Research examining people's perceptions of politicians suggests voters go for candidates with similar personalities to their own.
The evidence comes from studies of both American and Italian voters in recent presidential and prime ministerial elections. Perceived personality might even influence voters more than a politician's programs or policies.
The research, conducted by Professor Gian Vittorio Caprara and colleagues from the University of Rome and R. Chris Fraley at the University of Illinois, was published in the Journal of Political Psychology. It examined both American and Italian voters in Presidential and Prime Ministerial elections respectively:
- John F. Kerry versus George W. Bush in 2004: 6,094 American voters completed questionnaires on their own perceived personalities and those of the presidential candidates. The results showed that people perceived themselves as having more similar personalities to their preferred candidate.
Kerry was perceived by voters as more open-minded than Bush, and voters who voted for Kerry felt the same way about themselves. Bush was seen as particularly agreeable and conscientious although the results were less clear-cut than those for Kerry. The authors suggest Bush benefited from a 'positivity bias' because he was the incumbent.
- Romano Prodi (centre-left) versus Silvio Berlusconi (centre-right) in 2006: The same personality survey of 1,675 Italian voters showed they perceived themselves as more similar to their preferred candidate.
Burlusconi was seen as more energetic and outgoing (extraverted), which is how those voting for him saw themselves. Prodi, however, was seen as more friendly and, similarly, his supporters saw themselves as more agreeable.
These findings are in line with previous studies that have found voters are, on average, less influenced by policies and programs than they are by their personal similarity to the candidates. Similarities in attitudes are particularly important in promoting liking, so that people vote for those who share similar attitudes to their own. This study extends these finding to personalities.
To social psychologists this makes perfect sense as there is a long history of research into how similarities promote liking. People are more inclined to like those who have similar values, beliefs and even share demographic variables with themselves.
Of course politicians and their campaign advisors know very well that voters often choose on the basis of personality. The question for them is: how can the candidate appear to be all things to all people?
From their study the authors suggest that the most important personality characteristic for candidates to exude is agreeableness. This is because it is agreeableness that people are most likely to rate highly in themselves. If people's voting choices are really heavily swayed by perceived similarities in personality then it is agreeableness that should win out at the polls.
[Image credit: Barack Obama]
Caprara, G. V., Vecchione, M., Barbaranelli, C., & Fraley, R. C. (2007). When Likeness Goes with Liking: The Case of Political Preference. Political Psychology, 28(5), 609-632.