October 01, 2019

New research from Susquehanna University political scientist Rolfe Peterson finds that personality traits known as the Dark Triad – Machiavellianism, narcissism and psychopathy – show themselves at higher rates in individuals with increased political ambition – particularly when it comes to campaigning.

In “The Dark Triad and nascent political ambition,” published in the Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties, Peterson and his co-author Carl L. Palmer, associate professor of politics and government at Illinois State University, found that individuals scoring higher in Machiavellianism are more likely to express a willingness to engage in the specific activities associated with campaigning, such as public speaking, holding rallies, media interviews and debating.

“Politics is at times a dark place with manipulation, calculation and conflict inherent in the activity,” Peterson said. “We should not be surprised that people who exhibit negative social traits may be drawn to politics and other people might be repelled.”

Using original survey research, Peterson’s analysis found that respondents who scored higher in Machiavellianism were found to be more likely to have higher political ambition, more likely to enjoy the specific aspects of campaigning and more likely to predict they will be successful candidates.

While narcissism is related to feeling qualified and thinking about running for political office, individuals scoring higher in narcissism were found to be less likely to express interest in the specific work of political campaigning. The same was true of psychopathy.

“For Machiavellians, manipulation and ruthless pursuit of self-interest is part of their personality, and public office is a tantalizing position of power for narcissists, so it is not a stretch to say that most high-level office-seekers require a modicum of narcissism,” Peterson said. “Our results have implications for understanding the traits that drive political ambition and how the country gets the politicians it needs, though possibly not the politicians it wants.”

Peterson admits the research is limited as the data is based on a student survey sample, but also said it raises additional questions that warrant further attention: Are Machiavellian politicians more likely to win elections? Do politicians who exhibit dark personality traits govern differently? Do individuals exhibiting higher dark traits prefer more coercive politics or policy tools?

It is worth noting that the institutional designs in place in many Western liberal democracies curtail the passions and flaws of human nature through checks and balances, Peterson said.

“Political ambition is a necessary evil in representative government,” he said. “While we are often suspicious of political ambition, it is crucial to have citizens willing to serve and run for office.”