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College of Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences

Department of Psychology

Psychology Matters

Research Matters

ten brinke

By Leanne ten Brinke, PhD
Assistant Professor





What qualities make a political leader more or less influential? Philosophers, political scientists, and psychologists alike have puzzled over this question, and have proposed two very different routes to political power. The first traces back to Aristotle, who reasoned that a politician should—above all—be virtuous. He believed that political influence was to be found in virtuous practices such as temperance, courage, and humility. Machiavelli offered a much different approach; he advised political leaders to exert influence by force, manipulation, and violence, if necessary. In a paper published in Psychological Science, my colleagues and I coded the behavior of 151 U.S. Senators in political speeches for indicators of virtues and vices, and examined whether this index of their leadership style predicted their level of collaborative influence over others. For example, senators who spoke with a loud, steady voice and narrowed their eyes in determination were given high ratings on courage. And, senators who expressed excessive pride and spoke primarily about themselves were given high ratings on narcissism. We found that virtuous senators became more influential when they moved into a leadership role—specifically, a committee chair role.

In our data, expressing empathy for others, being concerned with justice and fairness, and communicating courage, increased Senators' ability to gain co-sponsors on their bills when they became committee chairs. In contrast, senators displaying behaviors consistent with vices—particularly, psychopathy—became less influential when they moved into leadership roles. Results suggest that, when casting a vote, citizens should consider a candidate's virtue. Voting for virtuous candidate may increase the likelihood that elected officials will have genuine concern for their constituents, while simultaneously promoting cooperation and progress in government.

In an effort to build on this work, I am involved with the Center for American Politics (CAP) at the University of Denver. As a Faculty Affiliate with CAP from 2017-2018, I conducted research on people's views of how power works; that is, whether people think of powerful individuals as having psychopathic traits and being primarily self-interested or as being social coordinators for the greater good. My current work aims to measure these views and use them to predict important outcomes, like leadership choice, trust in leadership, and the punishment of leaders who engage in immoral actions.


  • ten Brinke, L., Liu, C. C., Keltner, D., & Srivastava, S. (2016). Virtues, vices, and political influence in the U.S. Senate. Psychological Science, 27, 85-93. doi: 10.1177/0956797615611922