It has been debated for centuries whether political leaders who exhibit cold and calculating traits are more likely to succeed than those who are empathetic. A recent study, co-authored by Christopher Liu from the Rotman School, might shed light on this dispute. The study shows that politicians who tend to be more virtuous make more effective leaders. 

The researchers focused on two competing models of influencing people. The model is based on the idea that virtuous qualities make a leader more influential, and a more Machiavellian model, where what they call ‘vices’ play the dominant role. The goal of the study was to see how these two social strategies affected political leaders’ abilities to influence their peers after taking on a leadership role.

The researchers examined videos of 151 US senators from different political parties and congresses who were active between January 1989 and December 1998. They watched the first minute of each randomly selected video to detect exhibitions of virtues or vices in the senators. Coding guidelines, based on standard behavioural traits, were used to assess the verbal and non-verbal behaviour of the senators for vice and virtue. The data collected was compared with the number of colleagues the senators recruited as collaborative co-sponsors on bills that they created. The correlation data enabled the researchers to make inferences based on behaviour.

The research found that senators with virtuous behaviour, when promoted to a committee chair role, were more likely to get other congress members to co-sponsor proposed legislation. On the other hand, senators exhibiting vices were no more influential, and in some cases less influential, than they were before getting the leadership role. Leaders who value others garnered more support from colleagues, while those who were manipulative, self-centred, or competitive did not.

This begs the question: could a politician prone to vice simply fake being virtuous to gain support? Liu says that while attempts to fake virtuous behaviour might happen, it is extremely difficult to mimic all of the associated behaviors effectively. In the case of the senators included in the study, Liu says it would be very difficult for them to maintain a false behavioral profile across such a long time period.

“There are so many behaviors to control — verbal content, vocal cues, nonverbal behavior, and emotional expression,” said Liu.  “One’s true personality is likely to be revealed, even if a person tries to conceal it.”

The researchers also found that there were not many correlations between education and age with the possession of vice or virtue. They also found no correlation based on party affiliation, suggesting that vice or virtue are personality traits independent of political ideology. 

While decoding behaviour may sound like a complicated task meant for seasoned researchers, everyday voters are capable of picking up on important cues too.

“For example, courageous individuals are more likely to speak loudly and emphatically, express their emotions freely, and do not engage in speech hesitations (um, ah, er),” explained Liu.

Considering politician’s virtue may be rewarding for voters, as virtuous elected officials might care for their supporters and make more progress in government. 

“I do believe that [the research] may apply to present-day politics, but I would be cautious in extending it to Canadian politics,” said Liu, explaining that Canada’s parliamentary system is very different from the US legislature.

Liu’s next project will be investigating influence dynamics within the US Senate through language use.