The role of self-esteem in Obama’s electoral success

Voters are more willing to vote for male political candidates whom they perceive to have high self-esteem – a finding which could help explain President Elect Barack Obama’s electoral success.

In Autumn 2007, Virgil Zeigler-Hill and Erin Myers asked 209 undergraduates to rate the self-esteem of the eight potential democratic candidates for president (including Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama) and the ten republican candidates (including John McCain and Mitt Romney), and to also indicate their willingness to vote for each of them.

As you’d expect, the students’ own political affiliations played a key role in their willingness to vote. Beyond this partisan influence, however, the participants were generally more inclined to say they’d be willing to vote for those candidates whom they perceived to have higher self esteem.

The exceptions were female republican students: they said they’d be less willing to vote for those democratic male candidates whom they perceived to have high self esteem, and they also said they were unwilling to vote for Clinton regardless of how they perceived her self-esteem.

A second study was similar to the first except that 293 undergrads were given fake self-esteem data for each of the candidates, ostensibly derived from analyses of speeches they’d given. Participants were generally more willing to vote for candidates who’d been allocated high self-esteem ratings. Again, however, there were exceptions: male democrats were actually more willing to vote for Clinton if she was given a low self-esteem rating, while female republican participants were less willing to vote for her if she was given a high self-esteem rating.

Overall, the findings are consistent with Zeigler-Hill’s implicit theory of self-esteem, which states that we (perhaps subconsciously) assume that people with high self-esteem also have other positive traits. The theory complements the “sociometer model” that purports self-esteem has evolved as a marker for people’s social status.

Somewhat presciently, in the first of the current studies, Obama was actually rated as having the highest self-esteem of all the candidates, a fact that chimes with his performance during the presidential campaign during which he conveyed immense self-belief, whilst also acknowledging his weaknesses.

“Obama’s ability to convey his feelings of self-worth to others may have helped him project the image of competence and confidence that voters found so compelling,” Zeigler-Hill told the Digest.

But what about the findings suggesting participants were less willing to vote for Hillary Clinton if she was perceived as having high self-esteem? Should female candidates play down their self-esteem? “Female candidates are often caught between conflicting demands,” Zeigler-Hill said. “If they are portrayed as having high self-esteem, they may be disliked because they are considered aggressive or domineering. However, if they appear to have low self-esteem, female candidates may be viewed as less competent than their male counterparts. I am optimistic that these conflicting demands for female candidates will be reduced to some degree in the future as voters become more comfortable with women in elected positions.”

ResearchBlogging.orgV ZEIGLERHILL, E MYERS (2009). Is high self-esteem a path to the White House? The implicit theory of self-esteem and the willingness to vote for presidential candidates. Personality and Individual Differences, 46 (1), 14-19 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2008.08.018

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

2 thoughts on “The role of self-esteem in Obama’s electoral success”

  1. I hope that someone is doing research on the fact that the “black” men who have been doing so well were raised outside the longstanding U.S. parenting tradition for “black” males, in which assertiveness in the mainstream culture could get a man into trouble.

  2. sorry, but did anybody actually measure the self-esteem of the candidates? I see lots of mention of perceived self-esteem and fake self-esteem……so again i have to ask……what’s this got to do with the actual self esteem of the candidates….did anybody measure it?

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