Tobias Heide-Jørgensen, University of Copenhagen
Peter Thisted Dinesen, University of Copenhagen
Kim Mannemar Sønderskov, Aarhus University
Why do people disagree strongly over how much the government should redistribute economic resources? This is an important question if we want to understand the foundation and dynamics of support for the welfare state, which has income redistribution as one of its main functions. One dominant perspective in the literature emphasizes the role of ideology when people form political attitudes, in general, and toward redistribution more specifically. Another, and typically rivalling perspective, highlights people’s economic self-interest as the prime reason for their support or opposition to government efforts to reduce differences in income levels. However, both perspectives have been questioned, as research finds that people are generally neither very likely to hold ideologically consistent and stable attitudes nor to be motivated by material self-interest when they make up their mind politically.
Building on personality research, we argue in the article that individual differences are important for understanding whether people base their attitudes toward redistribution on ideology or self-interest. Specifically, we theorize that people who are high in the Big Five personality trait openness to experience rely more on ideology when forming attitudes toward redistribution and less on their own material interests. And vice versa for individuals who are low in openness and therefore more close-minded. We base this on previous work showing that open people are analytical, creative, and philosophical—traits that should promote an abstract and ideational approach to politics—whereas close-minded individuals are risk averse and uncertainty intolerant and therefore likely to be motivated by tangible economic circumstances when forming attitudes toward redistribution.
We test our claims using high-quality Danish registry data on income linked to panel survey data on political attitudes, ideological orientations, and personality. This allows us to analyze how the relationship between people’s self-interest (measured by their actual income), ideology (measured by left-right self-placement), and their support for redistribution depends on their level of openness. Because we use panel data, we are able to study this longitudinally and can thereby address many potential sources of confounding.
Consistent with our argument, we find that increasing income only leads to lower support for income redistribution among close-minded individuals and that the link between left-right orientations and redistributive preferences is stronger for people with a highly open personality. We find tentative but less consistent evidence for the same patterns using American survey data.
The findings have two important implications. First, we show that both self-interest and ideology matter for people’s attitudes toward redistribution but not for the same kinds of people. Those most likely to think in terms of their ideological inclinations will generally not be the ones that are motivated by material self-interest, and vice versa. We think that this finding might help bridge material and ideational perspectives on political behavior. Second, the article contributes to work on the political significance of personality differences. In line with some recent research, we show that personality is not only important as a determinant in itself but might also condition the influence of other more classical predictors of political behavior. This highlights the need to take differences in personality seriously not only in political psychology but also in the study of political behavior and in political science more broadly.