First Impressions and Similarities: Voting for Perceived Personality

by Emily Levi-D’Ancona, Kenyon ’16

Unless you live under a rock, you’ve recently heard that Hillary Clinton is running for President in 2016. Clinton is a well-established, well-known politician and has been for about two decades; almost every American knows who she is, is familiar with her political views, and cannot possibly miss her face in the news. But what about the other candidates in the running? Do you know anything about them? Have you even heard of them? If you had to decide now, would you vote for them?

According to a 2014 study by Markus Koppensteiner and Pia Stephan, opinions of candidates less well-known than Hillary Clinton might depend more on first impressions than anything else. Past studies have shown that people judge political candidates based on appearance and other nonverbal cues. In fact, past studies have successfully predicted election outcomes only by looking at photos of the candidates, perhaps confirming the public’s own tendency to vote based on appearance. More specifically, people tend to vote for candidates who look most like them or for candidates who share their own personality traits. While first impressions can be accurate at times (for example, traits like extraversion are actually quite easy to recognize after observing behavior for less than a minute), people can be misled by their first impressions Koppensteiner and Stephan conducted a study to measure the relationship between first impressions, favoring of similar personalities, and the likelihood of voting for a candidate.

Based on past trends, they predicted that participants would vote for candidates with traits perceived as similar to their own self-reported traits, a phenomenon that they call “congruence.” They also hypothesized that participants would judge themselves as higher in desirable traits than politicians, finding themselves morally superior to politicians. Lastly, they believed that participants would integrate their own self-perceptions into the guesses that they make about politicians’ personalities; in other words, that their own personality traits would affect their perceptions of the politicians.

In order to measure this, Koppensteiner and Stephan found 80 participants at University of Vienna in Austria, 42 female and 38 male, at an average age of 23 to 24. Participants were first shown 15-second, silent video clips of relatively low-profile German politicians giving speeches, making sure that the students had never seen the politicians. Because the clips were silent, they forced participants to judge politicians solely on their appearance and nonverbal cues rather than on the content of their speeches. Participants watched short clips of 8 different politicians, and as they watched they were asked to rate the politicians on 20 personality terms taken from the German NEO-FFI, which assessed the politicians on the Big Five traits (using the inverse of Neuroticism, Emotional Stability, in order to make all values positive). After rating the politicians, participants were asked, on a scale of 0 percent to 100 percent, what was the likelihood that they would vote for each particular candidate that they observed. Finally, participants self-reported their own personalities using Big Five traits.

Koppensteiner and Stephan found no significant results for Extraversion or Conscientiousness, but they found that congruence between self-reported and observed Openness, Agreeableness, and Emotional Stability greatly affected the probability that a participant would vote for a candidate. Participants tended to “vote” for candidates that they rated as high in Openness, regardless of their self-report of Openness, showing that Openness perceived to be an important trait for politicians, but the rating was even higher when the participant rated both himself and the politician as high in Openness—when the candidate shared their own personality traits.

Congruence on Agreeableness played a large role, as well: when both the participant and the candidate scored high in Agreeableness, the probability of voting for the candidate was high. But when both the participant and the candidate scored low in Agreeableness, voting probability was low, while participants low in Agreeableness tended to “vote” for candidates high in Agreeableness. These results show that, no matter the personality of the participant, voters seem to value Agreeableness in political candidates.

Congruence has the largest measured effect on Emotional Stability. Participants with high Emotional Stability will likely vote for candidates with high Emotional Stability and, likewise, participants with low Emotional Stability will likely vote for candidates with low Emotional Stability. With Emotional Stability, large incongruence between the candidate and the participant drastically reduced the likelihood that the participant would vote for the candidate—participants, on the whole, voted for candidates who were just as emotionally stable (or unstable) as they were.

These results confirm Koppensteiner and Stephan’s prediction that voter behavior can be predicted by first impressions of similarity to candidates. Koppensteiner and Stephan question whether perhaps participants matched their own personal states to the clips that they saw, as if they had been primed to feel the same emotions as the candidates they observed. This may be an area to explore in further studies. In addition, the study did show that most participants rated themselves more highly than the candidates they observed on almost all Big Five Traits. This may be because public opinion about politicians tends to be unfavorable (can you think of a president or other politician who has never been criticized?). Other future studies may also explore the effects of age on perceptions of politicians, or the effects of political party—might people rate members of their self-identified political party as more similar to themselves.

This study shows the ways in which voters make decisions about politicians whose policies they are unfamiliar with: without proper information, first impressions are everything. According to Koppensteiner and Stephan, voters may rely on personality judgments even when they DO have enough information about the candidate. So in the bustle of next year’s elections, take a moment to think about the reason behind your voting decisions: how important is personality to you, and how much will you rely on first impressions?

References

Koppensteiner, M., & Stephan, P. (2014). Voting for a personality: Do first impressions and self-evaluations affect voting decisions? Journal of Research in Personality, 51, 62-68.

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