Gen Z is often described as an activist generation; however, a recent national poll highlighted that fewer young Americans plan on voting this November compared to 2020.

“Political engagement takes a lot of different forms,” said psychologist Xiaowen Xu. “Young voters may not be as motivated to vote because they don’t feel that any party cares about what they care about.”

As an assistant professor in the William & Mary psychological sciences department, Xu examines political ideology and its expressions using a personality and individual differences perspective. 

Her analysis-in-progress of the 2022 midterm elections suggests that younger voters seem most likely to participate politically when they feel they can get their voice heard. 

Politicians who don’t act on pressing issues, or are perceived as such, can cause distrust in the electoral process altogether. The prolonged feeling of not having control, Xu explained, can potentially lead to learned helplessness – an assumption of powerlessness that follows a series of negative experiences. 

“This could potentially translate into, ‘Well, my vote doesn’t matter,’” she said.

Assistant Professor of Psychological Sciences Xiaowen Xu.
Assistant Professor Xiaowen Xu.

Xu presented preliminary findings from her study, which aligns with the W&M democracy initiative, at a W&M “Research in Progress” STEM talk last fall. Two posters with early data were presented by students in Xu’s lab: one by Lana Cowley ’24 at the Network for Undergraduate Research in Virginia (NURVa) Conference in November 2023 and one by graduate student Joyce Forster at the Annual Convention for the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in February 2024.

William & Mary students were integral part of this research: The study included a sample of W&M undergraduates as well as an online community sample, and students from the Dispositions, Goals, & Ideology (DiGI) Lab contributed to study design and data cleaning.

Assessing personality traits using the “Big Five” (or Five-Factor) model of personality, Xu confirmed that traits such as openness to experience and extraversion remained key predictors of political engagement. Other traits from the model are conscientiousness (being careful and disciplined), agreeableness (associated with warmth and kindness) and neuroticism (tendency to worry about things); each trait can be divided into distinct aspects allowing a more nuanced understanding.

In welcoming interdisciplinary perspectives, Xu also recognized the existence of other barriers to voting beyond those related to personality. As far as her research is concerned, she said that leveraging personality traits may help make political participation relevant to different people. 

She also found that personality traits seemed to be good predictors of what issues mattered to different people – something that campaigns and parties should take note of. 

Climate change and abortion emerged as the top priorities for participants from the study and were associated with openness to experience – which Xu had previously correlated with receptiveness to societal change – and agreeableness.

Xu explained that her research is part of an extensive literature on the psychological processes behind political ideology and engagement.

“We think that voters look at campaigns and then make rational judgments,” she said. “Except that’s not really the case: There are a lot of psychological factors involved.”

Previous research from Xu and colleagues had demonstrated that voters often tend to support candidates they perceive to have similar personalities to their own. Such preferences are not independent of political affiliation – rather, they reflect a combination of general traits associated with political orientation and specific traits associated with candidates.

Xu said that knowledge of such dynamics can lead to more informed voting decisions. When voters are more aware of what’s important to them, they may more easily identify a candidate who shares their priorities. 

They may also be more likely to ask themselves, “Does this candidate actually embody these characteristics, or do I just think they do?” 

Today’s decisions are going to affect the policies that get passed and will determine the next 20 or 30 years, said Xu, explaining her choice to focus on the youth vote.

“Democracy only works when people actually participate,” she said. “Young people are the future of this country, and I believe they have a lot more deciding power than they think they do.”

, Senior Research Writer