December 11, 2015

Public Interest in Science and Health Linked to Gender, Age and Personality

2. Personality and interest in science, health topics

Beyond demographic differences, there is also an association between personality traits and interest in science and technology topics. In particular, Americans with a tendency to be open to new experiences, regardless of other characteristics, tend to express more interest in science and technology topics.

Rating personality traits There is a long history of attention to personality differences in public thinking and engagement with public affairs. A number of recent studies have shown an association between personality traits and political attitudes and behaviors.8 Many of these studies evaluate a set of five personality traits (known as the Big Five) that are thought to comprise the main factors or dimensions of personality.9 These are openness to experience, conscientiousness, agreeableness, emotional stability and extroversion.

The Pew Research Center survey uses a set of 12 questions to create multi-item indices for each of the Big Five personality dimensions. Openness to experience, a dimension often described as reflecting a tendency to think creatively and imaginatively, was measured based on average ratings of being a creative thinker (vs. a conventional thinker), being intellectual (vs. not intellectual) and being analytical (vs. not analytical). Conscientiousness, a trait linked with successful outcomes on achieving long-term goals, is based on the average ratings of being hardworking (vs. lazy), self-disciplined (vs. impulsive) and organized (vs. disorganized). Agreeableness is based on two self-ratings: being accepting of others (vs. critical of others) and of being sympathetic (vs. unsympathetic). This dimension is associated with a tendency to trust others. Emotional stability is based on ratings of being relaxed (vs. tense) and of being calm (vs. nervous). Those high in emotional stability tend to be less reactive to stress and report less anxiety. Extroversion is based on ratings of being extroverted (vs. introverted) and outgoing (vs. shy).

Self-ratings of personality traits

Personality trait indicesAmericans tend to think of their personalities in positive terms across all five dimensions. Fully eight-in-ten adults consider themselves closer to “hardworking” on a 5-point scale; less than 4% see themselves as closer to “lazy,” and 16% place themselves in the middle of the scale. The pattern leans in the same direction on other ratings. For example, some 72% of adults see themselves as closer to “sympathetic” than to “unsympathetic.” And 67% think of themselves as closer to “intellectual” than to “not intellectual.”

The analysis of personality traits takes this tendency into account by comparing people who, in relative terms, see themselves as more or less likely to reflect each trait across the set of ratings. On each personality index,10 respondents with average ratings above the overall mean were classified as “high” on that trait and those below the mean were classified as “low.”

Interest in science and technology is related to openness to experience

Americans higher on openness to experience index are more likely to be interested in science and technologyAmericans who are more open to experience on the three-item index are more likely than those who are less open to experience to say science and technology is of particular interest to them. Two-thirds of respondents higher on openness to experience say they are interested in science and technology topics, including 39% who rank science and technology among the topics of most interest to them. By contrast, 23% of those lower on openness to experience identify science and technology topics as being of particular interest, while 52% say these topics are not of interest.

There are modest differences in interest on other Big Five traits. Some 26% of those with higher conscientiousness say science and technology is most interesting to them, compared with 34% of those lower on the conscientiousness index.

And introverts express more interest in science and technology topics than do extroverts; 61% of those lower on extroversion say they are interested in science and technology topics, compared with 52% among those higher on the extroversion scale.

There are no significant differences in science and technology interest by traits of agreeableness or emotional stability, however. And interest in health and medicine topics is not strongly associated with personality traits. Contrary to interest in science and technology, there is a tendency among women who are lower on openness to experience to say health and medicine are in the top three topics of interest relative to women higher on openness to experience, but there is no association between openness to experience and interest in health and medicine among men. None of the other four personality traits are associated with interest in health and medicine topics.

  1. For examples of this research, see Caprara, Vittorio Gian and Michele Vecchione. 2013. “Personality Approaches to Political Behavior” in The Oxford Handbook of Political Psychology Second Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, Gerber, Alan S. et al. 2011. “Personality Traits and Participation in Political Processes.” Journal of Politics 73(3): 692-706, Mondak, Jeffrey J. 2010. Personality and the Foundations of Political Behavior. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  2. See McCrae, R.R. and P.T. Costa. 2003. Personality in adulthood: A five factor theory perspective, Second Edition. New York: Guilford Press.
  3. Alpha reliability coefficients for each index are as follows: 0.50 on openness to experience (three items), 0.55 on conscientiousness (three items); 0.51 on agreeableness (two items), 0.74 on emotional stability (two items) and 0.77 on extraversion (two items).