Is Personality the Reason Why American Politics is So Polarized? New Research Says Yes!

Imagine you are walking down hotel row in a large city. On the right side is a Marriott hosting a convention of 1,000 members of the American Psychological Association. Directly across the street at the Hilton, 1,000 plumbers have gathered for the annual meeting of the American Plumbing Association. We know from decades of research – as well as from direct personal experience – that psychologists and plumbers tend to be different kinds of people. This is not to say all plumbers are one type and all psychologists another. But in general, members of these groups tend to be homogeneous. 

Why?

Most people gravitate toward jobs and careers that are consistent with their core values and key drives, and to a lesser extent, their interests and skill sets. For example, social workers and police officers tend to be different types of people – as are pediatricians and pathologists, although both are MDs. Yet, this is not always the case. Studies show that as many as 60% of adults, if given a “do-over,” would choose a different career path. This happens for a variety of reasons. Many young people lack self-awareness when they’re asked to make critical career decisions. Others may lack financial or emotional resources, and parental, cultural and societal pressures, and limited opportunities due to the economic times, all play a part.

Let’s dig a little deeper.

Why we are who we are

Traditionally, there have been two applications of personality type:

  • Interpersonal – using type insights to explain and improve relationships. These can include spouses, parents and children, teachers and students, managers and employees, doctors and patients, etc; and
  • Intrapersonal – to help people better understand themselves to live happier, healthier, more fulfilling lives.

Having spent the past 40 years thinking about type, as well as researching, writing and lecturing about it, I’ve discovered a third application.

Global Typology (GT).

GT provides a macro perspective, which I believe is the most critical Type application of all. Why? Because GT has such far reaching implications it can impact every person on the planet.

I know. This is a big, audacious claim. But allow me to make my case.

Meanwhile, back at the conventions . . .

The missions, keynote speeches, topics of break-out sessions, the products hawked by vendors in the exhibit hall – even how the participants choose to unwind at the end of the day –  will undoubtedly be quite different for the plumbers and the psychologists. I believe this has less to do with the professions and more to do with what drove them to choose this line of work in the first place. And I know from 25 years of research that Personality Type plays a pivotal role in career choice and satisfaction.

In the US population, Intuitive-Feeling types (I call them “Idealists”) represent about 17% of the population. But this group may be as many as 85% of the folks you’ll find schmoosing between breaks at the psychologists’ convention. Why the disparity? Well, because of the nature of the field of psychology and what it requires of its practitioners. First and foremost, psychology is a theory, or more accurately, a collection of theories, all involving intangibles such as feelings, emotions, and cognition.

When it comes to psychology, the goal is especially challenging: to explain that most enigmatic phenomenon – human behavior. There isn’t much concrete or even provable science involved. And while there are many different subspecialties within the field, such as teaching, research, or clinical practice, they share the common aim of trying to help people in some way. There is a disproportionately high percentage of Intuitives in the field, because they are naturally curious about, and driven to understand, complex behaviors. Similarly, there are many more Feelers than Thinkers because Feelers - by their nature – tend to be tuned into others’ emotions and derive satisfaction from helping people with their problems.

Compare that idea with Sensors, who make up almost 75% of the population. Sensing-Judgers (“Traditionalists”), comprising about 46%, and Sensing-Perceivers (“Experiencers”), about 27%. The majority of those plumbers fall into one of these two temperaments.

Plumbing seldom involves concepts, ideas or theories. Rather, plumbers deal with concrete “things,” such as water, waste, pipes, furnaces, sinks, toilets, air conditioning and heating.

Plumbing doesn’t require journeymen to have a rich imagination, or to invent new ways to fix problems. More often, plumbers follow established, familiar procedures using the same materials and tools as their predecessors and colleagues. Nor does the job require empathy. While I’m sure most plumbers want to satisfy their customers, it is not their primary motivation, nor their greatest source of job satisfaction. It is to fix a problem efficiently and successfully and be fairly paid for their effort.

The Sensing culture

Of the four dimensions of personality type—Extraversion vs. Introversion, Sensing vs. Intuition, Thinking vs. Feeling and Judging vs. Perceiving—Sensing vs. Intuition is the most powerful, because of its outsized influence in determining each person’s worldview.

To understand how GT “shapes the values and behaviors of groups and cultures,” let's quickly review some of the key differences between Sensors and Intuitives.  

Sensors tend to: 

  • Pay attention to facts and details
  • Focus on what is real and concrete
  • Be rooted in the present, paying attention to what is happening now
  • Most trust their first-hand experiences
  • Be most comfortable with the familiar and the status quo

Of course, Sensors also have blind spots. They may not:  

  • Easily “read between the lines;” rather they tend to take things at face value
  • Recognize cause and effect and see inferences (“connect the dots”)
  • Consider or anticipate future consequences of actions
  • Appreciate complexities or nuance, and instead seek simple solutions  
  • Be open to new ideas or approaches

As a result, Sensors have a more local, rather than global, view of the world. For example, a Sensor walking into the supermarket to purchase meat is less likely to wonder where the meat came from, how it was raised and wound up in a package. They see the meat. They want the meat. They buy the meat. They take the meat home to cook and enjoy.

Intuitives tend to:

  • Have vivid imaginations and naturally see possibilities  
  • Find abstract ideas and concepts intriguing
  • Think beyond today, anticipating future consequences and implications
  • Seek to understand the underlying meaning; “read between the lines"
  • Be open to new ideas / possibilities and be excited by change

An Intuitive walking up to the meat counter might be more likely to weigh the benefits of buying local and/or organic. They might be concerned about the source, having read about problems with animal farming and meat processing plants around the country. Or, after thinking about it more deeply, decide to forego buying meat altogether, choosing to take health professionals’ advice against eating red meat too often.

Intuitives also have potential blind spots, and may not:  

  • Notice or fully appreciate current realities
  • Discount “conventional wisdom” (especially if it seems outdated)
  • Overthink and over complicate some things
  • Accept things at face value or established facts, and rely too much on their hunches
  • Embrace the status quo, and not change things that are working well

Both Sensors and Intuitives have strengths and blind spots. So why is this such a big deal?

Well, here’s something you probably don’t know: On the most important issues facing the country – global warming, voting rights, racial equality, national security, to name just a few, Sensors are about twice as conservative as Intuitives.

The numbers don’t lie

In collaboration with Truity, I have just completed robust research examining the relationship between personality type and political orientation. Our analysis also included gender, race, education level and age. While the number of responses varied based on individual questions, many of the dozen or so responses solicited were provided by between 30,000 and 40,000 people.

This was the first, large-scale attempt to positively correlate Personality Type with liberalism and conservatism. The results were dramatic.

Here are just a few examples of the findings:

  • More than twice as many Sensors as Intuitives believe that Donald Trump actually won the 2020 presidential election.
  • Diving deeper, five times as many high-school educated Sensing men believed Trump won, as opposed to college-educated Intuitive women.
  • Three times as many Sensors as Intuitives believe that the threat of global warming is exaggerated, rather than poses an existential threat to the planet.

These findings may be cause for celebration for some and reason to break out the sackcloth and ashes for others, based on the person’s innate preference for Sensing or Intuition. In case you’re thinking, “OK, that’s interesting … on most issues, Sensors are twice as conservative as Intuitives, but why would that have such a big impact on our politics?”

It wouldn’t, if there were equal numbers of Sensors and Intuitives in the population. But the reality is, there are three times as many Sensors than Intuitives in the U.S. It is that disparity which is responsible for what I call a Sensing Culture, the primary reason why America is actually a very conservative country.

In my next blog post, I’ll share some startling research findings on numerous issues driving the unprecedented polarization we are experiencing in the US and around the world. I believe this novel research finally answers the question asked nightly by cable news pundits, as well as venerable Pulitzer Prize-winning columnists: “Why does half the country believe the other half has lost its mind?”

Comments

Christie T (not verified) says...

I am an ISFJ, one of the more traditional types. I am also a female Latinx as well. I've always said that Myers Briggs can show a lean of preference in navigating everyday life, but is still just a facet of a person as a whole. Especially when it comes to politics, I can't say that my sensing nature matches up with what was mentioned in the article, and I think that's a good thing :)

Davidson (not verified) says...

Very interesting topic! There is a disproportionately high percentage of Intuitives in the field of odd jobs, because they are naturally curious about, and driven to understand, complex behaviors.

ChristyB (not verified) says...

Tell me you think plumbers aren't as smart as psychologists without telling me you think plumbers aren't as smart as psychologists.

Suzy George says...

Christy, where did you see the words smart or intelligence im the example? On the contrary, the author did a great job of explaining the pros and cons of both types. It makes perfect sense.. while I want my shrink to be open minded and able to follow my crazy thought process, I would prefer my plumber to not be creative or open to new solutions when my sewage backs up in to my yard. I am terrible at noticing details and my opinions are often swayed by my feelings even if it doesn't make the most common sense. There are professions I could never be good at. Intelligenc not a factor.

 

Alison Motley (not verified) says...

A few thoughts and questions. The abundance of Ss over Ns (this is particularly pronounced in America, in Europe less so, I imagine, have there been any studies about N vs S distribution and geography?): This must be the reason that the world is brinking on disaster - the consumeristic, short-term thinking, failure to see or imagine consequences, ie, this S prevalence has bought the world to its knees, the world would be in better shape, perhaps, if the Ns were more abundant, if there was more balance.  I expect NPs abound within the native american population. I guess my question is, what is known about the genetics of typing? If populations have been typed and frequences vary strongly, I guess that is pretty strong evidence for a strong genetic component.

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THE FINE PRINT: Myers-Briggs® and MBTI® are registered trademarks of the MBTI Trust, Inc., which has no affiliation with this site. Truity offers a free personality test based on Myers and Briggs' types, but does not offer the official MBTI® assessment. For more information on the Myers Briggs Type Indicator® assessment, please go here.

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