College of LAS « Illinois

Political Science

Political Personalities

Professor studies how political views might be influenced by biological forces.

DNA

It’s not often that political science is the stuff of a folk song, but if you know Jeffery Mondak’s research, you’ll understand why it lends itself to a good tune. Like music, it might help bring people together.

The U of I professor of political science believes that people are born predisposed toward their political views. Or, as popular folk singer Christine Lavin voices in her song “Hardwired,” cowritten with Mondak: “After years of research the knowledge they’ve acquired / Has scientists thinking we might just be hardwired / Hardwired to be liberal with an open trusting mind / Hardwired to be conservative with a different view of mankind....”

Not that Mondak’s findings can be encapsulated in a single song. Lavin wanted her song to soothe political tensions, and for help, she turned to her friend, Mondak, who has long studied how political views might be influenced by biological forces. The topic is complex enough that it took Mondak, a typically fast writer, 13 years to produce a book about it (Personality and the Foundations of Political Behavior).

It’s a relatively new avenue of research made feasible in part by advances in psychology that more clearly define personality. Over the past 20 years or so, psychologists have determined that personality clusters into dimensions called the “Big Five”—openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and emotional stability.

“[Psychologists] kept finding over the course of many studies, over the course of many decades, that there were these five core dimensions that kept coming up,” Mondak says. To researchers, that meant that instead of needing hundreds of survey questions to measure personality, you could represent much of what we mean by personality with as few as five, 10, or 15 questions, he says.

This has broad implications, and, in political science, it means that a person’s personality can be more easily compared with his or her political behavior. Mondak wrote self-assessment surveys that people could fill out while waiting during jury duty, for example, and he found that statistically significant differences between people could be found by asking just a few questions about each of the Big Five personality trait dimensions.

He has analyzed many aspects of political behavior, but what has garnered the most attention is how personality seems to predict political ideology. The link has received a lot of press during the past two or three years as a handful of other researchers besides Mondak have determined the same thing.

In short, research indicates that being open-minded and open to new experiences is generally correlated with being liberal, and being conscientious and responsible is generally correlated with being conservative. Extraversion is not very indicative of ideology—there are outgoing liberals and conservatives alike.

However, there are those—including other political scientists—who believe biology plays no role in political views. But Mondak believes we’re far from being blank slates whose political views are impressed upon us purely by our upbringings or levels of awareness.

As for what that means to him, we’ll refer once again to Christine Lavin: “Expecting either of us to change is unwise / It’s like asking us to adjust the color of our eyes / I feel more understanding even inspired / When I think it could be that we’re all...hardwired....”

Spring 2010