Something to consider this midterm election season: your choice in political party may be more influenced by your subconscious than you think.
A study by Jacob Vigil, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of New Mexico, indicates that our political leanings may be more tied to our basic emotional needs than previously thought. In fact, your blue or red tendencies could be based on of how many friends you have (and how you went about making them).
In his research, Vigil sorted people by political party and found that Republicans, on average, maintain large social groups (12.91 good friends), while Democrats stick to tight knit groups (about 9.46).
So what does this have to do with politics? Well, first a little background.
Psychologists have enjoyed dissecting our collective political psyches for a while now. In 2003, NYU’s John Jost took data from the last 50 years and found that political ideologies, “like virtually all other belief systems, are adopted in part because they satisfy various psychological needs.” Politically conservative groups were found to be “more easily threatened, more likely to perceive the world as dangerous, and less trusting in comparison with liberals.”
It makes sense. If the world is a scary place to you, then you probably won’t want things to change. You’ll cling to the people and ideas you trust, which could account for conservative positions on a slew of topics from immigration to war to social aid programs.
Which brings us back to today’s study. According to Vigil, the way we make and maintain our friendships is an indicator of how emotionally threatened we are.
“The size of our social network limits the amount of time we can spend with folk. If we have a big social network, it limits our interactions to short-term relationships. If we have fewer social partners, it frees up our time to establish more continuous types of relationships. The basic idea is that folks who have small social spheres are going to be demonstrating more trust cues, and those who have bigger social spheres, more capacity cues.”
In short, liberals rely on built-up trust to build social support while conservatives keep people around by, well, dominating them to a degree. While Vigil emphasizes that both are valid and beneficial behavioral strategies, they can speak to a deep seated psychological state which are often reflected in a person’s politics.
Vigil’s research is still in its nascent stages and there is plenty of research out there that contradicts his findings. A study done at UC Berkeley compared personality traits of preschool aged children with their political orientation two decades later. The results found that kids that were “self-reliant, energetic, somewhat dominating” grew up to be liberals, while those described as “easily victimized, easily offended, rigid” grew up to be conservatives. (No word on the political leanings of the researchers themselves.)