Why we’re drawn to negative leaders
By EILEEN CHOU
IN THE past decade, across borders and sectors, we’ve seen an increasing number of leaders known for a style that is vitriolic and punitive. This led me to wonder how positive or negative rhetoric affects our perception of someone’s leadership. My subsequent research shows that we instinctively tend to empower naysayers.
As prior research has shown, we humans create social hierarchies to preserve order and form rich expectations of how the powerful will behave. We have evolved to be sensitive to the behavioural cues that signal these power dynamics. For instance, we often associate a person’s physical height with power, which leads us to attribute more power and status to tall people. My research focuses on whether people interpret naysaying — the act of negating, refuting or criticising — as a similar kind of power-signalling cue.
The 11 controlled experiments I conducted suggest that a causal link between naysaying and perceptions of power does exist. In one study, I asked 518 eligible US voters to read four pairs of statements made by US presidential candidates during nationally televised debates between 1980 and 2008. They were not told the candidates’ names or when each debate took place. Each pair included one statement that was positive and supportive in regard to the country’s future, and a second that was critical and negative.
The study participants deemed the naysaying presidential candidates to be more powerful. They also said those candidates would be more effective in office, and revealed that they were more willing to vote for the naysaying candidate over the cheerleading one. In subsequent studies, across seven other contexts, participants consistently associated naysaying with power.
And though they perceived naysayers as less likable and no more competent than cheerleaders or leaders who made more neutral statements, the participants nevertheless endorsed them as leaders of all the entities I asked them about. This was true even if the participants were told that they themselves would be subjected to the naysayer’s leadership.
Why? I suspect that in actively criticising another person or entity, naysayers could be perceived as acting independently — a key determinant of power. This, in turn, fuels the perception of naysayers’ power as being untethered from social constraints or other people’s resources, making them seem all the more powerful. Indeed, data from four of my studies support the role of agency as one underlying cause of this effect.
I also wondered whether acting as a naysayer makes someone feel more powerful. To find out, I conducted experiments in which people took on the roles of a naysayer, cheerleader or neutral party. The results revealed that, indeed, naysayers felt more powerful than the other two groups.
Because so many interpersonal interactions and communications occur remotely and are text-based, rhetoric’s influence on our perceptions of power may now be stronger than ever. Whether we’re selecting leaders or developing our own leadership abilities, it behoves us to understand how these dynamics work — for better or for worse.
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