Resident Expert: US Politics & the Personality Factor

NYU Abu Dhabi Assistant Professor of Political Science Adam Ramey is writing a book on the role personality traits play in American politics. In his research he looks at how personality influences the way voters choose candidates, and how legislators' personalities influence they way they behave in Congress. We caught up with Professor Ramey to ask him about the upcoming US presidential election on November 8, 2016.

How do voters decide to support a particular candidate?

That’s the million-dollar question. Most political scientists would argue that, absent ideological differences, most voters either (figuratively) flip a coin or rely on cues that aren't related to policy. Historically, political scientists have called these sorts of cues valence. Valence could be anything — a candidate's attractiveness, gender, articulateness, etc. In the research I'm conducting with Jonathan Klingler and Gary Hollibaugh, we have come to think of valence more systematically. In particular, we're focused on the way voters react to verbal and non-verbal cues that reflect legislators' personalities.

What do voters look for in terms of candidates’ personalities?

We use a framework called the Big Five personality model, which consists of five traits: Openness to experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism (abbreviated OCEAN). In a survey we fielded during the 2014 midterm elections, we asked 1,000 randomly sampled voters to evaluate the personality traits of their Congressional representatives — i.e., their House member and two Senators. Respondents were also asked to approve of the job their member is doing in office. We find across the board that — even after controlling for ideological dissimilarity between voter and legislator — voters prefer open and conscientious elected officials.

Personality influences literally every part of a legislator’s job — fundraising, challenger deterrence, committee assignments, technology adoption, obstruction, rebellion, working across the aisle, and more.

Adam Ramey, NYUAD political scientist
Do voters look for candidates with the same personality traits as themselves?

Interestingly, no! While there is some evidence for congruence-based matching of personalities between voter and elected officials, we find that voters really just want more open and more conscientious legislators.

Do Republican and Democratic voters have different personality types?

There is some differentiation, but there are wider cross-party disparities in ideology than in personality. Broadly speaking, Democrats are more open and agreeable whereas Republicans are generally more conscientious and less neurotic. The findings for extraversion are a bit mixed.

What's the trouble with elected officials who seem agreeable?

Agreeableness works in somewhat counterintuitive ways. Intuition suggests that agreeable folks are more likely to work together. Thus, agreeable legislators should be more likely to work with others across party lines, less likely to obstruct, and so on. But we find exactly the opposite. And our theory gives us a good reason why. Agreeableness is connected with altruism and self-sacrifice. When you are a member of a party caucus, your party is your team and they are the ones for whom you are willing to sacrifice.

Tell us about your new book.

Our book — More Than a Feeling: Personality, Polarization, and the Transformation of the U.S. Congress — is focused on three questions. First: What is the role of personality in explaining how legislators behave? Second: How can we measure their personality? Third: Does personality affect the way legislators do their job? We answer the first question by linking personality to existing scholarship in political science and economics on how individuals make decisions. Specifically, we focus on things like risk preferences, short- or far-sighted goals, and other similar traits. We answer the second question by relying on developments in machine learning that allow us to measure personality using speech and text. Last, we show that personality influences literally every part of a legislator’s job — fundraising, challenger deterrence, committee assignments, technology adoption, obstruction, rebellion, working across the aisle, and more.

Related: The Conversation with Adam Ramey