Over the past few years, we’ve seen a rise in popularity of strongly controlling and hierarchical leaders among voters in the U.S. and abroad. From the 2014 election of Narendra Modi in India to Britain’s Nigel Farage leading the 2016 Brexit campaign and, most recently, the election of Donald Trump as U.S. President, analysts have struggled to answer one question: why?
Dominant Leadership vs. Prestige
In their recent Harvard Business Review article, Hemant Kakkar and Niro Sivanathan of London Business School used evolutionary and social psychology research as a basis for distinguishing dominance and prestige as two approaches to leadership.
Dominant leaders are described as confident, assertive, decisive, controlling, and intimidating. They are also associated with traits, such as aggression, narcissism, and stubbornness. On the other hand, leaders on the prestige pathway are usually charismatic, highly esteemed role models who have demonstrated competence and share knowledge and skills with their peers.
Researchers theorized that prestige leaders take that back seat to dominant leaders when socioeconomic conditions seem uncertain. During these times, voters feel a loss of personal control and compensate by supporting leaders who they perceive as more alpha, decisive, action-oriented.
Putting the Dominance Theory to the Test in the U.S.
Kakkar and Sivanathan tested this theory with 750 participants in 46 U.S. states before the third and final presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Demographic characteristics and political ideology were included in a zip code analysis of economic uncertainty indicators, such as unemployment, poverty and housing vacancy rates.
Previously, a separate group weighed in on the dominance vs. prestige scale when comparing the two candidates. Trump rated much higher in dominance than Clinton and Clinton higher in prestige.
Survey outcomes were plotted on demographic maps. Areas with the greatest amount of economic instability leaned heavily toward Trump. To ensure answers weren’t swayed by personal impressions of the candidates, results were backed up by a non-candidate specific study of 1,400 participants in 50 states, observing general preferences of dominant vs. prestige leadership. Researchers then compared their answers with their zip codes and economic indicators with strikingly similar results: an unstable economy choosing dominant leadership.
Comparing Results with International Data and Lab Experiments
Researchers used data on political and social attitudes from the World Values Survey, 1994 to present, and economic data from the World Bank to test this theory abroad in 69 countries. They replicated their earlier findings, showing a country’s increase in unemployment correlated to the election of dominant leadership.
Among those surveyed, people who were experiencing economic instability felt they had little to no control over world events and expressed fear of recurring terrorist attacks. This group also preferred leaders with dominant leadership traits.
Desire for Personal Control
Kakkar and Sivanathan concluded that uncertainty in any form, whether economic or safety concerns, breeds more power for dominant leaders. Among thousands of participants studied across multi-cultural and historical data, the people who turn to dominant, authoritarian leaders have one important trait in common: a desire to restore a sense of personal control.
Read more details on the dominance vs. prestige study.