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Why ruthlessness is a net negative in politics

Our research finds that collaborative, compassionate leadership actually yields its own rewards.

Photo, left, of Donald Trump not smiling; photo, right, of Hillary Clinton smiling. Alex Wong/Getty Images; Mark Makela/Getty Images

What’s the right way to exert political influence? Is it more effective to be selfless and virtuous, or forceful and ruthless? Recent research we’ve conducted of the behavior of US senators reveals something surprising: Being a virtuous leader actually carries its own rewards.

We conducted a study of the leadership attributes of US senators across several decades of floor speeches. We were looking for visual cues about their leadership styles. Do they demonstration compassion and empathy? Or do they demonstrate manipulation and ruthlessness? Given the current polarized political climate, one might think that to get anything done, politicians need to be ruthless and forceful.

That is the question we sought an answer to in a paper recently published in Psychological Science. Our approach to the question was based on decades-long research that suggests that personality traits manifest in verbal and nonverbal behaviors in the face, the body, in tones of voice, and the use of specific words.

For example, research suggests that narcissistic personality traits are associated with an increased use of first-person pronouns — it will come as no surprise to most that narcissists like to talk about themselves — and excessive pride, which can be revealed in expansive posture (an inflated, “pushed out” chest).

By combing the scientific literature to create a list of verbal and nonverbal indicators related to each vice or virtue of interest, we could examine a senator’s behavior for the frequency and intensity with which they engaged in these actions to provide evidence of the trait.

For example, courage is evident in a loud, empathic voice. Humanity, a second virtue, is identified in sympathetic facial expressions and tones of voice, indicating concern for others. Vices are also expressed in verbal and nonverbal behaviors. Psychopathy is evident in the smug laugh at someone else’s pain. And ruthlessness is detected in domineering gestures, such as an elevated chin, which allows the individual to literally look down his or her nose at others.

The images below demonstrate the sort of nonverbal cues we coded using examples from the 2016 US presidential candidates.

Image sources: Salon, NBC, Time, Reuters.
In the top row, both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton lift their chins and look down their nose at others, in a nonverbal display of dominance. In the bottom row, both candidates express righteous anger, revealing the virtue of justice.

In our study, we coded the verbal and nonverbal behavior of 151 US senators in office between 1989 and 1998. Ratings of each vice and virtue were made on the basis of how many and how often behaviors associated with the trait were observed. Importantly, research and theory suggest that the way that we behave — which is, in part, driven by our psychological traits — influences the responses of others.

In this study, we asked whether acting in ways that demonstrate various vices and virtues elicits cooperation from others. Specifically, we looked at how many co-sponsors each senator was able to sign to their bills before and after they attained a position of leadership. Co-sponsorships provide some of the clearest data on political influence available; bills with more co-sponsors are more likely to receive support in a vote and be enacted into law. So which strategy prevailed, the virtuous one or the style governed by vices?

In our study, it was senators who showed courage and humanity who gained the most co-sponsors, including co-sponsors from the opposing political party, when they ascended to leadership positions. Senators who threatened and bullied became less influential as leaders. For substantive, contested bills, including five co-sponsors or less, the most virtuous senators were able to enlist the support one additional co-sponsor, whereas the most vicious lost, on average, 0.5 co-sponsors, when they ascended to a committee chair role.

While our results are correlational in nature, we find evidence of a relationship between leadership style and legislative success — a relationship that voters might bear in mind when they next enter the polls.

There is a long tradition that assumes that virtues are a hindrance when it comes to political influence, that in the cutthroat world of politics, it is the ruthless and manipulative who prevail. Not so, says a new social scientific literature, and our study of political influence. Ruthlessness is more likely the outcome of having power than the pathway to getting power. Electing virtuous politicians who can withstand the corrupting effects of power is another matter entirely.

Leanne ten Brinke is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Denver. Dacher Keltner is a professor of psychology and the University of California Berkeley and the author of The Power Paradox.