Openness to Experience and Political Orientation
There has been some significant research that suggests a person’s political orientation is rooted in their temperament or personality. The global trait of “openness to experience” (one of the Big Five personality factors) correlates negatively with Republican/Conservatism. Democrats and Liberals correlate positively with “openness to experience”.
So what exactly is openness to experience? Wikipedia describes it as follows:
Openness involves active imagination, aesthetic sensitivity, attentiveness to inner feelings, preference for variety, and intellectual curiosity.
People who score low on openness are considered to be closed to experience. They tend to be conventional and traditional in their outlook and behavior. They prefer familiar routines to new experiences, and generally have a narrower range of interests.
What really makes this important is that “openness to experience” along with the rest of the big 5 personality dimensions are highly heritable. Heritability doesn’t mean destiny. A trait can have a strong genetic basis without winning the tug-o-war with the environment. However, in this case heritability suggests that a person doesn’t make political choices based strictly on social influence or rational choice.
Finding the Influence of Body-Type (Somatotype) on Political Orientation
Anytime heritability becomes a factor I am curious to see if somatotype might be involved. So, with this information floating around I figured it would be interesting to see if there is a difference in the body-type of democrats and republicans.
I am at a disadvantage because I don’t have access to a large population that would participate in this kind of research. So, for this exploration I decided to somatotype known public figures who have identified their party affiliation. I selected 14 prominent Democrats and 13 prominent Republicans. The selection was based on an individual being chosen to represent their party as a candidate for either president or vice president. This method, although limited in number of subjects represents a process involving rigorous campaigning and the ability to appeal to a group that would form a data set in the millions. The assumption is that these individuals are the quintessence or em-BODY-ment of what attracts Republicans and Democrats. So instead of struggling for a good set of representative subjects I am able to piggy-back off of the millions of people involved in the selection process itself.
With practice I have become proficient enough with Sheldon’s technique to determine the somatotype of people based on weight, height, and a rough estimate of the ratio of their upper torso to their lower torso derived from fully clothed casual photographs.. People can be charted on a somatotype chart based on three dimensions or components; Endomorphy (Gut), Mesomorphy (Muscle), and Ectomorphy (Linearity). Somatotype is expressed as 3 numbers on a scale of 1 to 7 where 1 represents the minimum expression of a component and 7 is the maximum. If you need more information on Sheldon and his method, just type “somatotype” into Google, and start with Wikipedia and work your way down.
The results are reported in the following diagram.
You can readily identify the difference between Republicans (red) and Democrats (blue). Democrats (blue) cluster around the center and Republicans are more to the periphery but definitely in the mesomorphic area.
Interpreting the Results
I must admit that I didn’t anticipate these results. The Veterans hospital in Boston has accumulated somatotypes for 2,185 veterans. Back in 1986 I had their research service determine the number of somatotypes that would be considered balanced (5.5 or higher on a scale of 7 expressing degree of balance). The results indicate that roughly 60-65 per cent of that population would lie toward the center of the somatotype diagram. Based on that bit of research I would have guessed that there would have been no difference between democrats and republicans because they would represent a cross section of the general population. I was expecting this little experiment to be boring and just a confirmation of the idea that humans tend toward a classic bell curve regardless of their political orientation. As it turned out, not only is there a difference but it is quite definitive. You don’t need to wear special glasses to see it. My techniques are not error proof but they are very consistent. I would invite anyone who is skilled in Sheldon’s techniques to check my results.
The area of the chart occupied by Republican politicians is clearly mesomorphic. As mesomorphs (muscular) they believe in strength and seek control and power. It isn’t difficult to understand their insistence that everyone should carry their own load and be willing to work hard. They are influenced by their own superior physical strength and assume if they can work three jobs anybody can. Another problem is their belief that might is right. Complicated ideas and explanations that don’t involve action with an immediate benefit are viewed with suspicion.
The area of the chart occupied by Democrat politicians is in the middle. The middle-types, not dominated by any single extreme, tend to feel comfortable with their ability to adapt and change. This is clearly conducive to the Big Five Personality factor called “Openness to Experience”. The middle is not without problems. Because of their openness they are more prone to try “new” ideas that may not be ready for the expectations of national policy. They also have a tendency to believe that all problems can be solved simply by coming up with a clever plan. After they come up with a program and allocate funds for its execution they lack the ability to do the hard and boring “work” of “managing” the program.
So what does this mean? Does it mean that a person’s political orientation is completely the result of their biological constitution? Of course not. Regional, racial, economic, & ethnic factors figure into each person’s choice. However, the chart shows that when you are dealing with national elections and numbers in the millions, then the biological substrate starts to show through. When you look at this chart you will notice that most Republicans were Ectomorphic Mesomorphs low in Endomorphy. There were three Republicans that found themselves outside the dominant Republican somatotypes and promoted ideas that would get few Republican backers today.
1. Hoover. (5,3,4, [6 balance] When it comes to assessing Herbert Hoover, Republicans at best, are ambivalent. He actually considered himself a Progressive-Republican and distinguished himself as a committed humanitarian. His talents and writings covered a wide field from mining technology and mining history to a book promoting the personal benefits of fishing. His handling of The Great Depression killed his chances for a second term. No one knew exactly what to do to end the Depression. Hoover broke with the laissez-faire tradition of Republicans and instituted government projects to stimulate the economy. Unfortunately his demand for a balanced budget prevented his programs from being large enough to have any real effect.
2. Nixon (4,3,4½, [6 balance]) actually dared to introduced price controls. He also proposed a health care plan similar to “Obamacare” but it was trashed by Ted Kennedy because it wasn’t a single payer system. Don’t forget nationalized passenger railways. etc. etc. Milton Friedman once said Nixon was the most socialistic president of the 20th century.
3. Reagan. (4,3½,5, [6½ balance] )was originally a democrat who campaigned for Truman and Hubert Humphrey. Watch this video to see the early Reagan. Same persuasive manner but championing Democrat causes. http://www.youtube.com/… When you look at the Republican issues today Reagan wouldn’t be a viable candidate for the far right wing. He raised taxes, increased the size of government, granted amnesty to illegal aliens, expanded the earned income tax credit for poor people, and believed that nuclear weapons should be abolished. There is a mythological vine that has grown over Reagan that obscures an unbiased assessment of his deviance from Republican ideals.
Obama is an especially interesting outlier for a Democrat. He was imagined to be extremely Liberal. But, he is a reminder that it doesn’t matter what a person professes to be it’s a matter of what he actually does. Obama (2½,4½,5½, [5½ balance]) is not exactly in the thick of the Republican cluster but he is located just outside toward the types that tend to be Libertarian. Obama is low in Gut (2½) which means he doesn’t connect well with people. He really doesn’t like people. He likes himself and wants people to admire and like him. The result is that he really never cared passionately about people’s need of universal healthcare. He even abandoned the compromise position of the public option. Would Ted Kennedy (gutsy endomorph) have capitualted to such a faulty health plan? Obama appears to have just wanted to be credited with a win. Obama, also apparently didn’t “feel” like a true Democrat when he continued the Bush tax cuts. The mesomorphic Republicans respect and idolize strength, and have no mercy for a weakling who is so ready to compromise.
It should be noted that the lone female Republican has a respectable amount of muscle for being a woman. Sarah Palin is 4 endomorphy, 4½ mesomorphy and 3 ectomorphy. On the other hand the Democrat woman, Hillary, is right in the heart of the Democrat cluster with 5 endomorphy, 3 mesomorphy and 4 ectomorphy.
Newt Gingrich is an example of a Republican who is out of the range of his party’s typical somatotype. He is 5.5 (endomorphy), 4.0 (mesomorphy), 3.5 (ectomorphy) and 6.0 (centrimorphy (balance) placing him completely on the opposite side of the somatotype diagram. Republicans instinctively know that he’s not one of their kind. One reason they took him seriously for a while is they thought he had the “intellectual strength” to do battle with Obama on their behalf.
From a political standpoint it seems that it doesn’t matter what a candidate promises to his base. The most important thing is where they are situated temperamentally. If anything gets done it has to be achieved through compromise. The two sides are never going to agree 100% on important issues. When you are negotiating it is most important to know what you are willing to give up for what you really want. If a politician’s deepest “feelings” aren’t in sync with their party there is a high likelihood that when push comes to shove they might behave like the opposite party. Democrats need to have representatives that are at least a 3½ endomorphy or they won’t have the “guts” to stick to their position. Republican’s need representatives who are at least a 4½ mesomorphy or they won’t have the “muscle” to fight for their ideals.
Isn’t It Time To Take Somatotype Seriously.
The middle of Sheldon’s chart comes into special focus when considering political orientation. Including the condition of balance is essential to understanding the full landscape of temperament. Once you contemplate the effects of a balanced somatotype you end up with the four dimensions of temperament that have persisted as a pattern for at least a couple thousand years.
Sanguine Centrimorph (Balance)
Although Sheldon had no name for the middle “extreme” and simply referred to it as a 4,4,4 he certainly had some interesting things to say about it. Consider his description of the middle.
In this pattern (4,4,4) all three primary components of
temperament are as strongly represented as they can usually be
tolerated, one by another. To call a man a 4,4,4 may be
tantamount to crediting him with humor. Whatever else humor
may be, it certainly is characterized by two qualities:
(1) An inclination toward detachment – the quality of regarding
life and self lightly: (2) An inclination to tolerate and to enjoy
incompatibilities at a high level of awareness.”
The Varieties Of Delinquent Youths. New York: Harper, 1949
Isn’t this describing the factor of “openness” that characterizes the Liberal political view?
The chart gives some insight into the predicament of Democrats in winning an election. Because Democrats tend to be toward the middle of the chart they are victims of a divergence of opinions. Their openness and creativity is their undoing. On the other hand Republicans being at the periphery of the chart share one main feeling – fear of change and loss of identity. While 60 percent of the population are mid-range somatotypes they are fragmented. The 40 percent on the periphery that make up conservatives only have to get less than 25 percent of the middle types to have a majority. A mere one third of the middle (20 percent of voters) subscribe to the liberal ideas identified with Democrats. For Democrats elections are like an old western cattle round-up. They have to work hard just to get them to the market.
The most immediate insight is that the left-right, liberal-conservative, divide may never be eliminated but it can be bridged. The first step is to realize that there is something very deep and biological about these two different ways of looking at the world. Both views can lead to successful results under specific circumstances. Since people aren’t going to be persuaded to become more “open” or more “authoritarian” these two tribes have to make compromises. But compromise requires the ability to move in many directions. Compromise requires something conservatives struggle with – openness. Compromise is dependent on the creativity of the middle. Occasionally Republicans produce a candidate that is closer to the middle. A Republican that is toward the middle is probably advantageous for the passing of legislation that pleases Democrats. A Newt Gingrich is distasteful to Republicans but he could turn out to be better than a Democrat that galvanizes the paranoid right. The same might be said for Romney. Romney has shown that he can work with Democrats. Sometimes losing can be winning.