Sunday, January 31, 2021

Why are grandiose narcissists more effective at organizational politics? Means, motive, and opportunity

Why are grandiose narcissists more effective at organizational politics? Means, motive, and opportunity. Charles A. O'Reilly, Jeffrey Pfeffer. Personality and Individual Differences, Volume 172, April 2021, 110557.


• Grandiose narcissists often emerge as leaders in organizations.

• But the evidence is that they are no more qualified than non-narcissists.

• In 3 studies, we show that this may be because they are more effective political actors.

• We discuss the potential negative implications for this for organizations.

Abstract: Research over the past decade has shown that grandiose narcissists are often successful at attaining leadership positions in organizations. However, there is no evidence that narcissists lead higher performing firms, and while they see themselves as more competent leaders, there is no evidence for this, either. In fact, research shows that narcissistic leaders have numerous negative effects on the entities they lead. This raises a question: Why are narcissists so successful in attaining leadership positions? We suggest that the defining characteristics of grandiose narcissism (grandiosity, self-confidence, entitlement, and a willingness to exploit others for one's own self-interest) may make them more effective organizational politicians than those who are lower in narcissism. We report the results of three studies that show: (1) those higher in narcissism are more likely than those who are lower to see organizations in political terms (opportunity), (2) they are more willing to engage in organizational politics (motive), and (3) they are more skilled political actors (means). We discuss the implications of these results for organizational dynamics and career processes.

Keywords: PersonalityGrandiose narcissismLeadershipOrganizationsPolitics

International Math Olympiad (IMO) medalists: We show that migrants to the U.S. are up to six times more productive than migrants to other countries—even after accounting for talent during one's teenage years

Agarwal, Ruchir and Ganguli, Ina and Gaule, Patrick and Smith, Geoff, Why U.S. Immigration Barriers Matter for the Global Advancement of Science. IZA Discussion Paper No. 14016, Jan 11 2021.

Abstract: This paper studies the impact of U.S. immigration barriers on global knowledge production. We present four key findings. First, among Nobel Prize winners and Fields Medalists, migrants to the U.S. play a central role in the global knowledge network— representing 20-33% of the frontier knowledge producers. Second, using novel survey data and hand-curated life-histories of International Math Olympiad (IMO) medalists, we show that migrants to the U.S. are up to six times more productive than migrants to other countries—even after accounting for talent during one's teenage years. Third, financing costs are a key factor preventing foreign talent from migrating abroad to pursue their dream careers, particularly talent from developing countries. Fourth, certain 'push' incentives that reduce immigration barriers – by addressing financing constraints for top foreign talent – could increase the global scientific output of future cohorts by 42% percent. We conclude by discussing policy options for the U.S. and the global scientific community.

JEL Classification: O33, O38, F22, J61

Why developing good psychological theories is so hard: Relative lack of robust phenomena that impose constraints on possible theories, problems of validity of psychological constructs, & obstacles to discovering causal relationships

The Theory Crisis in Psychology: How to Move Forward. Markus I. Eronen, Laura F. Bringmann. Perspectives on Psychological Science, January 29, 2021.

Abstract: Meehl argued in 1978 that theories in psychology come and go, with little cumulative progress. We believe that this assessment still holds, as also evidenced by increasingly common claims that psychology is facing a “theory crisis” and that psychologists should invest more in theory building. In this article, we argue that the root cause of the theory crisis is that developing good psychological theories is extremely difficult and that understanding the reasons why it is so difficult is crucial for moving forward in the theory crisis. We discuss three key reasons based on philosophy of science for why developing good psychological theories is so hard: the relative lack of robust phenomena that impose constraints on possible theories, problems of validity of psychological constructs, and obstacles to discovering causal relationships between psychological variables. We conclude with recommendations on how to move past the theory crisis.

Keywords: theory, phenomena, robustness, validity, causation


I could add, tentatively, this one: lack of geniuses like Newton or Einstein.

In this article, we have discussed three fundamental difficulties in developing good psychological theories: the lack of (sufficient) robust phenomena, the lack of validity and epistemic iteration for psychological constructs, and the problem of establishing psychological causes. These issues should be addressed and discussed to make progress in resolving the theory crisis. We now outline several recommendations for psychological research on the basis of these issues.

First, our discussion supports the recent calls for more “phenomena detection” or “phenomenon-driven research” in psychology (Borsboom et al., 2021De Houwer, 2011Haig, 2013; see also Trafimow & Earp, 2016). By discovering new phenomena and gathering more robust evidence for those already discovered, the space of possible theories will be constrained.

Another important reason to support phenomenon-driven research is that phenomena can also be extremely important for science and society as such (Eronen, 2020): Consider, for example, the broad range of cognitive biases that psychologists have discovered, such as confirmation bias, most of which are very robust phenomena (Gilovich et al., 2002). Various theories have been proposed to explain these phenomena, such as the attribute-substitution theory, according to which people substitute difficult computations with simple heuristics, or the more general dual-system theory (Kahneman & Frederick, 2002). However, these theories are far more controversial than the phenomena themselves. Moreover, knowing that these phenomena exist is extremely important for science and society, even if we do not know the theory or mechanism behind them. The same holds for a broad range of other robust phenomena discovered in psychology, for example, the phenomenon that people tend to prefer familiar stimuli to unfamiliar ones (i.e., the mere-exposure effect; Bornstein, 1989). Simply knowing that these phenomena exist and describing them is useful, even in the absence of an accepted theory that would explain them.

In addition to being discovered and being described, phenomena can also be further analyzed by looking for shared abstract structures in different phenomena (Hughes et al., 2016). For example, at an abstract level, phenomena as different as constantly checking your phone and rewarding the good behavior of children with candy can both be seen as instances of (positive) reinforcement (Hughes et al., 2016). For all of these reasons, phenomena detection should be seen as an important goal in itself and as a central part of psychological research (see also Fiedler, 2017Haig, 2013Rozin, 2001).

However, we by no means intend to suggest that theorizing in psychology is hopeless or a waste of resources or that we should return to a kind of behaviorism in which theories about mental processes are rejected as unscientific. The issues we have raised should not be seen as insurmountable obstacles but rather as challenges that need to be met before good psychological theories can be developed in a given domain.

This brings us to our next point: It is doubtful whether making psychological theories more mathematical or formal, which is a common theme in the recent literature (e.g., Borsboom et al., 2021Muthukrishna & Henrich, 2019Oberauer & Lewandowsky, 2019van Rooij & Baggio, 2020), will lead to significant advances in psychology as a science.5 None of the problems we have discussed is solved by formalizing psychological theories: There will still be no large body of robust phenomena to constrain the theories, the constructs used do not become more valid, and a formal treatment alone does not solve the problem of causality and fat-handed interventions. Moreover, many successful and extremely important theories in the life sciences are not formalized or mathematical theories (e.g., the fermentation theory or the theory of synaptic transmission; Bechtel & Richardson, 1993Machamer, Darden & Craver, 2000). As pointed out by Rozin (2001; see also Morey et al., 2018), using complex statistical and computational models does not make psychology more scientific and can be even counterproductive if the conceptual and empirical basis (e.g., robust phenomena) is not yet solid.

Finally, it is hard to overemphasize the importance of having clearly and transparently defined concepts as the basis for theories. Note that this is not the same as formalization of theories: Concepts can be well defined in qualitatively formulated theories as well (e.g., Darwin’s theory of evolution), and formal theories can have poorly defined concepts as their elements (e.g., models in memetics that have a clear mathematical structure but for which the central concept “meme” is not well defined; Kronfeldner, 2011). Conceptual clarification and construct validation should be seen as an important and valuable parts of research, and validation should be taken to be an iterative and ongoing process instead of just a hurdle that needs be crossed. In our view, strengthening the conceptual basis of psychological theories is at least as important as improving statistical techniques and practices in psychological research.

In the long run, this will also help with the problem of causal inference, as having clearly defined and clearly measurable constructs makes it easier to perform targeted interventions and to track their effects. With sufficiently well-defined constructs and valid measurements, it may also be possible to eventually infer causal relationships from purely observational data (for more, see, e.g., Eronen, 2020Rohrer, 2018). Another possible reaction to the problem of finding psychological causes is to develop noncausal theories, for example, in the form of abstract functional principles extracted from phenomena (De Houwer, 2011Hughes et al., 2016), although whether noncausal theories can be truly explanatory is a matter of ongoing debate (see, e.g., Reutlinger & Saatsi, 2018).

Fortunately, there are ongoing research programs in psychology that exemplify the good practices we have describe above. For example, after the recent disappointments in ego-depletion research, there are now increasing efforts to better define the key constructs, such as self-control and related concepts, and to validate different ways of measuring them (Friese et al., 2019Inzlicht & Friese, 2019Lurquin & Miyake, 2017). A broader example is the functional-cognitive paradigm (De Houwer, 2011Hughes et al., 2016) that aims at first establishing environment-behavior relations (robust phenomena) and then formulating explanations for them in terms of clearly defined mental constructs that act as mediators. Finally, as a more concrete example, Robinaugh et al. (2020) propose a theory for panic disorder that is tailored to this specific disorder and thereby constrained by phenomena (there is robust evidence for many central phenomena related to panic attacks), and the authors also explicitly focus on defining the key concepts.

To conclude, we believe that the most fundamental factor underlying the theory crisis is that the subject matter itself, psychology, makes it very hard to develop good theories (Meehl, 1978). Drawing on contemporary philosophy of science, we have discussed three central challenges to developing psychological theories: There are often not enough robust phenomena to constrain theories, not enough attention is paid to defining and validating constructs, and establishing psychological causes is very hard. We hope that this article brings more attention to these crucial issues and thereby helps to provide more solid building blocks for the theoretical foundations of psychology.

Using millions of father-son pairs spanning more than 100 years of US history, we find that children of immigrants from nearly every sending country have higher rates of upward mobility than children of the US-born

Abramitzky, Ran, Leah Boustan, Elisa Jacome and Santiago Perez. 2021. "Intergenerational Mobility of Immigrants in the United States over Two Centuries." American Economic Review, 111(2):580-608. DOI: 10.1257/aer.20191586

Abstract: Using millions of father-son pairs spanning more than 100 years of US history, we find that children of immigrants from nearly every sending country have higher rates of upward mobility than children of the US-born. Immigrants' advantage is similar historically and today despite dramatic shifts in sending countries and US immigration policy. Immigrants achieve this advantage in part by choosing to settle in locations that offer better prospects for their children.

The EU states with the highest levels of gender equality, such as the Nordic countries, have disproportionally high prevalence of Intimate Partner Violence against Women (the Nordic Paradox)

Intimate Partner Violence against Women in the EU: A Multilevel Analysis of the Contextual and Individual Impact on Public Perceptions. Matilda Karlsson, Maria Wemrell, Juan Merlo & Anna-Karin Ivert. Women & Criminal Justice, Nov 9 2020.

Rolf Degen's take:

Abstract: Intimate partner violence against women (IPVAW) poses severe threats to women’s health and rights. This study investigates the role of country context and gender equality in shaping individual perceptions of the severity of IPVAW. Multilevel logistic regression analyses of a Eurobarometer survey on attitudes toward IPVAW from 27 EU states showed that male gender, young age, low education, low self-assessed social position and particularly perceiving IPVAW as uncommon were associated with perceiving IPVAW as less severe. The likelihood of perceiving IPVAW as less severe was higher in countries with low gender equality. Between-country variance accounted for 14% of the variability, while country-level gender equality accounted for 22% of the between-country variance. We conclude that efforts toward strengthening perceptions of IPVAW as a severe issue should focus on awareness-raising and on increasing country-level gender equality.

Keywords: European Uniongender-based violencegender equalityintimate partner violence against womenmultilevel analysispublic perceptions


Violence against women is a global phenomenon and a concern for public health, human rights and social policy (Devries et al., 2013; Krantz, 2002). Intimate partner violence against women (IPVAW) is the most common type of violence against women and puts women at risk of severe direct injury as well as long term illness (Campbell, 2002; World Health Orgainization, 2010). It constitutes a serious threat to women’s security, human rights and equal participation in society. Despite measures taken by the European Union (EU) to combat IPVAW (European Commission, 2010), one in five women in the EU still experience IPVAW during their lifetime (FRA, 2014).

As noted by Gracia and Lila (2015, p. 13), IPVAW “is a complex phenomenon that needs to be understood within the wider social context and within the social and cultural norms that permeate it. Public attitudes and responses regarding violence against women reflect these norms and play an important role in shaping the social climate in which the violence occurs.”

Public beliefs and attitudes form an important part of the social context of IPVAW (Copp et al., 2019; Martín-Fernández et al., 2018; Waltermaurer, 2012) and can influence IPVAW prevalence, help-seeking behavior among victims and responses from judicial systems and support organizations as well as ambient communities (Gracia et al., 20092014; Gracia & Herrero, 2006; Rizo & Macy, 2011; West & Wandrei, 2002). Notably, victim-blaming attitudes can reflect public tolerance toward IPVAW and have often been used to explain or justify IPVAW (Boethius, 2015; Gottzén & Korkmaz, 2013; Gracia, 2014; WHO, 2002). Previous research has also shown that perceived severity of IPVAW is associated with the willingness to intervene when gaining awareness of a case of IPVAW (Gracia et al., 2018). How incidents of IPVAW are perceived in society is thus important for future prevention and policy, as well as for available support services or sanctions (Gracia & Herrero, 2006; Waltermaurer, 2012).

Evidence from previous research related to IPVAW suggests that prevalence of and attitudes toward IPVAW seem to be influenced by contextual-level factors (Gracia et al., 2015; Heise & Kotsadam, 2015; Herrero et al., 2017; Kovacs, 2018; Sanz-Barbero et al., 2018). However, the prevalence of IPVAW does not cut equally across alla sociodemographic groups within countries (Kovacs, 2018). For example, research on differences in IPVAW prevalence between socioeconomic and demographic groups within the country of Sweden has not always shown clear and consistent results (Lundgren et al., 2002; Nybergh et al., 2013). This indicate that individual-level characteristics and contextual factors work together toward the persistence of IPVAW, and possibly also the attitudes justifying it. Such an interplay between factors at different levels in the causation of IPVAW has previously been described in what has been called the integrated ecological approach (Heise, 1998).

In the international research, Individual-level socioeconomic status has proven to be correlated with both the prevalence of IPVAW (Herrero et al., 2017; Lauritsen & Schaum, 2004; Sanz-Barbero et al., 2018) and with the attitudes that justify it (Gracia & Herrero, 2006; Ivert et al., 2018; Stickley et al., 2008; Tran et al., 2016; Waltermaurer, 2012; Waltermaurer et al., 2013). Previous research has also shown that education is an important individual level predictor for IPVAW (Herrero et al., 2017; Sanz-Barbero et al., 2018) as well as attitudes toward IPVAW (Gracia & Herrero, 2006; Ivert et al., 2018; Stickley et al., 2008; Tran et al., 2016; Waltermaurer, 2012; Waltermaurer et al., 2013). Furthermore, research has also shown that the type of residential area (e.g. urban vs rural) correlates to attitudes that justify IPVAW (Gracia & Tomás, 2014; Ivert et al., 2018; Waltermaurer, 2012; Waltermaurer et al., 2013). However, according to a systematic review by Gracia et al. (2020) gender was the most frequently reported factor correlating with attitudes. They found that, broadly speaking, the results were consistent in showing that males in general tend to accept, justify and perceive IPVAW as less severe than women. Regarding noted inconsistencies in associations between age and attitudes, Gracia et al. (2020) suggest that this could be the result of the varying methods for sampling, measuring and analyzing these parameters. Moreover, country of residence does seem to provide a relevant contextual lens for understanding these types of attitudes (Ivert et al., 2018; Uthman et al., 2010). Literature investigating contextual-level factors is, however, scarce. This is particularly the case when it comes to the EU (Ivert et al., 2018). It remains important to look not only at the fact that contextual factors seem to matter, but also to what extent they are useful in predicting individual attitudes (Merlo et al., 2017).

Feminist theories consider IPVAW to be a result of unequal gender norms and patriarchal structures in society (Lawson, 2012), meaning that gender inequality should be considered as a central and fundamental driving force behind gender-based violence such as IPVAW. Promoting increased gender equality is often put forward as a way of reducing IPVAW (García-Moreno et al., 2015; Jewkes, 2002; Uthman et al., 2010). Several studies resonate with feminist theories in that gender equality is negatively related to IPVAW and attitudes toward IPVAW (Archer, 2006; Heise & Kotsadam, 2015; Sanz-Barbero et al., 2018; Uthman et al., 2010). Still, some counterintuitive results have shown that the EU states with the highest levels of gender equality, such as the Nordic countries, have disproportionally high prevalence of IPVAW. This phenomenon has been referred to as the Nordic Paradox (Gracia & Merlo, 2016). Moreover, victim-blaming attitudes have been found to be higher in Nordic countries compared to other EU countries with lower levels of gender equality (Gracia & Tomás, 2014). Thus, findings indicating that higher levels of gender equality are associated with higher rates of IPVAW contradict theories postulating that IPVAW is a result of gender inequality. Several hypotheses and theories attempt to explain this relationship. One explanation discussed in the literature is that of issues related to reporting (Gracia & Merlo, 2016). Another frequent explanation, often discussed in rape research, is that increased gender equality or demands for gender equality can result in a backlash against women, and thus in increased rates of violence against women (Whaley, 2001; Wemrell et al., 2020). This so-called backlash hypothesis has proven to be useful when analyzing changes in IPVAW rates over time in certain contexts (Xie et al., 2012). Nonetheless, regardless of the reasons for the relationship between the prevalence of IPVAW and gender equality, the issue remains that the prevalence of attitudes that justify IPVAW is also high in countries with high levels of gender equality. To better understand these relationships, further research on the public’s attitudes toward IPVAW is needed.

The perceived severity of IPVAW among the public is an under-researched subject. Therefore, this study aims to investigate the effect of country context and gender equality on the perceived severity of IPVAW. Moreover, it aims to evaluate the ability of contextual and individual level factors to accurately discriminate between someone who perceives IPVAW as severe and someone who does not. The following three research questions were posed:

  1. To what extent does the country of residence, in addition to individual sociodemographic characteristics, affect individuals’ perceptions of the severity of IPVAW?

  2. How accurately can individual sociodemographic characteristics and country context discriminate between those who find IPVAW to be severe and those who do not?

  3. To what extent can between-country variance in perceptions of the severity of IPVAW be explained by the country level of gender equality?


IPVAW poses a serious threat to women’s health, security and human rights globally. To contribute to an increased understanding of the attitudes that can potentially affect the prevalence of and the community responses toward acts of IPVAW, the aim of this study was to investigate the effect of country context and gender equality in addition to individual sociodemographic characteristics on perceived severity of IPVAW. Moreover, the study aimed to evaluate the ability of these contextual and individual factors to accurately discriminate between those individuals who perceive IPVAW as severe and those who do not.

Conclusive relationships were found between the outcome and all individual sociodemographic predictors, meaning that male gender, young age, low education and low self-assessed social position in society as well as habitation in a rural area was associated with a higher likelihood of perceiving IPVAW as a less severe issue. Perceptions of IPVAW as not at all common was the stronger individual predictor, the influence of which was much greater than that of not knowing an IPVAW victim.

Our results show that 14% of the total variance in individual perceptions lie at the contextual level, and thus represent the between-country variability. While no definite interpretation exists for the magnitude of the ICC, according to a recently proposed framework for preforming geographical comparisons (Merlo et al., 2019), an ICC between 10 and 20% falls into the category of large geographical differences. Thus, our results support the importance of the societal context, alongside that of individual factors, for the shaping of perceived severity of IPVAW (Heise, 1998). Furthermore, individuals residing in countries with a lower GEI were more likely to perceive IPVAW as less severe, compared to individuals in high GEI countries. The DA of the models was fair, and the study suggests that disparities exist between, as well as within, nation state borders.

A particularly interesting finding of this study is the relationship between the specific contextual effect of GEI and the individual perceptions of the severity of IPVAW. The respondents in countries with low GEI were more likely to perceive IPVAW as less severe compared to those in countries with high GEI. In support of the understanding of IPVAW as strongly related to patriarchal structures in society (Lawson, 2012), increased country-level gender equality is here associated with citizens’ perceptions. However, the inconclusive difference in perceptions between the countries in the middle and high GEI groups indicates that the association with GEI is only relevant to a certain level. The fact that the country-level GEI explains 22% of the total contextual-level variance means that it is an important factor for understanding the variance in attitudes, even though some of the contextual-level variance is still unaccounted for. The low POOR for the low GEI group indicates a homogeneous relationship. Only 9% of the time, an individual from a low GEI country was less rather than more likely to perceive IPVAW as less severe than someone from a high GEI country. Meanwhile, the high POOR for the medium GEI group is coherent with the inconclusiveness of the difference in odds between the medium and high GEI groups. Here the heterogeneity is so large that in almost half of the cases the relationship is opposite to the average. It may here also be mentioned that, as noted above, a larger share of the respondents in low and medium than in high GEI believed IPVAW to be very common.

Nevertheless, the importance of the GEI is coherent with Heise (1998) integrated ecological approach. In this study the GEI represents the societal structure and gender norms at the contextual level (representing the macrosystem in Heise’s model) in which individuals are embedded. Our results show that the contextual level works conjointly with relational, situational and personal characteristics in relation to individual perceptions. Considering the Nordic paradox (Gracia & Merlo, 2016) and the previous difficulties in establishing a conclusive relationship between GEI and attitudes toward IPVAW in the EU (Ivert et al., 2018), the results of this study are more surprising than they may appear.

IPVAW persists despite being illegal and, according to the results of this study, socially undesirable, particularly in countries with high GEI (FRA, 2014; Gracia & Merlo, 2016). The inconsistency between people’s perceptions and their actions raise questions which merit further investigation. Why is the prevalence of IPVAW so high in the high GEI countries, even though the inhabitants claim to find it very severe? We could assume that in a context where people find IPVAW to be less severe, fewer cases of IPVAW would be reported, which could explain the lower prevalence. Conversely, in countries with high GEI, where it is perceived as very severe by a larger share of the population, more cases will be taken seriously and thus be reported (Gracia & Merlo, 2016). This could be one explanation as to why the high GEI countries also have high prevalence of IPVAW (FRA, 2014; Gracia & Merlo, 2016). However, that does not explain why there is such a high prevalence of IPVAW cases to begin with in more gender equal contexts where more people perceive it to be more severe.

The fact that people in countries with high a GEI tend to find IPVAW to be more severe is also surprising if we apply the backlash hypothesis. One possible explanation of the inconsistency between perception and action, or between theory and practice (SOU, 2004, p. 121), in the high GEI countries could be that respondents here feel a stronger obligation to answer in a certain way, to avoid stigmatization associated with downplaying the severity of IPVAW. Wemrell et al. (2020) investigate the discrepancy between gender equality and the relatively high prevalence of IPVAW in the specific context of Sweden. One of their suggestions for this discrepancy is that the image of Sweden as a gender-equal country may in itself have hindered an appropriate response to IPVAW, therefore allowing its continuation. Following this reasoning it is plausible that respondents in countries with high GEI would respond that they find IPWAW to be very severe because it is a societal norm, and because it corresponds to a gender-equal self-image, even if this does not correspond with their actions. This could indicate a type of self-monitoring behavior, to ensure that one’s responses agree with the social context (Snyder, 1987): a phenomenon previously referred to as social desirability bias (Brace, 2008).


Since a cross-sectional study design was used, this study identifies correlations but not causal relationships. Moreover, the data used is nearly 10 years old, and we can assume that societies have undergone changes during these years. For example, IPVAW has received more attention in public debate, especially following the viral spread of the MeToo movement in 2017. Outdated numbers do not present a serious limitation, however, as our aim is not to demonstrate IPVAW prevalence levels but to investigate how factors at different levels impact individual perceptions, in ways which are likely to remain consistent over time.

The Eurobarometer survey does not specify how well different ethnic minorities are represented in the sample, or the amount of time respondents had lived in the country of residence into which they were recorded. We thus have no way of knowing if this may have resulted in a sample bias. Moreover, the survey, and in extension this study, excludes the population with gender identities other than male or female. Hence, no conclusions can be drawn concerning this part of the population. The response rates varied between different countries and the Eurobarometer survey does not include any information concerning the characteristics of the non-responders, meaning that a non-response bias cannot be ruled out.

Moreover, the data includes only two levels: the country level and the individual level, although in a previous study on prevalence of IPVAW in Valencia, Spain the community level has proven to be important (Gracia et al., 2015). The community level would represent the exolevel in Heise’s ecological model, and adding this third level to this study could have added interesting and useful insights. However, we were unable to do so since the survey data did not include community data on the respondents’ areas of residence.

Swedish Twin Pairs: A common argument is that the wealthy practice patrimonial voting, i.e. voting for right-wing parties to maximize returns on their assets; these authors say this is a non-causal correlation

Uncovering the Source of Patrimonial Voting: Evidence from Swedish Twin Pairs. Rafael Ahlskog & Anton Brännlund . Political Behavior, Jan 30 2021.

Rolf Degen's take: The belief that wealth generates a political shift to the right, which serves to protect the wealth, fails the critical test.

Abstract: The boom in wealth inequality seen in recent decades has generated a steep rise in scholarly interest in both the drivers and the consequences of the wealth gap. In political science, a pertinent question regards the political behavior across the wealth spectrum. A common argument is that the wealthy practice patrimonial voting, i.e. voting for right-wing parties to maximize returns on their assets. While this pattern is descriptively well documented, it is less certain to what extent this reflects an actual causal relationship between wealth and political preferences. In this study, we provide new evidence by exploiting wealth variation within identical twin pairs. Our findings suggest that while more wealth is descriptively connected to more support for right-wing parties, the causal impact of wealth on policy preferences is likely highly overstated. For several relevant policy areas these effects may not exist at all. Furthermore, the bias in naive observational estimates seems to be mainly driven by environmental familial confounders shared within twin pairs, rather than genetic confounding.


A popular argument in political science is that the wealthy practice patrimonial voting in that they vote for right-wing parties to increase their fortunes. While this pattern is well documented, the underlying mechanism (if causal or not) is not fully understood. Descriptively speaking, wealthier people in this sample of Swedish middle-aged twin pairs are more supportive of free market policies, less supportive of redistribution and real-estate taxes, and more likely to identify as right-wing and vote for right-wing parties. Causally speaking, however, the effect of wealth (all or financial) on domain specific policy preferences about taxes and market regulations on the one hand, or questions about economic redistribution on the other, appear to be much more modest than ordinarily assumed, and are not statistically significant.

When moving to within-twin pair analyses it is revealed that naive correlations, rather than reflecting a true causal signal, are likely severely biased by unobservable familial characteristics. This bias is largely left unchecked by conventional statistical controls such as income, education, family size or occupational category, which underscores the importance of taking familial confounders into account. Bivariate variance decomposition models further showed that the sources of this confounding are more likely shared family environment than genetic overlap.

While previous studies using lottery-winnings have shown some effects on political preferences, it should be noted that these studies concern a fairly dramatic relative increase in net wealth. Most voters are unlikely to experience a wealth shock comparable to the magnitude of a large lottery prize sum, not even under extraordinary circumstances such as financial crises or recessions. If our results are quantitatively transferable, we should expect few individuals to significantly alter their views on most economic and social policy issues in response to a realistic change in individual net wealth. However—we do find remaining effects for a few outcomes even after taking familial confounders into account, although these findings are mostly weak in both a substantive and statistical sense. Most notably, the highly specific issue of property taxation appears to be an exception to the pattern above.

This finding falls in line with studies that find a general link between property ownership and resistance against property taxation (Brunner et al. 2015). As argued in the theory section, we think that the case of property taxes and real wealth, in this particular setting, should be seen as a type of most likely case for finding an effect. People can fail to precisely compute the general costs and benefits of government policy (as would often be required for the free-market and redistribution dimensions), and yet find this specific form of taxation of their property obtrusive. The connection between the value of ones’ house rising, and paying larger amounts in property taxes, is hard to miss.

We do find some remaining effects, although statistically weak, on self-reported left–right placement and party choice. These effect sizes are similarly highly attenuated when controlling for familial confounders. It is possible that these two indicators are picking up the effect from other pocketbook type mechanisms than those captured by the survey items included in our issue dimensions. For instance, the right-wing coalition abolished the wealth tax at the time of the survey and Swedish property owners were saved from collapsing house prices as the conservative administration was able to mitigate much of the impact of the financial crisis. Unfortunately, no survey items regarding these policy preferences were available.

There are, as always, a few concerns about the interpretation of the lack of results when using a discordant twin design. First, if twins tend to exert a marked influence on each other (as adults) in a way that is relevant to the variables of interest, this will violate independence assumptions and introduce bias. The bias can go in either direction depending on whether this effect makes the twins more or less similar (i.e. if they come to diverge into different behavioral niches as a consequence). One particular way in which this could function in the present case is if the type of self-interest mechanisms we’re interested in testing extends within the family—specifically to the other twin. If so, this may dampen within-pair effects if one twin adapts, for example, to prefer less taxation as his or her cotwin gets richer. Robustness checks using self-reported contact rates between the twins in Appendix A give no indication that this is a problem for our results, but these tests do not completely rule out this potential design weakness.

Another remaining possible limitation is concerns about reverse causality or collider bias: values might affect wealth acquisition, and may also affect some of the controls. Collider effects would bias the estimates downward, but do not appear to be an issue since the introduction of controls has only minor consequences for the estimates. Reverse causality on the other hand would not lead to any of the estimates being biased up or down, but would obviously render moot any causal conclusions for the results that remain. In the absence of fine-grained longitudinal data for political attitudes, we will have to rely on plausibility: it appears dramatically less likely, for example, that having a particular opinion about real-estate taxes causes the value of one’s house to change, rather than the other way around.

Something should be said about the implications of the bivariate ACE models for future observational research. As mentioned in the methods section, these results indicate, at least in the current setting, where to look for confounding factors to include in the models. The absence of any substantial genetic confounding in these relationships indicate that we can conceivably get by without genetically informed data—provided that the sources of the environmental confounding can be identified and controlled for. The largest part of this confounding appears to stem from shared environmental factors—possibly family environment or shared networks. If these are accurately captured, observational models may be able to avoid a large amount of the endogeneity problem that we document here.

Finally, it is difficult to conceive of reasons why the external validity of these findings should be confined specifically to twins, since it would require that having a twin in itself nullifies most of the causal relationship between wealth and preferences over government policy. The results are therefore likely generalizable to a wider Swedish context, at the very least for the cohorts included in the study. Another question is how far these results can travel in an international context given that the universal welfare system in Sweden reduces the need for private savings in times of financial distress. However, recent research suggests that this context likely constitutes a tough test for the patrimonial voting hypothesis in that a larger effect of asset wealth on voting is found in more liberal welfare systems like the UK (Quinlan and Okolikj 2019). Thus, we think it is reasonable to assume that our results are generalizable to most other OECD-nations.

Our results should encourage scholars to investigate the relationship between economic resources and political preferences further. We find, as others have before us, that there is a descriptive link between wealth and political attitudes and behavior. However, it seems that these naive comparisons—even when using a rich set of statistical controls—overestimate the causal effect of wealth quite substantially, if there is one at all. We suggest that future research should aim at finding situations where the economic stakes are clear and unobtrusive to voters, and where there is an unambiguous connection between the policy issue at hand and the immediate self-interest of asset holders. Further research may provide important new knowledge about the effects of increasing wealth inequality, as well as insights into processes of political preference formation.