We tend to prefer political candidates with higher levels of education — here’s why

By Emily Reynolds

What makes us vote for particular candidates often goes beyond their politics. Research has suggested that our voting preferences can be influenced by our own self-identity, candidates’ perceived beauty, and even the depth of their voices. A new study looks at another factor that could sway our choices: education.

Writing in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Jochem van Noord and team find that people with low or high levels of education both prefer more educated politicians — but the reasons for this preference may be different for each group.

In the first study, participants with varying levels of education were presented with four fictitious profiles of political candidates. Profiles indicated that candidates either had a masters degree or a high school diploma, and described activities that they had completed during university or school. Candidates were presented as either progressive or conservative.

After reviewing the profiles, participants rated the candidates’ competence, agency, warmth, and morality. They also indicated how likely they were to vote for them and to what extent they felt they identified personally with the candidate.

The results showed that, overall, participants not only viewed higher educated candidates as more competent, but were more likely to vote for them (in fact, the belief that more educated candidates were more competent could partly explain why participants were more likely to vote for them). They also rated these candidates higher on agency and morality.

Participants who themselves were more educated had a particularly strong belief in the higher educated candidates’ competence, and were more likely to vote for them, compared to less educated participants. This may reflect an in-group bias, as these participants also felt a stronger shared identity with higher than lower educated candidates. Lower educated participants identified more with candidates with more conservative political orientations.

If people prefer more educated candidates because they think they are more competent, what happens if a candidate with a lower level of education is portrayed as particularly competent? To find out, in a second study, the team presented some candidates as having extensive previous political experience and some as having none at all.

Again, higher educated candidates were seen as more competent and received higher voting intentions overall. But for less educated participants, candidate education was much less important than candidate competence: these participants didn’t show a preference for more educated candidates, but did prefer more competent candidates. This implies that in the first study, less educated participants didn’t prefer the higher educated candidates because of their educational background per se, but because this background conferred them with a sense of competency, the team argues.

For higher educated candidates, the important factor seemed to be identification. While they preferred competent to non-competent candidates, they also preferred higher over less educated candidates independent of levels of competency, indicating that they were more concerned with being part of an in-group than anything else. 

If those of both higher and lower educational backgrounds prefer higher educated candidates, whatever the reason, this poses a question about how to democratise the political sphere. The most influential people in the country are already much more likely to have attended private school and elite universities, and the results from this study are not wholly encouraging when it comes to combatting this.

There may be some hope, however: less educated participants showed a preference for competence rather than education. For political candidates without elite higher education, thinking about ways to demonstrate competence may be key to success.

When and Why People Prefer Higher Educated Politicians: Ingroup Bias, Deference, and Resistance

Emily Reynolds is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest