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Who Cares About Politics?

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Buttons from the 2009 Barack Obama presidential campaign.
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The election season is a time of abundance for those who love following politics — each datum, debate or debacle offers new fodder for discussion and commentary. But for those who aren't so keen on politics, a myopic focus on policy and polls can be tiresome.

What accounts for this variation across individuals, from the politically engrossed to the largely apathetic?

There's quite a bit of research on what determines an individual's party affiliation and political positions. But beyond particular views is the more basic question of political interest. Here, too, research reveals some surprising and some not-so-surprising patterns in who cares about politics, at least in the United States.

First, there's evidence that personality matters. One analysis of three distinct data sets, each including hundreds of participants, found that people who were more open to experience (as reflected by traits like curiosity and intelligence) were more likely to show a high level of interest in politics, to report following politics, to be politically informed, and to engage in political discussions. Extraverts were likely to engage in political discussions, but not so likely to be politically informed. More surprisingly, people who were highly conscientious (e.g., organized, responsible) were neither particularly informed nor interested in politics, and those who were highly agreeable (e.g., warm, sympathetic) had a modest but consistent tendency to avoid political matters.

Second, there's evidence that beliefs about government can have a significant influence on a person's political interest. People who believe that government is attentive to public opinion and responsive to the people are more likely to report high levels of interest in politics. This makes a lot of sense — people are more interested when they think that their opinions matter.

Third, there's evidence that demographic factors are associated with political interest. On average, the very young and the very old show less political interest, and the more educated show greater political interest. Political interest is also spread unevenly across political affiliations — data from the PEW Research Center, for example, suggests that "solid liberals" and "steadfast conservatives" are more interested in politics than those who hold more mixed views.

Another demographic characteristic that may be important is gender. An analysis of data from 1984 found that on average, American women reported less interest in politics than American men. This is potentially surprising in light of the fact that women voted at comparable rates to men during that period.

One relevant difference between men and women may be their sense for their own political competence: Women were less likely to believe that they could understand what happens in government and politics, and this belief was associated with lower levels of political interest. Consistent with this idea, an experimental study published earlier this year found that when women's perceived competence was increased, their political interest went up as well.

Another factor affecting women's relative disinterest is the under-representation of women in powerful political positions. A 1997 paper reported mixed but suggestive evidence that the gap between men and women was driven by the perception that "politics is a man's world"; subsequent evidence supports the idea that with qualified female candidates running for office, women become more politically engaged.

Finally, there's evidence that political events can influence political interest, but this influence is surprisingly small. An analysis of multiple datasets across several countries found that a person's level of political interest is relatively stable over time. The exception was in Germany in the period after reunification, suggesting that major political turmoil can lead to flux in general interest, but that by and large a person's level of interest is more affected by her personal characteristics than by the particular political events of the day. Those personal characteristics, in turn, are a mix of both genetic and environmental influences — the very things that influence our personality, beliefs and beyond.

Tania Lombrozo is a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. She writes about psychology, cognitive science and philosophy, with occasional forays into parenting and veganism. You can keep up with more of what she is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo