Naomi Ellemers Ph.D.

Social Climates

What Attracts People to Leaders Who Lie?

Leaders who want to mobilize people must offer hope.

Posted Nov 06, 2019

Leaders who want to mobilise people must offer hope.

It turns out that common perceptions of what constitutes effective leadership are wrong. Politicians who make promises that are evidently false, as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has done, or flout important rules, as U.S. President Donald Trump has, can still rely on the backing of large numbers of supporters.

Although integrity is seen as an important condition for effective leadership, it is not always welcomed. When Greta Thunberg, who managed to rally massive support for climate change demonstrations the world over, decided to put her money where her mouth is and sail to the UN Climate Action summit in New York, she came in for some heavy criticism. Why? Why do so many people get upset when a 16-year-old girl tells them that they, too, have a duty to help the climate? And what is it that attracts them to leaders who lie?

Their responses are rooted in emotions rather than rational thinking. Feelings of shame and guilt are the main drivers here. In his seminal work The Emotions, Dutch psychology professor Nico Frijda explains that emotions are not simply pesky feelings that come unbidden and have no further use. Emotions are linked to hormonal and neurochemical reactions. What we experience is a sensation of physical excitement over which we have little control. And yet each emotional reaction is preceded by an assessment of what type of behaviour would best suit the situation. Although this can happen outside our awareness and quick as a flash, it is not an automatic reaction.

Behavioural Change

In the range of human emotions, shame and guilt have their own special place. These moral emotions stand in judgement of our own behaviour. They originate in an awareness of having done something that is contrary to our ideals, or important social rules. Unlike such primary emotions as anger or grief, these secondary emotions are taught. Children are encouraged to look at themselves from the perspective of others. They also learn what to do when they experience these emotions, i.e., admit guilt and show shame as a sign they are aware of their wrongdoing and would like to be forgiven.

The practice of naming and shaming-—publicly pointing the finger of blame—taps into these emotions. It is often seen as an effective way of making people see the error of their ways and an incentive to behavioural change. But is it? Could it be that the experience is so excruciating that it blocks change completely? Colin Leach of Columbia University, an expert in guilt and shame, decided to investigate.

In a meta-analysis, he compared the results of 90 different research projects involving over 12,000 participants. The projects included experiments in which people were told about the negative consequences of their choices for others, such as child labour and their purchase of cheap clothing. People who had no clear way of making amends — for instance, if they did not know the injured party personally, or had no opportunity to show themselves in a more positive light — were left to feel badly about themselves. Shame and guilt only served to put them on the defensive. They tried to deny the problem, trivialise their own part in it, or hide the harmful effects of their actions.

A more effective approach was found in suggesting that they could do something about the negative consequences of their actions; for instance, by making different choices or offering compensation for the damage they had done. People who were made to feel that reparation was an option were still ashamed about their actions but the negative emotion became a primary driver for behavioural change.

This information is important for leaders trying to spur people into action. They will typically do this by pointing out that important problems such as climate change are caused and perpetuated by personal choices. By asking people to acknowledge their responsibility for the damage they cause, leaders can try to make them do the right thing. But this approach also evokes feelings of guilt and shame about all that is going wrong. And as long as it is not clear what they can do to repair the damage, all that people take away from the message is that it is unpleasant. This will cause them to minimise the effects of their actions, deny the problem, or discredit the bearer of the bad news, as happened to Greta Thunberg.

It is tempting to follow leaders like Trump and Johnson, who tell people they have done nothing wrong and have nothing to be ashamed of—and who show no shame themselves. In order to mobilise people, then, it is important for leaders not just to emphasise the problems but to outline opportunities for improvement and offer hope.