Psychology of Elected Representatives: Part 1
From "The Trouble With Elections: Everything We Thought We Knew About Democracy is Wrong," Chapter 9.6
I will now examine the cognitive biases and psychology of elected representatives. It is my contention that the sort of people who seek election, the sort of people who win election, and the psychological effects of wielding the power once elected, virtually guarantees that the group as a whole, will be ill suited for making public policy. If the capacity of rationally ignorant voters, showered with propaganda, to carefully choose leaders is suspect, even more suspect is the policy-making capacity of those who seek, and win election. There are, of course, exceptions, but the tendency is irrefutable. Those who choose to seek elected office, by and large, have a different set of personality traits than the public in general. Few would dispute, at the very least, that they are generally more extroverted and self-confident (or over-confident). But, there are other differences that are far more problematic.
Researchers in the Economics Department at the University of Zurich in 2018 used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study differences between individuals who were more and those who were less willing to take on decision making that would have an impact on others. They examined several common notions, such as whether these “leaders'' were less risk averse, or simply enjoyed being in control. To their surprise, these factors were not predictive of who would take on such leadership roles. Instead, they found that “leaders” in this experimental scenario were those who were less concerned about certainty, while those in a follower mode were more concerned about being certain of the best decision when the welfare of others was at stake. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that suggests many who choose to lead are willing to “trust their gut.” However, it seems likely that superior societal decision making would come from individuals more concerned about making sure their decisions were optimal, rather than merely felt right.
One would hope elections could at least weed out people with antisocial personality disorder or psychopathy, who we would not want to have in charge. Some psychologists suggest that individuals with psychopathy (associated with a lack of conscience combined with manipulative charm) are actually more common among politicians (and corporate CEOs) than in the general population. Psychologists who study this estimate that about one percent of the general population are psychopaths (many of whom end up in prison), while approximately four percent of elected officials are. One study, published in the middle of the Trump presidency, concludes that, by a large measure, there are more psychopaths in Washington, DC, than in any state of the union, and the author of the study speculates that
“psychopaths are attracted to the kinds of jobs Washington offers — jobs that reward raw ambition, a relentless single-mindedness and . . . the willingness to step over a few bodies along the way.”
But psychopathy is not the only psychological concern we should have about elected officials (though the successful democratic election of Adolph Hitler gives pause). Research by Peter Belmi and others indicates that a willingness to engage in unethical Machiavellian manipulation is associated with both higher class background and interest in pursuing power. A team of UK and German researchers reported on a game theory lab experiment in 2020 with 308 people participating in mock candidate nomination and election phases. The experiment indicated that individuals who were more willing to lie at the nomination stage were also more likely to succeed in getting elected. A researcher from the University of Bath's Department of Economics, Dr. Maik Schneider, explained:
"Our study highlights why it may not be too surprising to find candidates on the campaign trail who lie. This should concern us all given the low levels of trust in politics. There is a clear paradox here in terms of an electorate which says what's missing in politics is greater trust, yet results which indicate that candidates who lie more, somehow still have a higher chance of gaining office.”
So, do elections elevate more Thomas Jeffersons and Nelson Mandelas, or Richard Nixons and Adolf Hitlers? A 2014 Rasmussen survey found that seventy-eight percent of Americans believe politicians are less ethical than Americans in other professions. But it is not merely the pre-existing psychology of those who decide to seek office that is of concern. Scientific studies have indicated power often corrupts. Lord Acton famously wrote that
“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men." (This part of his quotation somehow rarely gets included.)
In some cases, the mere winning of elections can alter an individual’s character for the worse. Lord David Owen, a former UK Foreign Secretary, leader of the Social Democratic Party and trained MD, has proposed that the medical profession formally recognize a mental illness he calls the hubris syndrome, which some people in powerful positions succumb to. In his book, The Hubris Syndrome: Bush, Blair and the Intoxication of Power, he argues that this is a distinct and diagnosable mental condition, with dangerous policy implications. Among over a dozen symptoms he includes excessive confidence, loss of contact with reality, impulsiveness, a disproportionate concern with image and presentation, a consequent type of incompetence in carrying out policy, etc. But a mental state or character traits of representatives need not reach the level of a diagnosable syndrome to be a problem for society. What about reasonably well-adjusted, yet self-centered or callous people who simply love the lime light?
Experiments in which participants were randomly assigned to powerful or non-powerful role found that the mere possession of power over others, over time, leads to corrupting behavior. Even participants' that tested high in inherent honesty prior to the experiment had a tendency to succumb to the corrupting tendency of power. One such study from the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, found that there was a marked tendency for increased power as well as levels of testosterone to lead to corrupt behavior. Their study, published in The Leadership Quarterly, employed the “Dictator Game” (commonly used by psychologists), in which one participant is assigned the role of deciding how to distribute money from a common pot to himself and other participants. The “dictator” can choose a default distribution plan, or a pro-social or anti-social (selfish) manner. The more “power” in terms of number of other participants (”followers”) or options for possible ways to split the pot, strongly correlated with more anti-social or selfish decisions.
Other experiments have revealed that winning in one competition tends to promote cheating in subsequent competitions, while “winning” in a lottery does not. In summarizing recent research on winning and cheating conducted by Israeli professors Amos Schurr and Ilana Ritov, University of California, Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner (who did not participate in this particular study), was quoted in a Scientific American article observing that
“When we win in competition, in particular when we establish we are above others in rank, we will feel more powerful… And dozens of studies have found that the simple feeling of power makes people feel above the scrutiny of others and act in impulsive, self-gratifying and unethical ways. Feelings of power, whether it comes from wealth, a person’s position in a hierarchical structure or in this case competition, can indeed lead to various abuses like lying and stealing.”
The researchers found no such negative psychological effects when participants instead won through a lottery process.