Cheater detection in politics: Evolution and citizens’ capacity to hold political leaders accountable

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The average citizen is often unable to distinguish and choose between political leaders according to their ideological profiles. Research using evolutionary theory shows that citizens instead turn to perceptions of procedural fairness concerning whether leaders follow basic decision-making rules such as passing policies without personal interest and displaying responsiveness to citizens’ opinions. Some argue that this helps citizens “weed out” questionable leaders; others question citizens’ ability to distinguish those following the rules from those who do not. To address this question, I build on psychological research showing that the mind possesses a natural ability, a cheater-detection system, enabling the detection of self-interested others who violate social rules. Introducing an experimental protocol from psychology embedded in cross-national surveys, I show that this system also operates when citizens evaluate political leaders, facilitating identification of leaders who violate basic decision-making rules. The findings advance our understanding of citizens’ democratic competences and followers’ cognitive abilities generally.
Original languageEnglish
Article number101268
JournalThe Leadership Quarterly
Number of pages14
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2020


  • Democratic accountability
  • Evolutionary psychology
  • Politics
  • Procedural justice
  • The Wason selection task

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