Why We Do a Poor Job of Evaluating Our Leaders

How we evaluate leaders in a polarized electorate.

Posted Jan 07, 2019

Consider Hillary Clinton and President Donald Trump. They represent perhaps the most visible leaders of the two increasingly polarized political parties. And, considering their leadership, you likely think the best of one of them and the worst of the other. How do we make these evaluations? The short answer is "poorly."

I want to discuss two psychological processes that govern the way we evaluate leaders and cause us to make very general (and perhaps inaccurate) evaluations of our leaders. "Heuristics" refers to the mental shortcuts that we are prone to take. Research has shown that people tend to be "cognitive misers"—using limited, shortcut thinking instead of critical analysis. In short, we tend to be lazy when it comes to thinking. As a result, rather than analyzing whether our leader is doing a good job by considering how the leader has performed at the various (and often complex) components of the job (in the president's case, there are a number of key areas—the economy, the wars, foreign relations, the list goes on and on), we make quick and shallow judgments.

Those who are negative on Trump say, "He’s not presidential.” “He’s emotional and out-of-control.” They consider him a failure. Some Trump supporters, seeing Trump’s shortcomings, use the formula, "He's better than Clinton." Sadly, the media falls victim to shortcut thinking itself and presents shallow analyses, or, worse yet, uses public opinion polls (ironically, which are the collective result of people using shortcut thinking) to determine the President's performance.

The same mental shortcuts apply to evaluations of Hillary Clinton. "She's self-serving and dishonest.” “Her policies would have ruined the country.”

The second psychological process that affects our ability to objectively and thoroughly judge a leader's performance is our own feeling, positive or negative, about the leader. Strong emotions can sometimes cloud our judgment and impair our ability to critically analyze the leader's performance. There are many cases where ineffective leaders remain in power simply because they are loved and supported by the majority, who let their positive feelings for the leader overlook poor performance.

So, what’s the antidote to our short-sighted and cognitively lazy support for or against political leaders? It involves engaging our brains and researching our leaders and their performance. Look for objective news accounts. [Here’s one list] Check facts that you see on social media (or in the media). Here are some of these:



Here are others.