Politicians seem to be a different breed from the rest of us. A 2017 study, for instance, found that American state politicians differed from the general public on each of the “Big Five” personality traits. But this kind of research has focussed on people who have already been successfully elected. What about failed politicians? Do those who lose elections show the same personality profile — or are there particular traits that separate the winners from the losers?
According to a new study on Canadian political candidates, there are. Successful candidates scored lower on one particular personality trait, openness to experience, the researchers report in Personality and Individual Differences. However, it seems too early to say whether this effect generalises to politicians elsewhere in the world.
During Canada’s 2018 municipal elections, Colin Scott from McGill University and Mike Medeiros from the University of Amsterdam sent out short personality questionnaires to 3328 candidates standing in Ontario and British Columbia. Respondents read ten pairs of words and had to indicate how well the words described them; each of the Big Five personality traits was represented by two of these pairs (for instance, “dependendable” and “self-disciplined” for conscientiousness). Just under 1200 of the candidates completed the surveys, 496 of whom went on to win their election. The team also looked at data from 1,665 members of the Canadian public who had filled in the same questionnaire.
The researchers found that, compared to the general public, political candidates were more likely to be male, have a university education and be over 30. But even after controlling for these demographic differences, they also found differences in personality: similar to the American study, politicians scored lower on neuroticism and higher on extraversion, though in contrast to that study they also had higher levels of openness to experience.
But openness to experience — a trait related to greater curiosity and imagination — also stood out as separating politicians who won elections from those who lost. Candidates with greater openness were less likely to win their seat, and on average those who won scored 0.24 points lower on the seven-point openness scale. So even though higher openness to experience was associated with running for election, amongst candidates it was related to a reduced change of winning.
Why might that be? The trait is associated with holding left-wing views, so politicians who score higher could alienate right-leaning voters — though the researchers didn’t find that the “penalty” of greater openness was any worse in traditionally conservative areas. Another possibility is that people who are particularly open to new ideas are just not that great at sticking to their political messages — and consistency in messaging is important to voters.
Whatever the exact explanation for the findings, it’s clear that traits that separate political candidates from the general public are not necessarily the same ones as those that help them go on to win, the authors write. “Candidates’ personalities could substantively influence the results, especially in close elections,” they conclude.
However, before parties start screening candidates based on their personality, it’s worth noting that the effect was pretty small. And, importantly, it’s not clear whether the results also apply to politicians from other countries, operating in different political systems. The kinds of differences researchers see in the personalities of politicians and the public vary between studies: the only reliable finding seems to be that politicians score higher on extraversion. It seems likely that the kind of traits that predict whether a politician will go on to win an election would also be region-specific and depend on the views of the electorate.