US politicians differed from the public on each of the five main personality traits

Portrait of a Man Wearing a Full SuitBy Christian Jarrett

Many of us get the sense that our elected politicians are out of touch, that they are somehow different from the everyman or woman on the street. A new study in Personality and Individual Differences offers at least part of an explanation. Richard Hanania at the University of California, Los Angeles, emailed a personality questionnaire to thousands of US state politicians. Two hundred and seventy-eight of them sent their answers back and Hanania compared their average scores with the averages recorded by 2586 members of the US public, matched with the politicians for age, and who’d completed the same questionnaire online.

Hanania found that on average the politicians differed from the public on each of the Big Five personality traits: Extraversion, Neuroticism, Conscientiousness, Openness, and Agreeableness. He said that this is the first time that the personality of US politicians has been compared to the average personality profile among the public.

Specifically, Hanania found that the politicians scored, on average, higher than the public on trait Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, and Extraversion, and lower on Openness and Neuroticism. The biggest differences were for Neuroticism and Extraversion, suggesting that people who are less emotionally sensitive, more outgoing and reward-driven are drawn to politics (or shaped to be that way through their political careers).

Meanwhile, Hanania speculated that the prospect of a life of committee hearings and debates might put off people with more artistic tendencies, hence the lower Openness to Experience among politicians, which is a sign of less creativity and interest in new things. Comparing across political parties, Democrats scored higher than Republicans on Openness and Agreeableness, and Republicans scored higher on Conscientiousness, echoing previous research.

Hanania said his results “show important differences between politicians and the public”. Perhaps these differences in personality could help explain why many of us feel an inherent distrust of politicians, and why we see appeal in candidates who claim not be part of the political establishment. Beware what you wish for.

The personalities of politicians: A big five survey of American legislators

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

2 thoughts on “US politicians differed from the public on each of the five main personality traits”

  1. To assume ‘politicians’ emerge from the womb is probably naive. Studies also show the truth of “we are what we do” – our active beliefs lead to our work, our choice of home and who we marry. Since this research shows that politicians are ‘different’ from the ‘average’ person, perhaps the difference has something to do with how long they’ve been a politician. Doing any job will change your personality and the longer you do it, the more personality traits are strengthened that support your work success. So maybe this survey should be done in a way to measure the length of a political career vs personality traits.

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