How to pick a leader

Prospect Magazine

How to pick a leader


Will you be making a rational choice come election time? Probably not

On the day of the general election, most of us will go to the polls thinking that we are making an informed choice based on a considered assessment of the candidates’ skills and policies. We will roll out arguments about why we are voting the way we are, convinced that we are exercising our democratic right with our wits about us.

But we will be deluding ourselves. Study after study has shown that our voting decisions are based not on rational deliberation, but on instinctive biases over which we have little control, such as whether or not we like a politician’s face. And the traditional theory about political leaders—that the best ones are defined by personality traits like confidence and decisiveness—is largely false. Social psychologists have shown that the leaders likely to achieve most in office are those who reflect the social identities of their followers: a very different notion to the one that guides most people’s hand in the voting booth.

Recent research is challenging many long-held views about political leadership. And if we want our votes to count, we had better take note. Politicians have been exploiting our suggestibility for decades with image consultants and spin doctors.

In a study published in Science in February, John Antonakis and Olaf Dalgas at the University of Lausanne asked students to look at pairs of photographs of political candidates who had run against each other in the 2002 French elections, and judge which of the two was more competent. They found that in 72 per cent of cases, the students picked the politician who had won the seat, suggesting that voters are strongly persuaded by facial appearance. This would not be so worrying if faces held useful clues about a person’s competence or intelligence, but there is little evidence that they do. Worse, research by Alexander Todorov at Princeton University shows that we tend to make up our minds about a person’s character—how likeable, trustworthy, competent and aggressive they are—within a tenth of a second of seeing their face. Once made, these snap judgements are hard to shift.

What traits should we really be looking for in a leader? We may support someone because they share our values or because we like their policies, but how do we know they will get the job done? Historically, research suggests that a leader’s success is determined mainly by individual qualities. Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill were great leaders, we are told, because of their charisma and intelligence. Yet there is little evidence that successful leaders share personality traits—except perhaps extroversion and narcissism. Alex Haslam, a social psychologist at Exeter University, calls the personality-based model of leadership an “analytical fiction.”

In The New Psychology of Leadership (Psychology Press), published in May, Haslam and colleagues argue that leadership is far better understood as a group process that hinges on a symbiotic relationship between leaders and followers. The best leaders, they say, are prototypical of their group. A leader who shares the group’s identity is more likely to influence its members. George W Bush is often considered a poor leader, but he was hugely popular after 9/11 because he clearly identified with his electorate’s insecurities. And while he has been ridiculed for his verbal stumbles, many commentators think they worked in his favour in the 2004 election as they made him look like a “regular guy.”

Mark van Vugt of the VU University in Amsterdam, who studies the evolutionary origins of leadership skills, argues that our hunter-gatherer ancestors would have deferred to different leaders according to the circumstances—one leader for hunting, another for war—a system still adhered to by some native American groups and other tribal societies today. Given that human psychology largely evolved in this environment, the modern preference for hierarchical political structures, in which one person is ultimately responsible for all areas of public life—from war to taxes, foreign policy to education—seems inappropriate, as no single person can possibly have such broad expertise. Indeed, in a 2009 experiment to test how facial appearance influences voting habits, volunteers chose different leaders according to the situation: masculine or older faces during times of war, feminine faces during peacekeeping, youthful faces during times of transition and stability.

So: resist the inclination to judge a leader by their face, and remember that if you pick someone for their skills in tackling social inequality, they are unlikely to be effective during a terrorist attack.

  1. April 9, 2010


    I will be making a rational choice, thanks. As all three main parties are committed to remaining in Afghanistan, I won’t be voting.

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Michael Bond

Michael Bond is a journalist specialising in human behaviour. His email address is 

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