No matter what position you take on the political spectrum, you probably have some deeply held beliefs about politicians as a group. Despite their many differences, politicians share a lot of characteristics. In fact, that may be what sparks the common complaint that “all politicians are the same.” So what does the psychology of politicians reveal about this truth? Are all politicians the same? And if not, what makes the difference between a successful politician and a failure?
What Traits Should a Politician Have?
While we may not like to admit it, successful politicians from every ideological background have a lot in common. They are usually personable and self-confident public speakers. Less charitable descriptions might label politicians narcissistic or self-serving. Still, the fact that we can make these generalizations indicates that there are common attributes among successful politicians.
This begs the question, “Are there certain psychological traits that make a perfect politician?” As it turns out, the psychology of politicians has revealed quite a few. The following are six of the most important (and most universal) traits of successful politicians.
Confidence breeds confidence, so often one of the most important things influencing our opinions of the candidates is how confident they appear. In fact, the level of confidence a person shows often overshadows the validity of what the person actually says, as has been demonstrated through numerous studies on courtroom persuasion tactics and credibility. It does not matter what politicians say nearly as much as how confidently they say it.
Sometimes being ignorant about a subject can even help. In fact, when people are less intelligently informed about a subject, they often express their opinion more confidently– a phenomenon known as the the Dunning-Kruger effect. Perhaps this is part of the reason that we tend to trust politicians that confidently expressed flawed opinions over those that willingly admit not knowing the right course to take in a certain situation. We trust confidence over content.
Another important characteristic that any politician needs to have is charm. Perhaps this seems obvious; after all, we are much more likely to vote for a person we like than a person we simply agree with. We prefer our candidates to be attractive and smiling. We want them to be funny and good story-tellers. At the core of our decision, we decide whether or not we like a candidate and want to be their friend.
A big part of what contributes to a candidate’s charm is how much that candidate mirrors us. A charming candidate pulls us in and helps us to forget any disagreements that we previously had. That’s because, at its core, charm is drawn from us reflecting others. Essentially, similarity creates liking, so we find a candidate charming if they seem like us–at least while we are interacting. A candidate’s charm often requires them to be a bit of a chameleon.
Linked to charm, relatability is another factor that determines whether or not a person makes a good politician. An awareness of our own social status is deeply ingrained in our psyches, yet we don’t want to be aware of anyone who may be above us on social rungs. That’s why successful politicians try so hard to be average; no one likes an elitist. In fact, this characteristic is so important that one of the most important tests of a candidate’s ultimate success is whether or not the voters feel like they could “have a beer with them.”
People like to feel like they are accomplishing something. That’s a big part of the reason why successful politicians always have simple, straightforward plans for big changes and include us in them. If we vote for a candidate with a big plan, we have contributed to the lofty goal. It’s important to note that we don’t really care whether or not the plans are successful, so long as we are allowed to continue to believe that our vote is accomplishing something (and in terms of what we accomplish, the bigger, the better).
On the other hand, we really don’t like the cognitive dissonance of being proven wrong. If we are promised a big goal will be met and it doesn’t happen, the backlash can be horrible unless we can be convinced that the original promise somehow wasn’t a lie. This is where politicians’ confidence can get them in trouble: when a confident person is shown to be wrong or lying, they are considered far less trustworthy, even more than those who did not express confidence to begin with.
According to Parkinson’s Law of Triviality, people are willing to spend much more time and effort on something trivial they do understand than something complicated that they don’t. We don’t like to struggle to understand our politicians. While policy on a subject may be inherently complex, we are more willing to believe a nice, simple sound bite on a subject than a long, complicated explanation. That’s why successful politicians tend to uncomplicate the big issues, even if the reality is diluted. Ultimately, we rather tend to believe the simplest answer or solution, so uncomplicated politicians (or at least those that can better simplify a message) have the most success.
A good politician is fearless. Low levels of anxiety not only help get through the endless public scrutiny, appearances, speeches, and debates, but also allows them to make snap decisions and stick with a course of action despite roadblocks they may face. We pick up on this fearlessness, and attribute it to confidence–which in turn increases our affinity with the politician.
Still, this fearlessness can backfire. If a politician’s fearlessness leads average citizens into danger, the perceptions can shift to that of recklessness or even accusations of psychopathy (which may sometimes have merit).
Can We Build a Better Politician?
Now that the psychology of politicians has revealed some of the most vital traits needed in order to successfully win over voters, it would seem to be easier to become the perfect politician. In reality, it may not be as simple as building a better politician.
Candidates spend a lot of time and money developing this skill set in order to do better in elections, but it isn’t always clear how successfully they do so. Almost all failed presidential candidates have been hit by accusations that they were too out-of-touch, too weak, or simply too difficult to understand. Even with the best consultants, it can be difficult to reinvent a person with a new personality–and even if it is possible, changes are often followed by accusations of inauthenticity.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway for us is to recognize our own biases when voting. When we recognize why a certain candidate may be attractive, we may be able to set it aside and explore whether or not we share values and see other, less obvious characteristics that we want in a politician. What do you think of political psychology? Let us know in the comments!
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