Are Right-Wingers Raised on Rambo?

New research suggests our youthful entertainment choices help shape our political ideology.
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Sylvester Stallone in Rambo III. (Photo: Yoni S. Hamenahem/Wikimedia Commons)

Sylvester Stallone in Rambo III. (Photo: Yoni S. Hamenahem/Wikimedia Commons)

There is a clear connection between your personality and your political leanings. Much research has found that certain traits, such as conscientiousness, are more common among conservatives, while others—specifically "openness to experience"—are more typical of liberals.

But how is it that such characteristics—which emerge early in life, and aren't ideological in any obvious way—apparently tug us to the right or left?

Two University of Toronto researchers have come up with a provocative partial answer. In the journal Political Psychology, they provide evidence that highly conscientious people tend to prefer certain entertainment genres, while those who are particularly open to new experiences tend to gravitate toward others.

They argue that these preferred films, books, and musical compositions foster certain political attitudes, or at least bolster one's predisposition to identify to adopt liberal or conservative beliefs. To some degree, it seems we are the product of the movies and music we enjoy.

Loving the Marx Brothers doesn't make you a Marxist, but enjoying their anarchic comedy may strengthen your conviction that rules are made to be broken.

"These results provide one possible mechanism by which personality may shape political orientation," write Xiaowen Xu and Jordan Peterson."(They) also demonstrate the important impact that media consumption has on people's lives."

The study featured 458 adult Americans recruited online. They responded to a series of statements designed to measure their political ideology and personality, and revealed how much they liked or disliked various genres of literature, films, television, and music.

The researchers found that people who rate themselves as being high on "openness to experience" (one of the "big five" personality traits) tend to enjoy genres that fall into the "dark/alternative" or "aesthetic" categories, and dislike ones classified as "communal/popular."

"These preferences, in turn, were related to higher political liberalism," Xu revealed.

"On the other hand, people who score higher on conscientiousness tend to enjoy communal/popular and thrilling/action genres," while disliking dark/alternative or aesthetically complex ones. These preferences were predictive of a conservative political ideology.

"It appears then, that media preferences lead people to adopt a certain political ideology—or, perhaps, reinforce their predilection to move in that ideological direction," she concludes. "Causality is impossible to prove with the current study designs, but this equation seems quite plausible."

It's easy to see how this might work. Watching, reading, and listening to dark/alternative material (such as science fiction) or aesthetically complex work (like jazz or opera) will expose people to "more novel and diverse ideas and viewpoints," which may in turn "contribute to fostering more politically liberal beliefs," the researchers write.

In contrast, sticking to more conventional fare, such as action or adventure movies, "may foster more conservative beliefs," they add, "as their contents are more likely to contain familiar and expected information and perspectives."

Xu is cautious not to make grandiose claims about these findings. "There are a multitude of factors that contribute to a person’s political ideology, beyond the influence of personality and media preferences," she notes.

"So for people who don’t generally have any preferences in media, their ideologies are likely shaped by other factors, e.g., peer influences, social environment, etc. What we’re trying to accomplish with our work is to add more knowledge to understanding what these factors are, and how they interact or work together to influence political ideology."

Nevertheless, adding artistic preferences to the mix opens up an interesting new line of inquiry. Loving the Marx Brothers doesn't make you a Marxist, but enjoying their anarchic comedy may strengthen your conviction that rules are made to be broken. And that attitude has obvious political implications.

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.

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