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Good Politicians Are Bad at Running the Country

2011 October 29
by Eric Horowitz

It you want to be more than a state level politicians, you need to be really good at fundraising, public speaking, and smiling into a camera. Unfortunately, those abilities don’t make you better at running the country, and that mismatch between the skills needed to get the job and the skills needed to do the job is a serious problem that leads to sub-optimal governing. Imagine if in order to play quarterback for the Dolphins you needed to be a scratch golfer and speak French. The team probably wouldn’t end up with very many good quarterbacks, yet we essentially follow the same protocol when choosing politicians.

Thus far the only good news was that the qualities needed to be a high level politician were neutral. Being good looking won’t make you a better president, but it won’t make you worse at the job. Unfortunately, a recent study in Psychological Science shows that narcissism, a trait possessed by numerous politicians, makes people think you are a better leader but actually makes you worse at leading.

Despite people’s positive perceptions of narcissists as leaders, it was previously unknown if and how leaders’ narcissism is related to the performance of the people they lead. In this study, we used a hidden-profile paradigm to investigate this question and found evidence for discordance between the positive image of narcissists as leaders and the reality of group performance. We hypothesized and found that although narcissistic leaders are perceived as effective because of their displays of authority, a leader’s narcissism actually inhibits information exchange between group members and thereby negatively affects group performance.

Given the total shamockery that the Republican debates have become, you’d think that somebody (the media, the political parties) would be trying something (anything!) to better align the skills needed to become president and the skills required to do the job. Maybe instead of standard debate questions candidates could describe their response to some fictional and apolitical ethical or moral dilemma. Letting Americans see a candidate’s judgment outside the political sphere would at least give them more information than the slew of talking points and unrealistic proposals they get now.

The point is that the tendency for good politicians to make bad leaders only seems to be worsening with the infusion of money and media into politics, and therefore it seems like a good idea for people to start thinking about ways to reverse the trend.
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Nevicka B, Ten Velden FS, De Hoogh AH, & Van Vianen AE (2011). Reality at odds with perceptions: narcissistic leaders and group performance. Psychological science, 22 (10), 1259-64 PMID: 21931153

3 Responses leave one →
  1. October 29, 2011

    FCC Poised to Take the Lead on Political Advertising Transparency
    “Today, the Federal Communications Commission voted to open a rulemaking calling for online disclosure of information that broadcasters collect about the political ads they air. If robust disclosure rules are put in place before the 2012 elections get into full swing, it will be a huge victory for the public, who has a right to know who is paying for the avalanche of political ads that will blast from their televisions in the months ahead.”

  2. October 29, 2011

    Well, if the public were actually intelligent enough to formulate questions on “fictional and apolitical” scenarios, and to pay attention to what the answers actually mean, they probably won’t be taken in by the candidates’ displays of auctoritas in the first place.

    I think part of the solution to this, at some point, will have to involve teaching the public not to be so gullible. Not going to be easy though, because gullibility is in the interests of the rich and powerful…

    – frank

  3. October 30, 2011

    Finally, some common sense about appearances vs. capability in politics. Ever since TV became involved in campaigns politics has become a primary domain of narcissists and sociopaths. This reminded me of a training/educational exercise that I have encountered where mini-biographies of Churchill, FDR, Stalin and Hitler were offered for comparison and a “which one would you vote for?” question asked. This exercise usually ends up with Hitler being the hands-down winner based on the criteria written about (diet, alcohol consumption, marital fidelity,etc.-nothing relevent to politics). We all need to dig deeper before voting.

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