The ‘dark triad’ and populism’s perfect storm

As populism surges globally, new research asks: Are the leaders we turn to in troubled times more likely to display the ‘dark triad’ of narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism?

Laura Guillén

During times of instability, people look to leaders for strength and guidance, and they prefer those with an authoritarian style. In businesses and countries alike, leaders play a significant role in helping others to cope with uncertainty. 

But research from Esade’s professor Laura Guillén and co-authors Philippe Jacquart (EMLYON Business School, Ecully) and Michael A. Hogg (Claremont Graduate University, Los Angeles) has revealed that the very leaders we look to for guidance in times of turmoil are more likely to be those who display high levels of narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism (known as the ‘dark triad’ of personality). 

The reason, they say, is that under uncertainty people prefer leaders with an authoritarian style. However, there is more to it than that. Their research shows that uncertainty tends to increase people’s motivation to follow others, thereby reducing their own motivation to lead. That is, people tend to cope with uncertainty in affiliative and submissive ways.  

Uncertainty increases people’s motivation to follow others, except for individuals with dark triad traits

However, this is not true for everyone. Uncertainty weakens leadership motivation only if individuals do not possess dark triad traits. Individuals high in the dark triad of personality maintain their drive for power intact. Uncertainty can therefore give dark triad individuals more leeway to emerge as leaders in times of crisis.  

And, the researchers warn, these dark triad leaders don’t only exploit existing chaos – they could actively seek to cause it in a bid to secure and strengthen positions of power.  

Under uncertainty, people seek guidance and protection 

The research, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, reveals a ‘perfect storm’ behind the rise of populist leaders. In times of uncertainty, say the authors, most people experience self-doubt and weakened motivation to lead that prompts them to seek leaders to resolve this uncertainty, and, as a result, they are more likely to be more tolerant of (or even welcoming to) leaders with abusive and anti-social personalities.  

In contrast, those who display dark triad attributes do not want others to lead them. They want to lead themselves. The study shows that, under uncertainty, leaders with high dark triad traits are more likely to remain motivated to lead, seeking power and eagerly stepping into leadership positions. 

Dark triad leaders don’t only exploit existing chaos – they could actively seek to cause it

The findings echo a 2007 research that revealed there are likely more people with dark triad traits in leadership positions than in the population at large (4% and 1% percent respectively). Guillén and co-authors suggest that this incidence is more likely in times of uncertainty.  

And, they add, the research sheds light on the psychological processes that lead people to support narcissists, Machiavellians and psychopaths in leadership positions.  

When in power, dark triad leaders are ruthless 

For those who display dark triad tendencies, uncertainty doesn’t trigger a submissive response. Instead, when they experience self-doubt or their motives are questioned, they display anger, aggression and a heightened sense of entitlement.  

When in power, dark triad leaders are aggressive and antagonistic and they tend to use exploitative social tactics. Research has shown leaders high in the dark triad redirect the negative affect associated with uncertainty toward others, generating anger and hostility.  

Their self-worth is gained by derogating others and ruthlessly prioritizing personal ambition. Their belief in their own superiority leads to a quest for social dominance and a position of power and authority. 

Experimental studies 

In a series of studies, Guillén and co-authors set out to test the hypothesis that, whereas most people experience diminishing levels of motivation to lead in times of self-uncertainty, the leadership ambition of people with dark triad tendencies remain unaffected

In the first study with 2,641 participants, results confirmed that higher levels of self-uncertainty reduce people’s motivation to lead. Researchers report the correlation as “negative and significant”. 

As uncertainty grows, so too does ordinary people’s willingness to be led rather than leading

A second study with 421 participants explored the dark triad of personality as a boundary condition to this relationship. Results replicated the negative effect of uncertainty on people’s motivation to lead, but only if they were low in dark triad attributes. In contrast, the leadership motivation of individuals with high dark triad traits was unaffected by uncertainty.  

A third study with a sample of 513 participants designed to replicate these results using group decision tasks rather than self-assessment confirmed the findings.  

Finally, in a fourth study with 400 participants, they found that participants had different reactivity to the negative affect associated with self-uncertainty depending on whether they were high or low in dark triad traits.  

Sociopolitical impact 

The societal impacts of the research are wide-reaching and speak to the question of why we find individuals with dark triad attributes in leadership positions, the researchers say.  

Their findings show that the self-uncertainty of the population at large plays a key role in facilitating the emergence of “dark and destructive” leadership. And, they add, the widespread uncertainty caused by sociopolitical crises, globalization, mass migration and economic collapse create ideal circumstances for people with dark triad traits to step into positions of leadership.  

As the self-uncertainty and doubt of the population at large grow, so too does people’s willingness to be led rather than leading. Against this backdrop of an increasingly submissive society, authoritarian leaders with dark triad traits may seek to exploit and further fuel destabilization to further their own agendas. 

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