A series of studies finds that a dominant leader becomes more appealing than a prestige-based leader when the socioeconomic environment is riddled with uncertainty. When it’s unclear what the future holds, people experience a lack of personal control and a sense that they cannot influence an outcome, leading them to try to compensate by supporting dominant leaders whom they perceive to be decisive, action-oriented, and agentic.
Why do citizens across the globe put dominant leaders, known to exhibit traits such as narcissism, aggression, and uncooperativeness, in power? Research from evolutionary and social psychology, which distinguishes between dominance and prestige as two alternate pathways to leadership, may help answer the question.
We are witnessing a worldwide surge in a certain type of leader claiming the highest offices of power — leaders who are confident, controlling, and strongly hierarchical. Indian voters elected the dominant Narendra Modi into power in 2014, Britain’s Nigel Farage saw his sharply argued views endorsed during the 2016 Brexit campaign, Donald Trump was elected president of the U.S. in 2016 after repeatedly promising to be “strong,” and autocratic Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan was reelected this year. The question is: Why are voters choosing this type of leader now? Our research (recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) attempts to answer this by focusing on when and why such leaders ascend to leadership roles.
We drew on research from evolutionary and social psychology, which distinguishes between dominance and prestige as two alternative pathways to leadership. Leaders associated with dominance are assertive, confident, controlling, decisive, dominating, and intimidating. Many of these traits are positive, but dominant leaders have also been known to exhibit negative traits such as narcissism, aggression, and uncooperativeness. They are the prototypical “alpha male” in the group, and they frequently claim leadership positions instead of waiting to have leadership responsibility conferred upon them.
The prestige pathway, on the other hand, is associated with individuals who are respected, admired, and held in high esteem by others. They are not only competent themselves but also pass on knowledge and skills to others within their group. They are considered to be cultural role models. As a result, they are bestowed with prestige and granted leadership roles by their group members. Dominance and prestige are not necessarily good or bad — they are just two different strategies for attaining leadership roles. However, prestige-based leaders typically have traits that are deemed more likable (for example, warmth) and more socially acceptable than those of dominant leaders.
We contend that a dominant leader becomes more appealing than a prestige leader when the socioeconomic environment is riddled with uncertainty. When it’s unclear what the future holds, people experience a lack of personal control and a sense that they cannot influence an outcome. We propose that this feeling is so deeply aversive (since feeling in control is a fundamental human need) that individuals try to compensate by supporting leaders who they believe hold greater agency and control. A dominant (alpha) leader is generally perceived as decisive, action-oriented, and agentic, and therefore may be considered more appealing in such situations. In other words, endorsing a dominant leader in times of uncertainty is a response aimed at restoring one’s sense of personal control. This is consistent with other research finding that a perceived lack of personal control leads individuals to support external entities — such as governments, gods, and hierarchies — that appear to possess greater agency.
We tested these propositions across several studies. In the first study we recruited 750 participants from 46 U.S. states and recorded their voting preference for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. This data was collected on the day of the third and final presidential debate, before the debate began. We purposely collected data close to Election Day to ensure voters had sufficient exposure to the presidential candidates to have formed a concrete preference. Apart from reporting their voting preference, participants also indicated their political ideology (liberal or conservative), demographic characteristics, and the zip code where they lived. For each reported zip code, we calculated economic uncertainty of that area by aggregating its poverty rate, unemployment rate, and housing vacancy rate.
As a pretest, we had a separate group of people indicate Clinton’s and Trump’s level of dominance or prestige using a validated dominance-prestige scale. They rated Trump significantly higher on dominance than Clinton, and Clinton significantly higher on prestige than Trump. Thus, if participants indicated a preference to vote for Trump, they would be endorsing a dominant leader.
After controlling for participants’ ideology, demographics, personal income, and time spent living in the zip code, as well as the total population and population density of the zip code, we found that the greater the economic uncertainty in the area, the more people preferred voting for Trump. This corroborated our view that economic uncertainty influences people’s preference for a dominant leader over a prestige-based leader.
But we wanted to make sure our results were not being influenced by people’s impressions of Clinton and Trump specifically. So in the second study we did not have people evaluate actual candidates. Instead, we asked roughly 1,400 different participants from 50 U.S. states whether they would prefer a local leader who demonstrated more dominance or more prestige. We used a validated dominance-prestige scale, asking participants to state their agreement with statements such as “I would like a leader who often tries to get his/her way regardless of what others may want” (for dominance) and “I would like a leader who is respected and admired by other members” (for prestige). After indicating their preference on a dominance-prestige scale, participants stated their demographics and the zip code they lived in. We calculated economic uncertainty for each zip code, similar to the first study, and controlled for the same variables that could interact with people’s leadership preferences.
The resulting analysis revealed that economic uncertainty was significantly related to participants’ preference for a dominant leader and negatively associated with preference for prestige-based leaders. These findings not only confirm the role of uncertainty in favoring a dominant leader but also show that it can lead to disfavoring a prestige-based leader. Taken together, our results demonstrate how economic uncertainty may influence the leaders we choose.
In the third study we wanted to assess the generalizability of our findings beyond the U.S. and test whether lack of personal control is the psychological driver of this phenomenon. We used data from the World Values Survey, an organization that has been surveying people’s political and social attitudes across the globe since 1983. The data for our main dependent variables — preferring a dominant leader and how much control people have in their lives — came from more than 138,000 responses made from 1994 to the present and across 69 countries. We calculated economic uncertainty from a separate data set provided by the World Bank, using the change in a country’s unemployment rate from the year prior as a proxy. We merged these two data sets to test our predictions.
Replicating our earlier findings, we found that an increase in a country’s unemployment was positively associated with its citizens’ preference for a dominant leader. Unemployment and lack of personal control were also positively correlated — that is, the greater the country’s unemployment, the more participants in that country reported a lack of control. This could mean that a lack of personal control due to higher unemployment is driving the stronger preference for a dominant leader. In short, economic uncertainty could lead to a feeling of losing control, which could then result in favoring a more dominant leader.
To explore this connection further, we conducted several lab experiments in which we could manipulate participants’ sense of control. We randomly assigned a group of 813 participants to either a low- or high-control condition, asking them to write about something negative that happened to them that was their fault or that they had no control over. They were then provided with a description of both dominant and prestige leaders and asked to indicate the type of local leader they would prefer of the two. Similar to our other studies, we measured the economic uncertainty of their zip codes.
We found that those in the low-control condition who experienced high economic uncertainty preferred a dominant leader more than those in the low-control condition who experienced low economic uncertainty. We saw no difference in leadership preference among participants assigned to the high-control condition, despite different levels of economic uncertainty.
These effects were not limited to economic uncertainty. For instance, in another study we informed participants of a terrorist attack in a U.S. town and told them that the likelihood of a repeat attack not taking place was either certain or uncertain. Those in our uncertain condition expressed greater support for a dominant leader in their upcoming local election, again suggesting the critical role of uncertainty in influencing people’s choice of a leader.
This research should help us understand when and why citizens may seek a dominant leader. Our findings suggest that uncertainty in any form can breed preference for strong authoritarian leaders.
We’ve seen this phenomenon in the past. For example, the late Indira Gandhi, former prime minister of India, enjoyed support from much of the public when she imposed the period of “Emergency” in India, disregarding constitutional procedures, incarcerating opposition leaders, and diluting citizens’ rights. There are numerous examples in the histories of other countries. The implication is worrisome: Dominant leaders are propped into power under uncertainty, but once in power they can fuel more uncertainty and further solidify their appeal.
Taken together, our research findings suggest that the worldwide rise of dominant-authoritarian leaders is partly rooted in people’s psychological desire for restoring their sense of personal control, which is threatened in times of uncertainty. Although dominant leaders appear to allay voters’ worries about uncertainty and lack of control, whether these leaders accomplish this feat in reality when voted into power remains unanswered. Once appointed, such leaders have the authority to enact economic regulations and political policies that could actually lead to further chaos and uncertainty, potentially extending their appeal and their hold on power.
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