Social psychology

New research shows that people low in self-esteem are much more likely to blame their personal problems on politics

people low in self esteem and control blame personal problems on politics - US Congress meeting
People low in self-esteem and sense of control tend to blame their personal problems on politics.

A new study shows that people who score low in self-esteem, and who have a lower sense of control over their lives, are more likely to blame politics for their own personal problems.

The study appeared on May 2 in the journal American Politics Research.

Blaming personal problems on politics

The idea that some people are more likely than others to blame the political system for their personal problems is not an obvious one. Most past research has actually shown, for example, that people evaluate elected politicians based on ideology and values more than on their own socioeconomic status.

So researchers Vanessa Baird and Jennifer Wolak of the University of Colorado Boulder wanted to find out if and why some people feel differently.

To research this question, they used data from the 2016 version of the Cooperative Election Study (then known as the Cooperative Congressional Election Study). This is an annual national survey administered by research firm YouGov. For this particular study, the respondents consisted of a nationally representative sample of 1,000 adult residents of the United States.

Assessing blame: one in four blame politics

The researchers first asked the participants how strongly they agree or disagree (on a scale of 1 to 7) with the statement “I believe that the problems in my life are caused by the problems in our political system.” About 51% said they disagreed, about 25% agreed, and the other quarter neither agreed nor disagreed.

This finding is consistent with prior studies that have found that “most people” do not blame the political system for their personal problems.

But it also shows that about a quarter of the population do indeed blame politics for their personal challenges. Why might this be? And what distinguishes those people from the other three quarters of the population?

Measuring one’s sense of control and self-esteem

One factor that the researchers measured is called “locus of control.” It indicates how strongly a person believes that they can take control of the challenges they face in their personal lives. To measure this trait, the researchers asked the participants to respond (again on a scale of 1 to 7) to the statement “I believe the problems in my life are completely out of my control.” The researchers also measured the participants’ levels of self-esteem.

Results: locus of control and blaming personal problems on politics

They found that differences in people’s personality traits are important predictors of why some people blame the political system for their personal problems, and others do not.

In terms of locus of control, they found that respondents who felt they had the least control over their lives scored a 0.62 on the indicator of blaming the government. At the other extreme, people who felt they had the greatest degree of control over their lives scored a 0.28, a difference of about one and a third standard deviations.

“People who believe that they are able to control their own futures through their efforts and industry,” the researchers write, “also see their personal challenges as their own responsibility.” But when people do not believe they have much control over their situation, they are more likely to blame the political system for their personal circumstances.

Self-esteem also predicts the likelihood of blaming things on politics

They also found that personal self-esteem, too, predicts whether people believe that their personal struggles are (or aren’t) the fault of the political system. Respondents who reported higher levels of self-esteem were more likely to reject the idea that their problems have political roots: those with the highest levels of self-esteem scored 0.37 on the indicator of blaming the government, versus 0.47 for those with the lowest levels of self-esteem, a difference of about one third of a standard deviation.

“When people have confidence in themselves and their abilities,” the authors write, “they are less likely to see their personal challenges as politically rooted.”

Other factors: education, religion, political beliefs, and demographics

The researchers also controlled for a number of other factors. They found, for example, that people with higher levels of education were less likely to blame their personal problems on the government. “As years of schooling increase, so does the likelihood of rejecting the idea that personal problems have political origins,” the authors wrote.

Also, those who scored higher on a measure of supporting democratic principles were also less likely to look for political explanations to their personal problems. And more religious people were also a bit more likely to implicate politics as a cause of their personal challenges.

Interestingly, political orientation had very little impact on the results: Democrats and Republicans were no different in their likelihood to see their personal problems as being due to politics. Independents, however, were somewhat more likely to blame politics than strong partisans were.

In terms of demographics, men were more likely than women to say that their personal problems have political origins, and younger people were more likely to do so than older people. There were no differences in terms of ethnicity.

Economic hardship and criminal victimization

Surprisingly, one’s personal economic situation had no effect on assigning blame to the government. “Those who have seen their own financial situation decline over recent years,” the study writes, “are no more likely to believe their problems have political origins than those who have seen their household finances improve.”

The authors say this finding adds credence to their hypothesis that political grievances of this type have more to do with personality traits than with one’s personal financial circumstances.

People who had been the victim of a crime, on the other hand, were slightly more likely to believe that their personal problems are the fault of politics, but the size of this effect was small.

Understanding why people blame their personal problems on government

These findings can help researchers better understand the origins of people’s political grievances, “and the conditions under which disadvantages rise to the level of a complaint against government,” the authors write.

“When people blame government for their personal challenges, they may well have reasonable grounds to do so,” the study says. But at the same time, these results suggest that “government is also held responsible for problems that it did not create.”

This tendency, in turn, helps explain the sense of mistrust and alienation that stem from people’s frustrations with the political system. When people’s grievances result from personal characteristics that the political system cannot change, then perhaps there will always be some people who feel politically aggrieved.

In sum, the researchers write, people who believe that their personal challenges are due to politics are not necessarily those who have faced greater hardships. Instead, “the assignment of blame to the political system has more to do with people’s personality traits, how they see themselves, and their sense of control over their own futures.”

People low in self-esteem are more likely to believe that politics is responsible for the hardships they have encountered, and people who feel little sense of control over their lives are more likely to think these outcomes are intertwined with the political system.

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Study: “Why Some Blame Politics for Their Personal Problems”
Authors: Vanessa Baird and Jennifer Wolak
Published in: American Politics Research.
Publication date: May 2, 2021
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X211013463
Photo: Lawrence Jackson, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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