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Fear of the unknown

Humans will do almost anything to avoid feeling out of control – even if it means electing an aggressive alpha male as leader

By Niro Sivanathan and Hemant Kakkar 17 January 2018

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Illustration by Gary Neill




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Recently, a US town made the news for a terrorist incident when a man armed with an automatic rifle started firing rounds in a public place. The gunman was eventually brought down by local police authorities but not before he had killed four people and injured seven others. On further investigation, it was found that this person belonged to the sleeper cell of a terrorist organisation. The police haven’t ruled out the possibility that there could be further sleeper cells and say a further attack may be likely. Residents are urged to remain vigilant and report any suspicious activity.

Imagine you lived in that town. How would you feel knowing that another attack might (or might not) take place at any time? Does it make you more than a little uneasy? Hang onto that feeling, because it holds the clue to a whole area of human behaviour that social psychologists have spent decades trying to figure out.

As it happens, this particular terrorist incident is fictitious. It was dreamt up by London Business School’s Niro Sivanathan and Hemant Kakkar as part of an experiment into the leaders people tend to choose when they lack a sense of control over their lives. The researchers’ starting point was two well-established routes to leadership: dominance and prestige. This was around the time of the US election, providing real-life examples of two archetypes.

Donald Trump obviously personifies dominance, while Hillary Clinton’s appeal is founded on prestige: her status was based on her expertise, knowledge and experience. And you don’t have to look far to find other alpha leaders besides Trump. “From the UK’s Brexit vote to the resurgence of nationalism in communist China and the ascent of Narendra Modi in India, we are witnessing a return of populist, authoritarian leaders whose rhetoric focuses on nationalism and protectionism,” says Kakkar.

“Dominant leaders - despite the multitude of negative attributes associated with them - are often revered. People believe these individuals can help restore control. Whether or not it materialises is another question. It’s all about the promise.”



The appeal of dominant leaders


Kakkar and Sivanathan’s research breaks new ground in two ways: firstly, their studies used objective macroeconomic indicators of economic uncertainty for a large, representative global sample comprising 140,596 participants from 69 countries. Second, they draw on the evolutionary origins of leadership. In combination, they say, this provides a theoretically grounded and empirically robust explanation for why dominant leaders are preferred over their prestigious counterparts.

“The prestige path to attaining an influential position in the group hierarchy is unique to humans,” says Sivanathan. “In the animal kingdom, the alpha male gains status through dominance, command and fear. In humans, on the surface of it, the dominance route doesn’t seem as appealing: what kind of person gets power and influence through control and brute force?”

But it seems we may not have evolved as far as we’d like to think. Because what Kakkar and Sivanathan’s studies show is that an alpha male is exactly the sort of person we want to be in charge when times are uncertain. Their research, conducted just before the start of the third US presidential debate, linked economic data at the zip-code level to a preference for strong leaders.

What appeals in one situation doesn’t appeal in another. People will accept dictators under certain circumstances

In a pre-test, participants were asked to rate Trump and Clinton on a dominance-prestige scale. The scale consisted of five items measuring prestige. Interviewees were asked to respond to statements such as “Donald Trump / Hillary Clinton is the kind of leader who is respected and admired by other members”. There were six involving dominance. For example, “Donald Trump / Hillary Clinton is the kind of leader who tries to get his / her own way regardless of what others may want”. The results showed found participants considered Trump to be significantly higher on dominance than Clinton; Clinton scored significantly higher on prestige.

Then the researchers sampled a cross-section of US citizens representing 46 different states and asked for their voting preference, using the online marketplace Amazon Mechanical Turk. The participants were asked to give information about their demographic profile and the zip code of their area. The researchers created a measure for economic uncertainty by aggregating the three key economic indicators – unemployment, housing vacancy rate and poverty rate – that the US Treasury Department uses to assess regional development. This was controlled for income, gender, age and length of residency. Using macroeconomic data for each zip code from the independent Economic Innovation Group’s database, they were then able to analyse the information to derive their results.


Local conditions, national elections


As expected, economic uncertainty predicted a preference for a dominant, authoritarian leader over a respected and admired leader. “This work highlights how economic distress has the ability to sculpt the opinions and preferences of voters as to who they want to support into power,” says Kakkar. “Local environments shape the decisions of national elections. Your local environment shapes who you want to lead the entire country.”

Hillary Clinton’s campaign was doomed, it seems, because she wasn’t pushing the right buttons. “In times of uncertainty someone who operates with the currency of prestige needs to realise that denomination isn’t valued under those circumstances” Kakkar adds. “Leadership is context-driven – what’s appealing in one situation is not appealing in another. People will accept dictators under certain circumstances.”

People are highly motivated towards anything that makes them feel in control. Sivanathan points out: “Humans want agency – to have an impact, to have influence – whether it be in their immediate surroundings or over someone else. When you feel like your actions have no effect, that’s something people try to resolve through different methods.

“Lacking control is… something to be avoided at all costs, he adds. ” Feeling in control has been associated with greater wellbeing and even living longer. So we go to any lengths to try to regain control. Psychologists call these ‘compensatory mechanisms’. We turn to religion, or put our faith in a parent. Or, we show a preference for a form of government that looks like it will keep control. Hence the popular appeal of Trump’s campaigning talk about controlling immigration.”

The researchers were keen to demonstrate that this phenomenon would apply beyond economic factors. “It’s not just about the economy,” says Kakkar. “It’s any sort of uncertainty. When people don’t know what’s going to happen next, when they don’t know what the future looks like, in that situation they will prefer a more dominant leader who can be strong enough to bear the hard times and face that situation.”

So they carried out the “terrorist attack” study to show that their theory held water in the context of uncertainty more broadly. In this study, they described two versions of the terrorist incident. In one, participants were told there had been a terrorist attack but the authorities were unsure if there would be another. In the other, they were told the authorities were certain there would be no future attack. The results: “In the first situation we find people are significantly keener to have a dominant leader as their local leader in the forthcoming city election. If I feel I can’t predict my future there’s a preference to have a dominant leader at the helm.”

The phenomenon applies beyond the US: another of their studies proved the same effect at a global level, using 20 years of historic data across 69 countries. Mr. Kakkar analysed 138,000 observations, merging two different datasets, the World Values Survey (WVS) and the World Development Indicators (WDI), a global macroeconomic dataset maintained by the World Bank. The WVS consists of data on social and political beliefs across up to 100 countries, representing roughly 90% of the world’s population.

The researchers controlled for education level and political partisanship, underlining the fact that, as Dr Sivanathan says, that “this isn’t a story of conservatives or liberals; this is a story about the general psychological experience of lacking control. Consider the appeal of Bernie Sanders [who sought the Democrat candidacy for last year’s presidential election]. He… was an independent few had heard of – but his campaign style was more dominant in nature. He would scream and deliver searing indictment of current politics and candidates and there was huge appeal; he almost derailed Hillary.”


Left behind, seeking strength


Dr Sivanathan also emphasises that relative economic distress, in addition to absolute economic hardship, might prove to be more crucial. “It’s not the fact that people have less money; it’s the feeling of being left behind. If my zip code is in huge economic distress but the rest of the state is doing well, I might be even more motivated to vote for Trump. It’s not the absolute sense of lacking employment, it’s the relative sense that I can’t keep up with the Joneses – which speaks more to inequality.”

What are the implications of this for business? The researchers haven’t studied this specifically but they suggest that in situations such as mergers and acquisitions, when people are uncertain what will happen to their organisation, dominant leaders are likely to win out over prestige leaders. They point to the notoriously dominant CEO Jack Welch, who was appointed at a time when GE was struggling. His hardline strategy was to threaten to close down any of the company’s diversified businesses that were not in the top two for their particular industry.

There’s anecdotal evidence that when a CEO is required to come into a company and “clean house” – in other words get rid of people – it’s more likely that a ruthless CEO will get the job. Then, they’re often eased out and a less dominant, highly-respected leader comes in under peace to grow the business. “Our prediction would be that under distress, the employees, stakeholders and board will look to a more dominant individual who will have a clear direction rather than someone who is more participative, less sure,” says Dr Sivanathan. “Uncertainty is all around us and whatever the context, it’s our reflex to select the person we think can bring back some control.”

Comments (4)

Straightshooter 3 months and 2 days ago

This is a hugely simplistic and obviously biased attempt to explain away political outcomes. These poor simple Americans were too afraid to vote for Hillary so they had to vote for the evil choice - no power of reason, no insights to policy, corruption, and many other variables not considered. Clearly the authors have no knowledge of political science or history (or certainly do not understand it). I am surprised that such a bigoted polemic is being allowed on the pages of a business school. I would think this research if you can call it that, a joke if it was not so bigoted.

GuyV 3 months and 2 days ago

What a bunch of politicized tripe. So what Hillary what accomplishments & expertise were you speaking of....her wonderful libyan policies? What were her great accomplishments? Could people maybe have not selected her for her document medical problems? Or possibility her well known lying on numerous occasions? Or possible referring to 50% of the country as Deplorables?

GuyV 3 months and 2 days ago

What a bunch of politicized tripe. So what Hillary what accomplishments & expertise were you speaking of....her wonderful libyan policies? What were her great accomplishments? Could people maybe have not selected her for her document medical problems? Or possibility her well known lying on numerous occasions? Or possible referring to 50% of the country as Deplorables?

GuyV 3 months and 2 days ago

What a bunch of politicized tripe. So what Hillary what accomplishments & expertise were you speaking of....her wonderful libyan policies? What were her great accomplishments? Could people maybe have not selected her for her document medical problems? Or possibility her well known lying on numerous occasions? Or possible referring to 50% of the country as Deplorables?

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