Character  &  Context

Politicians are Only Human

Image of politician being sworn in with microphones in the foreground

What makes politicians tick? A civics textbook might say that their constituents’ wishes and the good of society are all that should matter. A cynic might say that greed and the hunger for power are all that really do matter. A pragmatist might fall in between — many politicians are greedy and power hungry, for sure, but there are many good ones who care about their constituents and want what’s best for society. What these views all have in common is that they treat politicians like a kind of machine that makes decisions through calculations that have a simple end in mind, be it altruistic, selfish, or a combination of the two.

Treating politicians like machines has a long history. The Framers of the United States Constitution took a decidedly cynical view. They wanted to guard against types of selfish and greedy people they considered European aristocrats to be from rising to power in the fledgling republic. So, they designed a system of government that put institutions and the people within them in a kind of perpetual turf war that would make it difficult for one person or faction to control everything. Although they would not have used this term, the Framers assumed that politicians would be rational utility maximizers — the type of person who would be strategic and calculating to the core.

This view of human nature is at home in the modern study of politicians, which starts with the notion that politicians are rational utility maximizers. From this perspective, all that matters to politicians is keeping their jobs. To accomplish this goal, they form preferences about policies that are strategically selected to please just enough people, from the likely voters they represent to party leaders and donors, so that they can keep their job.

Recent research suggests that politicians are less machine and more human. They exhibit the same cognitive biases that all other people do.  They have a tendency to throw good money after bad (aka “sunk costs”). They tend to prefer the devil they know to the one they do not (aka “status quo bias”). They fail to manage risky choices in the way that a rational utility maximizer would. A recent meta-analysis found compelling evidence that politicians exhibit racial bias when communicating with constituents even when doing so did not conform with rational, strategic considerations.

From a psychological perspective, these findings should not be all that surprising. The human mind does not make decisions solely through conscious calculation as the standard model of policymaking presumes. People’s preferences and decisions are informed by unconscious predispositions. Most of us are only dimly aware of the world that lies beneath the surface of the conscious mind through which we observe the world, but decades of research by neuroscientists and psychologists offers a mountain of evidence that this subterranean world is deeply important for how we think and behave. Why should we expect politicians to be any different?

Johanna Dunaway, Stuart Soroka, and I explored the influence of psychological needs and predispositions on the preferences that elected politicians express about public policy. We were particularly interested in whether politicians who are more sensitive to threats are more likely to support the kinds of public policies that protect us from threats. It seems that regular folks are more likely to support conservative policies if they are sensitive to threats (even non-political ones, such as dogs and snakes).

Our research, which was recently published by PLoS ONE, led us to the National Conference for State Legislators where we set up a booth. In return for a t-shirt, we asked politicians and their staff members to participate in a brief study. The study asked how much of their state budget should be devoted to general policy areas, such as counter-terrorism, police, and welfare. Next, we asked them to watch a series of images while we measured the skin conductance levels in their hands. In essence, skin conductance is a measure of how much people sweat and, ultimately, how physiologically aroused they are. Among the images we asked them to view were ones designed to measure their sensitivity to threatening stimuli — a mean looking attack dog and scary looking snake, both of which were lunging at them from the computer monitor.

We found that state policymakers who were more physiological aroused by these threatening images were more likely to prefer devoting a larger ratio of the budget for counter-terrorism or policing to spending on welfare. We found this was the case across Democrats and Republicans, which suggests that policymakers’ level of threat sensitivity is unlikely to simply be a proxy for their constituents’ or their parties’ priorities.

Of course, there is more work to be done. We do not know if these preferences translate into how policymakers vote on legislation, for instance. We also don’t know if the type of more ambitious politicians that seek higher office are also less likely to be influenced by their level of threat sensitivity. Nonetheless, our results do offer additional support for the simple notion that politicians, like all of us, are only human.


Kevin (Vin) Arceneaux is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Behavioral Foundations Lab at Temple University. He studies how people form attitudes and make decisions about politics.

Web site: sites.temple.edu/arceneaux/

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