Stone-Aged Minds in Modern Voting Booths

Why we care about the personalities of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump

Posted Oct 18, 2016

PeterLinforth / Pixabay
Source: PeterLinforth / Pixabay

The current election  season is something of a zoo - and I think that many of us are really just waiting for it to be over so that we all can move onto something else. On the bright side, the election has been rich with content related to the field of psychology!

As is often the case in major elections, much is being made about the personality attributes or other dispositional qualities of the candidates. If you stop and think about it, this is an interesting point. On the surface, personality attributes maybe should not matter that much. After all, I want a leader of this nation primarily who has a proven track record of getting things done and one whose agenda matches my view of how the ideal national agenda. Does it matter if the successful candidate is rude? Or is unempathic? Or is emotionally cold?

Clearly, in the minds of the American people - and in the minds of the folks who are designing the campaigns of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, yes, personality attributes of the candidates seem to matter quite a bit. Hillary is being framed as someone who is out of touch with reality - perhaps a bit arrogant. Maybe she’s sort of “cold” or a bit prickly in personality. Donald’s personality traits are also clearly under extreme scrutiny. Folks seem to be questioning whether he has good judgment, whether he is intelligent, if he is kind, if he is sexist - and so forth.

My point here is not to say that either of these candidates actually possesses these traits but is, rather, to explore why perceived personality traits seem to matter so much when it comes to elections. I specifically explore two important questions regarding this trend to focus so much on the psychological characteristics of the candidates. For one, does personality matter? Is one’s personality or personal history relevant to his or her ability to effectively play a leadership role in government?

Second, what role does our evolved psychology play in terms of our tendency to focus on the personal attributes of candidates? And what can we learn from such an evolutionarily based analysis?

Are There Markers of Personality that Matter in Governmental Leadership?

Since people do focus so much on the personal qualities of candidates, it may be useful to think about specific traits or attributes that do, in fact, map onto outcomes associated with successful leadership. In thinking about this issue, here is a short list of such qualities:

Traits associated with teamwork.

An elected leader needs to work with a variety of teams. Such teams could include the President’s Cabinet, the democrats in the senate, the members of the Supreme Court, etc. Effective teamwork includes such attributes as agreeableness, open-mindedness, and demonstrated competence in the relevant tasks.

Traits associated with progress.

An effective governmental leader needs to bring about “progress” - or advances in the national agenda. This should mean improvements in such domains as education, healthcare, security, science and technology, and so forth. Traits that lead to such outcomes would include general intelligence, flexibility in thinking, and an element of being a visionary - being able to see how different processes will play out into the future.

Traits associated with trust and reputation on a national scale.

An effective governmental leader should earn a positive reputation from within one’s own group and beyond. A great national leader earns the respect of those from one’s own nations and from other nations around the world. Traits associated with being trustworthy (reliable, dependable, honest) are clearly relevant to this outcome. As are traits associated with emotional stability and competence.

From this perspective, some personality traits may well be quite relevant to one’s ability to bring about positive outcomes in a governmental leadership role.

A Mind Evolved for Small-Scale Politics

In a recent study examining the evolutionary psychology of politics, my research team at SUNY New Paltz (Geher et al., 2015) asked a group of young adults to write paragraphs either about (a) large-scale political situations (e.g., trade deficit with China) or (b) small-scale political situations (e.g., being passed over for a raise due to interpersonal issues at work). We used a computer-based program to analyze the writing samples of the participants. In our results, we essentially found that the writing samples for the local-politics prompt were significantly more readable and they demonstrated a much easier and more fluid approach. We interpreted these results as essentially indicating that people more naturally process information related to small-scale rather than large-scale politics - which may well be the result of the fact that under ancestral conditions, humans never dealt with large-scale politics while they always dealt with small-scale politics. In short, we see these data as consistent with an evolutionary-mismatch analysis (see Geher, 2014).

These results shed insights into the current question at hand. When it comes to evaluating political candidates, people may focus so much on personal attributes and personal histories largely because such attributes are highly relevant when it comes to small-scale politics - the kinds of political situations that our ancestors dealt with for eons.

Bottom Line

Are all personality traits relevant when it comes to assessing a political candidate? Probably not. In spite of this fact, there is a clear tendency for people to place a large emphasis on these attributes during a political campaign season. This tendency is not fully irrational - several personality features, such as conscientiousness and a visionary approach to seeing problems, clearly do map onto outcomes associated with advancing the national agenda. This said, the focus that people tend to place on personality attributes of candidates may well be a bit more than is warranted. This point may well result from the fact that our minds evolved under conditions where only small-scale political situations (which were often deeply personal and highly related to personality traits of individuals) existed. When it comes to electing public officials, to a large extent, we enter the voting booth with stone-aged minds.


Geher, G. (2014). Evolutionary Psychology 101. New York: Springer.

Geher, G., Carmen, R., Guitar, A., Gangemi, B., Sancak Aydin, G., and Shimkus, A. (2015) The evolutionary psychology of small-scale versus large-scale politics: Ancestral conditions did not include large-scale politics. European Journal of Social Psychology, doi: 10.1002/ejsp.2158.