Politicians who voters see as ‘agreeble’ and ‘trustworthy’ are not necessarily the most effective at their jobs, researchers reveal.
Experts from the universities of Kent and Exeter have found that while people vote for councillors who look ‘competent’ or ‘agreeable’, these people are often ineffective politicians because they have the wrong sort of personalities to succeed in office.
Dr Madeleine Wyatt from Kent Business School and Professor Jo Silvester from Exeter Business School asked 138 local politicians in the UK to rate their own personality. They also asked 755 of their colleagues to rate their performance in office.
They then showed 526 people from around the world pictures of the councillors and asked them to say what they thought their personalities would be like. They were not told they were serving politicians.
The researchers compared these personality profiles and ratings of facial appearance against the politicians’ share of the vote in local authority re-elections, and their performance in office.
Candidates whose appearance was described as competent had more success than others at the ballot box, but were not judged by their colleagues as any more effective while in office.
‘We found that voters are not necessarily able to see what politicians are required to do in their day-to-day work and therefore have to rely on characteristics that might seem to matter for leadership, but may not actually be that important,’ said Dr Wyatt.
‘Our research highlights the potential for image consultants and PR teams to influence elections by manipulating the way political candidates are presented to the public.
‘This points to the need for greater transparency in the political process so that voters can get to know what political work really is, and who politicians really are.’
Professor Silvester, co-author of the study, said: ‘Voters increasingly choose politicians based on personality traits such as how warm, reliable, or decisive they appear to be, judged often by how they look or how tall they are. We wanted to find out if casting their vote this way is wise – did it help voters get the right public servant?
‘We found voters prefer candidates who are agreeable, but are won over less by people who look warm. Those “agreeable” politicians were less successful in office, possibly because being a good elected representative requires people to challenge and oppose and win arguments rather than avoid conflict.’
‘There is a mismatch between the types of politicians that voters say they want and those who are deemed to perform well once in office,’ she added.