It’s Not You, It’s Me: Personalities, Politicians and Why We Vote for Who We Do
Why do you vote the way you do? Is it because of a candidate’s platform or because he or she made a good first impression on you? How do you evaluate an unknown candidate? Well, you may just be surprised by the answer.
Who You Vote for Is a Lot about You
With the mid-term elections behind us and the presidential elections less than two years away, voting behaviors are a hot topic. So, what makes people vote the way they do?
Though we think it’s our watertight logic that determines our ballot decisions, the high-minded stuff has less to do with it than we realize. Prior research has shown that similarity creates liking. That’s to say, we tend to vote for the candidates who remind us of ourselves, not just ideologically, but in terms of our personalities.
Studying the Impact of Personality on Voting Decisions
One recent study, conducted by the University of Vienna, looked at how our choice of politicians may actually be more about us than them. What happens when we know almost nothing about the candidate? What do we go on then?
The study set out to show that people tend to factor their self-perceptions into their vote, regardless of how much information is available. To prove their case, researchers asked participants to perform four tasks: 1) They were to rate themselves using an evaluation designed to measure Big Five dimensions of personality; 2) They were to watch short, silent video clips of unknown politicians; 3) They were to evaluate the politicians on the same scale they used to evaluate themselves; 4) They were asked to estimate the probability that they would vote for each candidate.
As predicted, the researchers found that people are more likely to vote for leaders they perceive to be similar to themselves. And that’s really no surprise since we usually think that our point of view is the most effective for the running of a government. However, we aren’t simply looking for people who think as we do. We prefer politicians who are fundamentally like us.
Similarity Creates Liking
In the study, both the politicians and their stances were unknown to the participants. The candidates were evaluated on the basis of videos with no sound—think of watching a debate or speech with the TV on mute. What the researches found was, in the absence of reliable data, voters will favor candidates who remind them of themselves. And the similarities they look for tend to line up with the dimensions of personality known as the Big Five.
According to the researchers: “Given that similarity creates liking, we assumed that people sometimes use their own personality as a kind of reference point when expressing preferences for others. This effect may be even more pronounced for personality traits people value highly and in situations of low information such as in our experimental setting.”1 For example, if we’re highly conscientious people, we’re likely to vote for candidates who, upon first impression (even if it’s non-verbal), appear to be at least as conscientious as we are.
The Weight of First Impressions
Even though we’ve all been told not to judge a book by its cover, we still do it. Most of us believe we can rely upon our initial assessments, and we’re basically right about that. “People form first impressions on the basis of appearance and other nonverbal cues. Such cues not only elicit quick attributions of personality traits and emotional states but also appear to provide a sufficiently reliable source of information to support accurate assessment of personality,” said the researchers.2 In other words, the cover is actually a pretty good indicator of the book inside.
That means making a great first impression is especially critical for relatively unknown or low-visibility politicians. Time and opportunity are limited as the politician aims to give people what he or she believes they want.
The results confirmed the researchers’ hypothesis that “first impressions and visual appearance cues affect public decision making processes.”3 They expect these results would apply outside the political arena as well. As the researchers mentioned, “The aim of this study was not to show that people are able to make quite reliable guesses about someone else’s personality on the basis of brief displays of behavior, but that people integrate self-perceptions into the guesses they make.”4
As voters, it helps us to be aware of how much we rely upon first impressions, as well as our tendency to vote for those we believe are like us in personality. A politician’s alignment with our own personality doesn’t necessarily make him or her the best candidate for the office.
Koppensteiner, M., Stephan, P. (2014). Voting for a personality: Do first impressions and self-evaluations affect voting decisions? Journal of Research in Personality, 51, 62-68.
1, 2, 3, 4 Koppensteiner, M., & Stephan, P., 2014