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  • Nathan Irwin

Can Personality Predict Politicians' Decisions?

Understanding the characteristics of those who govern us has been of interest for millennia.

Some of the most well-known political philosophers have written on the importance of individuals, their temperament and their capacities to govern.

Plato mused of the ideal ruler being reared from an early age to possess the correct characteristics for effective governance. Niccolo Machiavelli prescribed core strategies and characteristics that an effective ruler must adopt. I could go on...

There is evidence that different personality traits can influence politicians and the decisions they make. Decisions like striving for greater positions of power and leadership but also more general decisions such as what type of campaign they want to run and how they choose to treat their political allies and adversaries.

One of the strongest indicators relating to personality traits and political strategy is a politician's levels of conscientiousness and agreeableness. High levels of conscientiousness and agreeableness were strong predictors of having higher than average power aspiration. Similarly, it has been found that politicians who score highly on scales of assertiveness and extraversion were not only more likely to take the decision to pursue higher office and leadership positions, and that they were more likely to be given these positions than those who were more introverted and neurotic due to increased confidence and self-assurance.

Personality traits can also predict the type of campaigns politicians run. Those who score higher on the socially desirable traits such as agreeableness and openness will tend to run more positive campaigns and adopt a more positive tone to their political rhetoric because of their generally more positive outlook.

Traits of leadership and confidence can also influence politicians' decisions to cooperate with counterparts, as this heightened sense of responsibility can induce leaders to engage with those whom they disagree.

It is also worth exploring the importance of politicians' scores on the Dark Triad scale – a scale of Machiavellianism, psychopathy and narcissism.

Those scoring highly in the aforementioned traits not only turned to ‘socially malevolent’ behaviour and actions, but they are more likely to be a populist candidate or politician. This can be down to populism having an inherently emotional element to its rhetoric through evoking notions of class-based aggravation, with such emotionality inviting those who find it easier to manipulate emotion into the populist realm.

Politicians who exhibited a stronger level of psychopathy also tended to be able to function better under pressure, as such, performed better as leaders and in crisis-management scenarios due to the low emotional impact events have on them.

It is axiomatic to say that those in power must be observed and the public – as well as the institutions through which they operate – must keep them in check. But this type of analysis of politicians and leaders is also vital to maintaining a healthy polity, as understanding politicians’ personality traits and psychology can enable us to understand what kind of leader they will be, and we can use that in our assessment of whether to elect them or not.

As Fred Greenstein emphasised, if politicians’ behaviour is obscure, then it is ‘all the more reason to seek to illuminate them’.

In addition, several studies suggest that voters are more likely to vote for politicians with personality traits that align with their own. As such, analysing the significance of personality in politics can make voter-allegiance more understandable and make the realm of politics as a whole more accessible and transparent.

Author: Nathan Irwin

Nathan is a Politics and International Relations student at the University of Durham

©2018 by Foreign Policy Press