Politicians: What Makes Them Tick?
BY JUDY BEAUPRE
Ask a dozen people to describe the typical politician and you’ll get a dozen answers. An outgoing glad-hander quick to grab the spotlight? A dedicated public servant who devotes every waking minute to improving the lives of constituents? A dogmatic policy wonk—or a slippery orator whose views shift with each change in audience or circumstance?
Like most professions, there is no one-size-fits-all persona for those who seek our votes and promise to represent our best interests. Empirical data on the personality traits of politicians is scarce, but a handful of psychologists have tried to shed light on what makes our elected officials tick. While some studies have associated them with characteristics that include narcissism, extroversion, and a propensity for risk-taking, a James Madison University professor has explored the psychology of political stubbornness, focusing his research on the traits of rigidity and pragmatism in political leaders.
“What I’ve found is that an individual’s leadership style and willingness to compromise depend on where he draws his sense of self-validation,” says Jonathan Keller, associate professor of political science, who has published his research in the journal Political Psychology. He explains that, generally speaking, internally validated politicians tend to hold fast to their own ideology, while those who receive their validation from external sources are open to other viewpoints and more apt to compromise.
He cites President George W. Bush as an example of internal validation, particularly in his handling of events immediately following the September 11 terrorist attacks.
“Bush was the prototypical crusader with a mission of ending tyranny. He saw everything as black and white,” Dr. Keller says. “His sense of self-worth was reflected in the book he wrote while governor of Texas, A Charge to Keep, which describes the family obligation to uphold honor regardless of political considerations. He felt his foremost role as president was to protect the country—a perfect position for a crusader to be in. He didn’t feel he had to listen to other opinions or to interact with the opposition.”
Bill Clinton, on the other hand, represents Dr. Keller’s definition of an externally validated leader, one whose decision-making strategies involve listening to divergent voices and fashioning policies that attract and maintain the support of others. But President Clinton could also be unbending when events called for it.
“Clinton demonstrated rigidity in an externally validated way, which differs from the way it is expressed by those who depend on internal validation,” Dr. Keller says. “When dealing with Kosovo, he was committed to using only airstrikes and avoiding the casualties that using ground troops would cause.” It was his understanding of the political and human costs inherent in those casualties that kept him rigid.
Although there is little evidence of a direct association between political preferences and validation types, the tendency toward cognitive complexity—which researchers have frequently correlated with liberals—is more often seen in externally validated leaders, Dr. Keller says. Cognitive simplicity is associated with seeing things in black and white and either-or scenarios, while those who tend toward cognitive complexity are more comfortable with ambiguity and with shades of gray. These are the leaders who spend a great deal of time evaluating all the options before making a decision. But both types have strengths and weaknesses, he says.
He places President Obama somewhere in the middle of the internal-external continuum—the same spot in which he places President Kennedy.
“Like JFK, Obama has been criticized for taking a long time to make decisions, considering all available options, and then coming down somewhere in the middle, splitting the difference,” Dr. Keller says. As an example, he points to President Obama’s handling of Afghanistan. “After long deliberations, he decided to increase troops but also to set a firm deadline for withdrawal. He kept to his core values but also showed concern for political support.”
Presidents aren’t the only leaders who seek self-validation. Congress members also exhibit varying degrees of rigidity, which can be seen in the gridlock that has hampered much legislative decision-making—including the lengthy summer 2011 debate over whether to raise the debt ceiling. Many Washington newcomers who identify with the Tea Party are examples of lawmakers who need both internal and external validation, Dr. Keller says. Although they ran for office because of internally held beliefs in the “small government” philosophy, they also are well aware of the constituent mandates they need to uphold.
“Their very identity and sense of self-worth as political leaders is tied to their mission of keeping taxes down,” Dr. Keller says. “That kind of emotional investment is a powerful force for rigidity.” In the end, he adds, an important pathway to consensus is convincing internally validated politicians that, by finding a way to align a compromise with their core principles, they will actually achieve larger goals.
“For example, if Republicans in Congress are to eventually agree to a tax increase as a way of balancing the budget, they will need to convince themselves that this action will support their mission of achieving spending cuts. When we come to that, both sides will take credit for the compromise and both will believe that it was their doing.”