AUSTIN, Texas — Unlike previous elections, fear and worry played a heavy hand in both the 2016 Donald Trump and "Brexit" elections, changing the script on how personality shapes political behavior, according to an international psychological study on voting behavior.
Research has long established that political attitudes are associated with the Big Five personality traits. For example, prior studies show low openness and high conscientiousness to be related to conservativism. But in 2016, two campaigns built on populist themes of fear, lost pride and loss aversion awoke previously uninfluential traits, particularly those of anxiety, anger and fear — all of which are aspects of the Big Five trait of neuroticism.
The study, conducted by researchers from Queensland University of Technology (QUT), Ilmenau University of Technology, University of Cambridge, the London School of Economics and Political Science, Melbourne University and The University of Texas at Austin, was published in Social Psychological and Personality Science in March.
"The models traditionally used for predicting and explaining political behavior did not capture an essential factor that influenced people's voting decisions in 2016," said lead author Martin Obschonka, a psychologist and associate professor in entrepreneurship at QUT. "We propose a kind of "sleeper effect." Under normal conditions these traits have no influence, but in certain circumstances, widespread anxiety and fear in a region have the potential to profoundly impact the geopolitical landscape."
Using personality data from 417,217 British and 3,167,041 United States participants, researchers tested regional levels of fear, anxiety and anger, comparing them to the traits historically correlated with political orientation (openness and conscientiousness) to measure the link between regional psychological climate and 2016 voting behavior. Regions were measured at the county-level in the U.S. and local authority district level in the U.K.
The researchers found correlations between higher levels of anxiety and fear in a region and both the Brexit and Trump votes, and an even stronger influence of such traits when considering Trump gains since the 2012 election, when Mitt Romney was the Republican candidate. The 50 U.S. counties with the highest levels of fear and anxiety showed a 9 percent increase, on average, in Republican votes from 2012 to 2016; whereas the 50 counties lowest on fear and anxiety showed a shift of only 2 percent. Similarly, the 50 U.K. districts with the highest levels of fear and anxiety demonstrated an average of 60 percent support for the Brexit, with the lowest 50 districts supporting Brexit at the 46 percent level.
"This finding supports our initial suspicion that the regions highest on neuroticism are particularly receptive to political campaigns that emphasize danger and loss and that previous campaigns have not tapped into these themes as strongly as we saw in 2016," said co-author and UT Austin psychology professor Sam Gosling.
Researchers also considered the role of region's industrial heritage, political attitude, racial composition, educational attainment and economic conditions. In England, rural areas and industrialized locations had both higher levels of anxiety or fear and Brexit votes. And in the U.S., these personality traits also predicted Trump support in battlefields such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ohio, as well as the Midwestern "Rust Belt."
Higher population density, economic earnings, educational attainment and openness traits were negatively related to Brexit and Trump votes, while conscientiousness showed little to no effect in either case.
"Much as the consequences of a region's fearful or anxious tendencies may remain hidden until certain conditions are met, there may be other regional characteristics that have the potential to influence geopolitical events but the necessary conditions have not yet materialized," Gosling said.