The Libertarian Personality

This recent Wall Street Journal article summarizes an important study of libertarians by famed political psychologist Jonathan Haidt and several other scholars:

An individual’s personality shapes his or her political ideology at least as much as circumstances, background and influences. That is the gist of a recent strand of psychological research identified especially with the work of Jonathan Haidt….

Studies show that conservatives are more conscientious and sensitive to disgust but less tolerant of change; liberals are more empathic and open to new experiences.

But ideology does not have to be bipolar. It need not fall on a line from conservative to liberal. In a recently published paper, Ravi Iyer from the University of Southern California, together with Dr. Haidt and other researchers at the data-collection platform, dissect the personalities of those who describe themselves as libertarian.

These are people who often call themselves economically conservative but socially liberal. They like free societies as well as free markets, and they want the government to get out of the bedroom as well as the boardroom….

The study collated the results of 16 personality surveys and experiments completed by nearly 12,000 self-identified libertarians who visited The researchers compared the libertarians to tens of thousands of self-identified liberals and conservatives. It was hardly surprising that the team found that libertarians strongly value liberty, especially the “negative liberty” of freedom from interference by others….

Perhaps more intriguingly, when libertarians reacted to moral dilemmas and in other tests, they displayed less emotion, less empathy and less disgust than either conservatives or liberals. They appeared to use “cold” calculation to reach utilitarian conclusions about whether (for instance) to save lives by sacrificing fewer lives. They reached correct, rather than intuitive, answers to math and logic problems, and they enjoyed “effortful and thoughtful cognitive tasks” more than others do.

The researchers found that libertarians had the most “masculine” psychological profile, while liberals had the most feminine, and these results held up even when they examined each gender separately, which “may explain why libertarianism appeals to men more than women.”

The study discussed in the article is available here. Its overall conclusions strike me as probably correct. Although there are many individual exceptions, on average libertarians probably are more rational, less emotional, less empathetic, and less influenced by feelings of disgust than liberals or conservatives.

However, I do have a few caveats. First, the libertarians in the study are those who self-identified as such on the website. The term “libertarian” is more widely known today than in the past; but it still has much less currency than “liberal” or “conservative.” As a result, self-identified libertarians are likely to be more hard-core and committed adherents of their ideology than self-identified liberals and conservatives. And the most committed adherents of a minority ideology are likely to have personalities that deviate from the average more than those of less dedicated fellow-travelers. The libertarians in the study are probably not fully representative of the 10 to 15 percent of the population who hold generally libertarian views (which includes many people who are not aware of the word libertarian, but simply think of themselves as “fiscally conservative” and “socially liberal,” or the like).

Second, I would bet that the personality of the average libertarian will differ less from that of the average person as the ideology continues to become more mainstream. Because of my work with organizations like the Institute for Humane Studies and Students for Liberty, I spend a lot of time with younger libertarians, and they strike me as significantly more socially normal than most libertarians my own age and older, and have a significantly higher proportion of women. This is a result of the broadening of the libertarian movement over the last fifteen to twenty years. An ideology that has only a few adherents is likely to attract mostly people with unusual personalities. If it becomes more mainstream, its supporters are likely to be less distinctive. For example, the personality of the average racially tolerant liberal today is less distinctive than it would have been 100 years ago, when the overwhelming majority of American whites were racist. Conversely, the average racist today is probably more deviant from the norm than the average racist of a century ago.

Finally, it would be a mistake to conclude from Haidt’s research that personality is the sole or even the main determinant of people’s political views. Many people, regardless of personality type, tend to adopt political ideologies in much the same way as they adopt religions. They conform to the views held by their friends, relatives, and acquiantances. Obviously, some personality types are more likely to rebel against conventional wisdom than others. But even they are unlikely to completely avoid the influence of the dominant ideology around them.

Political, economic, and technological developments, also play a major role. The reason why there are many more libertarians in the US today than fifty years ago is not that the distribution of personality types in the population has changed. Rather, the growth of libertarianism is the result of various events that have increased distrust in government, and the rise of the internet and other technological platforms that have spread libertarian ideas to people who otherwise might never have heard of them. Conversely, political, social, and technological developments help explain why there were very few socialists in 1850, vastly more in 1930 and 1950, and far fewer today.

UPDATE: I have not banned comments on this post. But there may be some technical glitch blocking them. The VC will try to address this as soon as possible.

UPDATE #2: The comment system seems to be working again. So comment away, if you are so inclined.

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