Can you trust them?
Why does the American presidential election seem to be turning on the televised debates? And in the UK, negotiations have already started about arrangements for the party leaders' debates in the 2015 election! I know many people find these set-pieces fascinating or hilariously entertaining and others feel that they trivialise the democratic process. But whatever your gut reaction to gladiatorial combat, it looks like it's going to become ever more significant.
What do we get from these public displays that's more important than past performance in office, or than detailed policies laid out in manifestos?
It seems that what we're looking for is evidence of "character".
character >the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual. >strength and originality in a person's nature. >a person's good reputation.
This matters a lot. We want to be led by people who can be relied on to do the right thing - although we can disagree strongly with each other on what constitutes that right thing. We recognise good character as expressed in "mental and moral qualities" that are the same as ours.
But can you judge another person's mental and moral qualities? How exactly do you assess "character"?
I found several variations on this quote:
"The true test of a person's character is how they treat the people in life that they don't need."
Does this mean that in an election debate, where the candidates need everybody's vote, they have to appear to be treating everyone well? But Mitt Romney seems to have decided that 47% would never vote for him so, his opponents say, he isn't interested in their welfare!
Victorians thought you could read a person's character, particularly criminality, from their facial features and shape of their head. And a recent research paper claims that you can accurately judge 90% of a stranger's personality by looking at their shoes! (Of course personality and character aren't quite the same thing - but it's too good a snippet for me not to mention it.)
The second part of the definition was "strength and originality in a person's nature". I'd think that these can be judged on past performance, assuming we have some history to go on. Otherwise we're back to reading "nature" from rhetorical skills and body language.
Defining character as "a person's good reputation" is the same as "social proof", one of Cialdini's six principles of influence. Essentially, we take other people's opinions into account when forming our own - often giving them more weight than the actual facts.
I think that what most of us mean by "character" is actually the same as "attitude" - another vague term that we all understand even though we probably couldn't define it. I offered a definition in a past newsletter: attitude comprises a person's values, beliefs and thinking styles, and I think this works for character as well.
Thinking styles (or "meta-programs" in NLP) consist of habits such as whether you look for the big picture or the detail, whether you prefer to keep options open or follow a defined path, whether you judge things by your own internal standards or whether you take other people's views into account, and many others (see Change Work March 2007 for a discussion). They will be apparent in a debate because they determine how you answer a question or tackle a problem, and people will feel rapport with someone who thinks like them. This implies that a politician needs to be able to display all of the styles, for example seeing the big picture whilst being concerned with the detail at the same time, in order to appeal to everyone.
Maybe more important than thinking styles, although deliberately concealed perhaps, are values and beliefs. These are central to what makes a person who they are.
Values are what you hold dear and, most importantly, what motivate you. Even if you're not consciously aware of exactly what they are, your values still drive you.
Your beliefs are linked to your values and form a complex web of "presuppositions". They are your starting point in any argument or analysis that you make. You never try to justify them (unless challenged) because you don't regard them as opinions or conclusions that might be wrong. They don't need mentioning because, for you, they're simply true.
When a politician says something you approve of, or that even gets you shouting in agreement, it's probably because they've mirrored some of your values and beliefs. And of course, when you react against them, it's because they've offended your values or contradicted your beliefs.
It seems that once a majority of the voting public begins to believe that a certain candidate is flawed in character, then they can't win. And conversely the candidate they'll trust and vote for is the one they feel rapport with, because they seem to share enough of their own values, beliefs and thinking styles.
If personal character is such an important factor in elections then it's not surprising that people want to see the candidates pitched directly against each other so they can be compared. That's not to say that the TV debate format is the ideal way to make the comparison - but I suppose it's the best we're going to get for now.