People marry for politics, not looks

RICE (US) — A study of more than 5,000 American couples shows that most people marry only those whose political views align with their own.

“It turns out that people place more emphasis on finding a mate who is a kindred spirit with regard to politics, religion, and social activity than they do on finding someone of like physique or personality,” says John Alford, associate professor of political science at Rice University and lead author of the study published in the Journal of Politics.

“It suggests that, perhaps, if you’re looking for a long-term romantic relationship, skip ‘What’s your sign?’ and go straight to ‘Obama or Palin?'” Alford adds. “And if you get the wrong answer, just walk away.”

On a scale of 0 to 1, where 1 means perfectly matched, physical traits (body shape, weight, and height) only score between 0.1 and 0.2 among spouse pairs. Personality traits, such as extroversion or impulsivity, are also weak and fall within the 0 to 0.2 range.

By comparison, the score for political ideology is more than 0.6, higher than any of the other measured traits except frequency of church attendance, which was just over 0.7.

The study adds to recent “sorting research” that has uncovered a surprising level of uniformity in Americans’ personal political communication networks—where they live, with whom they socialize, and where they work.

Alford and his co-authors note that sorting is not the only reason for spouses’ political uniformity, but it is clearly the most powerful. More traditional explanations for the political similarity of spouses turned out to have only modest effects and account for only about 10 percent of the similarity between long-term partners.

Social homogamy—or the tendency for people to choose a mate from within one’s own religious, social, economic, and educational surroundings—played only a small role.

Similarly, the researchers found little support for interspousal persuasion, the notion that partners tend to adapt to one another’s political beliefs over time—a discovery that could have implications on partisan politics for generations to come, the researchers said.

“We did expect to find a strong political bond between husbands and wives,” says John Hibbing, a professor of political science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a co-author of the study. “But we were surprised that political concordance seems to exist from the very early years in the marriage, instead of the folk wisdom of mates growing more alike politically as their relationship goes along.”

The authors says this sorting can have a big impact on the future of American politics: If parents transmit political traits to their children, then the practice of liberals marrying liberals and conservatives marrying conservatives seems likely to increase political uniformity into the next generation.

“Obviously, parents are very influential in shaping the political beliefs of their children,” Hibbing says. “If both parents are on the left or on the right, it makes it more difficult for a child to be something different. It may be part of the reason why we see such polarization.”

This means that marriage—a major means by which diversity enters into extended families—doesn’t actually contribute much to the political “melting pot,” Alford said.

“Instead, marriage works largely to reinforce the ongoing ideological polarization that we see so clearly today,” he says.

Researchers from the University of Iowa, Queensland Institute of Medical Research, and Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics collaborated on the study.

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