Expert Commentary

The politics of mate choice

2011 study in the Journal of Politics on the degree of political similarity among couples.

Political candidates have long been exposed to public scrutiny, but in recent election cycles, media attention has focused on their spouses as well. Questions of motivation, political affiliation and “shared sensibilities” often arise. This public scrutiny, moreover, prompts larger questions about political affinity within relationships in general.

A 2011 study in the Journal of Politics, “The Politics of Mate Choice,” seeks to understand whether attitudes and behaviors are shared between spouses. The authors examined data on more than 5,000 couples in the United States to compare personality and physical traits, behaviors, and moral and political attitudes within relationships. To characterize the degree of spousal similarities, the researchers used a scale whereby a positive correlation is expressed as a decimal value between 0 and 1. The closer a correlation is to 1, the stronger the match and the more alike the couple along that dimension.

The study’s findings include:

  • Couples show strong concordance in political affiliation: inter-spousal party affiliation is highly correlated, whether Democrat (0.527) or Republican (0.498).
  • Social attitudes underpinning political affiliation are highly correlated: correlation of church attendance between spouses is 0.714. Other highly correlated views include abortion (0.631), prayer in school (0.647) and gay rights (0.581).
  • Personality traits are positively, but minimally, correlated: of five personality measures, three show low correlation and both impulsivity and extraversion are not statistically significant.
  • Similarly, the correlation across spouses for physical traits, like height and weight, is positive but low.

Generally, the authors found that individuals tend to select politically like-minded mates, rather than assimilating views to reach shared opinions over the course of the marriage. They conclude that the findings “offer a novel contributing explanation for the enduring tendency toward ideological division in political life — an explanation suggesting that the timeless character of political divisiveness may emanate not just from the machinations of elites but also from the nuances of courtship.”

Tags: marriage, gay issues, religion

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