Nobody likes a bully. And yet, as exemplified by the recent US presidential election, bullies tend to accrue power.
Donald Trump got to the White House by angrily and aggressively attacking everyone who dared challenge him. He resorted to childish name-calling (“Little Marco,” “Crooked Hillary”), insulting women’s appearances, and mocking the disabled. Social and evolutionary psychology can help us understand why voters rewarded him for it.
Studies show that bullies use a strategy of dominance to attain social influence, leveraging their strength, wealth or social status to manipulate and intimidate others. Lower-status group members don’t like the dominant bully; often, they outright fear him. But they give him power nonetheless, because they are afraid not to.
I observed this phenomenon in research my colleagues and I published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Small groups of undergraduates were asked to work together for just 20 minutes to solve a problem. Afterward, they rated their peers, telling us whom they saw as most influential, whom they respected, and whom they were afraid of. We were surprised to find that many of the people in these groups who were judged as most influential—not only by their peers, but also by outside observers who later watched videos of these interactions—were also seen as scary; the people who got power were often the same people who induced fear.
This is not to say that the more competent and kind members of the group failed to get ahead. They did, but no more so than their aggressive and bullying counterparts. The dominant students in our study were perceived as just as influential as the prestigious students were, and both were equally likely to determine the group’s outcomes: the decisions made in the problem-solving task.
This pattern should not have surprised us. Humans evolved to use two distinct strategies to get ahead. On the one hand, we are intensely cultural beings who rely on knowledge and wisdom in a way that no other animal does. One of the reasons we became the unique species we are is that we don’t have to invent the wheel anew each time we need it. Instead, we learn about the wheel—along with many of the other most useful things we know—from others in our society. As a result, knowing useful things is a powerful way to get ahead. We defer to those who are smart, able, and willing to kindly teach. We respect and follow people who demonstrate prestige.
But, on the other hand, humans also evolved to use that other strategy—dominance. Dominance is the more ancient of the two, more deeply encoded into our genetic heritage. Like members of every other animal species, we grant power to those who are, technically speaking, more powerful—capable of winning fights, physical or otherwise. As our entirely nonviolent lab study demonstrated, people can be induced to feel fear even without believing that the intimidator might beat them up.
So how does this apply to Trump? Belittling and derogating others only gets a dominant leader so far in a democracy. At some point, the dominant person needs to earn votes, and votes are freely conferred. We don’t vote for the person we’re scared of, or the person we despise.
No, roughly 47% of American voters chose Trump not because they were afraid of him, but because they saw him as their bully—the tough guy who would stand up for them, and make others afraid. These people know that Trump is arrogant to the point of obnoxiousness, and they know that he can be mean. But these are exactly the traits that attract them.
These Americans feel left behind by their government and therefore their country. So the last thing they want in a leader is a prestigious former secretary of state and senator, sure to support the status quo. When the government seems like the enemy, the only solution short of rebellion is a leader who is a bullying jerk, willing to attack anyone who gets in his way.
Research studies suggest this line of reasoning sometimes works out. Psychologists Jon Maner and Nicole Mead found that although dominants’ first priority is to ensure their own power, this changes when their group competes against others. When a dominant ruler must battle for his group’s success over another’s, he behaves like any good leader, putting the needs of the group ahead of his own. Under such circumstances, dominants will place the most competent group members in charge, allowing them to shine for the sake of the group even though the end result might mean a challenge to the dominant’s own power.
It remains to be seen what Trump will do with the incredible power his country has bestowed upon him. But for Democrats who prefer the status quo—and its provision of health care for the poor; equal treatment for people of all races and religions; and respect for women as more than sexual objects to be ridiculed in a locker room—the solution, four years from now, must take into account the evolved psychology of the American people. Their hunger for an angry bully who promised to redress perceived injustices was far stronger than any pollster envisioned.
This doesn’t mean that Democrats need a bully of their own. Prestige is, after all, just as effective as a route to power. But to successfully wield prestige, a leader must be well liked; followers willingly defer to the prestigious because they admire them, and often, even love them.
It seems that Hillary Clinton was unable to evoke the widespread feelings of warmth that a prestigious leader needs to get ahead—and it’s troubling that this inability was at least in part due to her gender and her long history in the public eye. But the lesson learned from her experience is clear. The Democratic Party’s future success depends on a person who combines prestige with a charisma that can generate true affection—in other words, a champion.
Jessica Tracy is the author of Take Pride: Why the Deadliest Sin Holds the Secret to Human Success. Follow her on Twitter @ProfJessTracy.