Campus researchers find virtuous senators more successful

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Virtuous traits, not vices, enhance senators’ abilities to convert power into influence, according to a recent study by UC Berkeley researchers, in tandem with the University of Toronto.

Published in the Psychological Science journal, the study noted that senators who displayed traits such as wisdom and courage in committee-chair roles had more political influence than senators who were found to be less virtuous, as measured by the researchers.

The study was conducted by Leanne ten Brinke, a Banting Postdoctoral Fellow at the Haas School of Business; Sameer Srivastava, an assistant professor at the Haas School of Business; Dacher Keltner, a campus psychology professor; and Christopher Liu, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto. They analyzed the virtues and vices of 141 male and 10 female U.S. senators who were in office between January 1989 and December 1998.

The researchers defined “virtues” in six aspects — wisdom and knowledge, courage, humanity, justice, temperance and transcendence. Vices were defined in three categories — psychopathy, Machiavellianism and narcissism.

It took Brinke and her team of trained undergraduate research assistants nearly a year to code the first minute of one speech for all the senators. By coding the randomly chosen videos, the team analyzed the verbal and nonverbal behaviors they displayed, which were used to determine their virtues and vices.

Srivastava explained that the team based the study on the two contrasting routes to political power proposed by Aristotle and Niccolo Machiavelli. While Aristotle espoused morality and ethics in leadership, Machiavelli advocated the pursuit of personal interests as a way to advance one’s personal goals.

“If we want to elect successful politicians, then we should be seeking candidates who show these virtuous personality traits,” Brinke said of the importance of the study’s findings to voters.

According to the study, citizens should consider a candidate’s virtue when voting because this might influence the candidate’s ability to cooperate on legislation and promote democracy.

Even though there might be different approaches to leadership today, in the context of this study — which focuses on a specific time period and the U.S. Senate — virtue was shown to be an effective administrative trait, as it helped senators cooperate with others to pass bills and get things done, according to Brinke.

After reading the study, Councilmember Kriss Worthington noted that he has often found that people who bully others are the ones who get their way and influence politics.

“They defined success as getting a sizable number of co-sponsors,” Worthington said. “I am not convinced that that is the definition of success.”

As a next step, Brinke hopes to apply the study’s findings to other professions.

“In the Senate, you have to cooperate with other people, but other professions don’t require cooperation for success,” Brinke said.

Keltner and Brinke are further analyzing the role of virtue in the financial sector, according to a campus press release.


Contact Danwei Ma at [email protected].