With the advent of television, the public appearance of political processes has changed fundamentally. Television makes visual impressions of political events easily available and provides politicians with the opportunity to project an image of themselves to the general public. This is assumed to have been contributing to a personalization of politics in general, and particularly to the change from issue-centered to candidate-centered election campaigning. When the political parties and the mass media focus on the leading politicians, their public images become important factors in shaping and changing political opinions. As people lend themselves more readily to a mediated presentation of politics, the personality of political representatives plays an important role in citizens’ thinking and behavior.
Personality can be defined as the intra-individual consistent pattern of reactions to different situations. With respect to the concept of political personality three different meanings may be distinguished: (1) the politician’s private or “true” personality; (2) the persona a politician publicly presents; and (3) the image the media present of a politician. The politician’s self-presentation and the image conveyed by the media may or may not correspond to the politician’s private personality. The relationship between the different aspects of the political personality and people’s reactions can be understood as dynamic interaction, in which people’s perceptions influence public self-presentations and images, which in turn influence people’s perceptions.
Lasswell’s (1930) classic analysis of politicians’ personalities distinguishes the agitator, the administrator, and the theorist. In recent research the emphasis has been on specific motives, predispositions, and interaction and decision styles (e.g., Winter 2005). As politicians rarely subject themselves to direct assessment procedures, indirect methods have become important in political psychology.
With the personality assessment at a distance (PAD) approach (Hermann 1999), the frequency of certain words or phrases during interviews is used to draw conclusions about a politician’s personality. PAD is used to compare profiles of political leaders across countries and to predict future political behavior. It is to be remembered, however, that only spontaneous statements are informative about a speaker’s private personality. Planned responses may be inspired by media coaches, and aim at a specific public image.
Schütz (1993, 1998) used content analysis to study politicians’ public self-presentation behavior during election campaigns and scandals. The resulting taxonomy distinguishes aggressive, assertive, and defensive self-presentation. Aggressive self-presentation is characterized by efforts to convey images of superiority or strength by devaluing opponents or attacking journalists. Assertive self-presentation means presenting favorable images without attacking others. Defensive behavior is aimed at protecting and re-establishing threatened identities. There is a critical balance between positivity and credibility in self-presentation. The effective self-presenter chooses the maximum level of positivity that can be conveyed to a specific audience in a specific situation without being perceived as insincere.
Selective broadcasting, journalists’ comments, camera perspective, etc. add to creating a public image. The impact of media features on a candidate’s image is examined in experimental studies on agenda setting. Participants typically rate newspaper articles about competing candidates or watch TV shows in which the setting or background information is manipulated. It has been shown that information on certain personality traits (e.g., corruptness) receives more attention than information on others (e.g., educational background; see Kiousis et al. 1999), a finding that fits in well with the general trends that “bad news is good news” or “bad is stronger than good” (Baumeister et al. 2001).
Recent studies have analyzed politicians’ personalities by means of personality inventories. Italian politicians’ self-descriptions proved to be on higher levels than the general population with respect to agreeableness, extraversion, and social desirability, though there were congruencies between politicians and their voters on all personality dimensions (Caprara et al. 2003). These findings suggest that the politicians’ self-presentations match voters’ preferences.
Past research focused on political personalities in the press, on the radio, and on television. Today the Internet is receiving increasing attention as a medium of political communication. Personal websites, emails, and weblogs are prominent in political campaigning. Political candidates’ websites aim at improving the candidates’ image. The advantage of emails is the chance of addressing someone personally and tailoring messages to specific audiences. Weblogs are a medium of increasing importance. They enhance the options of the public to actively participate in the political discourse and are often perceived as authentic, but there is of course also the possibility of selective posting and manipulating. A large area for future research on the personality in politics is opening up here.
- Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology, 5, 323–370.
- Caprara, G. V., Barbaranelli, C., Consiglio, C., Picconi, L., & Zimbardo, P. G. (2003). Personalities of politicians and voters: Unique and synergistic relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(4), 849–856.
- Hermann, M. G. (1999). Assessing leadership style: A trait analysis. Columbus, OH: Social Science Automation.
- Kiousis, S., Bantimaroudis, P., & Ban, H. (1999). Candidate image attributes: Experiments on the substantive dimension of second level agenda setting. Communication Research, 26(4), 414–428. Lasswell, H. D. (1930). Psychopathology and politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Schütz, A. (1993). Self-presentational tactics used in a German election campaign. Political Psychology, 14, 471–493.
- Schütz, A. (1998). Assertive, offensive, protective, and defensive styles of self-presentation: A taxonomy. Journal of Psychology, 132, 611–628.
- Winter, D. G. (2005). Things I’ve learned about personality from studying political leaders at a distance. Journal of Personality, 73(3), 557–584.