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Psychologically predisposed for politics

Semper Ardens fellowship | 27/02/2019

Foto: Ty Stange, ft.dk

Not all citizens are equally engaged in politics, and only few citizens pursue a political career. Differences in social resources partially explains why. But psychological dispositions seem equally important. Voters’ personality traits are associated with differences in political trust and engagement, and the typical politician is much more outgoing and assertive than the average voter.

Politics and psychology

Politics involves debates on competing ideas about how society should be organised and what goals public policies should realise. But politics is also characterised by fierce struggles for political power, negative campaigning and media that prioritise highly assertive and confrontational politicians. Not all citizens find these activities and behaviours equally appealing.

Psychologically, the motivations of individuals vary quite a lot. In personality psychology these different motivations are conceptualised as differences in personality traits and most often measured in terms of the Five Factor Model (FFM) that includes the traits Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Emotional Stability. The traits are described in Box 1. A person’s traits are not fixed over the life-course, but they are fairly stable.

Box 1:
Five Factor Model
 Creative, intellectual, openminded, curious
 Orderly, dutiful, disciplined, goal-oriented
 Energetic, enthusiastic, extroverted, assertive
 Modest, polite, empathetic, cooperative
Emotional Stability
 Even-tempered, calm, balanced, poised

Differences in psychological motivations help us understand why some citizens are more politically engaged than others, and why a few may even consider running for office. For instance, if you are introverted and score low on extraversion it is unlikely that you find contentious debates between self-promoting politicians appealing.

Picture 1. Folkemødet, Bornholm. One of the places politically engaged citizens show up in large numbers.

Few previous studies have examined the personality traits of voters and politicians with good measures of personality traits. The Semper Ardens Fellowship allowed me to write a book that utilised unique data on politicians and voters in Denmark (see Box 2).

Political engagement

Box 2: Data sources

Data include two representative samples of voters in Denmark (2010, N=3612 and 2017, N=2529), a sample of Danish MPs (2014, N=94), and a sample of local councillors in Danish municipalities (2017, N=750). Respondents in all surveys have answered 60 questions on their personality traits, the so-called NEO-FFI test.

Extraversion and in particular openness are important for citizens’ political engagement. Those who score high on these traits are more politically interested, they feel more efficacious, and they are more politically active. Citizens who score high on conscientiousness are also more politically interested, but they are not more active. Those who are highly emotionally stable have a higher sense of political efficacy but are less politically active.

Personality traits are important for political engagement, and the most engaged citizens are highly extraverted and openminded.

Trust in politicians

Political trust is still high in Denmark compared to most other countries, but not all citizens are equally trustful of politicians. 

Citizens who score high on extraversion and emotional stability have more trust in politicians than citizens who score low on these traits. But those who score high on openness and like to discuss big and important issues have less trust in politicians. This is quite troubling because in general the most openminded citizens are highly politically engaged.

Picture 2. Most Danes vote, but few are motivated to run for political office.

If we distinguish between those who are politically interested and those who are not, we find that high openness is associated with low political trust among the most politically interested. We find the opposite pattern among those who have little interest in politics. Among local councillors, who are all highly politically engaged, we also find that those who score high on openness have less trust in (national) politicians. The findings are illustrated in figure 1.

Figure 1. Trust in politicians: Effect of openness at low and high interest in politics: citizens and local councillors. Note: The effect is shown for observed minimum and maximum values and controlled for sex, age, education and the other personality traits (which are set at mean values). OLS-analyses, effects are significant at p<0.05. Source: Nørgaard, 2018: Den politiske personlighed, p. 56.

Politicians’ personality

Most politically engaged citizens do not think of running for a seat in parliament, but some do. Members of parliament (MPs) score somewhat higher on openness, conscientiousness and emotional stability than the average citizen/voter, but the largest difference is found in extraversion (see figure 2). The average MP is more extraverted than 80% of his or her voters, and the same is the case among local politicians.

Figure 2. Differences in personality traits: Members of parliament (MPs) and citizens Note: Average MP score minus average citizen score measured in standard deviations (Cohen’s d). Error lines show 95% confidence intervals. T-test. Source: Nørgaard & Klemmensen 2018: Figure 1, Journal of Personality.

Most citizens who score low on extraversion do not find it attractive to be in the spotlight and seek attention – which is hard to avoid as a politician. In addition, voters seem to prefer politicians who are outgoing, assertive and energetic.

But the personality traits of MPs also vary. MPs who score high on agreeableness spend more time with their constituents, highly open MPs spend more time reading reports and preparing for meetings, and the most extraverted MPs spend more time giving interviews to the media and asking critical questions to ministers.

Picture 3. Most politicians are energetic and outgoing. If they did not like public attention, they probably would not have chosen a career in politics. Foto: Ty Stange, ft.dk

Personality traits not only predispose citizens for political engagement and a career in politics. Traits also influence how politicians fulfil their job if they are elected. The way politicians represent voters depends on their personality.

References, my own:

Asbjørn Sonne Nørgaard (2018) Den politiske personlighed: Vælgere og politikere i Danmark. Odense: Syddansk Universitetsforlag.

Asbjørn Sonne Nørgaard, Lotte Bøgh Andersen & Stefan Boye (2018) “Hvem tager têten i de stående udvalg i danske kommuner? Betydningen af personlighed og position for ledelsesadfærd.” Politica 50(2): 273-294.

Asbjørn Sonne Nørgaard & Robert Klemmensen (2018) “The personality traits of Danish MPs: Trait and aspect level differences.” Journal of Personality. DOI: 10.1111/jopy.12388.

References, other:

Caprara, G. V., C. Barbaranelli, C. Consiglio, L. Picconi & P. G. Zimbardo (2003). Personalities of politicians and voters: Unique and synergistic relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 84: 849–856.

Caprara, G. V. & M. Vecchione (2017). Personalizing Politics and Realizing Democracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mondak, J. J. (2010). Personality and the foundations of political behavior. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.