There is a mismatch between the types of politicians that voters say they want and those who are deemed to perform well once in office.
Voters tend to choose politicians based on their looks, causing ineffective people to get elected to positions of power, according to a study. Political parties are increasingly trying to achieve success by focusing on the personality of candidates rather than policies or party allegiance.
Researchers from the University of Kent and University of Exeter in the UK found that, while people vote for local councillors who they believe look competent and have agreeable or trustworthy personality characteristics, these same people are often ineffective politicians because they have the wrong sort of personalities to succeed in office.
Researchers asked 138 local politicians in the UK to rate their own personality. They also asked 755 of their colleagues, both other councillors and council officers, to anonymously rate their performance in office.
The team also showed 526 people from around the world pictures of the councillors and asked them to say what they thought their personalities would be like. They were not told they were serving politicians.
This is thought to be the first research to measure the impact of appearance and personality on voting and political performance in this way.
The researchers compared these personality profiles and ratings of facial appearance against the politicians’ share of the vote in local authority re-elections, and their performance in office.
Candidates whose appearance was described as competent had more success than others at the ballot box, but were not judged by their colleagues as any more effective while in office.
Politicians who rated themselves as ‘agreeable’ and whose personality suggested they were trustworthy and cooperative, had performed better in elections, but were not judged as very effective by their colleagues after winning their council seat.
This may be because these traits may not be useful in politics, where debating and challenging others are key to success.
“We found that voters are not necessarily able to see what politicians are required to do in their day-to-day work and therefore have to rely on characteristics that might seem to matter for leadership, but may not actually be that important,” said Madeleine Wyatt from Kent Business School.
“Our research highlights the potential for image consultants and PR teams to influence elections by manipulating the way political candidates are presented to the public,” said Wyatt.
“This points to the need for greater transparency in the political process so that voters can get to know what political work really is, and who politicians really are,” he said.
“Voters increasingly choose politicians based on personality traits such as how warm, reliable, or decisive they appear to be, judged often by how they look or how tall they are,” said Jo Silvester from Exeter Business School.
“We found voters prefer candidates who are agreeable, but are won over less by people who look warm. Those “agreeable” politicians were less successful in office, possibly because being a good elected representative requires people to challenge and oppose and win arguments rather than avoid conflict,” Silvester said.
“There is a mismatch between the types of politicians that voters say they want and those who are deemed to perform well once in office,” he said.