Department of Political Science

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

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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.
Original languageEnglish
JournalEvolution and Human Behavior
Pages (from-to)286-293
Number of pages8
Publication statusPublished - 2015

    Research areas

  • Followership psychology, Adaptationism, Ideology, Leader preferences, Facial dominance

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