Why voters might be choosing dominant, authoritarian leaders around the world

Key Points
  • People faced with economic uncertainty feel a lack of personal control, says study.
  • This leads them to seek out dominant leaders over ones they may respect more.
Donald Trump
Timothy A. Clary | AFP | Getty Images

Economic hardship creates feelings of powerlessness that draw people toward dominant, authoritarian leaders, says a new study.

Researchers from London Business School say they have identified one of the major psychological reasons behind the rise of populist, authoritarian leaders around the world.

They say threat of economic uncertainty leads people to prefer leaders whom they see as decisive, authoritative and dominant, even if they are morally questionable, over other types of leaders who might be more respected, knowledgeable and admired.

"When faced with a milieu of uncertainty and the resulting psychological lack of control," the researchers wrote in their study, "individuals favor a dominant/authoritarian leader who, they believe, has the capability to brave unfavorable winds and increase their future chances of success."

They published their results Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The team considered the election of President Donald Trump in the U.S.; Brexit; the rise of politicians such as Nigel Farage in the U.K. and Marine LePen in France; the government of Narendra Modi in India; and a rise in Chinese nationalist sentiment to all be examples of voters choosing tough-talking, dominant, populist leaders over alternatives.

But their popularity puzzled the researchers, since it seems to contradict preferences people have for leaders in their own lives.

"We wouldn't normally want to work for a boss who is very dominant and authoritarian," said the study's lead author, Hemant Kakkar, in an interview with CNBC. "But then why are we electing these leaders?"

Drawing on previous research, Kakkar and co-author Niro Sivanathan identified two basic paths toward leadership or high status in a hierarchy — one of dominance, and another of prestige.

"Dominant leaders" tend to be decisive, assertive and controlling. They often use coercion and instill fear in others to pursue their goals and maintain their status, and they generally do not worry about what these behaviors cost the people around them.

"Prestige leaders" tend to be capable or accomplished, but also share their knowledge and skills with others around them, earning them respect, gratitude and admiration. But they can be seen as lacking the ability to make quick decisions, or the ability to place the interests of their group above those of outsiders at all costs.

To figure out why people might prefer the dominant over the prestige leader, the team focused on three studies, which in total examined the preferences of 140,000 people in 69 countries spanning the last two decades.

For the first study, the team used Amazon Mechanical Turk, to ask a sample of 750 Americans from all 50 states whom they would rather work for: Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, or neither of the two.

They also collected the participants' ZIP codes, and looked up the unemployment rate, the housing vacancy rate, and the poverty rate for each one. Using those data, they created an "economic uncertainty index" for each ZIP code.

They found that the higher the economic uncertainty in a given ZIP code, the more likely a participant from that area would be to choose either Trump or neither of the two choices as a preferred boss. Clinton scored lowest in those areas.

Crucially, the participants also scored Trump higher on measures of dominance, and Clinton higher on measures of prestige.

This correlation held true overall regardless of whether the participants were liberal or conservative, Kakkar said.

In the second study, the team told a cross-section of 1,400 Americans from all 50 states to imagine they were electing a local mayor or city council head, and gave them a single list containing elements of both dominant and prestige personalities.

Again, people hailing from the areas with a high economic uncertainty index chose the personality traits most associated with dominant personalities.

"In fact, the higher the economic uncertainty," Kakkar told CNBC, "the more they wanted a dominant leader, and the less they wanted a prestige leader."

Finally, Kakkar and Sivanathan drew data from the World Values Survey, a three-decade study of values and opinions around the world. For the last 20 years, the survey has asked participants about their preference for a strong leader who at times is also willing to neglect constitutional or parliamentary checks or balances.

"We thought it was a good weighted test of our hypothesis, because now you are not only asking someone's preference for a strong leader but someone who is also willing to ignore constitutional procedures," Kakkar said.

They compared the survey results with World Bank data on changes in unemployment during the same years across the same countries. They found the higher the change in unemployment — in other words, the more economic uncertainty — the higher the preference for a strong dominant leader.

The results did not surprise the researchers, but Kakkar said an important contribution of the study is that it uses large samples across long periods of time. It also goes beyond much current research by trying to explain the psychological basis for these choices.

"People engage in all sorts of compensatory strategies to vicariously get that sense of personal control," Kakkar said.

There are some important limitations. Kakkar is now examining how these results match up with actual voting behavior in the 2016 election.

Another, Kakkar said, is that the study focuses on economic uncertainty, and there are other factors that may be at play. For example, the team also included in their supplementary section a fourth study where they found a similar correlation between fear of terrorism and preference for dominant types.

Nevertheless, the researchers concluded their study by saying empirical dives into the minds of voters "demonstrate how economic indicators of a nation's health not only have direct impact on its citizens and their well-being, but also shape their preference for those who hold office. Moreover, the leaders voted into power in turn set economic policies that shape the next generation's well-being and preferences."