Can an Introvert Really be President?

How voters really judge their leaders

Posted Aug 14, 2012

If you've even remotely been following political campaigns, you know that during the height of election season, political pundits become armchair psychologists. They endlessly discuss whether a candidate has “father issues,” suffers from hidden conflicts, or is compensating for some type of youthful deficit.  Some maintain that both Obama and Romney are introverts wrapped in the guise of extroverts, preferring to spend time alone rather than working the crowd on the campaign trail. These writers make the all-too-common mistake of treating introversion as an all-or-nothing trait. In reality, there are many varieties of introversion and it's highly unlikely that both Obama and Romney share 100% of these characteristics. 

Introversion, as defined in the press, is seen as a negative quality for a politician to have. Presumably, as the thinking goes, introverts don't like people, prefer to spend time alone, are cold and remote, and are pathologically analytical. By slapping the introversion label on these candidates, we make the mistake of dismissing them as emotionally and socially unchallenged and unfit to serve in the position they seek to keep or gain. It's much better, they argue, to have an extrovert whose flair for public displays of emotion clearly make them more suitable for public office, hence the nostalgia for the good old Bill Clinton days.

We'll never know the true personalities of our candidates unless they're willing to release a complete assessment battery along with their tax returns. There's still good reason to doubt that anyone running for president, or any other political office for that matter, is really an "introvert" (using the all-or-nothing label). Would a person who prefers to work alone, avoids excitement, and doesn't really like people make the deliberate choice of spending a lifetime in the public eye? It’s far more likely that we find the true "introverts" working behind the scenes as staffers, aides, and policy analysts. Even people who are “cold” (another trait ascribed to our Presidential candidates), would find it difficult to maintain a lifestyle that focuses on interpersonal relationships above all else. They would also find it difficult to stand the emotional highs and lows of 2-, 4- or even 6-year election cycles.

Why is personality so important in a political campaign anyway? Why should we care whether a world leader is someone we’d like to have a beer with? What difference does it make whether he or she has father issues (and who, quite frankly, doesn't?). Shouldn’t we be voting for the best candidate for the job based on the skill set that he or she possesses? Such a skill set should include the ability to work well with others, given that politics is basically about relationships among people. However, the political skill set must include the ability to sift through large amounts of information (that get larger the greater the scope of the position), to analyze numbers, and make informed decisions. Psychologists call these qualities “executive functions” – in the true meaning of the word. Above all else, political leaders must be good executives.  Yet, when was the last time you heard a candidate described solely in terms of executive functions?

As an example, consider what’s going on in the Senate race in my home state of Massachusetts. The incumbent, Republican Scott Brown, has worked hard to project a media image of someone who is a good guy, fun to be around, warm, and family-oriented.  Running against him is Democrat Elizabeth Warren, whose campaign focuses almost entirely on her record of Wall Street and big-bank busting.  Her ads don't show her as a family person, but as someone who wants to talk about- of all things- the issues. Rarely do we hear about her personal qualities, and she doesn’t seem overly concerned about confronting Brown on the likeability front. Unfortunately, according to the data on the importance of personality to political victories, she needs to bolster her likeability quotient.  

According to a study by Claremont University psychologist Michelle Blgh and colleagues (2012), female candidates are even more likely than males to be judged on the basis of likeability rather than competence. If they’re not careful, women running for office can seem cold if they focus only on the issues and it will be harder for them to get elected. Many years ago, George Washington University psychologist Lee Sigelman and colleagues (1987) showed that attractive female candidates are seen as “nicer,” leading them to be more appealing to voters. As ridiculous as it might seem, if she wants to win, Warren might consider taking a page from Hillary Clinton's teary-eyed playbook during the New Hampshire primary. 

When two men are running against each other, gender is obviously a wash in the likeability vs.competence issue. Instead, candidates must find that sweet spot in which they seem both competent and likeable.  They try to tilt the scales in the likeability direction by showing up in small settings where they mingle with “the people.” They take off the tie, roll up the sleeves, and eat whatever concoctions the locals have prepared for them. If they’re lucky, the news media catch them in moments where the shoulder-rubbing is going their way. If not, they may suffer the fate parodied in the HBO series “Veep” where Selina (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) flubs her appearance at a D.C. yoghurt place, alienating everyone including the loveable restaurant owners. 

It’s not only the visual image that politicians must manipulate. They have to control the sounds - not just the words- they project. In a fascinating study of voter preferences, McMaster University neuroscientist Cara Tigue and colleagues (2012) recently showed that voters are more likely to favor male candidates with deep voices. Their lower-pitched voice leads voters to perceive them as physically stronger and therefore better able to lead their constituencies in times of crisis. I suppose this means that we may soon hear a chest-thumping baritone bass contest between our male candidates in addition to the battles that take place in the visual media. 

Candidates must also consider the impact of the affective tone of their campaign on voters. Negative campaigns make them look like nastier people, risking damage to their likeability quotient. Therefore, they have to figure out a way to distance themselves from the negative ads sponsored by their supporters. If they don’t, they’ll seem vindictive and harsh which will turn the voters against them or even keep them from voting at all according to Rutgers psychologist Richard Lau and colleagues (2007).

The key question remains—why do we care about a candidate’s likeability anyway? As it turns out, maybe we actually don’t. According to research conducted by Oxford University cognitive scientist Christopher Olivola and Princeton University psychologist Alexander Todorov (2010), our brains lead us almost instantly (within 100 milliseconds) to judge a candidate's personality from his or her appearance. Once we’ve formed that snap judgment of the candidate’s personality, we then go on equally quickly to make inferences about the candidate’s competence. In other words, the reason we care about personality is that we confuse appearance with competence. Highly charismatic candidates sweep us up in their spell and a form of emotional contagion sets in – we see them as both likeable and competent. Once we form those first impressions, it’s very difficult for anything to sway us from our judgment.  

This tendency to form snap judgments of competence is not only true in politics. Presidential candidates are just people with whom we form relationships. The relationships may be distant, and based on distorted information, but they adhere to many of the qualities of relationships in general.  We're have to fight the tendency to allow people's superficial qualities to sway our judgments about everyone from the people we work with to our romantic partners.

When you make your decisions, whether it’s for your local school board or our next world leader, I hope that armed with this knowledge about the psychology of voting, you’ll now be better able to make a truly informed decision. 

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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, 2012


Bligh, M. C., Schlehofer, M. M., Casad, B. J., & Gaffney, A. M. (2012). Competent enough, but would you vote for her? Gender stereotypes and media influences on perceptions of women politicians. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 42(3), 560-597. doi:10.1111/j.1559-1816.2011.00781.x

Lau, R. R., Sigelman, L., & Rovner, I. (2007). The effects of negative political campaigns: A meta-analytic reassessment. The Journal of Politics, 69(4), 1176-1209. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2508.2007.00618.x

Olivola, C. Y., & Todorov, A. (2010). Elected in 100 milliseconds: Appearance-based trait inferences and voting. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 34(2), 83-110. doi:10.1007/s10919-009-0082-1

Sigelman, L., Sigelman, C. K., & Fowler, C. (1987). A bird of a different feather? An experimental investigation of physical attractiveness and the electability of female candidates. Social Psychology Quarterly, 50(1), 32-43. doi:10.2307/2786888

Tigue, C. C., Borak, D. J., O'Connor, J. M., Schandl, C., & Feinberg, D. R. (2012). Voice pitch influences voting behavior. Evolution And Human Behavior, 33(3), 210-216. doi:10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2011.09.004