Are Politicians Smarter than CEOs?

On the intelligence of elected officials

Prof. Ernesto Dal Bó
Prof. Ernesto Dal Bó

While Americans’ approval of their Congressional representatives are near record lows, new research shows that politicians aren’t necessarily a bunch of good-for-nothings—at least in Sweden.

Prof. Ernesto Dal Bó and four colleagues analyzed a rich trove of public data and found that Swedish voters consistently elect leaders who are, on average, significantly smarter and better leaders than the populations they represent. On average, top Swedish elected officials have higher intelligence and leadership qualities than the CEOs of mid-sized companies.

“We found evidence that there are plenty of great people available in politics,” says Dal Bó, the Phillips Girgich Professor of Business. “Moreover, among those candidates who happen to be available, it’s the relatively better ones who make it to the higher echelons of the political structure.”

His paper “Who Becomes a Politician?” focused on Swedish municipal and national politicians elected over a 30-year period. Published in the Nov. 2017 Quarterly Journal of Economics, it was co-authored with Berkeley Haas Assoc. Prof. Frederico Finan, Prof. Torsten Persson and Assoc. Prof. Johanna Rickne of Stockholm University, and Uppsala University researcher Olle Folke.

Researchers selected Sweden as an advanced democracy and because it has public data on all males conscripted into the military from 1951 to 1980. The data include the results of two mandatory tests: a general intelligence test and a leadership test that assessed social maturity, psychological energy, intensity, and emotional stability.

“We can now begin to doubt that the only people who run for public office are those who are less intelligent and have less to lose or that voters may inevitably elect poor leaders.”

— Prof. Ernesto Dal Bó

Researchers matched the test data with the names of some 50,000 people elected to national parliament and municipal office between 1982 and 2010. They also tapped government data on all residents over age 16, including age, sex, education level, and occupation, as well as earnings data from the Swedish Tax Authority.

All combined, they built a complete database of elected officials, test scores, income levels, and family backgrounds.

The researchers reached several conclusions. First, they found that not only do Swedish politicians have higher average IQs and stronger leadership qualities than those they serve, but they are also representative of the electorate: Swedish politics attracts competent people beyond the scions of elite families, Dal Bó says.

“In fact, relative to their own social class, politicians from lower social backgrounds are even more strongly selected than politicians from higher social backgrounds,” says Dal Bó.

Other findings: Parliamentary legislators had leadership and IQ scores higher than those of CEOs of medium-sized companies (up to 250 employees)—despite earning vastly lower incomes. Mayors have exactly the same IQ score as CEOs of medium-sized companies. Elected representatives overall have cognitive and leadership scores similar to CEOs of companies with 10 to 25 employees. Elected politicians from all socioeconomic levels showed higher cognitive, leadership, and earnings capacity scores than those who ran unsuccessfully for office.

While the results cannot be directly applied to other countries, the findings disprove the notion that political systems that encourage broad popular representation end up with mediocre leaders.

“We can now begin to doubt that the only people who run for public office are those who are less intelligent and have less to lose or that voters may inevitably elect poor leaders,” says Dal Bó.