Science has long-established that personality traits can steer voters towards certain political beliefs, but thanks to the recent and puzzling rise of populist political movements, researchers are more fascinated by this connection than ever before.
2016 was a strange year, and in many ways the Trump presidency and the Brexit decision took the world unawares. So, researchers were curious: What sort of personality traits could have predicted the Trump and Brexit votes?
Even though the Trump campaign and the Brexit campaign were separated geographically and to some extent culturally, a new study suggests they hold much in common.
Both campaigns, for instance, promoted themes of fear, lost pride and loss aversion, which in turn unlocked emotions like anxiety, anger and fear among their supporters.
While previous studies have shown personality combinations like low openness and high conscientiousness have been associated with more conservative voters, it looks as though the Trump and Brexit campaign were associated with a completely different personality trait.
Of all the Big Five personality traits - including openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism - the study found populist movements have much more success in regions where community neuroticism lies dormant.
"This finding supports our initial suspicion that the regions highest on neuroticism are particularly receptive to political campaigns that emphasize danger and loss and that previous campaigns have not tapped into these themes as strongly as we saw in 2016," said co-author and University of Texas psychology professor Sam Gosling.
Neuroticism is a long-term tendency to be in a negative or anxious emotional state. As a consequence, many people with neuroticism tend to suffer more from emotions like guilt, envy, anger, and anxiety - all of which were key ingredients in the Trump and Brexit campaigns.
To find out whether these emotions had political ramifications, the researchers examined personality data and voting records from over 400,000 British participants and over 3 million American participants.
The researchers found a correlation between high levels of anxiety and fear and the number of Brexit and Trump voters in a certain region.
For instance, in the 50 US counties with the highest levels of fear and anxiety, there was a 9 percent increase, on average, in Republican votes from 2012 to 2016. On the other hand, in the 50 counties with the lowest levels of fear and anxiety, there was a shift of only 2 percent.
In other words, it looks as though there was a latent community neuroticism, lying just under the surface in these regions, that Trump somehow managed to unlock by feeding a growing sense of fear and anxiety.
In the same way, in the 50 UK districts with the highest levels of fear and anxiety, an average of 60 percent voted for Brexit. Meanwhile, in the 50 districts with the lowest levels of fear and anxiety, only 46 percent voted for Brexit.
"The models traditionally used for predicting and explaining political behavior did not capture an essential factor that influenced people's voting decisions in 2016," said lead author Martin Obschonka, a psychologist at Queensland University of Technology (QUT).
"We propose a kind of "sleeper effect." Under normal conditions these traits have no influence, but in certain circumstances, widespread anxiety and fear in a region have the potential to profoundly impact the geopolitical landscape."
The researchers also looked at the socio-political makeup of particular regions to try and explain the rise of these populist movements. Specifically, the researchers examined the industrial heritage, the historical political attitude, the racial composition, the economic conditions and the level of education attainment in all of these regions.
For England, it was found that rural areas and industrialized locations had higher levels of anxiety or fear, as well as more Brexit votes - possibly because those areas are feeling particularly vulnerable, both economically and culturally.
In the U.S., these same personality traits also predicted the support Trump garnered in battlefield states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio and the Midwestern "Rust Belt".
In all of these areas, a lack of population density, economic earnings, educational attainment and oppenness traits were associated with more Brexit and Trump votes. Surprisingly, conscientiousness showed little to no effect in either case.
"Much as the consequences of a region's fearful or anxious tendencies may remain hidden until certain conditions are met, there may be other regional characteristics that have the potential to influence geopolitical events, but the necessary conditions have not yet materialized," said Gosling.
When polling completely failed to predict the 2016 American election and the Brexit vote, it appears as though personality traits may be a better indicator of political persuasion in the future.
The study was conducted by researchers from Queensland University of Technology (QUT), Ilmenau University of Technology, University of Cambridge, the London School of Economics and Political Science, Melbourne University and The University of Texas at Austin and was published in Social Psychological and Personality Science.