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There’s a tendency to assume that we want our leaders to be encouraging, magnanimous, and optimistic. But in the last decade, across borders and sectors, we’ve been seeing an increasing number of leaders better known for a style that is more vitriolic, punitive, and negative. This disconnect led me to wonder how positive or negative rhetoric affects our perception of someone’s leadership. My subsequent research shows that although we may think we want our leaders to be cheerleaders, we instinctively tend to empower naysayers instead.
As prior research has shown, we humans create social hierarchies to preserve order and form rich expectations of how the powerful will behave. We have evolved to be sensitive to the behavioral cues that signal these power dynamics. For instance, we often associate a person’s physical height with power, which leads us to attribute more power and status to tall people. These kinds of associations may be particularly influential when we’re just getting to know the person and initially sussing out our relative places on the social hierarchy.
My own research focuses on whether people interpret naysaying — the act of negating, refuting, or criticizing (without explicit intention to hurt a particular target) — as a similar kind of power-signaling cue.
The eleven controlled experiments I conducted to explore this question suggest that a causal link between naysaying and perceptions of power does exist. In one study I asked 518 eligible U.S. voters to read four pairs of statements made by U.S. presidential candidates during nationally televised debates between 1980 and 2008. They were not told the candidates’ names or when each debate took place. Each pair included one statement that was positive and supportive in regard to America’s future (for example, George H.W. Bush in 1988: “…And I ask for your support. Working together, we can do wonderful things for the United States and the Free World”), and a second that was critical and negative (for example, John B. Anderson in 1980: “…It’s been a time, therefore, of illusion and false hopes, and the longer it continues, the more dangerous it becomes.”). Based on just these quotes, they then rated how powerful each candidate seemed, their relative effectiveness as president, and for whom they would have voted between each pair.
Not only did the study participants deem the naysaying presidential candidates to be more powerful, they also predicted those candidates to be more effective while in office. They also revealed that they were more willing to vote for the naysaying candidate over the cheerleading one.
This effect is not isolated to the political arena. In subsequent studies, across seven other contexts such as art reviews and opinions on social issues, participants consistently associated naysaying with power. And though they perceived naysayers as less likeable and no more competent than cheerleaders or leaders who made more neutral statements, the participants nevertheless endorsed them as leaders of all the entities I asked them about — from an online discussion group to the United States. This was true even if the participants were told that they themselves would be subjected to the naysayer’s leadership.
So why do people empower and endorse naysayers? I suspect that the cause is rooted in human psychology. In actively criticizing, negating, or refuting another person or entity, naysayers could be perceived as acting independently, according to their own agency — a key determinant of power. This, in turn, fuels the perception of naysayers’ power as being untethered from any social constraints or other people’s resources, making them seem all the more powerful. Indeed, data from four of our studies support the role of agency as one underlying cause of this effect.
I also wondered whether acting as a naysayer makes someone feel more powerful. To find out, I conducted a series of experiments in which people took on the roles of a naysayer, cheerleader, or neutral party across a number of domains. The results revealed that indeed, naysayers felt more powerful than the other two groups — even though the act of naysaying did not fuel their sense of competence in the subject they were critiquing.
This connection between naysaying and power might make it appealing for ambitious leaders to embrace more critical rhetoric. But there are reasons for caution. First, our perception of a leader’s power evolves over…