Identity VS Attitude: Development of Political Identities

The last couple of months have truly shown us how important voting behaviour is in our modern democracies. More than ever we all want to know: How and why would anybody decide to vote for the party that I did not vote for?

Your political identity plays a large part in this decision, because which political side you take (e.g. Democrat or Republican, Liberal or Conservative, Left or Right) is often part of who you are as a person, and the attitudes that you have about a certain topic (e.g. multicultural or economic) have moral connotations. This makes it hard to empathise with the other side, agreeing with “them” means that you were wrong, and nobody likes being wrong.

In addition to this, there is the problem that getting exposed to good arguments from the opposition is often not as easy as it seems due to social media bubbles that we are seemingly trapped in. These bubbles consist of people that share our political identity and have the same attitudes on political issues.

But how do we develop these identities and attitudes in the first place and which of these came first? Do we adapt our political identity because of how we think about certain issues (e.g. attitude influence) or do we adapt our views because we have a certain political identity (e.g. identity influence)?

People are really early in establishing a political identity, which is usually the political identity of the parents. However, in this phase of life (i.e. early adolescence) your political identity is largely unrelated to how you think or feel about certain issues. For example, at the age of 12 someone might say that they are a leftie, but also believe in the benefits of a class system (which makes this a very knowledgable 12 year old, if they have already formed opinions about economic redistribution). During adolescence your political identity and opinions become more consistent with each other. This allows for a chance to get a step closer to causality by looking into how well political identity predicts change in attitudes and vice versa.

As is true for most things, both identity and attitudes influence each other. As was also established in the paper of this week by Rekker, Keijsers, Branje, and Meeus.

These researchers looked into how both attitudes and political identity affect each other across adolescence and early adulthood, while also taking into account that effects might be different for different levels of education and political topics. The two political topics that they looked at were attitudes towards immigrants and economic redistribution.

They tackled these points by asking 1199 Dutch respondents to fill in questionnaires regarding their right and left-ness, and their stance on economic and multicultural political issues. These respondents were divided into four cohorts of different ages (e.g. 12-15, 15-18, 18-21, 21-24), which all filled in the questionnaires three times over the course of six years (first in 1991, second in 1994 and the last in 1997). This allowed them to estimate identity and attitude influence from the age of 13.5 to 28.5.

In general, though the expectation was that your political identity would have a larger effect on attitude, results indicated that it was the other way around! Thus, even though both identity and attitudes influence each other, how you think about certain issues has a bigger impact on how you identify yourself on the left-right political scale.

This result differed for different levels of education. Highly educated people were more likely to develop more consistency between political identity and issue attitudes, compared to lowly educated people. However, what I found surprising was that this difference in consistency was due to the fact that people with a higher education showed a higher influence of identity compared to people with a lower education, while attitude influence was the same. Thus for people with a high education level their left or rightness influenced their opinions on political matters more compared to those with a low education.  

When the different topics were taken into account, a path emerged; attitudes about multicultural issues are formed pretty early on, which influences your political identity. Your political identity, in turn, determines how you think about economic issues.

How one thinks about a multicultural society is thus very important as it may well lie at the core of people’s political identities. The key for convincing people to vote for a certain party might thus be their opinion on multicultural topics. This has not gone unnoticed by politicians as it has been a strong argument for many, regardless which side of the discussion the party or candidate falls on.

In the beginning of this post I mentioned social media, and the information bubbles that it creates. The general consensus is that these bubbles do greatly influence how varied the information is that people consume, which can influence how people form their attitudes about political issues.

What you might have noticed however, is that the data in this study was collected before facebook was launched. So what I would like to know is how the rise of social media influences the formation of political identities or if it even does at all? Would the path found in this study be different? Let me know what you think!


If you want to read the full article, it can be found on google scholar using this reference:

Rekker, R., Keijsers, L., Branje, S., & Meeus, W. (2017). The dynamics of political identity and issue attitudes in adolescence and early adulthood. Electoral Studies46, 101-111.

Or this link.

If you (or your university) don’t have access to this article, but you still really want to read it you can always e-mail the authors to request a copy!

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