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How to Understand What is Going On in That Candidate's Head

by David Yee, published
Every politician has a promising career. Unfortunately, most of them do not keep those promises. -- Jarod Kintz

Jokes about politicians are funny, usually because of the glaring kernel of truth they contain. To most who follow politics, our leaders have become stereotypes -- almost cookie cutter images of the people we'd expect to have as a politician.

But to social scientists, politicians are a bit more of a quagmire.

Take any given profession and there are hundreds, if not thousands of large-scale studies done on what personality traits are best suited for that profession. Putting the right people in the right jobs can save industries billions of dollars each year.

But with politicians, there have only been a small handful of studies into their personality traits.

In modern personality testing, the Big 5 trait theory (also known as the OCEAN) is the gold standard, measuring personality on the traits of openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.

These five traits, common to everyone, form a sketch of how the person will act in a given situations. It's not a magic crystal ball, but it's the best tool available to psychologists.

In 2012, researchers from the University of Illinois and Western Kentucky University developed the biggest large-number study of politicians on personality, with some intriguing results.

There is wide variance in the motivations, values, and patterns of interactions among politicians. As the researchers found:

Some are stridently ideological while others seek moderation and compromise. Some thirst for higher office while others harbor no such ambition. Some relish campaigning and interacting with constituents while others absorb themselves in crafting the fine details of legislation. Some seek media attention while others prefer to work in relative anonymity. To some extent, these sorts of differences emerge in response to the varied situations legislators face. But these differences in behavior also are influenced by legislators’ basic psychological tendencies—that is, by their personalities. Thus, we contend that attention to personality can help explain fundamental elements of legislators’ political predispositions and patterns of behavior.

What the researchers are saying is that personality testing should, in fact, be able to have certain predicting power when it comes to the politician's actions.

Breaking Down the Findings

One humorous finding validates what the general public already "knows" about politicians: they are all a bunch of liars.

Seventy-five percent of respondents ranked themselves only in the top two categories of each trait (meaning that the politician believed themselves to be strong on every single aspect). This degree of skewness in self-reported personality testing is unheard of, especially when the vast majority of the study's cohort engages in the skewing.

This initially concerned the researchers, because with this sort of distribution there might not have been enough variance to draw conclusions. However, those fears were allayed (life exists on a bell-curve, even when sharply skewed), and several interesting conclusions were drawn:

  • Openness to experience is a strong predictor of liberalism;
  • Conscientiousness is an equally strong predictor of conservatism;
  • Extraversion tended to be equal between political ilks;
  • Agreeableness had modest links to liberalism; and
  • Emotional stability had modest links to conservatism.

All of the findings were compiled into a regression model that found, in part that:

  • Legislators find meeting with constituents to be an unpleasant experience;
  • Female legislators do not enjoy participating in committee hearings as much as their male counterparts;
  • Most legislators enjoy working and creating legislation; and
  • Legislators with high extraversion and emotional stability are most likely to seek higher office.

Seeking higher office is one of the more interesting findings, as openness to experiences would logically be a "go-to" predictor of seeking a new position; yet in the dog-eat-dog world of politics, mental toughness and putting on a happy face for the crowds seems to be the needed traits.

A final thought of the researchers was the usage of personality testing during the vetting process for judges, especially ones with life appointments.

By extensively examining the personality of these judges, the appointing body (usually the executive) can get a better understanding of what they are getting. For instance, Chief Justice John Roberts had an incredibly conservative track record prior to joining the Supreme Court, but has become a swing vote often siding with the liberal minority on the court. President George W. Bush would never have nominated him had there been even an inkling that his political positions would change.

Potential justices are already subjected to a broad array of questionnaires, ranging from finances to personal lives, in order to avoid potentially embarrassing "gotchas" during the confirmation process. Adding an element of personality testing would be a logical complement to an already lengthy vetting process.

The next president is likely to appoint at least two justices to the high court. It will be interesting to see if modern business science will become part of the vetting process.

Photo Credit: Cienpies Design /

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