A close up of a sign at a protest which reads, 'no person is illegal'. The sign is in colour whilst the background is black and white.

Rob Macquarie examines whether there is a link between personality and opinion on issues such as migration, and how this relationship can be manipulated by political actors.

Are political attitudes simply instincts, like the behaviour of a pack or herd? Correlations are readily found between people’s personalities and political views. Ideology and psychology can look like two sides of the same coin. Yet in politically charged times, talk of attitudes can be loaded. Take immigration. In Europe, migration and its discontents threaten to derail governments and newspaper headlines chart a course towards walls and closed borders. The timbre of discussion is structural, systemic, and impersonal.

Consider, then, if your personality made you likely to oppose immigration. Such determinism isn’t useful to those fighting for a progressive cause. Unfortunately, it’s becoming a more accurate depiction of European societies.

The idea that right-wing attitudes take root in those who fit a particular psychological profile has a pedigree stretching back to Theodor Adorno and the publication of The Authoritarian Personality. Research in the area since then has traced a link between an individual’s ‘needs for certainty and security’ and conservative political attitudes.

These needs are typically broken down into a ‘need for cognitive closure’ – consisting in a preference for order, decisiveness and predictability; an avoidance of ambiguity; and closed-mindedness – and a measure of authoritarian dispositions. In Altemeyer’s update to the Adorno account, three things count towards the latter: ‘a high degree of submission to authorities who are perceived as established and legitimate’; ‘general aggressiveness’ against particular groups, ‘which is perceived as sanctioned by established authorities’; and strong ‘adherence to [perceived] social conventions.’

Such characteristics, together, look grimly similar to scenes in Europe. The xenophobic nativism that has surged in every corner of the EU is at least partly driven by some of the most base instincts people experience as political animals.

The psychology of ‘easy’ and ‘hard’ issues

The link between psychological needs and political outlook varies in strength across political issues, and we can loosely divide issues into two categories, ‘easy’ and ‘hard’. Conservatism on so-called ‘easy’ issues connects to these psychological needs much more reliably than in the case of ‘hard’ issues. ‘Easy’ roughly equates to ‘symbolic’, issues that are likely to be relatively black and white and resistant to technical analysis. If you oppose euthanasia on principle, conversations about costs and benefits are unlikely to sway you. By contrast, ‘hard’ issues seem to require some sort of expertise – tax policy, for instance. Broadly, we can categorise social issues as ‘easy’ and economic issues as ‘hard’.

The difference between the two lies in how the public engages with them. Experimental evidence suggests that people with significant needs for security and certainty tend to form conservative opinions in the social sphere. By contrast, when asked about technical, economic issues, the connection between needs and conservatism breaks down. The link only crops up again when respondents receive ‘cues’ from political ‘elites’ they support. This gives political parties and politicians a role in shaping attitudes.

As an issue for public opinion, immigration is a complicated bundle. Among its opponents, a sense of nationhood and tradition often blends with a vague sense of fragility in the welfare state. In short, both easy and hard issues matter. The impact on the tax and benefit system is, arguably, more a hard, economic issue than a symbolic, social one; ‘cultural’ aspects of immigration are more clearly easy issues.

Following the work on elite cues, cultural aspects probably display a strong link to personality traits, regardless of elite involvement, whereas people with high needs for security and certainty will still need to look to politicians to reach conservative attitudes towards immigration in the context of, say, the job market.

Luckily, a pan-European research project, the European Social Survey, offers the data needed to investigate this. The ESS is conducted in ‘rounds’ (every two years), and two rounds so far – in 2002 and 2014 – have featured an extensive module on immigration. Each round also includes a series of questions teasing out aspects of the respondent’s personality. The ESS allows us to examine the correlation between psychological needs and attitudes across the continent.

The question, ‘is your country made a worse or a better place to live by
people coming to live here from other countries?’ gets at a holistic view on immigration. Other questions ask about the impact on the host country’s ‘cultural life’, ‘religious beliefs and practices’, crime rate, and economy; whether immigrants take jobs away or help create new jobs; and whether they contribute more in taxes than they take in benefits or vice versa. The first two are expected to be easy issues, the last two hard. Crime and the economy are more ambiguous.

The connection between respondent’s conservatism and a measure of their needs for certainty and security follows roughly the predicted pattern, even for a set of issues so clearly interrelated (Controls included the respondents’ age, gender, income, employment status, interest in politics, and whether they are part of an ethnic minority in their home country.) The ‘cultural life’ question produces attitudes most closely linked to psychological needs; people’s views on the fiscal impact of immigration much less so. And for the broad measure of opinion, the strength of the connection is somewhere in between.


Chart showing the link between personality and attitudes.


Do political actors re-frame issues to play up their symbolic components?

Even lacking an expansive dataset on elite cues, this tells us a lot about the components of Europeans’ views on immigration. Yet there is a way to bring politicians back into the picture. In the paper that found a role for elite cues, the authors suggested that a protracted period of public discourse about a hard issue – specifically, healthcare in the US – would make the issue ‘effectively easy’. Personality would take firmer hold of the reins.

Certainly, elites incite the public over migration. Has political ‘debate’ on immigration in the approach to the ‘migration crisis’ turned it into more of a symbolic, easy issue in the minds of the European public? As a crude first estimate, the link between conservatism on immigration and psychological needs can be compared from the 2002 data and the 2014 data used above.

The results are disheartening. During the interceding period, the link to personality traits has grown stronger. Curiously, the effect applies most strongly for the cultural dimension. The elite cues thesis doesn’t exactly stand up – it predicted only that the hard issues would become ‘easier’. The fiscal and employment impact questions do produce a stronger link in 2014, although the change is just within the margin of error.

Nevertheless, Europeans have experienced a deepening of the relationship between psychology and conservatism towards immigration. Symbolism in rhetoric creates a feedback loop. The widespread surrender of public narrative to one where culture and tradition are lionised, and economic aspects play second fiddle, looks set to polarise Europeans over migration for some time yet.

Portrait photo of Rob Macquarie.Rob Macquarie is a researcher and former MSc Comparative Politics student in the LSE Department of Government. He works on economic policy and the intersection between democracy and the market economy, and has written for the New Statesman and the Ecologist.

Follow Rob on Twitter – @RJMacquarie


Note: this article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Department of Government, nor of the London School of Economics.