Political pundits, commentators and average citizens continue to have trouble accounting for the rise of populist authoritarian leaders across the globe.  The common question batted around continues to be how leaders such as Donald Trump, Viktor Orban, Rodrigo Duterte, Nicolás Maduro, Recep Erdogan could become the standard-bearers of democracy for countries like the US, Hungary, Philippines, Venenzuela and Turkey.  Much of the writing has concentrated on the west, and specifically the election of Donald Trump as the 45th president.  The suggestions tendered have ranged from a backlash against the first African American president, the rejection of insider fat cats, or a rebuff of Washington policies. But narratives like these fall short of explaining the rise of authoritarian leaders globally.

Intrigued by this global phenomenon, we set out to study this phenomenon empirically. We invoked findings from evolutionary, social and political psychology to understand when and why such leaders are voted into power. 

Drawing on work in ethological and behavioral ecology, Joseph Henrich and colleagues have articulated and provided empirical support for two distinct and viable routes of attaining social rank within society: dominance and prestige. A dominance strategy employs fear via intimidation and coercion, while a prestige strategy relies on sharing skills and knowledge with others in exchange of their respect and deference.  In our recent paper, we show that when citizens experience economic uncertainty and its accompanying loss of personal control, they look to dominant leaders — those perceived as more agentic, forceful and decisive — over their prestige counterparts, to restore their feelings of control.  We employed objective macroeconomic indicators of economic prosperity across 25,000+ zip codes in the US, to predict voter’s preference for dominant versus prestige leaders.  In line with our belief, we find economic uncertainty to significantly predict voter’s preference for dominant forceful leaders, in both local and national elections. 

Furthermore, to demonstrate the ubiquity of this basic psychological phenomenon, we went beyond the US, and drew on 20 years of world economic data, maintained by the World Bank, coupled with historic data on social and political beliefs of citizens of these countries, to replicate these findings among citizens of 69 countries – a replication that represents 90% of the world’s population.  Drawing on evolutionary theory of leadership emergence, we provide the first empirically based situational and psychological account for both when and why dominant leaders are preferred over other respected and admired candidates, globally. 

A well-established finding within psychology is people’s deep rooted desire to have control over their daily lives. At Duke University, Aaron Kay and colleagues articulated the theory of compensatory control: When people experience or perceive disorder, chaos and randomness in their lives, they feel more motivated to embrace ideologies that emphasize personal, societal or religious control as a compensatory strategy to allay the anxieties of lacking control.  In one study, Kay et al. demonstrated that when participants are made to experience a lack of control, they tended to ascribe greater power to their government.  In a related study, a similar experience of lack of control increased one’s belief in god – a god that can intervene in one’s daily lives, and not just the abstract representation of a god (i.e., as the cosmic creator).  These findings have been replicated in related compensatory domains, such as increased support for external groups and structured hierarchies, among others. In each case, individuals rely on a system outside the self (secondary control), as a locus of control that can influence and modify their personal outcomes and improve their own sense of control. 

In one of our studies, 750 participants from 46 U.S. states reported their voting preference for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, on the day of the final presidential debate, held in Las Vegas.  These participants reported their political ideology, various demographic characteristics, and their zip code.  We utilized their zip code to calculate an index (comprised of the poverty rate, housing vacancy rate and unemployment rate) of the economic uncertainty they were experiencing.  After controlling for personal income, population density along with the variables mentioned above, we found that the greater the economic uncertainty experienced, the greater the preference for Trump over Clinton. In a separate pre-test study, we had established Trump as a more dominant candidate compared to Clinton. 

Moving away from a live election and a choice between real candidates, in the second study, among a sample of 1,400 participants spanning 50 states, we employed a validated dominance-prestige scale to assess their preference for a dominant vs prestige leader in a local election. Consistent with the above study, we find economic uncertainty of one’s immediate surroundings was significantly related to their preference for a dominant leader over a prestige-based leader. 

To test the generalizability of our findings beyond U.S., in a follow-up study we employed the World Values Survey, a survey of the political and social attitudes of residents across the globe.  Among the items were preference for a dominant leader and the level of perceived personal control.  This data was merged with the World Bank database that includes indicators on the economic health of various nations, to once again test our central predictions.  With a sample of more than 138,000 responses, across 69 countries and spanning a 20-year window, we find that as a country’s economic uncertainty rises (i.e., unemployment rate), so do the citizen’s sense of lack of control and their endorsement of a dominant leader. 

In addition to the numerous social, psychological, and economic anxieties that economic uncertainty and inequality produces, our research suggests an additional political consequence is the rise in support for dominant authoritarian leaders, who commonly espouse a narrative of standing against the flaws of the current economic paradigm producing the uncertainty.  Although they are ushered into power with the promise of assuaging such uncertainty, once they occupy the seats of power, it is unclear why they would be motivated to reduce the threats that got them into office.