October 21, 2015

Personality and politics

Even since 1950, psychologists have been trying to predict one's politics from one's personality. The idea was that conservatives all had personalities that were defective in some way. It was a big topic in the '50s and 60s but still burbles on today at a low level.  The exciting connections discovered early on have all gradually withered away under criticism of various sorts --  but a last redoubt remains in the form of research with the Altemeyer "Right wing authoritaranism" (RWA) scale -- an attitude inventory that does have a few weak correlations here and there.

One of the old warriors who is still plugging on is John Duckitt -- originally a white South African but now escaped to New Zealand. Duckitt was for a long time an uncritical acceptor of the conventional wisdom but after some pointed criticism from me (here, here and here) he gradually seems to have become more cautious.

His latest paper reflects that.  He has become very cautious about what the RWA scale measures.  He says: "measures such as the RWA scale cannot be assumed to be assessing anything more than what their items are directly reflecting—a dimension of social attitudes of a broadly ideological nature".  How vague can you get?

In other words he says "search me!" when asked to put a name to what the RWA scale measures. I would say the same.  He does however continue elsewhere to refer to it as a measure of authoritarianism and seems to regard it as a measure of some sort of conservatism, without presenting any evidence to that effect.

In using the RWA scale he inherits an extensive body of prior research that purports to tell us what causes RWA attitudes, with "Openness to experience" being a major candidate.  High RWAs are not very open to experience, it is alleged.

Duckitt has however turned his current skepticism about what the RWA measures onto measures of "Openness to experience" also.  And he concludes, as I also tend to do, that the concept is overly broad.  He has decided that the concept can fruitfully be broken down into two parts:  Openness to intellectual experience and openness to aesthetic experience -- which seems reasonable enough.

But what does he discover when he relates those different sub-components to RWA?  He finds that it is only openness to intellectual experience that predicts RWA.  So a lot of the excitement seems to have gone out of RWA.  There is now only one thin personality dimension that predicts it substantially.  Very thin pickings for 65 years of research!

But here we come to the big question:  What does it all mean for behaviour?  Duckitt has been churning questionnaire answers through his computer for many years but what connection does any of it have with behaviour -- with what people do?  The original measure of authoritarian attitudes -- the F scale -- went out of favour because it had almost NO connection with behaviour.  And Altemeyer himself -- author of the RWA scale -- says that answers on it do not predict vote to any important extent.  When used in Russia it predicts Communist loyalties!  So much for the "Right-wing" tag attached to it: Right-wing Communists??

So Duckitt's correlations would seem to have nothing to do with real-life.  In psychometrician's terms, neither his Intellectual Interest scale nor his RWA scale are satisfactorily validated. What they really measure as general concepts is just speculation.  So let me suggest some possible meanings to Duckitt's findings.  I actually think they are enlightening.

It seems to be early days for us to KNOW what the intellect scale measures but I would have a substantial bet that it is largely a measure of our ubiquitous old friend: IQ.  It is high IQ people who are expressing intellectual interests.  That sounds pretty likely, does it not?

And that in turn throws some light on what the RWA scale measures.  High scorers ("authoritarians") on the RWA scale score low on the intellectual interest scale.  So now we know:  the RWA scale measures dumb opinions!  It too probably correlates negatively with IQ, though I have not seen anything on that.  The RWA does not measure just ANY dumb opinions, however.  There is a universe of dumb opinions and the RWA measures just one subset.  My suggestion would be that the RWA scale reflects primarily the political issues of yesteryear -- old-fashioned attitudes.

UPDATE:  I have now got around to checking my speculation about RWA and IQ and find I was spot-on.  McNamara, P. "Where God and science meet" Vol. 1.  Westport, Praeger. 2006. p. 42. report a correlation of -.37 between them in an adult twin sample

But let's get back to behaviour.  Duckitt at one point does list what he sees as relevant behaviours:

(a) pressures to opinion uniformity among group members,
(b) endorsement of an autocratic leadership and decision making structure,
(c) intolerance of diversity in group composition
(that betokens the potentiality for dissent),
(d) rejection of opinion deviants and extolment of conformists,
(e) in-group favoritism and out-group derogation,
(f) attraction to groups (both in- and out-groups) possessing strong shared realities,
(g) conservatism and adherence to the group’s norms,
(h) loyalty to one’s in-group to the degree to which is constituted a ‘good’ shared reality provider.”

Any conservative would immediately identify that list of behaviours as what he encounters whenever he talks to Leftists, and to Warmists in particular. Duckitt seems to think that those attributes define conservatives but I would like to see the evidence on that.

But conservatives and climate skeptics know from experience who behaves like that.  If you want to encounter closed-mindedness just try to discuss the evidence for global warming with a Leftist.  They just won't listen.  They quote their supreme authority -- Al Gore -- and just get abusive if you talk about such things as the satellite temperature record.  They are so closed-off that they usually don't even know the basic facts about global temperature.   See below for how much the president of the Sierra club knows about it:

And see here and here for the sort of scholarly rejoinder that climate skeptics get from true believers. [/sarcasm]

And for the flood of Fascist-style attempts from the Left to suppress free speech,  see here for just one recent summary.

So Duckitt is happy in his little world of weakly correlated attitude statements but whether they tell us anything about the world outside his window is very dubious. They certainly do not tell us that conservatives are either authoritarian or closed minded.

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