Of the many things to worry about in these vexing times, one of the most powerful yet invisible is the psychological effect that our leaders have on us.
Commenting on all the ways that our leaders can fail us, talk show host Tucker Carlson said recently, “People will not forgive weakness. That is the one thing.” And so that his three million viewers would know to take his word for it, he added, “By the way, that is not a partisan point. It is human nature.” According to this view, we want strong leaders who are ready to use force to protect us from harm.
As a psychologist who has studied human nature for three decades, I’d put my chips on a different universal: people act in ways that they believe are appropriate to the situation they’re in. But that calculation (What is appropriate?) is mutable, and Carlson affects how his viewers make the calculation when he propagates a view of social life as Hobbesian, where the main solution to pervasive threats is strength. Science tells us that the world is not Hobbesian, at least not necessarily. But leaders and media pundits can make it Hobbesian by spreading a view of society as filled with threats.
Science tells us that the world is not Hobbesian, at least not necessarily. But leaders and media pundits can make it Hobbesian by spreading a view of society as filled with threats.
Research repeatedly shows a more cooperative side to human nature than the one Carlson conjured, one that emerges when the situation is right. In one ingenious line of studies, people forced to make fast, impulsive decisions behaved more cooperatively and less greedily than people forced to reason things through. It seems that cooperation comes naturally to us. But there was a caveat in this research that serves as a warning. Participants responded cooperatively only if they believed that, by and large, the people that they encountered in their day-to-day lives were trustworthy. In other words, whether we are nice or nasty depends a lot on whether we see—or have been led to see—the world as a placed filled with trustworthy people or threatening ones. How might this calculation be affected by Carlson’s prophecies or by statements from President Trump that “our nation has been gripped by professional anarchists, violent mobs, arsonists, looters, criminal rioters, Antifa, and others”?
For human beings the most powerful influence is what’s all around us, like water to the fish: the situations we are in, and more specifically, our perceptions of our social world. For that reason, the more our leaders portray others as a threat, and the more our media celebrates the need for strength to protect us from the hordes in our midst, the greater the harm to the most significant contributor to a healthy society: trust.
Against the looming catastrophe of World War II, Kurt Lewin, the psychologist who pioneered the study of applied group dynamics, conducted groundbreaking research into the sources of authoritarian regimes. Lewin was dismayed at how modern fascists got ordinary civilians to do their dirty work when in the past trained elites had done it. Many scholars thought, wrongly it turns out, that heinous acts came from heinous minds, long-suppressed impulses of the id unleashed.
Whether we are nice or nasty depends a lot on whether we see—or have been led to see—the world as a placed filled with trustworthy people or threatening ones.
Lewin said, Wrong. Human nature is not inherently good or evil. It responds to the social situation, which is shaped by our leaders.
With a remarkably innovative behavioral study, Lewin showed the powerful impact of a leader. He compared the actions of groups of boys under an adult leader trained to be authoritarian and with those of boys under an adult leader trained to be democratic. The authoritarian leaders told the kids whom to work with and what to do. They governed by fear. They punished and left little room for resistance. They made their criticism personal. These leaders created tension and mistrust in the group. The result? These boys, all ordinary American boys, turned mean, nasty, and selfish. They pounced on frustrations that Lewin would introduce. Most disturbing, the boys sometimes concentrated their ire on a single child, a scapegoat whose vilification provided temporary relief.
Meanwhile, the leaders that Lewin trained to be democratic governed by establishing legitimacy. They established fair processes for the boys to identify their goals, make plans, and air conflicts. They evoked an altogether different response. The boys collaborated more, worked harder and more creatively. Disagreements were less likely to erupt into violence. But democratic leaders weren’t do-nothings. Because each boy felt included, together they felt safe to be more selfless.
The more our leaders portray others as a threat, and the more our media celebrates the need for strength to protect us from the hordes in our midst, the greater the harm to the most significant contributor to a healthy society: trust.
Does Lewin’s research apply to adults? Contrary to Carlson’s view, research shows that it’s not fear that keeps people in line but legitimacy and trust. Consider George H. W. Bush’s address after the Rodney King riots, written with the help of Colin Powell. Bush acknowledged the vested interests we should all have: “There are two very different issues at hand. One is the urgent need to restore order,” the other, “the great cause of equality that all Americans must uphold.” He gave equal time in his speech to both. He talked about the processes he would launch to restore both order and justice. Just as importantly in light of the research I mentioned, Bush inspired us to remember the better angels of our nature, highlighting the “small but significant acts in all this ugliness that give us hope.” He told the story of two Black strangers who saved the life of a white truck driver. Looking back at this speech, one notices all that is missing in the more authoritarian style of some of our current leaders. But it’s not just them. It’s the media. When newscasters lump liberals and looters together in the same sentence and celebrate strength over legitimacy, autocratic solutions to “deploy the United States military,” “dominate the streets,” and “protect your second amendment rights” start to seem reasonable.
In judging governance we tend to worry, understandably, about policy. We understand that leaders can have psychological effects, but we lack a language for justifying why this matters. It matters because who we are depends on how we are led, especially how we are led to understand each other. To offer a correction to Tucker Carlson, the one thing we may never forgive is a leader who deliberately turns fellow citizens against each other.