New Labour leader David Cunliffe is a conscientious, agreeable extrovert who is unusually emotionally stable and very open to new experiences, according to a personality test he took last week at the request of the Sunday Star-Times.
Which might sound good for his political future, says an expert in political psychology, but the problem is he's up against a National prime minister who has a surprisingly similar profile (though John Key appears to be a touch more agreeable and smidgen less conscientious).
The test, known as a "Ten-item Personality Inventory" is a quick but scientifically credible way to assess the broad outlines of someone's personality in five principal areas: extroversion, openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness and emotional stability.
Cunliffe's results were analysed by Dr Marc Wilson, head of Victoria University's School of Psychology, who helped perform a similar exercise with John Key in 2011. Wilson said while there were a lot of similarities between the two leaders' profiles, there were also some telling differences.
Wilson said both men had scores well above the New Zealand average for "agreeableness" and "extroversion", which was typical of politicians, given they need to meet and talk to a lot of people. However, Cunliffe's extroversion was even higher than Key's, and his agreeableness a little lower.
The difference in agreeableness "could be an important factor when it comes to voters deciding who is more likeable", said Wilson.
The most marked difference between the two was in "conscientiousness", in which Key was just above the New Zealand average, but Cunliffe was in the top 20 per cent of the population.
"This will work for him," said Wilson, "because highly conscientious people tend to set more goals for themselves and carry them through more".
Both politicians rated in the top 5 per cent of the population for "emotional stability", which suggested they "won't melt down easily on the stump".
High extroversion will be an asset to both on the election trail, making it easer to keep smiling all day when meeting many people, said Wilson, "but in Cunliffe's case, the lower agreeableness may mean he'll find it harder to keep on smiling as the the day draws long".
Many political commentators believe Cunliffe may struggle to unite Labour because he is unpopular with some caucus colleagues. Though Cunliffe won 51 per cent support in the leadership contest, only one in three MPs backed him.
But Wilson said it's not unusual for a politician to be liked by the public yet not by close associates. The public may respect a "dominating and forceful" leader because they seem likely to assert themselves on behalf of a constituency, but the same characteristics may seem "aggressive and unlikeable" by others who work with them. "It's the same characteristics, but different perception."
Cunliffe's critics say he can appear "smug" and "smarmy" in public appearances. Even left-leaning media commentator Brian Edwards, a supporter of the new leader, says Cunliffe has in the past appeared to be "almost acting what he's doing - performing rather than just saying what he believes".
Wilson said: "We have to be careful about basing judgments about honesty, reliability or competence on the basis of body language. Research shows that most of the time we're not as good a judge of character as we like to think."
All the same, "authenticity can be a genuinely difficult thing to manage, and if people don't feel comfortable that what they see is what they get, then there is a question mark over trustworthiness".
Wilson said research shows strong links between the long-term success of a politician and the psychological motivations that got them into politics. Three of the big reasons are "wanting to be liked", "wanting to be influential", and "wanting to make a difference", also known as "affiliation", "power" and "achievement" motivation.
Remarkably, the "achievement" motivation is the least predictive of political success, especially in the absence of the "power" motivation, "because you want to make the world a better place, but don't have the tools to do it.
"People who are like this - and I think this describes [former Labour leader] David Shearer to a T - become disillusioned at their inability to make a difference," said Wilson. "You need a bit of a mongrel."
So is Cunliffe that mongrel?
The simple 10-point test Cunliffe performed says nothing about his motivations, but you can infer a little from media reports, says Wilson. Cunliffe has been trying for the leadership position for some time, which could be motivated by either "power" or "achievement" or a bit of both.
But Cunliffe's apparent unpopularity within caucus suggests he is less motivated by being liked, he says. "That presents a short-term problem but might actually be a good thing because he may be able to make tough calls more easily than someone who worries about how he'll be seen."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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