compromising than their French- and Italian-speaking compatriots.

Does this confirm the cliché of the reserved, reticent German-speaking Swiss? Not completely: contrary to popular belief, the surveys showed that western Swiss and above all the people of Ticino were less extrovert than other parts of the country.

Taking this a step further, Freitag also found that political interests depend on personality: open and extrovert people are most interested in political issues in general, he discovered; agreeable people are comparatively uninterested in politics. Freitag’s explanation is that politics means conflict and arguments, which tend to frighten off this personality type.

Open to the left, conscience to the right

As a general rule, it is also possible to say that open and agreeable people tend towards the left-wing camp, while conscientious people prefer conservative positions. For the latter, maintaining law and order and stable prices are important, while the former lay great weight on guaranteeing freedom of opinion.

Feeling voters' psyche: Markus Freitag, professor of political science at the University of Bern. zvg

Open people are also more favourable towards immigration. For agreeable types, a strong welfare state is important. Conscientious people prefer clear limits both these areas.

These tendencies are independent of other possible influencing factors like age, sex, education or place of residence. Freitag stresses that the voter is not entirely at the mercy of his personality; the declaration “tell me who you are and I will tell you how you vote” is exaggerated. It is not a question of ignoring other influences on voting behaviour.

“I am rather trying to show that we shouldn’t leave personality out of the equation when it comes to explaining political thinking and action,” Freitag says. Indeed, in most studies, researchers have found that personality is just as important as education, gender or other sociodemographic factors.

What impact for politics?

How should politicians respond to the demonstrable influence of character? Perhaps they already have. In December of last year, an article in the Tages-Anzeiger newspaper claimed that Donald Trump owed his victory in the US presidential election in large part to new methods of personalised digital advertising, so-called micro-targeting. Targeted campaign messages were sent by the Cambridge Analytica company on Facebook in the lead up to the November vote, as part of a digital pro-Trump campaign tailored to the personalities of individual users.

The true impact of such messages is hotly debated. What is clear is that candidates and parties are seeking to target their messages as accurately as possible to the recipient – and not just since the last US presidential election campaign. But digital media does open new possibilities to do so with even more precision.

Markus Freitag doubts that Cambridge Analytica’s methods really had a decisive influence on Trump’s victory. “Personality knowledge allows you to tailor political messages accurately. But whether these can really mobilise a target group is another question.” What is more, character is extremely complex and election results depend on external events, Freitag says.

However, he sees dangers in the analysis and use of character profiles by politicians. “What gives us a certain sense of unease is the link between what is actually private – i.e. your personality – with something public, i.e. the political process. The question of how we deal with this connection and how we regulate it will certainly be an important issue in the near future.”

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