The Attraction and Dangers of Dishonest Leaders

In 2020, after meeting Donald Trump and five others, American politician Chris Christie ended up seriously ill with COVID-19 in the hospital's intensive care unit. He barely survived. During his stay, he received a call from Trump, also infected, who asked that Christie not tell the press that he contracted the disease from him. Christie agreed, ignorant of who had infected whom. Later, Christie learned confidentially from two reporters that Trump had told them that Christie had given him COVID. It later turned out that Trump had already tested positive for COVID before the meeting with Christie (source).

An intriguing paradox of our time is the phenomenon where leaders who have been publicly exposed as chain liars still retain a significant following. Striking examples are Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. It's as if their dishonesty has some sort of attraction, even after their lies are exposed. This paradox raises a pressing question: why do people continue to support dishonest leaders despite the long-term negative consequences? Psychologists Elizabeth Huppert and Emma Levine offer an answer in a forthcoming article.

Us versus them thinking changes what we expect and accept from leaders

In normal circumstances, we value three things in leaders: competence, benevolence, and honesty. Competent leaders are able to lead well; benevolent leaders want the best for their followers; and honest leaders can be trusted.

Huppert & Levine (in press) explain that honesty comes down to sharing information we believe to be true for the purpose of influencing others. Dishonesty, on the other hand, involves spreading information in a way that promotes false beliefs in others. This includes not only direct lies but also other deceptive verbal strategies.

So in general, we appreciate honesty, but situations of polarization alter these expectations.

Zero-sum thinking

When a conflict arises between two groups (for example, the Democrats versus the Republicans), an us versus them mentality often arises, accompanied by zero-sum thinking. Zero-sum thinking is the idea that the success of one group depends directly on the failure of another group. This can lead to feelings of threat and fear and can make people motivated to reduce the threat by beating the other group.

Seeing dishonesty as necessary for short-term victories

When people focus on beating the "outgroup," they may be willing to give up long-term goals for short-term success. The authors explain that leadership dishonesty can lead to some short-term benefits, including:

  1. Strengthen Social Cohesion: Dishonest leaders can spread false information or propaganda to exaggerate or even fabricate an external threat. This can lead to increased group solidarity and unity as the group comes together to face the perceived threat.
  2. Gaining Strategic Advantage: By using misleading information to cast an adversary's actions or intentions in a negative light, dishonest leaders can relatively strengthen their own position. This can give them a strategic advantage in negotiations or conflicts.
  3. Form a Unity Front: Dishonesty can also be used to form a united front against a common 'enemy'. This can give the group a sense of purpose and common interest, which can contribute to the group's success in the short term.

In addition, during group conflicts, a leader's dishonesty can be positively interpreted by followers in two ways: as an indication of benevolence and as an indication of competence.

Seeing dishonesty as an indication of benevolence

If the leaders are dishonest in an attempt to protect or promote their own group, known as the "ingroup," this can be seen by group members as a sign of benevolence. In other words, if the leaders lie or distort the truth in favor of their own group, this can be perceived as an attempt to serve the interests of the group, even at the expense of the truth. This may be the case, for example, if a leader lies about the strength of his group to keep morale high or if he exaggerates the group's performance to give the group an advantage in negotiations.

Seeing dishonesty as an indicator of competence

In the context of intergroup conflict, dishonesty can also be seen as a sign of competence. This is because being able to successfully lie or distort the truth requires skills such as persuasion, strategic thinking, and the ability to manipulate others. So if a leader can successfully use these tactics, it can be interpreted by group members as a sign of competence. For example, if a leader is able to lie to gain an advantage in negotiations or to mitigate a threat from another group, this can be seen as a demonstration of competence.

Long-term disadvantages of dishonesty in leaders

Below, I try to summarize point by point the long-term disadvantages of dishonesty in leaders that the authors identify:

  1. Erosion of trust and cynicism: dishonesty, rudeness, and unethical behavior can undermine trust and breed cynicism in the long run. Even if lies seem well-intentioned at first, they can eventually lead to a loss of trust. This is because, in the long run, people are less likely to trust a liar's words, even if that liar has lied in the past to serve the best interests of the group.
  2. Interfering with learning and growth: Lies designed to spare the feelings of others (prosocial lies) can appear paternalistic and ultimately hinder the recipient's ability to learn and grow.
  3. Damage to reputation: The willingness to lie, even when the lies are meant to help, can signal a general openness to lying and a higher likelihood of telling harmful lies in the future. This can ultimately damage a leader's reputation.
  4. Influence on competence: While dishonesty can be effective in the short term for immediate gains, in the long run it can be detrimental by damaging trust in repeated interactions. In addition, engaging in deceit can also generate guilt in negotiators, which is ultimately detrimental to the negotiators themselves.
  5. Impact on party loyalty and voter preferences: Dishonesty can also have long-term consequences for the political party to which a dishonest leader belongs. For example, the behavior of a dishonest leader can damage the reputation of the entire party and ultimately affect the loyalty of party members and voters' preferences.
  6. Harmful effects on the group: Even if group members accept in the short term that dishonesty can benefit the group, there are potential long-term pitfalls to trusting dishonest leaders. This can result in the loss of political seats, which can ultimately be detrimental to the party and the group as a whole.

Proposed solutions

The authors advocate minimizing zero-sum thinking and encouraging long-term goals.

  1. Minimize Zero-Sum Thinking: Interventions that help people overcome zero-sum thinking are crucial. They suggest focusing on gains within one's own group, no matter how big or small they are compared to another group. Emphasizing win-win solutions can reduce hostility toward other groups and bring focus back to one's own group dynamics, including a concern for honest leaders. In addition, reducing feelings of threat and emphasizing shared identities between rival groups can help minimize zero-sum thinking.
  2. Encourage Long-Term Thinking: Emphasizing the long-term harm of dishonesty can help reduce support for dishonest leaders. This can be achieved by organizations highlighting the negative long-term consequences of dishonesty and providing examples where short-term success based on dishonesty backfired or later caused harm. In addition, it can help if people feel connected to their future selves, as this can lead to a greater willingness to delay rewards and show patience.

My reflection: Political systems affect the likelihood of dishonest leaders

It is no coincidence that I mention Trump and Johnson in this introduction. They come from countries with a “winner take all” political system, where the candidate with the most votes gets all representation in an area (read more). This can lead to strong competition and polarization, and disadvantage minorities. In contrast to this, there is a proportional representation system as in the Netherlands, in which government seats are distributed on the basis of the percentage of votes per party. This almost always leads to coalition governments and cooperation.

The risk of dishonest leaders can be greater in a winner takes all system because the stakes are higher – profit means full control. This can lead to short-term focus, where truth and ethics sometimes lose out. In a proportional representation system, with coalition governments, the pressure to 'win it all' may be less, potentially reducing the motivation for dishonesty. Collaboration between parties can reduce polarization and “us versus them” thinking (read also: Save American Democracy).

Final thoughts

Residents of countries with proportional representation political systems should not think they are invulnerable to lying leaders. It is not that dishonesty and unethical behavior in leadership in these countries does not exist and is not a threat. In particular, let's keep an eye out for individuals who encourage us-versus-them thinking and try to cultivate a zero-sum mentality.