How Political Leaders Strategically Manipulate Us

A leading expert in political psychology weighs in.

Posted Mar 12, 2020

Courtesy of Rose McDermott
Source: Courtesy of Rose McDermott

The Brown Club of Greater San Francisco hosted Professor Rose McDermott on March 4, 2020 to discuss “Leadership and the Strategic Emotional Manipulation of Political Identity.” McDermott is the David and Mariana Fisher University Professor of International Relations at Brown University and a Fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She has published many research articles and three books on political psychology, risk-taking by leaders, and the effects of presidential illness on decision-making

Her talk and the ensuing question and answer period are available on the Pacific Heart podcast (SoundCloud, Stitcher, and iTunes). For this blog post, I’ve summarized and paraphrased some of her key ideas, but I encourage you to listen to the full talk.

Key takeaways:

  • Leaders get people to follow them, even when it’s not in the followers’ economic or other interests.
  • Leaders use emotion and identity to attract and manipulate followers
  • They define in-group and out-group by manipulating emotions, especially fear, anger, and outrage. (I would note that President Trump's use of "foreign virus" and ordering travel bans for foreign nationals from Europe in his Oval Office speech on 3/11/20 fits his pattern of blaming outsiders and non-Americans for problems. —RC)
  • They solidify an in-group and stress unity against some out-group which they claim poses a threat.
  • Emotion provides information for decision-making, especially in the allocation of resources for in-groups and against out-groups.
  • Emotion focuses attention.
  • “Emotion is an efficient way for leaders to manipulate followers.”
  • Specific emotions are used strategically.
  • Gender differences in emotion are important. White suburban women, for example, did indeed become a key swing group from 2016 to 2018.
  • “Identity is pretty fungible.” We classify each other in a variety of ways (race, gender, class, religion, etc.)
  • We pick identities to enhance self-esteem, create community, enhance a sense of status and power, and allow us to feel good about ourselves.
  • Leaders can take advantage of this and again, use identity strategically. 
  • But our ideas of identities and their boundaries change – for example, gender identity is now being recognized as being more fluid and not binary. 
  • Through emotional persuasion, leaders get followers to adhere to a particular partisan identity. 
  • Leaders emphasize that by sticking with them, followers can avoid harm.

From the question and answer period:

We’re all aware we’re being influenced and manipulated constantly. What’s your sense of the light and dark side of this? If you were a policymaker, what structures would you put in place to promote a virtuous cycle?

  • A benevolent leader who has the needs of constituents in mind is a really positive possibility. We’ve had the spread of egalitarianism over time. 
  • Because when the leader exploits constituents, the constituents essentially reject that. 
  • Institutions that vet the leader would be key – like conflict-of-interest laws, for example.
  • Also, not relying on a single leader, but rather a group. Nuclear codes, etc., might not be under the authority of just one person.

Regarding a ‘vetting process’ – there were a lot of people, even in the Republican party, who did not want Donald Trump to run or win, for ethical or other reasons. Some have suggested a complete psychiatric exam for all candidates, for example. 

  • We’ve discussed having this kind of exam – but who would do it, and would they be non-partisan? Also, would and should medical information be confidential (for example, if a woman candidate had had an abortion or a male candidate had a testicle removed for medical reasons)? 

Is there any way to stop this kind of emotional manipulation?

  • Why not make Facebook a paid service? That would eliminate a lot of problems (with advertising, etc.) Zuckerberg is consciously not making a choice, and nobody but him benefits. 
  • Social media should be regulated like other media outlets. Why is Facebook exempt from libel laws?
  • Also, fortifying education. This has been the systematic policy of the Republican party. The Republicans have been breaking the backs of unions, and underfunding education for thirty years.

Biden seems to be straddling hope (“this election is about the soul of our country”) and anger. Can you comment?

  • The unifying theme seems to be defeating Trump. Anger might work better with male audiences. Biden’s difficulty with the stutter may get better as he grows more confident in this race, as anxiety worsens stutters.

There seems to have been a rise in individualism over the last five decades, and anger and antagonism go along with these. Are we entering a new phase where we’ve lost civic engagement and community bonding (especially as we’re spending more time online), and now we’re left with more of the antagonistic emotion – or is this just a phase that we’ll pass through?

  • The challenge is that overcoming it is through real social interactions, not mediated by devices. The more friends you have on Facebook, the fewer confidants you have. By eliminating Facebook, you can increase your well-being and social connection.

What should a voter do to stay informed and minimize emotional manipulation?

  • Quit social media. 
  • Find a trusted media resource and follow it regularly.
  • Ask yourself what issues are most important to you, and know where the candidates stand on these issues.

Could you compare and contrast the candidates?

  • All the candidates are old and have had health concerns. None of them is particularly charismatic. Sanders and Trump, in particular, appeal to anger – and that gets exhausting. But it still seems to fire up Trump’s base.

Could a VP choice change the dynamic, by providing charisma or some other key ingredient?

  • I think Biden will choose either Stacey Abrams or Susan Rice. He understands that his election depends on black voters. 93% of black voters showed up for the Alabama Senate race between Jones and Moore, and 98% of them voted for Doug Jones. 

Thanks again to Professor McDermott and the Brown community of the San Francisco area!

© Ravi Chandra, M.D., D.F.A.P.A. 


McDermott, Rose.  Leader’s Emotional Manipulation of Political Identity: An Evolutionary Perspective. (2019). Leadership Quarterly Special Issue on the Evolution and Biology of Leadership (Guest editors: Mark Van Vugt and Chris von Rueden).