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Does a competent leader make a good friend? Conflict, ideology and the psychologies of friendship and followership

Abstract: Research demonstrates that the physical traits of leaders and political candidates influence election outcomes and that subjects favor functionally different physical traits in leaders when their social groups face problems related to war and peace, respectively. Previous research has interpreted these effects as evidence of a problem-sensitive and distinct psychology of followership. In two studies, we extend this research by demonstrating that preferences for physical traits in leaders’ faces arise from an integration of both contextual and individual differences related to perceptions of social conflict and that these effects relate only to leader choices. Theoretically, we argue that increased preferences for facial dominance in leaders reflect increased needs for enforced coordinated action when one’s group is seen to face threats from other coordinated groups rather than from random natural events. Empirically, we show that preferences for dominant-looking leaders are a function of (1) contextual primes of group-based threats rather than nature-based threats and (2) political ideology (a core measure of perceptions of group-based conflict) such that, across contexts, conservatives prefer dominant-looking leaders more than liberals. For the first time, we demonstrate that the effects of these contextual and individual differences are non-existent when subjects are asked to choose a friend instead of a leader: irrespective of ideology and context, people strongly prefer non-dominant friends. This finding adds significantly to the results of past research and provides evidence of the existence of a distinct psychology of followership that produces leader preferences that are independent of preferences for other social partners.


Alex’s Notes: It is now widely accepted that people prefer dominant-looking masculine leaders when faced with situations involving between-group conflict compared to when faced with between-group cooperation and peace. This concept is exemplified in the Native Americans, who have different tribe chiefs in times of war and peace.

Leaders hold important societal positions: they function as a focal point within the group and are important for the successful navigation of complex problems related to group living. As evolution would have it, we should expect that natural selection would have selected for psychological mechanisms regulating leader preferences. But complex problems take on two forms. On the one hand, there are those problems that involve nature and require cooperation, such as securing food and shelter. On the other hand, there are those problems that involve others and require a navigation of social conflicts again through cooperation. However, the central difference between the nature and people conflicts is that the latter is essentially an arms race between the groups, with the winner being the best-coordinated and most investing group.

To ensure that all group members are pulling their weight, one of the most effective tools at the disposal of a leader is punishment. Indeed, our human followership psychology should – according to evolution – be designed to scan for cues as to whether potential leaders are motivated and capable of punishing free-riders. A relevant set of features are physical strength and dominance, which previous research has found to make people more prone to using aggression, viewed as more likely to win contests, and people are more likely to withdraw from contests involving physically stronger persons.

Masculinity is also noticeable in the face: a squarer jaw, smaller eyes, thicker, lowered and “bushier” eyebrows, thinner lips, and a larger facial width-to-height ratio. In fact, some of these facial features have been found to predict an individual’s level of aggressiveness and combat skills. Moreover, facial dominance is recognized similarly by adults and toddlers, suggesting that we evolved to be attentive towards facial features as cues for dominance.

Thus, if dominance-related traits exclusively influenced a leader’s competence, then dominant leaders should be universally preferred. But dominant leaders are costly. Physically stronger persons are more selfish, more supportive of inequality and oppression, and viewed as more dishonest and untrustworthy. Coming back to the Native American tribes then, it only makes sense that less dominant leaders are preferred during times of peace, which may also have the benefit of being better able to facilitate socially harmonious relations within the group.

This brings us to the current study, which used a vignette set-up and pictures of manipulated faces of potential leaders to construct scenarios that would enable assessment of both choices of leaders and friends. The researchers created scenarios focused on being on board a ship in the 18th century that was about to head home from the New to the Old World.

“The scenario came in two versions through which we experimentally manipulated the context of the choices by randomly assigning subjects to either a “game against people” scenario or a “game against nature” scenario. In the “game against people” condition, subjects were told that the surrounding waters were pirate-filled and the crew therefore had to be prepared for combat. In the “game against nature” condition, subjects were told that the voyage was at risk due to bad weather, and the crew therefore had to trust each other and be prepared to cooperate. In both the pirate (“game against people”) and storm (“game against nature”) scenarios, subjects are facing an outside threat, which is stressed as being potentially fatal in both scenarios. That is, this manipulation varies the type of problem facing the subject’s group, but the level of threat is held constant.”

After reading the contextual vignette, the participants (university students) had to choose a captain and a cabin mate from a pair of pictures that differed only in their degree of masculinity. Specifically, the versions were two standard deviations above and below a dominance-neutral version of each target face.


Before getting to the results, it must be mentioned that using only the face is limited. From an evolutionary perspective, it only makes sense that we would have evolved to utilize other aspects of dominance and leadership than merely facial cues. For instance, physical size and fitness not only facilitate our formation of impression, but also speak to the capability of the person. Even if the facial features suggest that someone is motivated to dominate, we may still rely on their physical traits to determine if they can bite and not just bark.


As it turns out, for the pirate condition compared to the storm condition, the odds for choosing the dominant, physically strong-looking leader 69% higher. As an added bonus, the researchers asked the political ideology of the participants and found that the odds that conservative subjects choose the dominant-looking leader are 79% higher than for liberal subjects. Additionally, the results for choice of friend completely differ from the results found for choice of leader, with no significant effects of context and political ideology.Almost all (82%) of the subjects pick the friendly, non-dominant-looking individual as friend and cabin mate.

A word on political ideology

Very seldom do we make decisions based on completely clear contextual information. To handle this uncertainty, we rely on information and experiences that “forecast” what we expect to happen. In terms of politics, this means that differences in political ideology are related to basic differences in how individuals understand and approach the social world. Specifically, research suggests that conservatives, relative to liberals, view the world as more competitive, place greater value on inequality, and perceive outsiders more threatening. Conversely, liberals seem more focused on threats from nature such as environmental issues.

A word on friends

Friends are much different than leaders. They are valuable allies who are willing to return the investments we place with them, either by providing backup or helping in situations of need. Thus, it only makes sense that we seek out friends that are more likely to invest in us rather than in self-interest. And this is where the dominance trait gets slapped in the face, as the benefits of having a dominant friend are far outweighed by the costs. That is, the value of a friend does not come from their ability to make others willing to invest in the group (like a leader), but rather, it comes from their willingness to invest in us. Additionally, many of the qualities important for leadership, such as impartiality and exploitive behaviors, are counter-productive to have in a friend. Thus, people should generally prefer non-dominant, cooperatively minded persons as friends 

Bottom line

Importantly, the researchers utilized a setting (a ship with a limited number of fellow crew members) that mimics the social scale of ancestral life in small hunter-gatherer bands, and clarify which specific contextual difference between war and peace causes the differences in preferences for dominant leadership. Specifically, it was shown that the presence of a human threat (the pirates) increased the demand for dominant-looking leaders when compared to the presence of a natural threat (the storm).

As for the political preferences, it was shown that conservative subjects prefer the dominant, strong-looking leader across contexts, whereas liberal subjects prefer the non-dominant-looking leader. However, the contextual and ideological effects are distinctly related to choice of leader and not choice of friend.Conservatives like strong, tough-minded leaders but not strong, tough-minded individuals in general. Followers (and voters) draw on evolved psychological mechanisms to align themselves with the candidate they believe most capable of solving the problems confronting society at a given point in time.

Evolutionary psychology is cool, no? (Rhetorical question, of course it’s cool).


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