Politicians Have Different Personalities Than the Rest of Us

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Hillary Clinton. Photo: JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that politicians are a bit, well, different than the rest of us. Being a politician requires constant exposure to the spotlight, answering accusatory questions posed by strangers over and over and over, and participation in a wide variety of other boring, unusual opportunities. Politics likely attracts a very specific type, in other words. But what sort of type?

Over at BPS Research Digest, Christian Jarrett runs down a new paper in Personality and Individual Differences by Richard Hanania of UCLA. Hanania asked a bunch of state legislators to take a Big Five personality test — you can take one yourself here — and 278 agreed. He compared their results to “2,586 matched with the politicians for age, and who’d completed the same questionnaire online.”

Overall, writes Jarrett, “the politicians scored, on average, higher than the public on trait Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, and Extraversion, and lower on Openness and Neuroticism.” This is about what you’d expect: To succeed at politics enough to be a member of a state legislator, you’d need to work hard and pay attention to detail (be conscientious), deal in an affable manner with a steady streak of people wanting to talk to you (agreeableness and extraversion), and not freak out over every little decision or setback (neuroticism).

As for openness, Jarrett writes, “Hanania speculated that the prospect of a life of committee hearings and debates might put off people with more artistic tendencies, hence the lower Openness to Experience.” It could also be that the average American prefers politicians who are a bit more on the conservative and traditional side, and if you’re conservative and traditional you’re going to be less open to experience.

Either way, this is a cool area of personality-psychology research, and it would be interesting to see how these Big Five ratings would change if you zoomed out to the level of U.S. senators and representatives.

Politicians Have Different Personalities Than the Rest of Us