Big Sort

The Stuff in Your Bedroom Signals How You Vote

When Sam Gosling studied the differences between liberal and conservative college students, he and his colleagues went snooping for cleaning supplies. In the dorm rooms of conservatives, they found more cans of Ajax and ironing boards.

In an unpublished paper titled “The Secret Lives of Liberals and Conservatives,” Gosling, a psychology professor at the University of Texas, and three other colleagues* looked for the underlying personality traits that defined left and right. Gosling is the author of Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You . He’s a specialist in analyzing what the things people have around them say about their personalities and beliefs. When it comes to politics, your stuff does define you.

Gosling’s theory is that “ideological differences between left and right are partially rooted in basic personality dispositions.” In particular, Gosling and his co-authors hypothesized that liberals and conservatives differed in two major “personality dimensions.” Liberals are more likely to be open to experiences. Conservatives would score higher on measures of conscientiousness. Liberals would be more motivated by curiosity, creativity, and diversity of experiences. Conservatives would value following the rules, self-control, and order.

The psychologists conducted three tests, and they all produced evidence that liberals did show more openness to experience and conservatives did tend to be attracted to normality. The social scientists took polls and observed subjects in these tests, but the snooping came when investigators looked for physical clues in dorm rooms and offices.

Conservatives’ bedrooms tended to have more calendars and postage stamps. They had more flags and sports posters. Conservatives’ bedrooms were neater and better lit—they had more laundry baskets, ironing boards, cleaning supplies, and sewing thread.

Liberals’ bedrooms had a greater variety of books (especially books about travel, feminism, and music). They had more CDs and a greater variety of music (folk, world, classical). Liberal bedrooms had more art supplies, cultural memorabilia, and maps of other countries.

These same traits carried over to the work life. Conservatives’ offices “tended to be more conventional, less stylish, and less comfortable compared with liberal offices.” Liberals’ offices were more colorful and contained more CDs and “a greater variety of books.”

In summarizing their findings, the four authors concluded, “Liberals did appear to be more open, tolerant, creative, curious, expressive, enthusiastic, and drawn to novelty and diversity, in comparison with conservatives, who appeared to be more conventional, orderly, organized, neat, clean, withdrawn, reserved, rigid, and relatively intolerant.” Ideological differences were indeed more than skin deep.

And these personality differences varied geographically across the nation. In an earlier paper , Gosling found that those open to experience were more likely to live in California, Washington, Oregon, Vermont, Virginia, New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, Maryland, and Colorado. 

Conscientious states included Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, Georgia, North Carolina, and Florida.

Notice a pattern? Like that all but two of the “openness” states in 2004 voted for John Kerry and all but one of the conscientious states sided with George Bush?

Statistician Bob Cushing found these same differences at the metropolitan level using an entirely different set of data. In a study of how people were sorting by city, Cushing compared personality traits in high-tech cities and low-tech cities. High-tech cities were determined by their tech output and patents per capita. There were 21 cities that placed above the national average in both categories, metro areas such as Boise, Austin, Atlanta, Seattle, Denver, Los Angeles, Boston, and Portland.

People living in high-tech cities were more interested in other places and cultures. They were more likely to “try anything once.” They were more likely to be optimistic and to engage in individualistic activities. High-tech cities grew increasingly Democratic in presidential elections from 1980 to 2004 as they collected more people who described themselves as “liberal.” (See our book, The Big Sort , for details.)

The 130 cities with the lowest levels of tech output and patent production grew increasingly Republican. Cushing found that people living in these places were more supportive of traditional authority, more family-oriented, more likely to engage in social activities with other people and more likely to attend church. People who described themselves as conservative were more likely to move there.

The differences—political, ideological, and cultural—were growing between low-tech and high-tech metros.

The election next week may well be a landslide. That doesn’t mean the basic divisions in the country have gone away. “Political orientation appears to pervade almost every aspect of our public and private lives, possibly now more than in recent decades,” Gosling and his co-authors write. “Not only does it describe how we think about and what we value in terms of government and society as a whole, but it also appears to leave its mark on how we behave toward others, travel, decorate our walls, clean our bodies and our homes, and on how we choose to spend our free time.”

The Republican Party is likely to end next Tuesday in a shambles. That’s when the countdown begins for the time when these basic American differences will re-emerge in our politics.

*”The Secret Lives of Liberals and Conservatives: Personality Profiles, Interaction Styles, and the Things They Leave Behind” was co-authored by Gosling, Dana R. Carney at Columbia University, John T. Jost of New York University, and Jeff Potter of Atof Inc. in Cambridge, Mass.