Why Is Donald Trump So Popular?

Research may explain The Donald's rise in the polls.

Posted Sep 14, 2015

Donald Trump has been described as sexist, racist, and a bully. Given that these aren't exactly presidential characteristics, why is he so popular in the polls?

Studies show that people prefer their leaders to have certain traits, such as deep voices and a tall stature. These characteristics convey dominance, which makes us feel protected. Mr. Trump embodies both of these physical qualities — but his popularity may be due to yet another attribute. To wit, narcissism. Though his supporters may disagree, The Donald has been referred to as a narcissist extraordinaire. The hallmarks of narcissism include grandiosity, overconfidence, arrogance, and an exaggerated sense of self-importance.

So why would Mr. Trump's apparent narcissism help him in the presidential race? Because under uncertain circumstances people prefer narcissistic leaders. Consider a study led by Barbora Nevicka of the University of Amsterdam. She and her team recruited 46 undergraduates and randomly assigned them to one of two experimental conditions: uncertain or certain contexts. Participants were provided with a written description of a company that read one of two ways (statements about certain condition are in parentheses):

“The company is currently finding itself in difficulty [a period of relative stability],”

“Its share price has plummeted [been stable],”

“The company has lost market share [has a constant market share],”

“The company has an unpredictable [predictable] work environment,” and

“Many employees feel a sense of stress spreading through the organization [experience little stress].”

After reading the passage, participants were asked to carefully consider what kind of leader they though would be best for this company. They were then given a questionnaire comprised of statements that are characteristic of a narcissistic leader as well as a prototypical leader, and indicated how their ideal leader for the given company would answer the items.

What did the researchers find? In uncertain contexts the preference for narcissistic leaders increases. More specifically, when conditions were uncertain high narcissists were thought to reduce uncertainty more than low narcissists, which also led others to select them as leaders more often. High narcissists were seen as tough, arrogant, manipulative, and lacking in empathy. Yet when uncertainty abounds, people tend to judge high narcissists more positively as leaders in spite of their toxic attributes.

Times are tough. As a nation, we are contending with numerous challenges, including the economy, the job market, and the war on terror. Perhaps Mr. Trump's seeming narcissism provides people with the feeling that if he were in charge, someone would know what they're doing — and reduce anxiety. Whether he's the best choice to lead the country is another matter.  

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