Virtue, Vice, and the U.S. Senate - Pacific Standard

Virtue, Vice, and the U.S. Senate

Virtuous politicians gain influence as they rise in ranks, while those who use cunning and subterfuge gain little.
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U.S. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (center) speaks as Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (left) and Senator Charles Schumer listen during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

U.S. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (center) speaks as Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (left) and Senator Charles Schumer listen during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

To Aristotle, the ideal politician was a person of high virtue, one of the best and most capable members of society. Though Machiavelli also used the word "virtue" to describe his own ideal, he obviously meant something different, more akin to a paranoid, power-hungry psychopath. The contrast leads to an obvious question: Which of these two has more influence in the United States Senate? Good news: While the more Machiavellian may have power early in their careers, according to a new study, it's the courageous and wise senators who have the most influence as they move up the ranks.

Despite thousands of years of theorizing, there remains quite a bit of debate over how to most effectively influence people. In the past decade or so, researchers have discovered there are actually quite a few legitimate psychopaths in corporate leadership positions—maybe one in every 25, according to one study. (By the way, this is not a good thing.)  Yet despite a long tradition of psychoanalyzing U.S. politicians, it remains an open question whether or not virtuous leaders or those with narcissistic, psychopathic, or Machiavellian traits—the so-called "dark triad"—make effective leaders.

"Citizens would be wise to consider a candidate’s virtue in casting their votes."

To find out, Leanne ten Brinke, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California–Berkeley's Haas School of Business, and colleagues from Berkeley and the University of Toronto collected 502 C-SPAN clips of a total of 151 senators speaking on the Senate floor between 1989 and 1998. Assistants watched each of those clips—one per Congress for each senator—for signs of virtues such as courage and humility, and vices like schadenfreude, emotional detachment, or a lack of empathy for others. The researchers measured influence with the average number of people a senator enlisted to be co-sponsors on bills he or she originated, and also took note of when senators assumed Senate committee leadership positions.

Virtue, not vice, won the day. Comparing the average number of co-sponsors a senator could muster before and after taking on leadership roles, the team found the most virtuous politicians rounded up, on average, one extra co-sponsor per bill after assuming a committee chair. In contrast, dark-triad traits had little to do with influence. If anything, narcissists and psychopaths seemed to have a harder time than their less vicious colleagues in using their leadership positions to gather co-sponsors. (Prior to taking on leadership positions, neither virtue nor vice helped senators enlist more co-sponsors.)

"Our results inform a long-standing debate about the role of morality and ethics in leadership and have important implications for electing effective government officials," ten Brinke and her colleagues write in Psychological Science. "Citizens would be wise to consider a candidate’s virtue in casting their votes, which might increase the likelihood that elected officials will have genuine concern for their constituents and simultaneously promote cooperation and progress in government."

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