Who wants to be a politician? Elected MPs and parliamentary candidates are psychologically different to the general public.
Dr James Weinberg (History, 2009)
It would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that politicians are among the least trusted and respected of public officials. In that same vein, the 2019 Hansard Audit of Political Engagement in the UK reported the lowest levels of public support for politicians and the prevailing systems of governing in its 15-year history. On many levels, politicians have become pariah figures in social, journalistic and popular commentary, and the majority of this disapprobation falls at the feet of those holding power in national legislatures such as the UK House of Commons. At times of crisis like the current Covid-19 pandemic, this ire towards elected representatives can become even more heated and concentrated.
At the same time, critiques of politicians have slowly moved away from issues of competence and towards matters of character (many more conflate the two). In the press and the public psyche, the personalisation of the political and the politicisation of the personal are now replete. Rote accusations centre on the self-interest, careerism, dishonesty, and Machiavellian qualities of those elected to act in our better interests. Yet these are psychological accusations that go largely unchallenged and have, until recently, been largely untested in related academic research.
In a new study published in the British Journal of Political Science (free to access), I hold these arguments to account by analysing unique data collected from over one hundred elected MPs. Focusing on one particular set of personality characteristics known as basic human values, I compare MPs to those they govern (i.e. the general British public) as well as those who stand for office but fail to win (i.e. unsuccessful candidates). Adding to a small handful of similar studies in countries like Canada, the US, Italy, Germany and Denmark, I find that politics is a profession attracting a psychologically distinctive minority of the population.
I find that politics is a profession attracting a psychologically distinctive minority of the population.
Contra to popular assumptions, MPs are more driven than the public by inherent motivations towards caring for those around them and supporting those they know personally. At the same time, they are considerably more driven by autonomy and a desire for new experiences, but much less concerned with traditions, custom, or stability in their own lives or society. In line with popular cynicism, MPs are also significantly more ambitious than those they govern and more motivated by leadership, authority and resource dominance. These findings hold even when MPs are compared to a case-controlled sample of the public who match them for age, gender, and education.
Having established a number of important psychological distinctions between politicians and the public, I argue that traditional studies of political ambition have overestimated the importance of external stimuli such as party recruitment strategies and underestimated internal stimuli such as personality characteristics. In contrast, I argue the role of personality as one key antecedent in a cumulative and holistic model of candidate emergence. Testing these suppositions with data collected from MPs, candidates and the British public, I find that basic values are strong predictors of whether someone will put themselves forward as a parliamentary candidate or even go on to become an elected MP. These effects hold after accounting for an individual’s age, gender, education, occupational experience and exposure to political opportunities. Compared to participants least motivated by the welfare of others or personal success, those most driven by these trans-situational goals were, on average, 17 percent and 29 percent more likely respectively to stand for office.
Age-old philosophising about the existence of the ‘political animal’ can, it seems, be traced back to a particular set of psychological qualities in those seeking a career in public office. At an aggregate level, politicians appear to harbour an intense desire to fulfil socially valuable work on behalf of others. Equally, politicians are driven by an enterprising desire for authority and leadership. Whether or not popular fears and accusations about self-serving elites are unfounded – or at least exaggerated – may well depend on how these relative values manifest themselves in the representative behaviours of politicians (and not just the select few who command the media spotlight rightly or wrongly). In a forthcoming book based on a larger study of personality in British politics, I pick apart these findings in more detail and explore related questions to assess whether or not we really get the ‘wrong’ politicians.
At an aggregate level, politicians appear to harbour an intense desire to fulfil socially valuable work on behalf of others. Equally, politicians are driven by an enterprising desire for authority and leadership.