Monday, April 17, 2006

How to spot a baby conservative

Thom Hartman's Board was the original location that I heard about the so called "study".
Remember the whiny, insecure kid in nursery school, the one who always thought everyone was out to get him, and was always running to the teacher with complaints? Chances are he grew up to be a conservative.

At least, he did if he was one of 95 kids from the Berkeley area that social scientists have been tracking for the last 20 years. The confident, resilient, self-reliant kids mostly grew up to be liberals.

The study from the Journal of Research Into Personality isn't going to make the UC Berkeley professor who published it any friends on the right. Similar conclusions a few years ago from another academic saw him excoriated on right-wing blogs, and even led to a Congressional investigation into his research funding.

But the new results are worth a look. In the 1960s Jack Block and his wife and fellow professor Jeanne Block (now deceased) began tracking more than 100 nursery school kids as part of a general study of personality. The kids' personalities were rated at the time by teachers and assistants who had known them for months. There's no reason to think political bias skewed the ratings — the investigators were not looking at political orientation back then. Even if they had been, it's unlikely that 3- and 4-year-olds would have had much idea about their political leanings.

A few decades later, Block followed up with more surveys, looking again at personality, and this time at politics, too. The whiny kids tended to grow up conservative, and turned into rigid young adults who hewed closely to traditional gender roles and were uncomfortable with ambiguity.

The confident kids turned out liberal and were still hanging loose, turning into bright, non-conforming adults with wide interests. The girls were still outgoing, but the young men tended to turn a little introspective.

Block admits in his paper that liberal Berkeley is not representative of the whole country. But within his sample, he says, the results hold. He reasons that insecure kids look for the reassurance provided by tradition and authority, and find it in conservative politics. The more confident kids are eager to explore alternatives to the way things are, and find liberal politics more congenial.

In a society that values self-confidence and out-goingness, it's a mostly flattering picture for liberals. It also runs contrary to the American stereotype of wimpy liberals and strong conservatives.

This is from the title link above. Here we see that a study that tracked 95 children (originally over 100) in one localty is the basis for his conclusions.
Since there is every indication that Block is a liberal professor from Berkeley, it does not take too much leap of faith to see how his bias is reflected in his results. Even creating the questionaire can create bias results. It is easy for a researcher to get too involved in the experiment and loose objectivity.

This is not to say that there may be "traits" that are manifested in early age as to how the subjects views the world.

But Jeff Greenberg, a social psychologist at the University of Arizona who was critical of Jost's study, was less impressed.

"I found it to be biased, shoddy work, poor science at best," he said of the Block study. He thinks insecure, defensive, rigid people can as easily gravitate to left-wing ideologies as right-wing ones. He suspects that in Communist China, those kinds of people would likely become fervid party members.

The results do raise some obvious questions. Are nursery school teachers in the conservative heartland cursed with classes filled with little proto-conservative whiners?

Or does an insecure little boy raised in Idaho or Alberta surrounded by conservatives turn instead to liberalism?

Or do the whiny kids grow up conservative along with the majority of their more confident peers, while only the kids with poor impulse control turn liberal?

Part of the answer is that personality is not the only factor that determines political leanings. For instance, there was a .27 correlation between being self-reliant in nursery school and being a liberal as an adult. Another way of saying it is that self-reliance predicts statistically about 7 per cent of the variance between kids who became liberal and those who became conservative. (If every self-reliant kid became a liberal and none became conservatives, it would predict 100 per cent of the variance). Seven per cent is fairly strong for social science, but it still leaves an awful lot of room for other influences, such as friends, family, education, personal experience and plain old intellect.

So if there was 7% varience and 7 people droped out of the experiment could it be that the ones that droped out were the 7%? But like most studies they don't release the raw numbers (to the public) for independent analysis.

But if conservatives are whiny and insecure, then why are Republicans happier:
Are We Happy Yet?
Some 45% of all Republicans report being very happy, compared with just 30% of Democrats and 29% of independents. This finding has also been around a long time; Republicans have been happier than Democrats every year since the General Social Survey began taking its measurements in 1972. Pew surveys since 1991 also show a partisan gap on happiness; the current 16 percentage point gap is among the largest in Pew surveys, rivaled only by a 17 point gap in February 2003.

But even this explanation only goes so far. If one controls for household income, Republicans still hold a significant edge: that is, poor Republicans are happier than poor Democrats; middle-income Republicans are happier than middle-income Democrats, and rich Republicans are happier than rich Democrats.

Might ideology be the key? It's true that conservatives, who are more likely to be Republican, are happier than liberals, who are more likely to be Democrats. But even controlling for this ideological factor, a significant partisan gap remains. Conservative Republicans are happier than conservative Democrats, and moderate/liberal Republicans are happier than liberal Democrats. Hmmm, what other factors might be at play? Well, there's always...

Some have stated they are more happy since the Republicans live in peaceful bliss. But that seems way too simplistic to be taken seriously.

And not only are conservatives happier, they also appear to be more generous. National Generosity Index 2004 shows that the states that have the least are more like to give than the states that have more. And further inspection seems to show that Red Rural States are ranked higher in the generosity index.

29 years and counting...
UC Santa Cruz is chosen to carry on landmark study chronicling the lives of 100 individuals

does not pertain to the most recent results, but gives some background information on the longitudinal studies.

Are We Happy Yet?
Jack Block Ph.D., Stanford University Emeritus
A clinical upstart elbows its way into the personality-assessment fray
UC Santa Cruz is chosen to carry on landmark study chronicling the lives of 100 individuals
Generosity Index 2004
The Anti-Empire Report
Some things you need to know before the world ends


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4/19/2006 3:26 PM  

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