The American Way

What does it mean to be a U.S. citizen? Understanding the American psyche.

Bad King George! Why Leaders Hope We Trust Them

Independence Day, cookouts, beer swilling neighbors, and trust in our leaders.

Pic: King George III stamp
We have a deal in our house. My wife cooks, and I eat what she cooks (and clean up afterwards). If I don’t like what she cooks, then I’m free to do the cooking instead. This rarely happens since I love her food and hate to cook. I was thinking about how much I appreciate this arrangement as I was eating far too much food on the 4th of July. Burgers, hot dogs, chicken, potato salad, flag-colored dessert…too much good stuff to resist. I’d be crazy to take over the cooking.  

In the midst of my gluttony on Independence Day, it occurred to me how much this domestic deal I have is like the “deal” that democratic governments have with their citizens (oh, how slippery the slope to politics is!). Called the “social contract,” it emerged in the 1600s from philosophical debates about the likelihood our lives would be “poor, nasty, brutish and short” in the absence of a way for us to all get along and trust each other.   

To make a long story short, the social contract developed into the political idea that we citizens give up some of our freedoms in exchange for protection by the government from others who may harm us. For example, my city has made it illegal to shoot fireworks and, viola!, my house is protected by government from the beer swilling, firecracker flinging knucklehead who lives next door, although I’m not free to shoot fireworks myself. In other words, to a great degree I can trust that my neighbor is not going to burn down my house with a barrage of bottle rockets. But, and here’s the big “but” in the social contract, if we citizens feel like the government is not living up to its obligation to protect us, then we have the right to replace it with a new one.  


The crack of fireworks and patriotic tunes we just enjoyed on the 4th, along with all my food, marked the formal adoption in 1776 of the Declaration of Independence, in which Thomas Jefferson stated the colonies’ case for breaking from Britain.

Does this section from the Declaration sound like something just mentioned?

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government…  

Yep, that’s the social contract in all its glory.

Did Britain’s King George violate his social contract with the American colonists? Yep, according to the Declaration, for doing things like refusing to approve “wholesome and necessary” laws, exciting insurrections among the colonies, imposing taxes without consent, cutting off colonial trade with the rest of the world, and, one of my favorites because of the evocative language, dissolving legislative bodies for “opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.” Bad King George!

What did our forebears do in response? In the words of the Declaration, they proclaimed:

That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved.

(By the way, you can read the Declaration and all 27 of the king’s alleged social contract violations at the U.S. National Archives and even take a quiz on this “Charter of Freedom.”)


Why would the puny colonies take on against long odds the muscular British Empire? Evolutionary theory can give us some idea.

Individuals in our ancestral history who joined in groups were more likely to survive and reproduce than individuals who went it alone. The group joiners were more likely to acquire critical resources like food, shelter, and protection and to find mates with whom to bear and rear children (this one seems pretty obvious since only a few living things, primarily single-celled organisms and plants and fungi, have figured out asexual reproduction).

Because our ancestors benefitted so much from joining a group, evolutionary scholars have argued that humans evolved an “ultrasociality” that is reflected in our long-term and highly interdependent relationships with small numbers of close individuals. And because of ultrasociality, humans are especially sensitive to violations of group expectations. For instance, some really interesting research shows people are willing to pay costs to punish “cheaters,” particularly when those cheaters are group members who violate group expectations.    


King George and other political leaders enter the story because groups are more effective when they have a centralized command or individual leader. Leadership is needed and desirable.

But leaders hold decision making power to distribute group resources and organize members’ individual activities, so they are in position to take advantage of the group and its resources for their personal gain at the expense of the group. This exploitation weakens the group and, in turn, threatens the survival and reproductive success of its members. In terms of group leadership, then, this suggests group members should respond negatively and strongly to potential violations of group expectations by leaders.

I ran experiments not too long ago that showed a lot of evidence in support of this argument. I found, unsurprisingly, that distrust of a political leader to put her/his group’s interests first and above the leader’s self-interest is strongly related to people’s willingness to oppose that leader. Most interestingly and contrary to conventional political science, though, the effect is largest for members of the leader’s group (i.e., political party), which underscores the evolutionary argument about group expectations. Further, and equally surprising and contrary to conventional political science, the effect is often as large as or larger than the leader’s possession of ideal leadership traits (e.g., strong leadership, intelligence, and caring) and policy performance.


From one evolutionary perspective, then, the American colonies were motivated to take on the mighty British Empire because King George betrayed the trust of the colonists and violated his social contract with them. But these weren’t just any colonists, these were colonists from the king’s own group that had ties back to Britain. So they had the motivation to “punish” their king even at a potentially large cost to themselves.

I bet King George didn’t think about July 4th in his day with the same fondness and full stomach that I do today.

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The American Way