Psychology study links neurotic traits with Trump and Brexit voters

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Photo Credit: Rachel Tyler | Daily Texan Staff

A joint study conducted by UT-Austin and Queensland University of Technology found there was a clear link between regional neuroticism and voting behavior in the 2016 United States presidential election and Brexit referendum.

Neuroticism is a personality trait characterized by emotional instability and a relatively stable tendency to worry and express anger, said Samuel Gosling, a study co-author and psychology professor, and Martin Obschonka, the lead author and associate professor of entrepreneurship.

Recent research showed that entire regions within countries show significant differences in personality traits, such as neuroticism.

Obschonka said that massive industrialization in the past psychologically scarred some regions, one example being the Rust Belt.

“The severe work and living conditions (that) dominated these regions for decades and sometimes even centuries might be able to have negative effects on regional personality,” Obschonka said.

In addition, systematic migration also might have played a role. Research has shown that more resilient people tend to leave these regions, Obschonka said.

Obschonka and Gosling were prompted by these findings to investigate whether or not these differences had an effect on voting behavior in two major elections in 2016 — the U.S. presidential election and the Brexit referendum.

“Both elections were somewhat special with rather surprising results in that they surprised many experts that had predicted different results,” Obschonka said.

These results reignited the debate on psychological factors influencing voting behavior, Obschonka explained.

“It was widely claimed that the Brexit and Trump campaigns were focused on fears,” Gosling said. “The campaigns were frequently accused of fear mongering (so) these campaigns had the most to gain in neurotic regions.”

If this link existed, it would have been the first time that neuroticism could be used to predict voting behavior, Gosling said.

“We can only speculate, but the fear-mongering nature, populism and maybe social media played a bigger role in these recent elections than in prior elections,” Obschonka said. “We think that higher levels in regional neuroticism indicate a certain collective psychological atmosphere in the region that might affect the voting behavior of the people living in these regions, even when (individuals) score low in neuroticism.”

The researchers surveyed more than three million people across 2,000 U.S. counties and compared their votes to the counties’ voting patterns. They found that the 50 most neurotic counties showed a 9 percent average increase in Trump votes in comparison to the 2012 presidential election votes for Republican candidate Mitt Romney, Obschonka and Gosling said.

Gosling said the most interesting part of this study was its proof of a “sleeper effect” of neurotic traits. Basically, these campaigns, through rhetoric and fear-mongering tactics, were able to “awaken” these traits in voters.

“As technology becomes increasingly adept at assessing personalities, often without the individual’s knowledge, we can expect that political targeting will move beyond the use of demographics and broad typologies of values and concerns and will increasingly tailor political messages to voters’ individual personalities,” Obschonka and Gosling wrote in an op-ed. “And to the extent that high levels of neuroticism characterize regions in the swing states, we can expect the politics of fear to continue.”