The psychological threat imposed by our environment can make people not only tolerable but willing to have an external dominant agent take control. One recent study suggests that when the economy is having a turn for the worse, communities are more inclined to embrace dominant leaders even when there are more respectable candidates to choose from.

Donald Trump won the 2016 election by playing a populist hand. He gives the impression that only he can solve people's problems and the other candidates are incapable. Credit: Flickr, Gage Skidmor.

Donald Trump won the 2016 election by playing a populist hand. He gives the impression that only he can solve people’s problems and the other candidates are incapable. Credit: Flickr, Gage Skidmor.

According to the evolutionary theory for leadership emergence, status and power can be achieved by various routes, among them dominance and prestige. When and why a particular type is preferred has always eluded scholars, though. Niro Sivanathan, Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at the London Business School, and Hemant Kakkar, PhD candidate, investigated what kind of circumstances could lead to one of the two types of leaders coming into power. The pair of researchers used a statistical analysis method to comb through U.S. demographics by zip codes in each of the 50 states.

Populism thrives on fear and uncertainty

When a particular zip code faced economic uncertainty like rising unemployment, a pattern of preference for dominant leaders emerged while prestigious leaders were overtly less desirable.

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“While it might not always be consistently true that ‘nice guys finish last’, we maintain that certain communities, when faced with the threat of uncertainty, will prefer assertive over esteemed individuals as their leadership choice,” Hemant Kakkar said.

When the researchers zoomed out to include macroeconomic indicators of economic uncertainty supplied by the World Bank, the findings were replicated over a twenty-year window comprising 138,000 people in 69 countries.

A dominant leader tends to be assertive and controlling, an authoritarian ‘father-like’ figure which appeals to many people. At the same time, dominant leaders often resort to coercion and fear mongering to maintain their status. They generally do not worry about what this might mean for people around them. Their behavior mirrors many psychopathic tendencies.

A prestigious leader tends to be capable, credentialed, accomplished. Prestigious leaders are knowledgeable and skillful. They have a life-long career which earns them respect and gratitude from their peers. However, the general public seems them as lacking the ability to make quick decisions. They’re also less relatable to the general public and give the impression that they follow the interests of their elitist group first and foremost with the common people coming second.

The findings tell us that dominant, authoritarian leaders are typically the go-to choice when the electorate is under economic stress or under threat of terrorism. They seem to explain the election of President Donald Trump in the U.S., Brexit, the rise of politicians such as Nigel Farage in the U.K. and Marine LePen in France, the government of Narendra Modi in India, or even the rise of nationalist Chinese sentiment over the last couple of years.

“We find robust support for our hypothesis that under a situational threat of economic uncertainty (as exemplified by the poverty rate, the housing vacancy rate, and the unemployment rate) people escalate their support for dominant leaders. Further, we find that this phenomenon is mediated by participants’ psychological sense of a lack of personal control,” the authors wrote in their paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 

It’s ironic that so many people prefer dominant leaders. After all, most people hate to be told what to do, for instance like in a work setting by their boss. Zooming out, however, the uncertainty can be so frightening that having someone telling us ‘what to do’ or even that ‘everything will be alright’ can mean a lot. That being said, the two researchers weren’t at all surprised by their findings but we’re happy to finally see an empirical confirmation of what had previously been more or less the realm of speculation.