new study shows how a leader’s character affects people’s behaviors

When we say that a politician's character matters, we're talking about their ability to make good, ethical decisions. It turns out, it also matters when it comes to voters' attitudes.
yellow vest protest

When you lead a nation, either as an executive or as a lawmaker, you have to at least try to do three important things in order to have a shot at governing well. First, you have to consider the impact of your actions on all the people you represent, not just your most fervent base. Second, you have to make empathetic, ethical, decisions to maximize the good and minimize the pain of new laws and budgets. Third, and finally, you have to understand the effect your words have on those who listen to you. While it’s often thought that people seldom care what politicians have to say and just vote for who’s best for their wallet, new research says that when leaders start to fling hate and conspiracy theories, they drag the national discourse down in the gutter.

In a recent experiment, a group of researchers tried to figure out how leaders affect the people they represent by either suppressing inflammatory rhetoric about immigrants, minorities, and the political opposition, or letting it flow to see how much of it test subjects would follow after the various levels of exposure. What they found was an emboldening effect when prejudices and accusations are allowed to fly with little criticism or self-censorship, providing an empirical proof of the shift in what political scientists call the Overton Window. Voters who hold bigoted, inflammatory, or conspiratorial views feel freer to lash out against their targets since it appears to be publicly condoned, if not outright encouraged.

In the experiments, test subjects who expressed more prejudiced views in initial evaluations trying to establish their existing attitudes were more likely to approve of videos in which actors were being publicly admonished, less likely to condemn a scenario demonstrating a possibly racist supervisor treating a minority intern with contempt, and more likely to give a negative evaluation to someone with a fairly typical Latino name after they were exposed to articles covering comments Donald Trump made during the 2016 campaign with little to no reported condemnation. The authors were particularly interested in the results of the last experiment, which showed direct action against a leader’s target after exposure to Trump’s words.

Of course, this shouldn’t be taken to mean that politicians refraining from inflammatory speech or ruthlessly ridiculing it somehow erase negative attitudes among the public. But they do send a clear signal that voicing those views is considered going too far for public discourse, and since we all want to try and fit into our societies to some degree and avoid dealing with constant confrontation, we refrain from airing them. This applies even to the bigots among us who gripe and gnash their teeth about it seemingly incessantly on social media, decrying it as a crusade against them, tradition, and freedom of thought, but will still at least try to hold their most objectionable and rage-filled tirades to themselves more often than not offline.

But that restraint gets flipped on its head when politicians let loose as well. If the leader of your country throws a temper tantrum whenever they get annoyed and no one does a thing to stop them, so can you. If they can ramble incoherently for hours, airing grievance after grievance, or threatening to put people they dislike in their place with some new law or police action, why not you? Leaders lead by example, and if that example is a bad one, their followers will tend to latch on to it as well, especially if there are no longer consequences for their words and actions. Even worse, as the study shows, without serious pushback, bigots are more likely to go after a leader’s targets, something we’ve seen end very, very badly throughout history. So, if we elect bigoted leaders, we’ll only keep emboldening the bigots among us.

See: Newman, B., et al, (2020) The Trump Effect: An Experimental Investigation of the Emboldening Effect of Racially Inflammatory Elite Communication. British Journal of Political Science, 1-22. DOI: 10.1017/S0007123419000590

# science // bigotry / politicians / social psychology


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