Contrary to folk wisdom, political beliefs stable over time

“If you’re not a liberal at 20, you have no heart; and if you’re not a conservative by 30, you have no brain.”

The old adage is credited to, among others, political heavyweight Winston Churchill and literary legend Victor Hugo. Who said it is less important than whether the underlying theory – that we grow more conservative as we get older – bears out.

Contrary to this folk wisdom, new research from University of Nebraska–Lincoln political scientists suggests political ideologies and beliefs stay stable over time.

So What?

Kevin Smith, John Hibbing and alumnus Johnathan Peterson mined data from the Michigan Youth-Parent Socialization Study, which began following high schoolers and their parents in 1965. Surveys of the same cohort were repeated in 1973, 1982 and 1997, ending with 935 survey participants.

The scholars found that three-quarters of the cohort remained stable over time. Of those 25% who changed, four-fifths moved in a conservative direction, demonstrating that if movement is made on the political spectrum, it is most likely toward conservatism.

Now what?

The study’s findings line up with past political science studies, but the picture is more nuanced than previously suggested. More research is needed. Additional study would require longitudinal surveys focused on political attitudes, which are currently very rare.

“Whether because of genetics, powerful early socialization, or the impressionable nature of late adolescence and early adulthood we find that existing political science research is correct in emphasizing the stability of political orientations over the course of the lifespan,” the authors wrote. “Acknowledgement of this stability, however, should not be so complete as to blind us to the fact that, as is so often the case, folk wisdom contains a glimmer of truth.”

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