‘Feminine’ traits linked to higher trust in government

Last modified February 1, 2021. Published February 1, 2021.
Trust in the government seems linked to a more feminine personality. (AP Photo/Alexandru Dobre)

Trust in the government seems linked to a more feminine personality. (AP Photo/Alexandru Dobre)

People with “feminine” personalities are substantially more likely than their “nonfeminine” counterparts to trust the government, according to new research, suggesting that gender, not biological sex, could be a fundamental driver of many political attitudes and behaviors.

In an article published Dec. 14 in Politics & Gender, co-authors Monika L. McDermott of Fordham University and David R. Jones of Baruch College said “femininity,” defined by a non-sex-specific personality profile, is linked to substantially higher trust in the U.S. government — a finding with potentially wide-ranging implications for understanding how one’s personality impacts one’s politics.

Political trust “has a wide variety of important effects in a political system,” according to the researchers, including by shaping policy views, vote choice and even compliance with laws. Understanding what contributes to political trust can help explain how to bolster faith in democratic institutions and ensure they succeed, McDermott told The Academic Times.

“And the whole idea is that it’s not necessarily whether you have a uterus or not that determines what your political attitudes are later in life,” she added. “It’s the question of what your personality is, [which] leads to preferences and behavior.”

Prior research had found a “gender gap” between men and women along many dimensions, McDermott and Jones said, but hadn’t shown systematic differences in political trust between genders because research hadn’t parsed the relevant distinction between an individual’s biological sex and his or her gender. 

This limited empirical work across the discipline, according to the researchers.

“We know that gender is not the same thing as sex,” they wrote. “And yet political science research predominantly treats them as interchangeable.”

The researchers used survey data from 1,022 respondents in October 2016 to gather information on individuals’ levels of trust in the federal government, gauged by their responses to questions about trust and confidence in the executive and legislative branches, Democrats and Republicans in Congress and “the government in Washington” generally.

The researchers developed a survey with 10 traits they defined as “masculine,” including self-reliance, independence and assertiveness, and 10 traits they defined as “feminine,” such as loyalty, compassion and sensitivity to others’ needs. Respondents were asked to rate themselves with respect to these traits, and responses were then rolled into a "unified femininity index."

The survey also gathered information on demographics and a range of other variables known to influence political trust or political attitudes more generally, including ideology, presidential approval, education and political involvement level.

McDermott and Jones found that sex correlated with higher levels of trust in only three of the six components of trust in government, reflecting the “mixed bag” of results observed in similar studies. By contrast, "femininity" itself was significantly correlated with higher levels of trust in five of the six components.

By using a "feminine" personality profile — rather than the definition of biologically female — to evaluate levels of trust in government, researchers found strong evidence that political trust is related to communal traits, which make people with "feminine" personalities “more likely to have faith in what government does.”

Even when controlling for other variables likely to impact political trust, the link remained — and had a big impact, according to the researchers. While respondents with no "feminine" traits had a .21 probability of trusting congressional Democrats, for example, the probability jumped to .49 among respondents with the highest levels of "femininity."

Similar, more modest effects were noted for trust in the legislative branch, congressional Republicans and Washington generally.

“In other words, the effects are not only statistically significant, but also substantial,” McDermott and Jones said. “Given how little trust there generally is in the government in the modern day … any positive shift should be noteworthy.”

On the other hand, "masculine" traits don’t have a clear effect one way or the other on political trust — a finding the researchers said shows the personality profiles aren’t opposites and that "masculine" personalities may not have reason to “lean systematically one way or another” regarding faith in the government.

By distinguishing gender from sex, McDermott and Jones said, researchers can drill down more precisely on the links between political phenomena and often-overlooked aspects of personality — which, though they may be culturally associated with one sex or the other, aren’t intrinsically rooted in biology.

That more careful approach could also improve our understanding of “real-world politics,” the researchers said, including why some individuals are more likely to support incumbent politicians and why trust in the American government has declined across the board over the past 30 years.

The article “Gender, Sex, and Trust in Government,” published online Dec. 14 in Politics & Gender, was co-authored by professor Monika McDermott, Fordham University, and professor David R. Jones, Baruch College.

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