The belief that creativity and political conservatism are negatively correlated is widespread not only among the general public (except, maybe, among some conservatives), but among researchers in a variety of fields. And there are some indirect empirical justifications for this belief. Political conservatism is associated with less openness to experience (as measured with Big Five inventories), and highly positively correlated with fear of uncertainty. Both relationships imply less creativity. However, only with a paper by Stephen Dollinger(1) in press in the journal Personality and Individual Differences have psychologists begun to study the relationship between creativity and conservatism directly.
The paper describes a study conducted over 2 years with 422 undergraduates enrolled in a psychology course. The students first completed several questionnaires. These included an updated abbreviated version of the C-scale, which measures political conservatism with questions assessing participants’ positions on issues like abortion and gay rights; the Creative Behavior Inventory (CBI), which measures how often participants have engaged in various creative activities (e.g., writing poetry, painting, or crafts); a verbal ability test; and the Big Five Inventory, which was included to measure openness to experience. Participants then completed a task that required them to complete a drawing any way they chose. About 60% of the participants also completed a photo essay task, in which they produced photos and accompanying text to answer the question, “Who are you?” The drawing and photo essay tasks were included as additional measures of creativity. Both of these were scored on a creativity scale by raters (MFA students, for the drawings) who were blind to the study’s purpose and to the political scores of the participants.
Dollinger found that conservatism (as measured by the C-scale) was negatively correlated (ranging from -.22 to -.31, all moderate correlations) with each of the measures — the CBI, verbal ability, openness to experience (as measured by the BFI), and rated creativity in both the drawing and photo essay tasks. Since conservatism was correlated with each variable, and each variable might be related to the others (openness to experience and verbal ability are almost surely correlated with creativity), Dollinger calculated the partial correlations (correlations that control for the other variables) between conservatism and the three measures of creativity. He found that conservatism was still negatively correlated with creativity (correlations ranging from -.15 to -.21). The partial correlations (as well as regression coefficients, which he also computed) are relatively small, but given the sample size, highly statistically significant.
So, it seems there is a small, negative relationship between conservatism and creativity. It’s important to keep in mind, though, that we’re speaking in generalities here. There have been extremely creative political conservatives over the years (A.E. Housman, Ezra Pound, and Evelyn Waugh come to mind). Furthermore, this is a preliminary study, using fairly inexact measures of creativity. Of course, since three different measures of creativity produced the same results, the inexactness is less of a concern, but it still means that further research is necessary. And of course, Dollinger’s participants were all college undergrads. It’s entirely possible, perhaps even likely, that creativity and conservatism change over a lifetime. The relationship between the two may change as well, then. In fact, Dollinger’s own data provides evidence for this. The correlation between conservatism and the CBI for participants between 18-24 years old was -.25 (that’s not the partial correlation, of course). However, for the 48 participants between 25 and 53, the correlation was -.48 (in personality psychology, that’s a very strong correlation!). This implies that as people age, the relationship between conservatism and creativity may become even more negative, though the small sample size makes generalization difficult.