8 Things You Didn’t Know Contributed to Your Political Beliefs

By Montana Shively, Valerie Spasojevic, Elbisa Lindov, and Trevor McFall

What Influences Our Political Beliefs?

Have you ever thought about why you believe what you do? Why did you vote for that candidate over their opponent? You might say that you vote based on your values, which you arrived at through careful thought and consideration–but research suggests that there is more shaping our political opinions than we may realize. Here are 8 interesting factors that studies show impact your political beliefs that you probably didn’t know! (Number 5 will shock you!)

1. Does your age change how you vote?

Age seems to play a role in voting behavior. In today’s society, many people assume that younger voters tend to be more liberal, while older voters tend to be more conservative. A study measuring the level of conservatism found that, on average, older voters tend to be more conservative in their views. The researchers also found evidence that age-related changes in personality and cognitive traits may explain why older individuals tend to be more right-wing. In particular, as people age they become lower on traits such as “openness to experience,” which describes preferences for new vs. familiar experiences, and higher on traits like “need for closure,” which describes the preference for unambiguous answers. The results suggested that shifts in these traits partially explained why age and conservatism were related.  

2. How’s the weather? A natural disaster today can influence how you vote tomorrow.

Think about the last time a natural disaster affected your area (perhaps some recent hurricanes are coming to mind). Now, think about the public reaction in the wake of those disasters. Did the local or national government respond effectively? Research suggests that citizens hold their government leaders responsible for the damage experienced in a natural disaster. Why would this be the case? After all, politicians can’t control the weather. The results of one study suggest that citizens who are more affected by natural disasters are more likely to attribute storm damage to ineffective preparation on the part of their local government, and that these beliefs make them less inclined to re-elect their current officials. 

3. Male or female? Does gender matter?

Have you ever considered that your gender may play a role in how you shape your political beliefs? Research indicates that men and women differ in terms of their political participation, ideology, and voting preferences.  Studies have shown that men and women prioritize different issues. For instance, women in the United States show more support for spending on social programs and issues related to gender equality. Interestingly, women have also shift in typical voting patterns. After they gained the right to vote in the United States, women were relatively more conservative compared to men; since then, a steady upward trend toward liberal ideology has been observed in women relative to men. Women have moved from the right spectrum to the left. Women tend to vote more for the democratic party than men do! Both genders do see some similarities though! When government spending increases both genders tend to have a more conservative viewpoint. Isn’t that crazy? 

4. Does who you love affect how you vote?  

It may seem like an obvious point that sexual orientation would be associated with more liberal politics in the United States; after all, in recent decades, the Democratic party (moreso than the Republican party) has tended to engage in more advocacy for the rights of sexual minorities (e.g., marriage equality). It’s not a surprise, then, that members of the LGBTQ+ community would have more left-leaning politics.  However, recent research indicates that there might be something more going on here than meets the eye. One study of LGB voters (compared to heterosexual voters) showed greater support for the Democratic Party for concerns related to civil liberties and rights for sexual minorities, but importantly, these weren’t the only political attitudes that differed as a function of sexual orientation. Having an LGB identity also predicted more liberal attitudes regarding abortion, suicide, and science. The author argues that just like other important aspects of identity (e.g., gender, race), sexual orientation fundamentally alters one’s experience of the world in a way that matters to one’s politics. 

5. Can your genes impact your vote?

Did you know political orientation appears to have a genetic influence while evidence for environmental influences from parents to offspring was not found? Observed similarity between the political views of parents and adult offspring does not mainly come from how they were raised; there have been studies that have shown adopted children to have their real parents’ views. In other words, political beliefs appear to have a genetically based component. People choose different political attitudes, at least mainly, based on their genetic makeup. To add on to that, environment indicates that genetic factors also contribute to how we choose people. People with a specific political position also choose partners with similar attitudes, the partner in turn can help pass on their beliefs to their offspring. I know, I’m mind-blown as well.

6. How does money affect political attitudes?

Does being poor or being rich affect your political views? Well studies show it may indeed play a role. Although most of our political views come down to personal beliefs, evidence suggests that people with a higher socioeconomic status (or SES) in society tend to have more distinct right-wing orientations than do people with lower SES. This may seem obvious, given that more liberal politicians are likely to support social programs that benefit the poorer in society. Interesting, though, the researchers of the study linked above found that even priming people with concepts relating to money may have some impact on political attitudes. In particular, they found that when low  SES participants were primed with money, they reported more liberal attitudes, but when high SES participants were exposed to the same prime, they reported more conservative attitudes! Well would you look at that, money does control you!

7. Can religion guide political opinion?

While different religions promote different messages, they all influence how we think about and perceive the world around us – even politics! One 1988 study found that members of an activist group called the Ohio Moral Majority had a strong subjective connection between their religious and political beliefs. For example, 91% of people surveyed in that study said religion had “a great deal of influence” on their stance on abortion, and 71% said the same for the Equal Rights Amendment. The strength of the connection between religion and politics varies by doctrine and religious identity, and influences some issues more than others. 

8. Does more information always mean better-informed? 

You might want to double check that political article in your Facebook feed – “fake news” is everywhere these days. In the old days, there were only a couple major news networks, but with the recent technological advances, you can find practically a different news station for every day of the year! This means that people can selectively choose networks that align nicely with their point of view, and not have to listen to different perspectives. This results in people adopting more extreme attitudes in a psychological phenomenon called group polarization, in which monolithic groups that lack a variety of perspectives reinforce the strength and extremity of the shared belief within that group. Social media platforms exploit group polarization by surrounding users with content that supports their held beliefs, creating more outrageous narratives that grab attention. More news has actually lessened our ability to form balanced perspectives – go figure! 

What Does It All Mean?

Sometimes it’s difficult to admit we’re influenced by factors we have no control over (are we more controlled by our circumstances or our individuality?)–especially when it comes to something as personal and important as our political views. While it may feel like we believe what we do about political issues because we’ve thought hard and long our stance, research indicates that a variety of subtle factors exert meaningful influence on how we think about politics. It’s fascinating to learn more about why we are the way we are, and recognize that maybe, just maybe, we don’t know ourselves quite as well as we thought we did.