We often hear this lament from American conservatives: the majority of our universities are run by liberals, attended by liberals, and turning out more liberals by the thousand. Theories abound as to why this is. Perhaps we're dealing with a vast conspiracy of power-hungry eggheads, masterminding schemes of liberal indoctrination from ivory towers full of pipe smoke.
Perhaps—but we don't think so. We think there's a reasonable explanation for all of it: science. Specifically, personality psychology.
Personality psychologists studying the makeup of human character have identified five major factors of personality. One of these factors is Openness, which at its most fundamental describes a tendency to abstract thinking. People who are high in Openness enjoy abstract, complex concepts, playing with ideas, and using their imaginations. People who are low in Openness prefer dealing with the concrete: people and things, rather than ideas. They like to occupy their time with practical, useful activities and see fantasy and philosophy as a waste of time.
Openness scores relate to a variety of interesting things. For instance, people who are low in Openness are more likely to fill their leisure time with common, mainstream interests: major league sports, blockbuster movies, bestselling romance novels. People who are high in Openness are more likely to trot off to an art museum or the opera. The guy you see at the coffee shop who always has his head buried in a book of poetry is almost certainly high in Openness.
Openness also relates to an interest in intellectual inquiry. If you're plagued by existential questions about the meaning of life, guess what? You're probably high in Openness. Low Openness people would rather live their lives than question the meaning of them.
University professors are almost always high in Openness. A career in academia requires a near constant focus on abstract, complex ideas. Academics spend their time formulating hypotheses and doing advanced, theoretical research. Professors also must enjoy an intellectual environment and be inclined to laugh at physics jokes, two things that are tough for people low in Openness.
The final piece of the puzzle: Openness is related to political affiliation. High Openness scorers are more likely to challenge authority and toss out accepted norms. Accordingly, they are more likely to be politically liberal—although not always. Low Openness scorers are more likely to embrace tradition and support the status quo.
It's thought that because people low in Openness are less inclined towards abstract thought, they rely more on past experience when formulating their beliefs. They are less likely to use their imaginations to envision a new and different future. If this is true, it could explain why people low in Openness tend to be politically conservative: they want to stick to what they know has worked in the past, rather than trying new and unproven ideas.
Whatever the reason, the fact is that an intellectual attitude and a politically liberal one are statistically linked. People who are likely to want to work at a university are also more likely to have liberal beliefs. It's not a conspiracy. It's just science.
To see how likely you are to work at a university, wear tweed, and chortle heartily at a joke about 18th century literature, take our How Open Are You? quiz.