Big 5 Personality Traits of would-be Owners vs. Renters

February 18th, 2012 by Ravi Iyer

I feel as if sometime in the early 2000s, society collectively decided that it was better to own a home than rent.  Property values went up and it seemed like people were willing to go to great personal difficulty simply for the sake of being an owner.  It probably didn’t hurt that property values kept going up.  Still, I never felt a strong urge to own and the prospect seemed more like a burden (fixing your own things, having trouble being able to move) than a blessing.  Of course, that may say more about my personality than about owning or renting.

I thought I’d examine the Big 5 personality traits of people who think owning is “better” (e.g believing that home ownership is important to happiness) vs. those who prefer renting (e.g. believing that renting provides significant advantages compared to owneing a home) using ~800 people who answered these questions at  I had 7 questions about owning vs. renting (alpha = .87).  The Big 5 personality traits are 5 personality dimensions that are deemed most parsimoniously able to characterize people.  The dimensions are Agreeableness (e.g. how well do you want to get along with others), Conscientiousness (e.g. how detail oriented and tidy are you), Extraversion (e.g. how outgoing are you), Neuroticism (e.g. how tense are you), and Openness to Experience (e.g. how much do you seek out new experiences).

Predictably, people who prefer owning a home vs. renting are more conscientious (r = .08, p=.016) and less open to new experiences (r = -.08, p=.03), but the differences are quite small.

Would-be owners are more conscientious and less open to new experiences.

People who want to be owners also also tend to be more conservative (r=.18, p<.001), older (r=.13, p<.001), and tend to prefer buying material things rather than experiences (r=.13, p<.001).  Interestingly, there was no relationship to self described social status or gender.  Obviously many of these relationships are small, but they certainly are as I would predict, with perhaps the exception of the lack of relationship with wealth and gender (my guess would have been that women and wealthier people would prefer home ownership).

Got any interesting hypotheses relating to the personalities of those who prefer renting vs. owning?  I’d happily try them.  I’m eager to examing values with regard to owning/renting next.

– Ravi Iyer

Posted in big 5, consumer psychology, home ownership, openness to experience, personality traits, unpublished results, yourmorals.org21 Comments »

21 Responses to “Big 5 Personality Traits of would-be Owners vs. Renters”

  1. lillet says:

    When you measured own/rent preference, did you control for the extent to which ownership is (or is not) believed to yield better economic ROI? It seems like the common default assumption is that if you want to accumulate wealth, you’re better off buying than renting — and if you buy into this assumption, a preference for renting seems counterintuive absent some strong countervailing impulse (for example, an intense aversion to inconvenience or commitment). But someone who sees real estate as a poor investment due to recent economic events might prefer to rent, even if other personality traits remain unchanged.

  2. Ravi Iyer says:

    I did not control for that in these analyses and I bet any effect would go away as our measures of believing that owning provides financial security were highly correlated with belief that home owning is a hassle and owning a home reduces your freedom. I suspect that just as people prefer psychologically coherent positions on political choice, they prefer psychologically coherent positions on owning/renting. Which doesn’t mean that you’re not right,as your idea makes good sense…but that it would be hard to tell which attitudes come first since they’re so tightly linked. Thanks for the idea though and as we look further, I’ll think about it more.

    In case anyone is interested, here are the 7 questions we asked that all highly inter-correlated.

    I believe that home ownership is important to happiness.
    I believe that home ownership is not worth the hassle.
    I believe that renting has significant advantages compared to owning a home.
    I believe that owning a home provides financial security.
    I believe that renting provides financial security.
    I believe that renting allows one more freedom compared to owning a home.
    I believe that owning a home provides one with more freedom compared to renting.

  3. Heather says:

    I’m not so sure if the desire to accumulate wealth is related to home ownership. Future orientation seems more likely (e.g., long-term concern about being prepared for retirement) and interest in maintaining a stable childhood and good schools for children (e.g., family orientation). I would think owners are more concerned about establishing a place in a community for their children to grow up – so neighborhood, community, family, education, etc.

  4. Ravi Iyer says:

    That’s a good hypothesis. We actually have some data on future time perspective that I’ll look at. Thanks for the idea.

  5. Sanpete says:

    At least one of the Big 5, openness, is known to correlate with moral/political traits, it has an easy evolutionary story, and it seems distinct from the moral foundations under study here. Why isn’t it considered one of the foundations?

  6. Ravi says:

    Among those who work on moral foundations theory, there is some debate as to the criteria for a foundation or whether there really are X foundations or not. I’m not really a fan of categorically saying there are X foundations. Still, in this case, I think the distinction is clearer, in that openness to experience isn’t typically thought of as a ‘moral’ trait, in the sense that if moral thinking is for social doing, there typically is no social judgment to others’ openness to experience. What I mean by that is that if a friend is high or low on openness to experience, you are less likely to judge them and want to be closer or more distant based on that, compared to more ‘moral’ traits. I personally think that a trait has to be moralized (relating to social judgment) in a widespread cross-cultural way for it to be deemed potentially foundational. That being said, I don’t have a strong attachment to the categorical distinction that the word “foundation” implies myself. Thanks for your interest and question!

  7. Sanpete says:

    You and your colleagues have given this a lot more thought than I have, but my perhaps naive impression is that openness to experience is just as much regarded as a moral trait in our culture as, say, adherence to authority. My experience is that many liberals do judge conservatives to be morally lacking on this account, and value the quality as a moral virtue in others, while many conservatives view liberals as morally lax or unmoored for their greater openness.

    I don’t know about other cultures, but I’d think in traditional cultures openness would be viewed with moral suspicion. You may have data showing otherwise. But if it’s moralized in our culture, or a major part of it, it does seem to be moralizable. (Mill thought anything was moralizble, a plausible view to me.)

    Requiring that it already be moralized across cultures will limit foundations to those recognized in both traditional and WEIRD cultures, and if the latter as studied happen to contain significant traditional parts, while the former don’t contain significant WEIRD parts, that may result in skewing the whole project towards traditional values (on which more below).

    I wonder how much intuitive boundaries about what counts as moral should be relied on to determine where the joints of human nature really are. If a candidate for a foundation of moral attitudes has greater explanatory power, that would seem to be the most important thing. I’m not sure why, in principle, the foundations need to be themselves regarded as part of morality. I gather there’s a model of the “foundations” as basic parts of morality, like the basic tastes sweet and bitter are part of complex tastes, but that model might not be as explanatory as a model that doesn’t limit foundations to parts, or what are already recognized as parts.

    One reason this matters is that some liberals believe the choice of moral foundations studied here is (unintentionally) biased to fit conservative/traditional culture. Prof. Haidt emphasizes the balanced way conservatives draw on the six current official foundations, but if that’s partly an artifact of shared intuitive boundaries about what counts as moral, rather than of maximum explanatory value and plausible evolutionary origin, the balanced reliance on the six may not carry the import attributed to it, that conservatism fits human nature better.

  8. Ravi says:

    great thoughts, Sanpete. I can only speak for myself, but to me, it’s not “what counts as moral” that separates things, but rather what has an accompanying social judgment. But maybe that’s semantics, but there has to be some way to separate a preference (I like the color blue) from a value (I like the color blue and so should you, or I don’t like you).

    I do agree with your view that anything may be moralizable. But somethings are more commonly moralized than others. Again, I don’t have a strong opinion about what is or is not a foundation. Maybe Jon will comment, though he’s really busy with his book, so likely not. But feel free to drop him an email.

    Thanks for your interest!

  9. Sanpete says:

    If I understand the social judgment criterion, it seems problematic for additional reasons. (I hope you don’t mind my extending my comments–it’s pretty sleepy here at the moment anyway!)

    A major theme of Jon’s book it appears you agree with is that morality isn’t a matter of objective moral facts independent of our feelings and beliefs, but is a “consensual hallucination” projected onto the world by us. (I wonder about the wisdom of attacks on moral objectivity, for very basic reasons I’ll get to below.) That implies morality is a matter of subjective preference, at bottom. Yet a test for what counts as a fundamental value in MFT is whether it can be distinguished from subjective preference (via the social judgment test). That appears paradoxical.

    A liberal (and it would be mainly liberals and libertarians) who accepts the subjective basis of morality might not feel warranted to believe others should share his moral values, and may not be so socially judgmental. I noticed in your post on Harris’s TED talk that you don’t think others should share your values, and you indicated in the discussion that you were trying to judge less. Jon recommends in the book that we socialize with those with different moral/political views. In that frame of mind, would your own moral values register as values or as preferences if you applied a personal social judgment test?

    This could be another way liberal moral values might come to be underrepresented in MFT as currently understood.

    Jon’s book isn’t out till next week, but there’s already talk about the issue of bias. I hope he and the rest of you associated with MFT will get out in front of it. Studying honesty as a potential foundation should help, as many liberals (naively) feel they own that virtue. Telling people that what they think are values aren’t values probably won’t help unless that explanation is stronger and plainer than it seems to be (so far).

    I imagine Jon has no more time for email than blogs, but maybe I’ll post something about this point at his book blog (also very sleepy right now).

    Another point about openness. I think it’s already being measured partially and indirectly in MFT, in that it’s a quasi-opposite of the authority and sanctity values. For example, the bumper sticker Jon uses to illustrate the opposite of the sanctity value, “Your body may be a temple, but mine’s an amusement park,” nicely illustrates openness as a value.

    What I really wish you and your colleagues would research more vigorously are the likely effects of undermining belief in moral objectivity–which Jon’s theory suggests has been adaptive (he acknowledges he thinks it has been)–and the likely effects of promoting relativism. I could be wrong, but my impression is that you and your colleagues have been drawn into attacking moral objectivity in part by opposition to the likes of Harris (who could draw attacks on sunshine and happiness), with very slim empirical grounds for thinking it’s a wise course, all things considered. It seems the kind of reticence you appear to show about attacking religion would be fitting in regard to belief in moral objectivity too, until we can see more clearly where the alternative leads.

    I should add that I think MFT and the practical points drawn from it about respect and cooperation, and even the rejection of “rationalism,” are consistent with belief in robust fundamental moral objectivity, so there’s no need to attack it to promote your other goals.

  10. John Nelson says:

    Hi Ravi- Very interesting question.

    I noticed you’re working with Schwartz’ Values Theory on the website, too. I’m wondering if you’d find stronger correlations between home ownership and some of the values orientations?

  11. Ravi Iyer says:

    SanPete, I think there is a simple way to resolve what you see as pardoxical. Yes, I believe that moral judgment is subjective and that Sam Harris makes great logical leaps in order to prove that it is not (which is perhaps a subject for a different thread).

    But the kinds of things that people think of as moral and the results of those beliefs are objective. For example, whether you like red or blue better is subjective. But the statement that more people like blue than red is a objective fact. We study morality by examining what are the causes and consequences of various beliefs. But we never objectively try to tell people that red is better than blue or vice versa.

    does that clarify things? btw, I don’t necessarily agree with everything Jon says, or vice versa, so I really am just speaking for myself. I bet Jon would indeed appreciate comments on his book’s blog page though.

  12. Ravi Iyer says:

    John…yes, I do need to look at that. Thanks for reminding me.

  13. Sanpete says:

    Ravi, I entirely agree that the view that values are subjective doesn’t imply they can’t be studied objectively.

    The paradox is that you attempt to distinguish values from preferences in a way that reverses your own views. In essence, you believe moral values are like “I like blue” (subjective preference) and you appear to reject as wrongheaded “I like blue and so should you, or I don’t like you.” Yet you make the latter, and not the former, your model for what a moral value is when you apply the social judgment test. (I’ve expressed this more fully in the previous post, second and third paragraphs.)

    I agree values are subjective, but whether it’s wise to undermine belief in objective values is a different matter. The belief is probably natural to us because it’s been adaptive. Whether it remains helpful is a poorly researched but important question that should be answered with some confidence before undertaking to undermine the belief.

    As for Harris, I posted some thoughts in your old thread on his TED talk. I don’t agree with him about whether values are objective, but neither do I see the point of arguing he’s wrong about that. If he advocates particular moral advice I think would be harmful, I’ll argue against it just as I would against particular religious moral advice I find harmful. A utilitarian view such as he favors is broad and flexible enough to take into account pretty much any valid concern, even moral rules not based directly on flourishing (e.g. requirements for fairness), if they can be shown to promote flourishing or be necessary consequences of what promotes flourishing.

  14. Ravi says:


    It’s not a paradox if you can separate things that I think are preferences from things that I think are facts. “Moral values are like “I like blue”” is something I think is objectively true. “I like blue and so should you, or I don’t like you.” is something I believe is a bad idea, but that’s just my opinion.

    As for Harris’ ideas (if we want to talk about that, perhaps we should do that there), I think there is an objective truth that can be proven that moral objectivity, taken to an extreme, can cause terrible things. It is evidenced by the fact that he says that the only people who agree with him are the religious people who do all the terrible things he says. But I’ll also admit that complete moral relativism, taken to an extreme, can have negative consequences too. The view I think is most adaptive is the in-between option, where morals are subjective, but the vast majority of people have a lot of commonality in those opinions. So just as we can’t say absolutely that The Artist is a good movie for all people in all situations, we can still act with confidence as if it’s a good movie. Does that make sense?

  15. Sanpete says:

    Ravi, I agree there’s no contradiction in what you just said re “I like blue” etc. The paradox arises when you make a view you personally reject the model of what a value is. Do your own moral values fit the model “I like x, and so should you, or I don’t like you”? If not, doesn’t that suggest it’s a bad test?

    What you say about the dangers of extremes in morality makes sense, but the view that morality is subjective isn’t the only in-between, moderate position. There’s nothing inherently extreme about the view that morality is objective, and nothing inherently moderate about the view that it’s subjective.

    Given the likelihood that the experience of morality as objective has been adaptive, it seems best not to oppose it unless it can be shown that it’s no longer as adaptive as the alternative. If extremism is the danger, it can be opposed directly, whether it’s tied to objective or subjective morality. (If you’d prefer to discuss this at the Harris thread, I’ll follow you there.)

  16. Ravi says:

    I don’t honestly think that my personal values are relevant here, but I’m happy to agree to disagree.

    And I do think history and some research has shown that an absolute belief in moral objectivism (which usually ends up with conviction that one is right and others wrong), does indeed lead to negative outcomes.

  17. Sanpete says:

    Ravi, the issue isn’t limited to your personal values, which are merely an example I thought you would find convenient and compelling. Moral values held by anyone who believes the values are subjective and who is succeeding at not judging people won’t pass the social judgment test. That suggests there’s a serious problem with that test. It’s hard to tell what part of that you want to agree to disagree about.

    No doubt absolute belief of various kinds sometimes leads to terrible outcomes, as do many things that may be good or bad. Whether belief in moral objectivity is worse than relativism on the whole, in the long term, remains an enormously complex and poorly researched issue.

  18. Ravi says:

    One can distance oneself from others and not want to be around them without necessarily judging them. I suppose I want to agree to disagree because so few people fit this circumstance such that I don’t think it’s particularly useful or interesting (to me) to focus on that case. The idea that moral thinking is for social doing works in the vast majority of cases…so no, I don’t think there is a serious problem, but again, I’m happy to agree to disagree.

    And personally, I think that the dangers of extreme moral objectivity are pretty evident if you read the moral language of those who have perpetrated most of the worst moral crimes of the past century. But again, I’m happy to agree to disagree there too.

  19. Sanpete says:

    Ravi, that’s a helpful clarification. Even if you could be right that there are too few nonjudgmental folks to matter in using the social judgment test as you do (something I don’t know), shouldn’t you have a model of values that includes their values? If there is such a model, why not use it? If there is none, that’s a significant hole in your theoretical framework, especially in light of the practical goals of reducing moral judgmentalism and increasing social contact between those with different values. The social judgment model implies that would make people’s values no longer values.

    There’s no need to agree to disagree that extreme moral objectivism can lead to terrible results. I agree. But extreme belief in moral objectivity has also contributed to great goods (as with many, probably almost all great moral leaders, such as Martin Luther King). It appears it’s like religion, that it can be good or bad depending on other factors, and shouldn’t be objected to en masse. I don’t know which of those points you’d like to agree to disagree about, or on what grounds.

  20. sam says:

    Is it objectively immoral to rape little children, gouge out their eyes, defecate into their eye sockets and set their bodies on fire for fun? Bear in mind that if you answer “yes,” you’re displaying the same dangerous narrow-mindedness that paved the way for history’s worst atrocities!

    I mean…really? Come on.

    If you want to relate moral foundations theory to history’s worst atrocities, a much simpler and more credible connection can be made: atrocities happen when the authority foundation gets out of hand. Period. Mass genocides, terrorism campaigns, etc. are characterized universally by abnormally strong deference to authority. Cripple the authority foundation and some unpleasant consequences might ensue, sure — but you’ll forestall any replay of Rwanda/Pol Pot/Hitler/etc.

  21. Re: “I like the color blue and so should you, or I don’t like you.”

    It is quite clear (to me) that this is exactly the liberal view of Openness, much like the liberal view of “compromise.” I think liberals see openness and compromise as fundamental core values, and possibly even sacred values. They are manifestations of liberal sense of “good,” and conception of “fair.” I think it is only natural for liberals to lobby for their core values to be adopted as moral foundations.

    In my view, however, trying to reclassify any of the Big Five personality traits, one of which is openness, into moral foundations brings with it a chicken-egg problem. Which is the cause, and which is the effect? In the case of Openness, I think it is an effect of the moral foundations which have already been identified.

    If moral foundations really do result from natural selection then it is likely they allow us to see and react to real world threats to our individual and collective survival. One who employs all of the foundations sees all the threats and is naturally more cautious. One who employs only half the foundations sees only half the threats and is naturally more open to new ideas and experiences.

    I believe this explanation of Threat Sensitivity/Openness passes the test of Occam’s Razor better than any claim that it is a moral foundation.

    I submit that Threat Sensitivity/Openness are more correctly understood as character traits which RESULT FROM moral foundations, and which are consistent with characterizations of conservatism and liberalism which have been offered by others. Specifically, openness is a trait of Sandel’s unencumbered self, and Sowell’s Unconstrained Vision. Threat sensitivity is a trait of the situated self, and the Constrained Vision.

    Digressing for a moment, I also believe that moral foundations offer a simple explanation of cognitive complexity. The elephant which employs fewer foundations has no particular reason to prefer one path over another, and so every potential choice becomes an exercise in objective analysis of pros and cons, costs and benefits. I wrote more about this idea here:

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