Conservative political beliefs not linked to psychotic traits, as study claimed

American Journal of Political Science

Researchers have fixed a number of papers after mistakenly reporting that people who hold conservative political beliefs are more likely to exhibit traits associated with psychoticism, such as authoritarianism and tough-mindedness.

As one of the notices specifies, now it appears that liberal political beliefs are linked with psychoticism. That paper also swapped ideologies when reporting on people higher in neuroticism and social desirability (falsely claiming that you have socially desirable qualities); the original paper said those traits are linked with liberal beliefs, but they are more common among people with conservative values.

We’re not clear how much the corrections should inform our thinking about politics and personality traits, however, because it’s not clear from the paper how strongly those two are linked. The authors claim that the strength of the links are not important, as they do not affect the main conclusions of the papers — although some personality traits appear to correlate with political beliefs, one doesn’t cause the other, nor vice versa.

In total, three papers have been corrected by authors, and a correction has been submitted on one more.

We’ll start with an erratum that explains the backstory of the error in detail. It appears on “Correlation not Causation: The Relationship between Personality Traits and Political Ideologies,” published by the American Journal of Political Science:

The interpretation of the coding of the political attitude items in the descriptive and preliminary analyses portion of the manuscript was exactly reversed. Thus, where we indicated that higher scores in Table 1 (page 40) reflect a more conservative response, they actually reflect a more liberal response. Specifically, in the original manuscript, the descriptive analyses report that those higher in Eysenck’s psychoticism are more conservative, but they are actually more liberal; and where the original manuscript reports those higher in neuroticism and social desirability are more liberal, they are, in fact, more conservative.

The erratum (which is long, so we won’t quote in full) explains:

The potential for an error in our article initially was pointed out by Steven G. Ludeke and Stig H. R. Rasmussen in their manuscript, “(Mis)understanding the relationship between personality and sociopolitical attitudes.” We found the source of the error only after an investigation going back to the original copies of the data. The data for the current paper and an earlier paper (Verhulst, Hatemi and Martin (2010) “The nature of the relationship between personality traits and political attitudes.”Personality and Individual Differences 49:306–316) were collected through two independent studies by Lindon Eaves in the U.S. and Nichols Martin in Australia. Data collection began in the 1980’s and finished in the 1990’s. The questionnaires were designed in collaboration with one of the goals being to be compare and combine the data for specific analyses. The data were combined into a single data set in the 2000’s to achieve this goal. Data are extracted on a project-by-project basis, and we found that during the extraction for the personality and attitudes project, the specific codebook used for the project was developed in error.

In the paper, the authors are clear that “psychoticism” doesn’t mean “psychotic.” Rather:

Having a high Psychoticism score is not a diagnosis of being clinically psychotic or psychopathic. Rather, P is positively correlated with tough-mindedness, risk-taking, sensation-seeking, impulsivity, and authoritarianism…As such, we expect higher P scores to be related to more conservative political attitudes, particularly for militarism and social conservatism.

That 2012 paper has been cited 45 times, according to Thomson Reuters Web of Science.

Pete Hatemi, a political scientist at Penn State University and co-author on three of the papers, explained why the swapped political beliefs and personality traits do not affect the conclusions:

We only cared about the magnitude of the relationship and the source of it … None of our papers actually give a damn about whether it’s plus or minus.

When we asked Hatemi to elaborate on what that magnitude was — how much more likely were people who held conservative or liberal views to exhibit certain traits? — he said:

[T]he correlations are spurious, so the direction or even magnitude is not suitable to elaborate on at all- that’s the point of all our papers and the general findings.

Not all correlations were spurious to the authors, who reported on some in Table 1 of the paper. And the direction of the relationship seemed important enough that other researchers noticed it and prompted the authors to issue a correction. To help us make sense of the analysis, we turned to Andrew Gelman, a statistician at Columbia not involved with the work, to explain the AJPS paper to us. He said:

I don’t find this paper at all convincing, indeed I’m surprised it was accepted for publication by a leading political science journal.  The causal analysis doesn’t make any sense to me, and some of the things they do are just bizarre, like declaring that correlations are “large enough for further consideration” if they are more than 0.2 for both sexes.  Where does that come from?  The whole thing is a mess.

He added:

It’s hard for me to care about reported effect sizes here…If the underlying analysis doesn’t make sense, who cares about the reported effect sizes?

We asked Steven Ludeke, who currently works at Colgate University University of Southern Denmark, how he first noticed the errors in the papers. He told us he found them while a student at the University of Minnesota:

At the time I was writing my preliminary written exam to qualify to be a PhD candidate, in which I had a section on “socially desirable responding” and sociopolitical attitudes. Because I’d recently read many other papers on the topic, once I came across the papers we’re discussing it is was immediately obvious to me that they’d reported their results wrong.

Brad Verhulst, a researcher at Virginia Commonwealth University and a co-author on all four papers, said that it’s unclear whether the error originated from the authors, or the group that conducted the surveys:

I don’t know where it happened, all I know is it happened. It’s our fault for not figuring it out before.

Once they pinned down the errors, Hatemi and Verhulst contacted all four journals to issue corrections; three have appeared so far.

The next paper that has been corrected is “Political Attitudes Develop Independently of Personality Traits” in PLOS ONE, which was flagged with a correction last summer:

There is an error in the third sentence of the fourth paragraph in “The Nature of Personality Traits and Political Attitudes” section of the Introduction. The correct sentence is: For the FFM and Eysenck’s personality traits, correlations between Openness and social attitudes, Neuroticism and economic attitudes, Conscientiousness and social attitudes, the P-Scale and military/defense attitudes, and Social Desirability and social attitudes are the most consistently found.
There is an error in the eighth sentence of the first paragraph in the Measures section of the Materials and Methods. The correct sentence is: Attitude factors were coded so that higher values reflect more liberal attitude positions.

That 2015 paper has been cited twice, once by the correction.

A correction also appeared last summer in Personality and Individual Differences for “The nature of the relationship between personality traits and political attitudes,” which has been cited 34 times since it was published in 2010. It explains the same error that the AJPS correction does, so we won’t quote from it here.

A correction is forthcoming for “Using genetic information to test causal relationships in cross-sectional data,” cited six times since it appeared in 2012, which describes the mathematical model behind the others. (Hatemi is not a co-author on that paper). The editor of the Journal of Theoretical Politics told us:

We have been in touch with Brad and are planning as of now to publish the correction in the July 2016 issue.

Even if the errors don’t affect the conclusions of the paper, they matter, Ludeke told us:

The erroneous results represented some of the larger correlations between personality and politics ever reported; they were reported and interpreted, repeatedly, in the wrong direction; and then cited at rates that are (for this field) extremely high. And the relationship between personality and politics is, as we note in the paper, quite a “hot” topic, with a large number of new papers appearing every year. So although the errors do not matter for the result that the authors (rightly) see as their most important, I obviously think the errors themselves matter quite a lot, especially for what it says about the scientific process both pre- and post-review.

Update, June 9th 10:30 am:

Ludeke informed us that his paper pointing out the errors is slated for the August issue of Personality and Individual Differences, and is now available online. It is titled, “Personality correlates of sociopolitical attitudes in the Big Five and Eysenckian models.”

Like Retraction Watch? Consider making a tax-deductible contribution to support our growth. You can also follow us on Twitter, like us on Facebook, add us to your RSS reader, sign up on our homepage for an email every time there’s a new post, or subscribe to our new daily digest. Click here to review our Comments Policy. For a sneak peek at what we’re working on, click here.

21 thoughts on “Conservative political beliefs not linked to psychotic traits, as study claimed”

  1. This was a confusing correction to a confusing paper.
    I had particular trouble with this: “P is positively correlated with tough-mindedness, risk-taking, sensation-seeking, impulsivity, and authoritarianism”– these traits don’t go together; why are they being lumped together? What caused Eysenck to put these together?
    Why lump these traits together and then confusingly call them “psychoticism”?? None of those traits are delusional, hallucinatory, paranoid, disconnected, or anything else that we today think of as psychotic.
    Eysenck’s books referenced in the AJPS paper were published in 1954 and 1967; perhaps that explains some of the difficulty. His model is obsolete and I don’t think it’s appropriate to use it, despite the AJPS paper’s calling it “older but equally valid”…
    Neither is the Five-Factor Model useful for political correlations because it contains explicitly political questions.
    The most concerning part was the quote from Andrew Gelman, who seems to think that the AJPS paper shouldn’t have been published in the first place. After reading it, I agree with him.
    It appears to me that the AJPS paper massages a huge, old data set in impermissible ways– an example of garbage in, garbage out. At some point the survey becomes obsolete.
    A post in VOX about Trump and authoritarianism that just came out last week has questions from Feldman that I think are much more useful to pursue as measures of personality (or basic temperament, if you will):

    Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: independence or respect for elders?
    Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: obedience or self-reliance?
    Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: to be considerate or to be well-behaved?
    Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: curiosity or good manners?

    Bottom line is that both “personality” and “political attitudes” are partially genetically determined, by partially different genes probably, and personality doesn’t cause political attitudes– rather both are caused by basic temperament, which is better looked for by asking questions such as Feldman’s.

    1. I don’t doubt that the final 4 questions you ask are more useful measures than the original measures in the confused study, but they’re not much more useful. All of them set up what I think are falsely opposed choices, Questions 1 and 4 most obviously. Take, for instance, “Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: curiosity or good manners?” Surely both. I want my children to exercise their curiosity AND I want them to learn to exercise the judgment that lies behind good manners. So if we’re in the checkout line and they see someone, say, with a missing leg or a bindi, they need to figure out when and how it’s a good time to satisfy their curiosity. Three good solutions quickly occur to me that would satisfy me as a parent: they could ask me later; frame their question directly to the other person with interested good will; or think about it on their own and go look up what they’d like to know. What’s really important is developing a sense of judgment in different situations.

      Similarly, I would like my children as they develop to become independent while also being willing to grant respect to the values and attitudes of the older people who experienced the travails of becoming independent before them. I would like them to be self-reliant enough to know when a situation requires them, for their own good or that of others, to be obedient. I would like them, when they consider other people’s feelings and situations, to behave well based on that consideration.

      As I’ve typed this answer quickly, I’ve found the questions even more annoyingly set up (to be traps for the unwary?) than I thought as I began to respond. What personality type might that make me?

    2. Why are the pair of traits in each question made to appear mutually exclusive? They are not! In fact, I find that all eight of them are pretty much collectively exhaustive ingredients for a mature personality and even temperament.

    3. Also to check proclivity for group think
      Is it more important for a child to strive for excellence or be inclusive?
      It is it more important to respect feelings or to be honest?
      Is it more important to be nice or to be accurate?

    4. Eysenck’s model is obsolete and I don’t think it’s appropriate to use it, despite the AJPS paper’s calling it “older but equally valid”…

      Given Eysenck’s associations with fraudulent data, I incline to treat all of his theories as worthless until proven otherwise.

    5. A post in VOX about Trump and authoritarianism that just came out last week has questions from Feldman that I think are much more useful to pursue as measures of personality (or basic temperament, if you will):

      The contention in VOX was that child-rearing attitudes are a reliable indicator of authoritarianism, to the extent that one can abandon most of the questions comprising an Authoritarianism scale and just present the choices about child-rearing.

      The problem is that child-rearing has become a purity test or shibboleth for “cultural conservativism”. See, for instance, ‘Family First’. The ‘authoritarian’ responses are also the ‘socially expected’ responses (within that sector of society). A politician who encouraged independence among children, above respect for elders, would not be accepted as a True Conservative.

      So Feldman’s choices are primarily tests of one’s fealty as a cultural conservative, rather than a window into personality or temperament. And one’s cultural allegiance may reflect personality, for some people, but it’s also influenced by who you grew up with.

    6. The questions given by Friedman are not intended to be binary, but are requests to rank the virtues. In questionnaires of this kind the major problem is the (probably numerous) respondents who, for example, simply want a child to be both considerate and well-behaved, and never bothered to give any thought to which ranks higher. Put another way, answers by respondent who values both values in a question will be forced to a ranking that simply isn’t present in his or her actual perspective.

      A second problem is related. Answers to ranking questions of this kind are often the socially acceptable answers in a respondent’s reference group. And every one of these questions give one answer that is normative among well-educated middle-class people and another that is normative among working people. But the relationship between the normative rhetoric of a reference group and actual behavior should not be assumed.

      In short, past experience with these efforts lead us to the expectation that the Friedman scale will be a fair indicator of educational background and socio-economic class. If so, Friedman’s effort is part of a longer social-psychological tradition that expresses the old sense that the lower orders are a threat to the positions and particular values of those more fortunate.

    1. They’re not MY questions, I didn’t make them up… as to whether they are binary or univocal, that may be questioned, but I’m not clear on the relevance of that detraction. Please elaborate.

  2. seems to me that the most obvious conclusion from this paper is that ‘publish or perish’ is alive and well.
    and the obvious strategy would be to refocus on excellence in teaching those who want to learn.

  3. I would have many reservations making any conclusions from such a paper. Political perspectives seem to be age dependent – going from socialistic / ideological to progressive / free thinking with age and experience. Further if we look at fathering – we are more rigid in youth and softer as we age – driven by self assurance, financial comfort, relationship dynamics etc. Just getting the dimensions clear is a challenge. Attaching values to these dimensions is also problematic – excellent project managers in terms of outcome delivery are highly organised / structured thinkers, more OCD / psychotic like than warm / creative types who deliver little or are an organisational mess. Creative types can also be highly narrow and control focused with highly empotional reactions if crossed. Then we have the whole realm of cultural issues. I dont accept we have a reasonable framework for investigating this topic yet. But that’s reason to keep trying I guess. Might pay to try a framework based upon ICD-10 definitions to get some heuristic consistency. Gender differences may also be interesting to examine.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.