The latest US presidential election and the Brexit popular vote in the UK brought out the worst in voters — anxiety, anger and fear, a new study shows.

Choice.

Image credits Gerd Altmann.

A lot of factors influence our political views, but research has shown that the best indicator of how people cast their vote are the Big Five personality traits — openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. For example, past studies have shown that low openness and high conscientiousness are good indicators of conservative political views.

However, as many people around the world can undoubtedly attest, 2016 was a strange and daunting year, politics-wise. The results of two events in particular — the US presidential election, and the Brexit referendum in the UK — took the world unawares. Both nations share deep democratic roots, and yet citizens from both were eager to back campaigns built on thinly-veiled populist themes — themes such as fear, lost pride, and loss aversion. The results were so shocking and so unexpected, an international team of researchers reports, because these votes weren’t dictated by the usual traits that govern our political choices; these elections harkened to anxiety, anger, and fear — traits from the domain of neuroticism.

Fear is the path to the dark side

“The models traditionally used for predicting and explaining political behavior did not capture an essential factor that influenced people’s voting decisions in 2016,” says lead author Martin Obschonka, a psychologist and associate professor at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT).

“We propose a kind of ‘sleeper effect.’ Under normal conditions these traits have no influence, but in certain circumstances, widespread anxiety and fear in a region have the potential to profoundly impact the geopolitical landscape.”

The study pooled data obtained from 417,217 British and 3,167,041 United States participants. The researchers used this information to estimate regional levels of fear, anxiety, and anger. Later, they compared these estimates against traits generally associated with political orientation (most notably openness and conscientiousness) in a bid to measure the relationship between regional psychology and voting behavior. Regions were country-level in the U.S. and on the level of local authority districts in the U.K.

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The team reports finding a correlation between higher levels of anxiety and fear in a region and the percentage of voters in favor of Brexit or Trump. An even stronger correlation between the two was identified when expanding the search to include the 2012 election, when Mitt Romney was the Republican candidate — the 50 U.S. counties with the highest levels of fear and anxiety had an average 9% increase in Republican votes from 2012 to 2016, while the lowest 50 showed only a 2% shift. The effect was visible in the U.K. as well — the top 50 districts, by fear and anxiety levels, showed an average 60% vote in favor of Brexit, while the lowest 50 districts showing only 46% support.

“This finding supports our initial suspicion that the regions highest on neuroticism are particularly receptive to political campaigns that emphasize danger and loss and that previous campaigns have not tapped into these themes as strongly as we saw in 2016,” said co-author Sam Gosling, a psychology professor at the University of Texas, Austin.

Other factors considered in the analysis were an area’s industrial heritage, current economic conditions, its traditional political attitudes, racial composition, and its levels of education. In the U.K., both rural and industrial regions correlated to higher levels of anxiety, fear, and greater support for Brexit. In the U.S., the same traits were linked to higher support for Trump in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio, and the Midwest “Rust Belt”.

Areas with higher population density, higher earnings, higher overall levels of education, and those who scored higher on the openness traits were likely to vote against Trump or the Brexit. Conscientiousness showed very little to no correlation with voting patterns, be they for or against the campaigns.

“Much as the consequences of a region’s fearful or anxious tendencies may remain hidden until certain conditions are met, there may be other regional characteristics that have the potential to influence geopolitical events but the necessary conditions have not yet materialized,” Gosling said.

The paper “Fear, Populism, and the Geopolitical Landscape: The ‘Sleeper Effect’ of Neurotic Personality Traits on Regional Voting Behavior in the 2016 Brexit and Trump Elections” has been published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

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