“Likability is associated with an emotional connection between candidate and voter that makes a politician worthy of trust”

Likability seems to have emerged as an important personality trait in the late 19th century, when it became closely associated with male business success. Before this, people liked or disliked one another, of course, but it wasn’t until after the Civil War, when middle-class men began to see virtue and character as essential to personal advancement, that success in business required projecting likability.

Businessmen joined service associations like the Knights of Columbus (founded in 1882) and Rotary International (1905), and male friendship — men being liked, and liking other men — became a key element for attaining civic leadership. Popular authors like Horatio Alger promoted “likability” as a way of making one’s virtue visible, and thus paving the road to prosperity. The shoeshine boy Ragged Dick, the hero of one Alger novel, does good deeds that cause strangers to warm to him and give him a leg up. Describing Dick as “frank and straightforward, manly and self-reliant,” Alger hoped his readers would “like him as I do.”

By the 20th century, the advertising and public relations experts of Madison Avenue specialized in making products likable too, by associating them with figures — the actor Robert Montgomery or the aviator Amelia Earhart, for instance — they believed consumers already had an attachment to. The point was to generate a sense of connection that felt “real,” even if the consumer might suspect that the feeling of liking the product had been created by a well-orchestrated jingle, billboard or print ad.

Americans were also taught that being likable was a quality that could be cultivated as a means to get ahead. In 1936, Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” warned that those who tried too hard to be liked would fail: Theodore Roosevelt’s naturally friendly greetings to everyone he passed, regardless of status, Carnegie noted, had made it impossible not to like him, but Henrietta G., now the “best liked” counselor at her office, had been isolated until she learned to stop bragging. (Though looking back, we have to wonder: Would Henry G. have needed to hide his accomplishments?)

As presidential candidates put advertising experts in charge of national campaigns, perhaps it was inevitable that likability would jump explicitly to politics. In 1952, some of the first televised election ads sought to highlight Dwight Eisenhower’s likability. The advertising executive Rosser Reeves put Eisenhower in controlled settings where his optimism, self-confidence, humor and nonpartisanship could be emphasized over his political inexperience and what Reeves viewed as his “inept” speaking style. The animator Roy Disney was commissioned to make a cartoon spot with a catchy jingle: “Ike for President,” the song repeated, cutting to Uncle Sam leading a parade down the streets. “You like Ike, I like Ike, everybody likes Ike,” the chorus sang as Eisenhower’s smiling cartoon face passed.

Likability is associated with an emotional connection between candidate and voter that makes a politician worthy of trust. And yet because that connection is forged almost exclusively through the conduit of mass media, it can never be really about the candidate but only voters’ fantasies about how a politician they can never know ought to be. That women are disadvantaged by a dynamic that emphasizes fantasies over real achievements should perhaps come as no surprise: Popular fantasies about women, sadly, still don’t tend to feature intelligence, expertise and toughness at the negotiating table.

Yet if the history of likability in America tells us how important it has become, particularly to politics, it also teaches us there is nothing immutable about a concept that was created and refined by men from Horatio Alger to Dale Carnegie to Roger Ailes. Women haven’t benefited much from the likability standard as it stands. But to recognize that it’s an invention is to dream that they could.

Claire Bond Potter, “The ‘Likability’ Trap”, The New York Times (5 May 2019), SR4.