Why is human judgement so bad at picking good political leaders?
August 30, 2011 1:41 PM   Subscribe

Why is human judgement so poor at picking good political leaders?

Why is it that in most democratic countries people seem to be plain crummy when it comes to picking good political leaders.

The electorate of most western democratic countries seems to have a bias towards leaders that are charismatic, good looking, have the ability to talk optimistically and seem sincere about relevant issues. Leadership candidates that exude these characteristics seem to have a much higher chance of attaining power than those that don't.

Of course, there have been great leaders throughout history that have exuded these characteristics and turned out to be great leaders but there seems to be a an even greater number of charismatic leaders whom have been unremarkable.

It there something innate in humans being that gives us this bias?


Book recommendations welcome.
posted by jacobean to Society & Culture (44 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Is human judgement particularly good at anything else?

The whole "rational agents" assumption is nothing but a pie in the sky.

Checking out "Predictably Irrational" and "The Upside of Irrationality" by Dan Ariely might be a good place to start.

Behavioral economics aside, you have to remember that our instincts functions on some very base inputs, not rational thought and logic. It is not hard to press those buttons to makes us think and act a certain way, if one is inclined to do so. That is one reason why we make piss poor decisions about food---we predisposed to enjoy carbohydrates because they were rare in the wild, and the same thing goes for meat. Now look at how we make decisions when these things are plentiful!
posted by TheyCallItPeace at 1:48 PM on August 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Human beings are fallible. Anyone you shine a spotlight on is bound to show his/her weaknesses over time. If you're in a position of power, your weaknesses become even more noticeable since they have a tendency to translate into policy.
posted by phunniemee at 1:49 PM on August 30, 2011

I don't think it's the voting public who are the biggest issue - the main problem is that it takes a certain, often not-very-savory kind of person to not only believe he or she can run the world, but also be willing to put up with the intense scrutiny that comes along with living a political life. The voters' deck is stacked before the campaign even begins.
posted by something something at 1:51 PM on August 30, 2011 [11 favorites]

The instinctively-accepted social unit is probably less than twenty people, and the timeline for that unit's planning purposes is probably less than three days.

>charismatic, good looking, have the ability to talk optimistically and seem sincere about relevant issues

And these are the traits that a small tribe of people would look for, in selecting (or acceding to) a leader who will guide them to a woolly mammoth kill before the next two nightfalls.
posted by darth_tedious at 1:52 PM on August 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

You could argue that a good number of those who put themselves forward to be leadership candidates are inherently unsuitable for the role, thus biasing the sample.
posted by corvine at 1:52 PM on August 30, 2011

Charisma ≠ governing ability.
posted by weaponsgradecarp at 1:52 PM on August 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: "One of the many major problems with governing people is that of whom you get to do it; or rather of who manages to get people to let them do it to them: It is a well known fact, that those people who most want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it. Anyone who is capable of getting themselves into a position of power should on no account be allowed to do the job. Another problem with governing people is people.

"To summarize: it is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it. To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job. To summarize the summary of the summary: people are a problem."

--Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe
posted by valkyryn at 1:53 PM on August 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Part of what you're looking for is called the Warren Harding Error and, recently there was some research released that showed we like to choose "competent" looking people. There was a recent show on the CBC about the research (including a link to the study) that was done. You might also want to read Malcolm Gladwell's Blink which talks quite a bit about snap judgements.
posted by squeak at 1:55 PM on August 30, 2011

More seriously, this was something that both Plato and Aristotle thought was an almost intractable problem. We don't seem to have figured things out any better than they did, despite a good 2,300 years in which to try just about every possibility they outlined.

The obvious conclusion would seem to be that it's just a fact of the human condition.
posted by valkyryn at 1:56 PM on August 30, 2011

Thousands of years of human evolution. Humans are built to be swayed by looks, charm, and leadership (or alpha-ness). Nature intended it this way. It’s helped us survive as a species. Only in recent times have humans developed leadership roles that do not necessarily rely on the traits you mentioned. But being irrational creatures, we can’t simply stamp out our instincts.

I would also mention that with the inventions of media (such as television, colored photos, audio, etc.), people are more swayed than ever.
posted by amazingstill at 1:58 PM on August 30, 2011

I'd also note that it took me a while to realize that the political leaders who ascend successfully are the ones who build the widest coalition. If we are largely single-issue voters, then the person I vote for is going to be the one whose single issue I subscribe to, but I may disagree with them on every other point. So the politician who wins is also, by definition, the second least popular, because that politician is the one willing to embrace the single issues which garners them the most votes, but may be contrary to those voters on all other points.
posted by straw at 1:59 PM on August 30, 2011

My kneejerk answer is that it's because most people are too busy being people and having lives to pay that much attention to national political affairs. (Vaguely lumped under the "Terry Pratchett view of humanity" in my brain's filing system, I can elaborate when I'm not dashing out the door from work sometime if anyone cares)

Also seconding the evolutionary arguments cited above.

To answer this question more scientifically, you need to define your terms better. By what standard are you measuring "good" leaders? After all, while imperfect generally the democracies of the modern world have a higher standard of living than the states where other forms of government exist. Would you really prefer to live under Gaddafi or Mao or Stalin (not equating these, just random examples) than George W Bush or Barack Obama? And don't get us started about libertarianism...

"Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." -W. Churchill
posted by Wretch729 at 2:01 PM on August 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

gah missed a comma after imperfect
posted by Wretch729 at 2:02 PM on August 30, 2011

The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies
Is an excellent book on this.

If I was to summarise my own views on this subject - i would suggest the secondary problem is that people don't care and more importantly they are right not to care. For most people, politics has little impact on their lives until something goes wrong - at which point voting (which only happens once every few years and at which point your vote will almost certainly make no difference). People care about things that have real, tangible impacts on their lives and which they have a lot of control over - like their job, relationships and free time. Of course, many people are also pretty bad at those things too, but that is another story.
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 2:05 PM on August 30, 2011 [4 favorites]

There is this great quote somewhere about the central political lie is that the people are promised something, yet that it will be payed for by some other group besides them. In lieu of that exact quote, I offer these:

"The people never give up their liberties but under some delusion."
— Edmund Burke, 1729-1797, Irish Statesman

"Giving money and power to government is like giving whisky and car keys to teenage boys."
— P.J. O'Rourke, Parliament of Whores, 1991.
posted by markhu at 2:07 PM on August 30, 2011

I honestly do not see much evidence for the idea that humans are any worse at choosing leaders than we are at anything else that requires judgement.
posted by breakin' the law at 2:20 PM on August 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think it's because most people have very little idea of what the real responsibilities and duties come with the office of President, and instead have seen many, MANY hours of fictional representations of this office.

People often agonize whether a particular candidate seems "presidential", without realizing how arbitrary a distinction that is -- obviously, the standard becomes set by whomever happens to become president. The campaign period is a time when everyone collectively works to spin a narrative around the chosen candidates that makes them seem worthy of the honor and up to the work, but this is mainly marketing and typically has little to do with the candidates' actual substance or qualifications.
posted by hermitosis at 2:32 PM on August 30, 2011

I too think the premise is flawed. Who exactly are these wonderful leaders who are not selected? What exactly is so bad about most of the leaders elected democratically? Much like team spirit, charisma is often an illusion created by success. No-one's calling Gaddafi charismatic now. Sometimes political parties clearly choose the wrong leader but such figures usually fail at the first hurdle with the electorate - cough Gordon Brown cough - so it could well be argued that ordinary people are usually much better judges of political talent than actual politicians.
posted by joannemullen at 2:39 PM on August 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Is there any way of knowing how bad the choices are ?

When person A and person B stand in an election and A wins we might not think much of A's subsquent performance but we have no way of knowing how bad B might have been.
posted by southof40 at 2:44 PM on August 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Why is it that in most democratic countries people seem to be plain crummy when it comes to picking good political leaders.

Let's assume "being a good leader" is a trait, like having blond hair or a hitchhiker's thumb. Let's call the trait "GL".

1. There are few people with GL.
2. Of this subset, there are few with the right "other" attributes (skin color, gender, place of birth, etc.) to make being elected feasible.
3. Of this smaller subset, even fewer have the connections and favorable life circumstances (no disease, debilitating accidents, etc.) to make being an elected official feasible.
4. Of this vanishing subset, I'd imagine even less would WANT to actually be a public official (I can think of many reasons why a person in this subset would want to work in the private sector).

People from this microscopic subset now compete against people who are bought and sold by corporations, just want power, etc (my guess: much larger subset). Now, if they get on the ballot, most of the populace has to vote for them, and people don't really know what's good for them, especially in the face of nonstop propaganda.

That's one way to look at it.
posted by 3FLryan at 2:45 PM on August 30, 2011

Eh. I forgot to keep using "GL"...looks quite silly, sorry for that. I hope you can still follow the line of though.
posted by 3FLryan at 2:46 PM on August 30, 2011

Thousands of years of human evolution.

Keep in mind that chimps and hominids lived in small bands where each individual would know all leadership candidates personally. Choosing a leader in those circumstances is completely different from choosing which stranger will rule.

In modern history, leader-selecting skill would not likely have been selected for because most people have had so little power in choosing their leaders -- none in many societies.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 2:50 PM on August 30, 2011

Part of the problem is the pool of candidates from which to choose. Running for political office is an expensive and time-consuming proposition, and often your Average Joe who was some great, workable ideas for improving a community just can't take the time off from his regular job to devote to campaigning.

Secondly, the "cult of personality" factor has been in place at least since the first televised presidential debate, when Richard Nixon, who was suffering from the flu at the time and unwisely eschewed makeup (TV was in its infancy and Nixon, whether you're for him or against him, assumed at the time that the debate would be decided on issues and not who looked better on-camera). John F. Kennedy was young and movie-star handsome, and from the moment his Robert Redford-esque mug was broadcast a lot of folks stopped listening to what he was saying and simply thought "a guy that looks this good has to be the better candidate." A lot of so-called experts believe that such charisma helped Bill Clinton win the election - Joe and Jane Six-Pack were swayed by his good looks and his "average guy" persona who played the saxophone on TV wearing Blues Brothers sunglasses and ate at McDonald's.

Thirdly, not every candidate is a polished, erudite public speaker. Some candidates have very good ideas and can formulate budget-conscious strategic plans but they just freeze up in front of an audience, or they happen to look like Toad from American Graffiti. They might succinctly and effectively outline their platform in printed pamphlets and direct-mail pieces, but unfortunately not everyone bothers to read such things anymore. More significantly, in some areas (for example, Detroit) a significant percentage of the population is functionally illiterate, so they cannot read brochures or op-ed pieces. They tend to vote for whomever promotes themselves more on TV, radio, billboards, and other audio/visual methods.
posted by Oriole Adams at 2:59 PM on August 30, 2011

Why is it that in most democratic countries people seem to be plain crummy when it comes to picking good political leaders.

You need to define "most democratic countries", "crummy" and "good political leaders" before this conversation can anywhere productive. Who are these "most democratic countries" and conversely who are these rare few who do manage to pick good leaders?

I ask because I'm not sure your thesis is correct. Instead of sounds like a general compliant that doesn't really have a solution.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 3:01 PM on August 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

We don't often pick good presidents, because it's not required to have been a leader to become a president. Contrast this to the military, where the top levels have decades of leadership experience, and uniformly (hah!) are excellent.
posted by blargerz at 3:08 PM on August 30, 2011

To a large extent, politicians can straight up lie or make outlandish promises about what they're going to do as long as the media either supports them or doesn't talk enough against them. People want to believe, even when they know deep down inside that they're being fed a load of b.s.

For example, Obama, with not a lot going for him except the ability to make a good speech, rode the "we want to believe; let's hope it works out" thing right into the White House. It's later become painfully (for some) apparent that much of that hope was so much vapor (which, arguably, may not have entirely been Obama's fault but he did make too many promises that he's had to backtrack on). I think it's almost human nature to wish for someone or something that can take over and make it all better. Voters easily fall victim to the charismatic types who can best play to such desires.

On the other hand, election cheating (or pure illegalities), voters' mass short-term thinking, and politics-driven irrational fear and prejudice can and has put many people into elective office who otherwise probably wouldn't have succeeded. Unfortunately, that happens too often and to the long-term detriment of most concerned.

Contrast this to the military, where the top levels have decades of leadership experience, and uniformly (hah!) are excellent.

You're joking, right? A lot of the success in the military--similar to life in general--is about being able to kiss the right rings on the way up the ranks and dodge potential career-killing bullets. There isn't necessarily outstanding leadership ability involved but some people do tend to get easily impressed by a lot of shiny stars, bars, eagle pins, and colorful ribbons.
posted by fuse theorem at 3:17 PM on August 30, 2011

Why is it that in most democratic countries people seem to be plain crummy when it comes to picking good political leaders.

For what it's worth, other systems seem to do just as bad. See the PRI succession in Mexico for most of the 20th century, where each outgoing president got to pick the next. The nominee usually was a high minister (or in the early years revolutionary general), so there was plenty of experience with this person. Yet, I've never heard them considered exceptional or even good at their jobs. China's very similar system post Deng Xiaopeng seems to have done better, but it's hard to evaluate them given the context. There are lots of one-party and technocratic systems in the world to look at, and the track record is pretty mixed.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 3:30 PM on August 30, 2011

Wow - No one has mentioned Federalist #10 yet?

From this view of the subject it may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention...
posted by yoyoceramic at 3:36 PM on August 30, 2011

You know how how ant colonies are made up of individuals that are really stupid and limited in their ability to respond to the world around them, yet the colony as a whole displays an incredible level of intelligence? Humans are like that, but the other way around.

Insect colonies display emergent intelligence because they've evolved that way, and colonies that couldn't make good group decisions were weeded out. We've just recently started acting like a colonial organism, and are ourselves in the very early stages of this weeding process. There's no natural means by which the desires and knowledge of a huge aggregation of individuals can get turned into a single good decision, so instead we tend to go off in a million directions at once and flail like a nervous system with a random number generator for a brain. We might find a technological shortcut that lets us leapfrog natural selection in this area, but it hasn't happened yet.
posted by contraption at 3:51 PM on August 30, 2011

A couple more random thoughts on this:

One aspect of this issue specific to first past the post voting systems, like exists in the U.S., is addressed well and concisely here (youtube link).

Also, as yoyoceramic gets at above, democratically elected leaders are the result of a process that must incorporate the paradox that factionalism is the logical way to assemble support for a candidate, but can result in destructive and/or divisive policies. You can't ban factions, because then people can't unite in support of their goals, but at the same time carried to extremes you end up with all the pathologies of politics you see today (and have seen throughout the history of representative governments).
posted by Wretch729 at 3:58 PM on August 30, 2011

There is no democracy in the information age. There is media and how well it can influence its consumers. Election winners are the scorecards of the media.
posted by nogero at 4:12 PM on August 30, 2011

Since the 1960s, US political candidates have had to reach voters through television. And what television conveys vividly is personality, not ideas.

Book recommendations welcome.

Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.

Joshua Meyrowitz, No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior.
posted by russilwvong at 4:27 PM on August 30, 2011

I think Sturgeon's Law is also relevent. 90% of people running for office are terrible politicians so you as a voter have few choices of actually good politicians.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 4:47 PM on August 30, 2011

The question assumes facts not in evidence. For all I know, we pick average or better choices out of the pool of people who are willing to serve.
posted by Bruce H. at 5:10 PM on August 30, 2011

People get better at their jobs with practice. Most experience legislators are pretty good at the mechanics of government.

Our government generally reflects our society pretty accurately.

Leadership is valued, but we may end up being led somewhere we didn't want to go.
Attractive and charismatic leaders? Of course. We elect those we want to represent us, and we want to be represented as attractive and charismatic. We are attracted to them, so we vote for them.

It could be a lot worse. Within any organization are reasonably intelligent people who want to do the right thing. Sometimes, they are allowed to.

Lots of different countries have some good laws/policies and some bad ones. Good ideas percolate up, and some are implemented. Same with bad ideas, but, all things being equal, more bad ideas should be rejected.

All things aren't equal.

The powerful and wealthy use their influence to manipulate elections to their advantage. Of course they do, they act in their own best interest. Globalization and media saturation have made it possible for the powerful and wealthy to manipulate elections and public opinion pretty darn effectively.

In my experience, real competence is rare.
posted by theora55 at 5:11 PM on August 30, 2011

How the hell can anyone vote? I can't count the elections that I know exactly what candidate I DON'T want, but can't figure out whom I would consider voting for. What do you do when you feel it's Hobson's Choice?

It's all about money. Politicians have handlers, groomers, speechwriters, fact checkers, and tons of people looking out for them (as they look out for those from whom the money comes.)

Tons of money spent on sound bites, pretty ads, placement in places that will garner media attention. Who spends the money? Corporations, the wealthy--the agendas that are pushed have nothing to do with the welfare of the population and the good of the country.

It's all about what looks good and sounds good, not what's factual or logical. Sway 'em by emotion and rhetoric. Present things shaded and nuanced as desired. Truth doesn't matter. It's all a shell game.

It all comes down to education. First you have to educate kids so they understand why they need to make informed decisions and how to get that information, then you have to educate them so they can spot the empty arguments, deliberate misconceptions and weasel words. Then you have to teach them how to care for people, not money or empty ideas.
posted by BlueHorse at 5:31 PM on August 30, 2011

Easy. We want to be governed by someone who gives us everything we want. However, what we want is often not what is best for us.
posted by davejay at 5:49 PM on August 30, 2011 [3 favorites]

There is more than one factor in play: one, not everyone who picks our leaders is capable (nor should they be given the option) of making such a choice. My opinion is that anyone receiving a government subsidy should not have the chance to pick leaders who have the power to force everyone else to pay for their benefits. Anyone else has not contributed and will vote to continue our subsidy of their life. Two: most of us believe the lies that we are told on TV and on the internet. "We're at war with East Asia. We've always been at war with Eastasia"
posted by brownrd at 6:04 PM on August 30, 2011

Keep in mind that in a majority rules system, in order to win you have to appeal to the largest amount of people. Which means that either you toe the party line or stay as generic as possible, preferably both together. Oh yeah, and be rich and tall and white and male and handsome. There's also the part where you have to appeal to as many people as possible, especially when most populations can be divided into "liberal" and "conservative" or "smart" and "dumb," or "fundie Christian/regular Christian" and "everyone else who's less rigid about God", and all of those are two vastly opposing sides. You appeal to one side and automatically drive away the other, which lessens your ability to be generic enough to appeal to all.

So either you try to be bland enough to appeal to all (not really a strategy that seems to be be working these days), or you spout everything that everyone else in your party does in hopes that your chosen faction of people outvote the other side.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:29 PM on August 30, 2011

Here's some information about a peer-reviewed psychology showing that "Narcissists rise to the top. That's because other people think their qualities—confidence, dominance, authority, and self-esteem—make them good leaders." But the groups in the study who chose narcissistic leaders also did worse on a decision-making task:
As expected, the group members rated the most narcissistic leaders as most effective. But they were wrong. In fact, the groups led by the greatest egotists chose the worse candidate for the job. Says Nevicka, "The narcissistic leaders had a very negative effect on their performance. They inhibited the communication because of self-centeredness and authoritarianism."
(via Overcoming Bias by Robin Hanson)
posted by mbrubeck at 8:24 PM on August 30, 2011

my feeling on this is

1 - we aren't really given sufficient information with which to make an intelligent choice - at times, i even believe this is deliberate

2 - the people who want to be leaders aren't anywhere as sane and balanced as those who want nothing to do with it
posted by pyramid termite at 9:33 PM on August 30, 2011

If all the politicians in the world were to be replaced by random people, probably not a lot would change. I think if we want better politicians we need to become better people.
posted by night_train at 3:13 AM on August 31, 2011

Most people like being lied to, even though they swear that they don't. That's why they vote for leaders who offer up unrealistically simple and obviously false answers to complex questions.

The truth isn't fun. Most people prefer to be lied to. It's not just true in politics, by the way. I used to date a woman who loved drama. She created her own problems by meddling in other people's business. And, then, when it would blow up in her face, she'd want me to tell her everything was going to be ok even though clearly that was a lie. She even told me point blank that it didn't matter if it wasn't true. She just needed to hear it.

Tell people they can have whatever they want without having to pay for it, and you're likely to get yourself voted into office.
posted by 2oh1 at 12:57 PM on August 31, 2011

I should have mentioned that questions of voter behavior are constantly debated by political scientists, stretching back to the founding of the discipline. See this Journal for endless examples.

OP requested book suggestions, I don't have recommendations per se, but this and this are both pretty straightforward examples of the stuff political science produces on this topic.

I don't know if he had as much to say on voter behavior, but if you're interested in why modern governments function the way they do, Max Weber is the logical place to start.
posted by Wretch729 at 9:12 AM on September 2, 2011

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