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Big Five Personality Traits and Responses to Persuasive Appeals: Results from Voter Turnout Experiments

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Abstract

We examine whether Big Five personality traits are associated with heterogeneous responses to commonly used Get-Out-The-Vote (GOTV) appeals in both a survey and a field experiment. The results suggest that Big Five personality traits affect how people respond to the costs and benefits of voting highlighted in GOTV appeals. Our evidence also suggests that one trait—Openness—is associated with broad persuasibility, while others shape responses to particular types of messages. In some cases the conditioning effects of Big Five traits are substantial. For example, in the one-voter households (HHs) included in our field experiment, we find that a mailer that raised the specter of social sanctions increased the likelihood of voting by a statistically greater amount among those scoring high on Openness. The findings constitute an important step forward in understanding how core personality traits shape responses to various aspects of the act of voting.

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Notes

  1. Given the exploratory nature of this initial assessment of the moderating effects of personality, as well as the dangers of multiple comparisons, these results must be interpreted with caution.

  2. This work is part of a movement across the social sciences to understand how personality affects a wide range of behavioral and attitudinal outcomes. For example, previous work finds that Big Five traits predict a wide array of outcomes, including: health and longevity (Friedman et al. 1993; Goodwin and Friedman 2006; Roberts and Bogg 2004), earnings (Borghans et al. 2008; Mueller and Plug 2006), behavior in economic games (Ben-Ner et al. 2008; Koole et al. 2001), parenting style (Huver et al. 2010), and satisfaction with intimate relationships (Malouff et al. 2010).

  3. While no prior work that we are aware of examines how Big Five traits affect how people respond to GOTV appeals, some previous work on persuasion has examined how the relative emphasis placed on the costs versus the benefits of voting affect political participation (Lavine et al. 1999).

  4. In other work in this vein, Cialdini and Goldstein (2004, p. 559) note that females appear to be more relationship oriented than men and, because they attach greater value to reciprocity, tend to be more responsive to appeals that highlight the importance of responding to the positive behavior of others in kind.

  5. A similar appeal to the instrumental benefits was administered in at least one field experiment that we are aware of (Enos and Fowler 2012). Our instrumental benefits treatment may also conjure other emotions with words such as “crazy” and “embarrassed.” We discuss the possible ramifications of such language below, when we discuss specific hypotheses, especially for Emotional Stability.

  6. The survey was fielded from 24 February 2010 to 1 July 2010. Respondents were paid $0.25 to participate. The text of the MT request read: answer some questions about yourself and your political attitudes (RESTRICTED TO UNITED STATES RESIDENTS). Usually takes 2–3 min. You can find the survey here: [URL] Payment is auto-approved in 5 days.

  7. Trait pairs for each trait. Observed correlations in brackets; (R) indicates reverse scoring:

    Extraversion: Extraverted, enthusiastic; Reserved, quiet (R) [r = 0.540]

    Agreeableness: Sympathetic, warm; Critical, quarrelsome (R) [r = 0.285]

    Conscientiousness: Dependable, self-disciplined; Disorganized, careless (R) [r = 0.424]

    Emotional Stability: Calm, emotionally stable; Anxious, easily upset (R) [r = 0.539]

    Openness: Open to new experiences, complex; Conventional, uncreative (R) [r = 0.288]

    The TIPI was not designed with the intent of achieving high inter-item correlations. Rather, it was designed to (1) be brief; (2) achieve high test–retest reliability (as well as reliability between self- and peer-administered ratings); and (3) yield measures that are highly correlated with those obtained using much longer batteries (the correlations between TIPI measures and the 44-item Big Five Inventory range from 0.65 to 0.87; correlations with measures from the much longer, 240-item NEO PI-R range from 0.56 to 0.68). Therefore, because each question in the TIPI is designed to measure part of a broader Big Five trait, inter-item correlations between the two items used to measure each trait are less informative of the items’ reliability (Gosling 2009; more generally, see Kline 2000; Woods and Hampson 2005 on the misleading nature of α calculated on scales with only a small number of items). Test–retest reliabilities of the TIPI measures (re-measured after 6 weeks; Gosling et al. 2003, Table 3): Extraversion = 0.77; Agreeableness = 0.71; Conscientiousness = 0.76; Emotional Stability = 0.70; Openness = 0.62.

  8. In an analysis of the associations between Big Five traits and misreporting of turnout, Gerber et al. (2011b) find in a sample of Connecticut residents that less Agreeable individuals are more likely to overreport actual turnout behavior. The authors report no other statistically significant associations between Big Five traits and the misreporting of turnout. These findings suggest that the results of our survey experiment as they pertain to Agreeableness may be biased if less Agreeable people respond that they are more likely to vote as a consequence of the treatment. This same bias, however, is unlikely to be present for the other four traits.

  9. We tested for balance across the treatment conditions using a multinomial logit model with a nominal experimental treatment condition variable as the outcome. Covariates: age, race (separate indicators for Black, Hispanic, and other [non-White]), gender, education, income, and income missing. The covariates were reasonably well balanced (p = 0.307, for test of joint significance of all covariates), although there are some differences across treatment groups for age (p = 0.030). All subsequent models include all these variables as covariates to minimize our standard errors and address the possibility of heterogeneity across treatment groups.

  10. Although this evidence does not fully allay concerns about sampling bias, it does demonstrate that the personality characteristics of the experimental sample are not drastically different from those of the general public. More generally, however, we note that our estimates are unbiased within our respective samples because we randomize within samples, so sampling variability does not call into question the internal validity of our results.

  11. Another experimental condition that highlighted the conflict often entailed in political debates, but was not explicitly designed to encourage participation, was included as part of this study, but is not reported here. The exclusion of this experimental condition does not materially affect the results we present here. Information is available upon request.

  12. As we note in footnote 8, due to the tendency of less Agreeable individuals to over-report their turnout, these results may be due to measurement error in which these less Agreeable individuals are induced by the treatment to misreport their intended behavior. In the field experiment, where turnout behavior is observed (not reported), the results regarding Agreeableness’ interaction with the social pressure treatment are directionally consistent with those of the survey experiment, but statistically insignificant.

  13. In total, 180,002 HHs were part of the experiment (20,000 of which were randomly selected to receive the “neighbors mailing” described below). This set of HHs was selected from the Michigan voter file based on a variety of factors, the full details of which are reported in Gerber et al. (2008, pp. 36–37). Most notably, everyone for whom there was not a valid nine-digit ZIP on the voter file was excluded, as were people who lived on blocks where many of the addresses (more than 10 %) included apartment numbers and people who lived on streets with fewer than 10 registered voters. In addition, if all members of a HH were estimated to have over a 60 % probability of voting by absentee ballot or of choosing the Democratic primary to participate in, the HH was not sent a mailing.

  14. This treatment is referred to as the “neighbors” treatment in the original study.

  15. As expected, given previous research that finds that Big Five traits are stable over time, post-treatment measurement of these traits does not appear to be problematic. Treatment assignment was not a statistically significant predictor of any of the Big Five traits in either one or two voter HHs, or in the full sample. This suggests that the (political GOTV) treatment did not contaminate responses to the personality questionnaire, a finding that is consistent with recent research that finds that Big Five measures most often included in political surveys, including the TIPI, do not appear to be significantly affected by political events (Gerber et al. 2012). The setup of this study also precludes the possibility that fielding the personality questionnaire contaminates responses to the treatment or vice versa, which is a potential concern with the survey experiment. The survey also included items from psychological batteries designed to measure public self-consciousness, private self-consciousness, and impression management (International Personality Item Pool, http://ipip.ori.org/). These psychological characteristics were not significantly associated with differences in the magnitude of the treatment effect.

  16. Appendix Table 7 shows the sample statistics overall and by treatment and control group. Although the variables listed in the table are not jointly statistically significant (p = 0.117) in a logit regression model predicting treatment assignment, there is evidence of imbalance on the income and income missing variables. All models reported in Table 3 below include controls for all the variables listed in Appendix Table 7.

  17. The neighbors mailing also included a brief appeal to the respondent’s sense of civic duty.

  18. Logit models yield substantively similar results and are presented in Appendix Table 8. Sample means and balance tests by HH size are reported in Appendix Table 9.

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Acknowledgments

We would like to thank participants in the 2010 Joint Sessions of Workshops of the European Consortium for Political Research, the anonymous reviewers, and the editors for comments on earlier versions of this paper. This research was funded by Yale’s Center for the Study of American Politics and Institution for Social and Policy Studies.

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Correspondence to Alan S. Gerber.

Appendices

Appendix

See Tables 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9.

Table 4 Summary statistics by condition (survey experiment)
Table 5 Correlations between Big Five measures
Table 6 Big Five summary statistics from MTurk survey experiment and national sample
Table 7 Summary statistics by condition (field experiment)
Table 8 Moderating effects of Big Five traits (field experiment, logit)
Table 9 Balance by HH size (field experiment)

Question Wording and Coding: Survey Experiment (Internet Based)

Ten-Item Personality Battery (TIPI): Here are a number of personality traits that may or may not apply to you. Please indicate the extent to which you agree or disagree with each statement. You should rate the extent to which the pair of traits applies to you, even if one characteristic applies more strongly than the other. I see myself as…

Extraverted, enthusiastic (Extraversion)

Critical, quarrelsome (Agreeableness; reverse-coded)

Dependable, self-disciplined (Conscientiousness)

Anxious, easily upset (Emotional Stability; reverse-coded)

Open to new experiences, complex (Openness to Experience)

Reserved, quiet (Extraversion; reverse-coded)

Sympathetic, warm (Agreeableness)

Disorganized, careless (Conscientiousness; reverse-coded)

Calm, emotionally stable (Emotional Stability)

Conventional, uncreative (Openness to Experience; reverse-coded)

[Response options: Disagree strongly, Disagree moderately, Disagree a little, Neither agree nor disagree, Agree a little, Agree moderately, Agree strongly. Items reverse-coded as indicated. Mean index created for each Big Five trait. Mean scales standardized to have a mean equal to zero and standard deviation of one.]

Turnout 2008: In talking to people about elections, we often find that a lot of people were not able to vote because they weren’t registered, they were sick, or they just didn’t have time. In 2008 Barack Obama ran on the Democratic ticket against John McCain for the Republicans. Which of the following statements best describes you:

I did not vote (in the November, 2008 election)

I thought about voting this time—but didn’t

I usually vote, but didn’t this time

I am sure I voted

[Sample restricted to those who voted in the 2008 election.]

Demographics

Race: What racial or ethnic group or groups best describes you?

  1. (1)

    White

  2. (2)

    Black

  3. (3)

    Hispanic

  4. (4)

    Asian

  5. (5)

    Native American

  6. (6)

    Mixed

  7. (7)

    Other

[Indicators for race = Black, race = Hispanic, and race = Asian, Native American, Mixed, or Other]

Education: What is the highest level of education you have achieved?

  1. (1)

    no high school diploma

  2. (2)

    high school graduate

  3. (3)

    some college, no degree

  4. (4)

    2-year college degree

  5. (5)

    4-year college degree

  6. (6)

    post-graduate degree

Income: What was your total FAMILY income in 2009?

  1. (1)

    Less than $10,000

  2. (2)

    $10,000–$14,999

  3. (3)

    $15,000–$19,999

  4. (4)

    $20,000–$24,999

  5. (5)

    $25,000–$29,999

  6. (6)

    $30,000–$39,999

  7. (7)

    $40,000–$49,999

  8. (8)

    $50,000–$59,999

  9. (9)

    $60,000–$69,999

  10. (10)

    $70,000–$79,999

  11. (11)

    $80,000–$99,999

  12. (12)

    $100,000–$119,999

  13. (13)

    $120,000–$149,999

  14. (14)

    $150,000 or more

  15. (15)

    prefer not to say

[“Prefer not to say” coded as missing.]

Age: What is the year of your birth?

[Age calculated as 2008-year of birth]

Gender: What is your gender?

  1. (1)

    Female

  2. (2)

    Male

Question Wording and Coding: Field Experiment (Phone Survey)

Ten-Item Personality Battery (TIPI): First, I am going to read a series of ten statements that may or may not apply to you. For each, please use one of the following five responses to tell me how much you agree or disagree with the statement. The five responses are: disagree strongly, disagree somewhat, neither agree nor disagree, agree somewhat, or agree strongly.

I see myself as [Trait 1] AND [Trait 2]. Do you disagree strongly, disagree somewhat, neither agree nor disagree, agree somewhat, or agree strongly with that statement? [Repeat response categories as necessary.]

[If dont know/cant say] We’d really like your response. What is your best guess?

[If say I see myself as A but not B or otherwise try to offer multiple responses] We’d like to know how you see yourself for both [Trait 1] and [Trait 2] together. How would you respond if you were considering them together?

 

 

Trait 1

Trait 2

Extraversion

Extraverted

Enthusiastic

Agreeableness (reverse-coded)

Critical

Quarrelsome

Conscientiousness

Dependable

Self-disciplined

Emotional Stability (reverse-coded)

Anxious

Easily upset

Openness to Experience

Open to new experiences

Complex

Extraversion (reverse-coded)

Reserved

Quiet

Agreeableness

Sympathetic

Warm

Conscientiousness (reverse-coded)

Disorganized

Careless

Emotional Stability

Calm

Emotionally stable

Openness to Experience (reverse-coded)

Conventional

Uncreative

[Items reverse-coded as indicated. Mean index created for each Big Five trait. Mean scales standardized to have a mean equal to zero and standard deviation of one.]

Other Psychological Scales (Items from International Personality Item Pool)

Next, using the same response categories, please tell me the extent to which you agree or disagree with the following six statements.

[Statement]. Do you disagree strongly, disagree somewhat, neither agree nor disagree, agree somewhat, or agree strongly with that statement? [Repeat response categories as necessary.]

 

Statements

Private Self-Consciousness:

I examine my motives constantly

I don’t try to figure myself out (R)

Public Self-Consciousness:

I worry about what people think of me

I feel comfortable with myself (R)

Impression Management:

I easily resist temptations

I am likely to show off if I get the chance (R)

[Items reverse-coded as indicated. Mean indexes created for each scale. Mean scales standardized to have a mean equal to zero and standard deviation of one.]

Demographics

Race: What racial or ethnic group or groups best describes you? [READ; Multiple Responses OK]

  1. (1)

    White

  2. (2)

    Black

  3. (3)

    Asian

  4. (4)

    Native American

  5. (5)

    Hispanic

  6. (6)

    Other

  7. (7)

    Don’t know [Don’t read]

  8. (8)

    Don’t want to tell you [Don’t read]

[Indicator for race = White]

Education: What is the highest level of education or grade of school you have completed? [DON’T READ]

  1. (1)

    No high school diploma or equivalent

  2. (2)

    High school graduate, GED, or other equivalent

  3. (3)

    Some college, 2-year degree, no degree

  4. (4)

    4-Year college degree

  5. (5)

    Post-graduate degree

  6. (6)

    Don’t know [Don’t read]

  7. (7)

    Don’t want to tell you [Don’t read]

[“Don’t know” and “Don’t want to tell you” coded as missing.]

Income: Last year, that is in 2008, what was your total family income from all sources, before taxes? Just stop me when I get to the right category. [READ]

  1. (1)

    Less than $10,000

  2. (2)

    10 to under $20,000

  3. (3)

    20 to under $30,000

  4. (4)

    30 to under $40,000

  5. (5)

    40 to under $50,000

  6. (6)

    50 to under $75,000

  7. (7)

    75 to under $100,000

  8. (8)

    100 to under $150,000

  9. (9)

    $150,000 or more

  10. (10)

    Don’t know [Don’t read]

  11. (11)

    Don’t want to tell you [Don’t read]

[“Don’t know” and “Don’t want to tell you” coded as missing.]

Age: What is your year of birth?

[Age calculated as 2008-year of birth]

Gender: Coded by interviewer

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Gerber, A.S., Huber, G.A., Doherty, D. et al. Big Five Personality Traits and Responses to Persuasive Appeals: Results from Voter Turnout Experiments. Polit Behav 35, 687–728 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-012-9216-y

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