We examine why dominant/authoritarian leaders attract support despite the presence of other admired/respected candidates. Although evolutionary psychology supports both dominance and prestige as viable routes for attaining influential leadership positions, extant research lacks theoretical clarity explaining when and why dominant leaders are preferred. Across three large-scale studies we provide robust evidence showing how economic uncertainty affects individuals’ psychological feelings of lack of personal control, resulting in a greater preference for dominant leaders. This research offers important theoretical explanations for why, around the globe from the United States and Indian elections to the Brexit campaign, constituents continue to choose authoritarian leaders over other admired/respected leaders.Abstract
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. Drawing on evolutionary theory of leadership emergence, in which dominance and prestige are seen as dual routes to leadership, we provide a situational and psychological account for when and why dominant leaders are preferred over other respected and admired candidates. We test our hypothesis using three studies, encompassing more than 140,000 participants, across 69 countries and spanning the past two decades. 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. Together, these results provide large-scale, globally representative evidence for the structural and psychological antecedents that increase the preference for dominant leaders over their prestigious counterparts.