(featured image credit: Savvas Stavrinos)
When we elect political leaders, what we really need is to be able to trust them. But how good are we at assessing their trustworthiness?
The 2020 US presidential elections will probably be remembered for longer than most of its predecessors. But leaving aside the circus that surrounds this edition, presidential elections would appear to be among the simplest of choices that a voter can face. In many countries, the final vote goes between just two people, and even where there are more candidates (as in the US), it is still almost always a two-horse race.
What are the criteria – and indeed what should be the criteria – on the basis of which we make such a choice? We often don’t give it a great deal of thought. Some might give their vote to whoever is the candidate of the party they have always voted for; others might vote on the basis of the anecdotes they heard about the hopefuls, what they have heard them say, or how they come across. If we dig a bit deeper, though, it becomes clearer what we are really looking for. Whoever wins the election will make numerous decisions throughout their tenure, decisions that will often affect us, directly or indirectly, in big ways or in small ways.
Looking for trust
So, really, we want someone whom we can trust to make the decisions that are in our interest – in the broadest sense. (Here, “our interest” goes beyond simple material consequences on our personal income or wealth. It also includes certain societal aspirations regarding the way government revenue is raised or spent – e.g. VAT on certain products, or the budget for social care – and moral values that we want to see served – e.g. legislation around euthanasia or a minimum wage).
We want to place our trust in a candidate who, when they face trade-offs, has our interest at heart. This trust embodies two key elements: competence (they are capable of effectively analysing and understanding a challenge, drawing a robust conclusion and ensure the decision is successfully implemented) and integrity (they will not betray us once they are elected).
Suddenly, our choice doesn’t look so simple anymore. How, indeed, can we determine whether someone is worthy of our trust?
We typically have precious little to go on. Sure, many political issues are hardy perennials, where the preferred trade-offs of the political parties are pretty well-known. One party might favour higher taxation in order to provide better funding for public services, another one might prefer to trim down public services in order to be able to cut taxes. We may find one that aligns with our own sentiments and preferences, but all this hardly tells us whether we can trust that party’s candidate.
Political discourse, especially during election campaigns, deals almost exclusively with promises of outcomes. We hear (often expressed in fiery rhetoric) what a candidate will do for us, the voters, yet we don’t hear how they have arrived at that proposal, and what sacrifices will need to be made to achieve it. We don’t hear about the trade-offs. It is a bit like engaging a plumber to renew our bathroom, who promises us something utterly awesome – a fully kitted out wet room, with an illuminated chromotherapy showerhead and whole body shower for two – without telling us the price tag, nor that he will need to demolish half our house to install it, so we will be living on a building site for many weeks.
And that is just concerning the known and predictable decisions ahead. A candidate’s speeches and soundbites tell us nothing about how they might respond to acute crises like the financial meltdown of 2008, or like the COVID-19 pandemic we are all dealing with right now. Yet how they’d deal with stuff like that is precisely what we need to know.
At best, what they say, and how they say it, give us a fleeting glimpse of their character. Their charm and charisma, the well-crafted addresses, the calculated insults aimed at their opponents, the carefully chosen dog whistles, they’re all intended to captivate the electorate and paint that picture of trustworthiness.
The look of trust
Or perhaps we just go by how they look? Don’t laugh. In a study by Alexander Todorov, a psychologist then at Princeton university, and colleagues, subjects were shown photos of US congressional candidates for just 1 second, and then asked to give them a competence rating. The researchers found that these ratings predicted the outcomes of the elections better than chance (with an accuracy between 66% and 73%), and also tracked the margin of their victory. Further research by Nikolaas Oosterhof and Todorov, by Brian Holtz, by Jonathan Freeman and colleagues, by Michael Slepian and Daniel Ames, and by Jean-François Bonnefon and colleagues has confirmed this tendency to make trustworthiness judgements based on facial features, and has even identified particular aspects that are correlated with perceived trustworthiness.
And it’s not just facial characteristics that can convince the electorate that a candidate can be trusted. Perhaps Volodymyr Zelensky, the current president of Ukraine, is the most spectacular example of an actor being elected to high office: he played the president of his country in a TV comedy show, and won the presidential election in 2019 with nearly 75% of the vote. Clearly his audience thought that a competent acting performance was a sensible predictor of a competent presidential performance. And even that achievement pales into insignificance in comparison to the 40th president of the United States, the actor Ronald Reagan (who, admittedly, had already had a considerable prior political career at the time, in contrast to Mr Zelensky.)
An embarrassing flaw
When organizations recruit staff, especially in senior positions (all the way to the CEO), they need to be able to trust the person they hire – in much the same way that we must be able to trust the politicians who, when elected, will govern us. But organizations evaluate a candidate’s competence before offering them the position.
A politician with ministerial, prime ministerial or presidential responsibilities arguably has a lot more power to mess things up than the pilot of an airliner. We would not dream of entrusting our life to a pilot who was selected on the basis of rhetoric and insults of a competing airline, on the basis of their trustworthy face, or because they had achieved some fame in a TV reality show. We want to have some confidence that they are competent, and that we can trust them not just to fly the plane, but to deal with any mishap that might occur en route.
And still, we select and elect politicians using weak, vague and inappropriate proxies for trustworthiness. We have little chance of identifying the most trustworthy candidate, and we are unable to trust that the choice we eventually make is the right one.
If, by the time we welcome the first alien visitors, we have not come up with a better way of choosing prospective office holders, should they inquire about our system of governance, we may well end up feeling a little embarrassed when we explain how democracy works on Earth.
(This post was inspired by a conversation with Roger Dooley.)