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Economic Inequality, Democracy, and Strong Leaders

Notes on new research.

In an upcoming article entitled “‘Our Country Needs a Strong Leader Right Now’: Economic Inequality Enhances the Wish for a Strong Leader” (Sprong et al., 2019), the authors conducted three empirical studies to examine the association between economic inequality and the desire for a strong leader. Their general logic is that people subjected to economic inequality are more likely to believe society is breaking down and desire a strong leader to help restore order. Participants were asked about the level of economic inequality they perceived in their country, and the actual level of economic inequality for their country was measured. The first two studies were correlational and the third study was an experiment with an “imagine that” manipulation. It is an interesting series of cross-cultural studies with numerous authors and data from 28 different countries.

But how did they define a “strong leader”? In addition to several questions directly regarding the need for a strong leader, several questions were included that spoke to specific behaviors of willingness to break the rules, wants to challenge the status quo, and keeps tight control over the country’s decisions and activities.

Brief Criticism and Thoughts

I will lay a few brief criticisms out in this section to get them out of the way, but the main point of my article is to highlight a few of the interesting findings that Sprong et al. made and that I observed from their data.

1) Their general hypothesis appears to be that everyone wants a more authoritarian leader when there is economic inequality. Is the idea that jealousy motivates the low end and guilt motivates the high end? This logic doesn’t make sense to me. It is unclear why the haves would be dissatisfied, unless they believe a strong leader would fend off the disgruntled have nots.

2) In Experiment 3, the desire for a strong leader was manipulated by a fictional “imagine that” task. The results fit with the correlational data from their other studies, but we are still left with the question of what to do with an effect that is so easily created by the fictional Bimboola task.

3) I am not convinced that cross-country differences do not drive the relationship, however, the centering of variables by country should have taken care of this problem.

4) The authors stated, “First, we controlled for political orientation because individuals on the right end of the political spectrum have been found to value authorities more (Altemeyer, 1998) and therefore would be more likely to wish for a strong leader.” Recent research has called into question the notion that conservative (right-wing) individuals are more authoritarian than liberals (left-wing), finding evidence that the commonly cited effect is an artifact of biases in the wording of the scale questions (Mather, 2018; Singal, 2018). Both liberals and conservatives are prone to authoritarianism (Mather & Jefferson, 2016). If the political orientation measure is inaccurate, what would the results have looked like if political orientation had not been entered into the statistical model at all, rather than having been entered in the first step? Controlling for an invalid scale makes little sense.

5) There was a significant effect of gender (p < .001) that was not discussed in the article and only found in the results listed in the supplementary materials (Tables 4 and 6). The gender effect indicated that females were more likely to wish for a strong leader (or males were less likely to wish for a strong leader, however you wish to word it). This seems worthy of further discussion and analysis in the article.

New Analyses

I took the data the authors listed in their supplementary materials (Table 1) and ran a few quick and more simplistic analyses than what they did in their study. For the country-level data, objective inequality, subjective inequality and being political right-wing predicted the desire for a strong leader, and objective and subjective inequality predicted each other. The democracy index assessed the level of democracy of a country ranging from 1 “authoritarian” to 10 “fully democratic” and had been calculated by an outside source, the Economist Intelligence Unit. I removed the countries with democracy scores below 5, which were the most authoritarian countries that had been included (China, Iran, and Poland). After these countries were removed from the analysis, I found that objective and subjective inequality still predicted each other and both still predicted the desire for a strong leader, as did being politically right. However, now with the most authoritarian (least democratic) countries removed from the analysis, the level of democracy in a country negatively predicted objective inequality, subjective inequality, and the desire for a strong leader. That is, the more democratic the democratic countries were, the less economic inequality (real and perceived) and the lower the desire for a strong leader (significant at p < .001, p < .001, and p = .017). A median split of all countries (including China, Iran, and Poland) found that the high democracy countries had significantly lower objective and subjective economic inequality (significant at p = .003, p = .009). These findings are in line with the concept of “new power” made popular by Heimans and Timms (2018).


Sprong et al. have an interesting set of cross-cultural studies with findings of perceived economic inequality increasing desire for strong leaders. It is worth examination and interpretation from social psychologists interested in the political context, leadership, and management issues. It is an exciting time in the history of experimental psychology when so many materials and data are made available to the scientific community for open peer review after publication. Additionally, I highly commend the authors for taking on such a large scale project across countries and producing such valuable and important data as a contribution to science.


Altemeyer, B. (1998). The other “authoritarian personality.” In M. P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 30, pp. 47-92). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Heimans, J., & Timms, H. (2018). New power: How power works in our hyperconnected world—and how to make it work for you. New York: Doubleday.

Mather, R. D. (2018, August 9). Authoritarian liberals and satisfied conservatives: New research modifies the landscape of political psychology. Psychology Today (online).

Mather, R. D., & Jefferson, K. W. (2016, May). The authoritarian voter? The psychology and values of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders support. Journal of Scientific Psychology, 1-8.

Singal, J. (2018, July 15). How social science might be misunderstanding conservatives. New York Magazine (online).

Sprong, S., Jetten, J., Wang, Z., Peters, K., Mols, F. …et al. (in press). “Our country needs a strong leader right now”: Economic inequality enhances the wish for a strong leader. Psychological Science.