Trying to predict political outcomes? Look at political ideology

August 14, 2023 - Shelly DeJong

Traditional wisdom holds that to predict a political outcome, it is best to look at how strongly a person adheres to a political party. However, a recent study by social psychologists from Michigan State University and Tilburg University in the Netherlands reveals that ideological identities, like aligning with liberal or conservative views, play a crucial role in keeping political attitudes stable. This research deepens our understanding of the factors that shape individuals’ opinions and values on political issues over an extended period.

In two comprehensive studies carried out in the United States and the Netherlands, the research team surveyed the same individuals about a variety of political issues at regular intervals over six months and one year, respectively. They then tested what predicted stability in attitudes across the periods.

The study, led by Felicity Turner-Zwinkels, a social psychologist from Tilburg University’s Department of Sociology, revealed that the majority of individuals demonstrated relatively stable attitudes. People who strongly identified as either conservative or liberal (in the United States) or left-wing or right-wing (in the Netherlands) exhibited greater stability in their attitudes. This finding underscores the crucial role that ideological identities play in shaping individuals’ perspectives.

“This suggests how strongly people see themselves as liberal or conservative is important for the stability of their issue positions and may help provide structure to their political opinions,” said Mark Brandt, researcher and associate professor of psychology at MSU. “We hope that this work helps convince scholars that people’s ideological identities are important to take seriously. Although many things do boil down to party identity, it isn’t everything.”

Interestingly, the strength of political party identification was found to be a predictor of stability only in the Netherlands, not in the United States. This suggests that while party affiliation is influential in specific contexts, ideological identification consistently plays a pivotal role in shaping and maintaining stable issue positions. Notably, factors such as political interest, age, education, income and ethnicity did not significantly impact attitude stability.