During Monday night’s U.S. presidential debate, Democrat and Republican operatives were no doubt glued to graphs monitoring approval ratings for various key demographics, trying to figure out if President Barack Obama, for instance, was running off with the women’s vote with all that talk of 1980s foreign policy and battleships.
But new research suggests that for many viewers, debates don’t matter as much as we think. The political die may have been cast way back in childhood. Your temperament as a child and your folks’ parenting style may have a lot to do with whether you consider yourself liberal or conservative.
Instead of asking adults to recall their childhoods, as much research in this area does, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign followed a group of 708 children who had participated in a major longitudinal study by the U.S.’s National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. When children were one month old, parents were asked about their parenting styles. Mothers were asked about their child’s temperaments at 4.5 years of age, according to a release from the Association for Psychological Science, which published the paper in its journal Psychological Science. Researchers later interviewed the children at age 18.
Parents were considered authoritarian if they agreed with statements such as “children should always obey their parents,” and parents with “egalitarian parenting attitudes” agreed with statements such as “children should be allowed to disagree with their parents.”
Children were categorized with labels of restlessness, “attentional focusing,” shyness, passivity and fear.
The researchers found that “children with authoritarian parents were more likely to have conservative attitudes at age 18, even after accounting for their gender, ethnic background, cognitive functioning and socioeconomic status,” according to the release. And children of the more egalitarian parents were more likely to be liberals.
When it came to the children’s temperaments, kids who were most fearful at 54 months were more likely to be conservative at 18, the APS reports. And “children with higher levels of activity or restlessness and higher levels of attentional focusing were more likely to espouse liberal values at that age.”
“Our research suggests that variation in how people feel about diverse topics, ranging from abortion, military spending and the death penalty can be traced to both temperamental differences that are observable as early as 54 months of age, as well as variation in the attitudes people’s parents have about child rearing and discipline,” psychological scientist R. Chris Fraley said in the release.
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