In Hard Times, Voters Choose Assertive Leaders Over Respected Ones

Trump's victory over Clinton is a case in point, says study by London Business School researchers.

Researchers from London Business School have found robust support for the notion that voters prefer “dominant” candidates over “prestigious” ones in economically uncertain times, according to a paper published in a top U.S. scientific journal.

President Donald Trump is an example of a dominant candidate, and Hillary Clinton is an example of a prestigious one, says the paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. It was published online on June 12 and will appear in a forthcoming print edition. The authors are Niro Sivanathan, a professor of organizational behavior, and Hemant Kakkar, a graduate student.

The findings about the dominance of a dominant personality also help explain the rise of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, pro-Brexit candidates in the United Kingdom, and nationalism in China, the authors write.

“When faced with a milieu of uncertainty and the resulting psychological lack of control, individuals favor a dominant/authoritarian leader who, they believe, has the capability to brave unfavorable winds and increase their future chances of success,” they write in the paper, entitled “When the Appeal of a Dominant Leader Is Greater than a Prestige Leader.”

The authors refer to a body of literature showing that dominance and prestige are alternate paths to leadership. “A dominance strategy requires individuals to be more assertive, controlling, decisive, and self-assured in achieving their goals,” they write. “Individuals pursuing this strategy often coerce or induce psychological fear among other group members to attain these goals and do not worry about the cost accrued to others while doing so.”

In contrast, those who try to win through prestige serve as “cultural informational role models to others” and “actively display and share knowledge or skills that are valuable to other group members.” A prestigious leader, they write, “is generally perceived as a generous and helpful individual.”

In an interview, Sivanathan says the authors tried to avoid making value judgments about which approach is better. At the heart of this we’re scholars, he says. We try to go where the data is. We tried to be sure that we’re not making any value judgments of individuals.

Still, its not hard to guess where the authors sympathies lie. The first sentence of the papers abstract says, “Across the globe we witness the rise of populist authoritarian leaders who are overbearing in their narrative, aggressive in behavior, and often exhibit questionable moral character.”

The paper comprises five studies. One, conducted during the U.S. presidential campaign, compares supporters of Trump and Clinton. Trump scored higher in dominance, measured by questions such as who “is a kind of leader who often tries to get his/her own way regardless of what others may want.” Clinton scored higher on prestige, measured by questions such as who “is a kind of leader who is respected and admired by other members.” Support for Trump was higher in ZIP codes with greater economic uncertainty, as measured by the rates of poverty, unemployment, and housing vacancies.

To make sure that unique characteristics of Trump and Clinton werent skewing the results, the authors conducted a second study involving hypothetical dominant and prestigious candidates for hypothetical local offices and got the same results.

A third study generalized the pattern to the rest of the world using the World Values Survey, comparing answers of 138,000 people in 69 countries over 20 years.  It compared peoples answers to changes in unemployment, finding that people expressed more support for dominant or authoritarian figures when unemployment was rising. A fourth study substituted fear or uncertainty of terrorism in place of economic uncertainty and got similar results. And a fifth study demonstrated that a desire to reassert control over their lives seems to be the motivation for preferring a dominant candidate.

Sivanathan has a Ph.D. from Northwestern Universitys Kellogg School of Management in management and organizations. Hes taught at London Business School since 2008. Much of his research [pdf] is on the intersection of psychology and economics. The editor of the paper was Susan Fiske, a psychology professor at Princeton University.

Sivanathan says he and Kakkar were lucky to start their research when Trump and Clinton were going head to head. “It’s very rare that you find a real-life scenario where you find almost two archetypes of dominant and prestigious candidates, he  says. Although some people might disagree.

    Peter Coy
    Bloomberg Businessweek Columnist
    Peter Coy is the economics editor for Bloomberg Businessweek and covers a wide range of economic issues. He also holds the position of senior writer. Coy joined the magazine in December 1989 as telecommunications editor, then became technology editor in October 1992 and held that position until joining the economics staff. He came to BusinessWeek from the Associated Press in New York, where he had served as a business news writer since 1985.
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