Dominant Leaders and Economic Uncertainty

I read this interesting article from Harvard Business Review named Why We Prefer Dominant Leaders in Uncertain Times by Hermant Kakkar and Niro Sivanathan. I chose this article because it took me back to the section “Attention and Effort” in Thinking Fast and Slow, which says that System 1 takes over in emergencies and assigns total priority to self-protective actions (35). In the article, the authors explain a series of observations they did to prove the correlation between economic uncertainty and the support for dominant leaders. With this correlation in mind, they hypothesized that in times where individuals feel like they lack a sense of personal control, they “try to compensate by supporting leaders who they believe hold greater agency and control.” The whole set up for their three experiments is very neat, in my opinion, because it takes into consideration multiple factors to calculate for economic uncertainty and the three experiments are a sequence to test whether their findings can be generalized to other parts of the world.

The researchers focused on the preference of socioeconomic groups, divided by zip codes, in regard to two alternative ways of leadership: dominance and prestige. Kakkar and Sivanathan proposal for these two alternative leadership methods is rooted in their previous research on evolutionary and social psychology, which provided a background for placing many political leaders compared in the experiments in a dominance-prestige scale. Additionally, the economic uncertainty of an area was calculated by aggregating its poverty, unemployment, and housing vacancy rates.

Retrieved from: CNN

The first experiment involved 750 random participants from 46 different states in the United States. Their voting preference, political ideologies, and demographic characteristics were recorded “on the day of the third and final presidential debate” to ensure the participants had had sufficient exposure to the candidates. I think that both the sample size for their observations and the moment they collected the data were critical in the future generalizability of their findings. I appreciate how many different states and representatives per state (about 16) were included in this study and the fact that the researchers selected a pertinent time where the test subjects were most likely to be more informed. To place their findings into context, Kakkar and Sivanathan used a pretest where they had a separate group of people indicate Clinton´s and Trump´s level of dominance/prestige. As a result, Trump was rated significantly higher on dominance, which is associated with assertiveness, confidence, control, decisiveness, narcissism, aggression, and uncooperativeness; and Clinton was rated significantly higher on prestige, which is associated with respect, admiration, and high esteem. About their first test, the researchers write:

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.

They used this results to conclude that economic uncertainty is correlated to people´s preference for dominant leaders, but they wanted to test this hypothesis outside the last election topic to make sure that the experiment was not influenced by general impressions of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Kakkar and Sivanathan extended the experiment using similar procedures. This time around they asked about 1,400 participants from the 50 states to participate and based the questions on local leaders who demonstrated more dominance or more prestige. Because of their incredibly similar results, the researchers were inclined to generalize their findings beyond the United States. With data from the World Values Survey, a non-profit organization that functions as a global research project carried out by a huge network of social scientists, and unemployment rate data provided by the World Bank, they furthered explored this connection. While I do understand that generalizations as such create a greater degree of uncertainty in the results due to all the external variables, I think this research is a great starting point to identify stronger connections between economic doubts and type of leaders, especially in countries that have a history of dictatorship and political abuse.

Reading this article helped me connect some of the decision-making ideas we discussed in class to a real-life event. In Thinking Fast and Slow the idea of self-protective actions controlled by System 1 in the case of emergencies seemed more like an ancient idea of survival instincts to me. However, after having analyzed the correlation between economic uncertainty and dominant leaders and tying this idea with the desire for restoring a sense of personal control, it makes more sense to me why some people would decide to vote for someone like Donald Trump. When the election results came out, I was really shocked because nobody close to me at Westminster had ever expressed their approval for this candidate. Looking back at this, I can now observe that I live in quite an affluent area, where the economic instability may not be as high as other places. Because of this factor, selecting a dominant leader like Trump is not perceived as a self-protecting action by me or by many of my peers. This is not true for many people living a different economic reality.

The article states that the implications of their finding are worrisome because “dominant leaders are propped into power under uncertainty, but once in power they can fuel more uncertainty and further solidify their appeal.” I think this article puts many things into question, among these things the economic uncertainty that can prime our decisions as well as the future consequences of acting in a seemingly self-protective way. This article teaches us that it is really important to use some of our System 2 thinking, realizing that we are prone to choose some electoral candidates over others and give them power based on our current financial situations.


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