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How Do People Pick Their Political Leaders?

Updated on October 16, 2012

Picking a Leader


Do we really pick our political leaders out of free will?

Evolution is a major influence in why we pick particular leaders. There are many characteristics we look for in a person, but the conscious efforts we think we are using, may in fact be hard wired and done on a more unconscious level than we may be aware of. Do we really pick our political leaders out of free will?

Most of us would like to think that we elect people based on merely their issues, and that there are no biases involved. We would like to think that we make purely rational decisions.We want to believe that we weigh the pertinent information, and come to a conclusion based on informed and intellectual choices.

In reality, we are very subjective, not objective as we arrive at our final decision. Other factors motivate us to make certain choices. One of the most influential factors that has been studied greatly is the height of each candidate. In looking at most of the presidential races over the last century, it overwhelmingly shows, that the taller candidate usually wins.

Many of our choices are done on a somewhat unconscious level. Factors that influence who we choose:

  • Facial features and jaw line.
  • Voice
  • Personal Charisma and aura
  • Smiles
  • Height

People see what they want to see and politicians want to “appear” the way we want them to appear.

Politics creates individuals who spew policy issues, and while the issues are hotly debated and do play a certain role in our choices, people also vote for the candidates who appear presidential looking and sounding.

What We Look For in a Leader

We can’t help our thinking. Much of our decisions are connected to our evolutionary past. We have always looked for leaders who will protect us against threats. Characteristics like age, how tall someone is, gender, weight, and masculine and feminine traits affect what we are looking for in a leader. Many factors we look for in a leader today, are vestiges from our ancient past, when we faced threats to our community.

A professor from the University of Oxford, named Mark van Vugt, has written much on this topic. He believes that people are dependent on their leaders to help us function well politically, militarily, economically, religiously and in other societal norms Yet, it appears that we have a considerable amount of failure on many of these issues among the leaders we choose. In one study he had done, he found that 75% of business failings were due to the incompetence of the business leaders.

Dr. Andrew King, who also authored many writings on this subject said that evolution has formed principles that make us leaders and followers. This has developed over millions of years. Our evolutionary thinking creates a mismatch between what we needed ages ago, and what we need now.

Dr. Dominic Johnson believes the idea of cooperation in social and natural sciences has not been studied enough. He believes that as we study the origins of our thinking, and the aspects that we share with other animals will help us better understand why we pick the leaders we do, and perhaps even how to improve our decision making.

People want to pick someone that they feel comfortable with on some level. Many politicians want to present themselves as though they can connect to the average voter and are in fact much like them. Many politicians try to gain votes by appealing to our emotions. While ideology does matter somewhat, the tipping point never comes from their ideas, but their ability to relate. Many politicians try to claim that they are just like the normal everyday citizen. The ability to relate factor is often very heavy when people make choices about who their leaders are. But this likability factor is often not the best way to vote someone into office.
What traits do leaders really need?

  • vision
  • passion
  • be a good decision maker
  • be a team player
  • have character

Why Do We Pick Certain Leaders

The Leaders of the World
The Leaders of the World | Source

Assessing a Leader

A true leader will engage his constituents, to motivate people to do more than they would, because they have a leader. Leaders need to be good communicators, so they can express their vision to everyone. To motivate the masses, so that we understand where and why we are going down a certain path. A leader with vision will be able to clearly express what they see, so that we all see it. They will be able to paint a picture that we can take and make it our own. Words have power, and their vision, if communicated to us, will empower us in ways that we will make us want to help them accomplish it for them and for ourselves.

When a leader has passion, it is apparent. A leader who believes in what he sees and lives and dies by will spread their passion to the rest of us. We will feel their excitement, and become inspired by their leadership. Their desire to move mountains and take on challenges will become ours too. Passion is infectious, and if they can motivate us, we all play a part in the solution and direction our leaders take us in. Passion is integral to being a great leader.

We follow, when led. But we want to be led by people who are good and even great decision makers. We need to know that the processes by which those put into power, are logical, rational, and are for the greater benefit of the majority of people. Unfortunately, the business of politics, the things money buys, and the power behind the leadership make more of the decisions that benefit them, rather than us.

People look for leaders who appear to have character. The strengths and traits we see in the personality of political leaders plays a part in how we assess their leadership skills.

Charles Darwin

The Theory of Evolution explains why we pick leaders.
The Theory of Evolution explains why we pick leaders. | Source

Charles Darwin, Evolution, and Leadership

Many traits we have today, come from our evolutionary past, that ensured our survival in times when we could only rely on our personal resources. The ability to lead, according to Charles Darwin, who postulated the Theory of Evolution, leaders are shaped by the processes and influences of natural selection. Leaders need to foster cooperation and coordination between everyone in pursuit of the common vision.

According to Charles Darwin and The Theory of Evolution, and the study or behavioral psychology, the choices we make to pick our leaders are based in our psychological adaptations that evolved from the need to cooperate among individuals. When we make choices about who to follow, who we want to lead, there are psychological, physiological, and neurological processes involved. What all this may mean, is that the human mind has evolved in a way that adapted to make choices not just on a logical and reason based decision, but that the same survival mechanisms that were at play with our ancestors, are at play today. The difference between then and now is, these processes helped ensure our survival then, but don’t necessarily apply now.

We just can’t help ourselves because we are pre-wired to look for certain traits in our leaders. Within us all, we have psychological programming that helps us find leaders, mates, heat, food, shelter, getting along with others, etc. We look to follow people we trust. Psychologically we look for these clues. Physiologically, we want someone to meet these expectations, perhaps they look tall and strong. Neurologically, there are regions in our brains that are attracted to these traits. The problem with evolution for example, is that, the physical attributes we needed in cave man times may not be needed today. Our choices become maladaptive to the current situation. The functions that served us long ago, are not as useful now, yet we still, unconsciously somewhat use them. We are not necessarily skilled at picking good leaders or recognizing what makes good leadership. Additionally, what makes a leader emerge has its evolutionary roots too. It is believed that testosterone has a relationship to their effectiveness as a leader. This also poses the question - are leaders born or made? Is there such a thing as a gene for leadership? Is leadership learned? Do leaders lead differently based on their age, experience? What other factors impact the way someone leads?

While we are social animals, living as a community, as a group poses certain problems. As individuals we need to learn to coordinate and cooperate with others. We need to co-exist in large group that has many complexities and selection pressures. There are many benefits to living in large groups, united we have protection, food, sharing of information, shared parenting, support, and companionship.There are many adaptations that man has to make to get these benefits, they need to learn a common language, share religious and moral beliefs, a culture and a shared purpose. The leader must exemplify the needs of the group. In the dawn of man, we were a nomadic people. Most leaders had to use their skills to lead the group, to find the easiest and safest path, search for resources, and look out for the benefit of the masses. Leaders needed to keep peace among the group. In 1996, researchers were studying some apes. A quarrel started between two females. Other apes joined the fight, and there were many apes rolling around, screaming, and biting as the fight escalated. The alpha male started to hit each ape until the fight broke up. He did not choose a particular side like all the other apes did, he just acted in a way to stop the argument. What makes this ape different? Is it his thinking, is it some self knowledge about being the leader? Is he the leader because he does think differently?

We Need Diversity in Leadership for Different Situations

Anthropologists believe that leaders may play a role in helping the group to act as a unit. And the followers often look to a leader to protect against aggressors, to keep peace among the members, and coordinate and solve problems within the group.

Groups that have more harmony will thrive much better than groups that have dissension among themselves. In a 2008 study done by Van Vugt and Spisak, they found that people look for leaders who have a more masculine face during war times. They look for a more feminine face during peacetime. Other traits such as a leader having vision, integrity, trustworthiness,, and even age. Many studies have shown that these decisions are based on our evolutionary thinking.

There are also different types of leaders that are needed based on certain circumstances. In groups that share information, democratic leadership works better than a leader who is dictatorial. One experiment showed that leaders had higher levels of testosterone than followers did. Brain imaging scans showed that emotions play a role in choosing whether someone will follow a leader or not.

Data from the past has shown that dictators, emperors, and tyrants were more successful at reproducing than democratic leaders were. Leaders need to be just. Perusse did a study in 1993, which showed that higher level executives in today’s Western society have more sexual interactions than men who are lower level company employees.

In an experiment done with capuchin monkeys, the primates responded unfavorable to leaders who acted unfairly. In looking at traditional societies of hunter/gatherers, the group of followers keep their leaders in check by exacting revenge against the leader through things like exclusion, ridicule, gossip , and assassination.

Whatever is the reason we pick our leaders, the overriding factor that followers, among all animals, look for is the benefit of coordination. We need different leaders for different situations. When the group has more conflict among the members, a leader who is more dominant, authoritative, an aggressive is needed more than someone who does not possess these personality traits.

Charismatic leaders use clever language to make their followers feel that they are better off, whether or not they really are. Many charismatic people have a mixture of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathology that help them manipulate the group. They make the unit feel as though they have their best interest at heart. Machiavellian leaders look to control events, through calculating and often ruthless means and without shame or guilt. They depict themselves as being great, bold, and strong, while getting their followers to do things in a self sacrificing nature. We look for a leader with these qualities, and willingly help them to achieve what they have told us we want to hear. In reality, the leader has their own self interests in mind.

What helps us decide who to pick as a leader is dependent on many variables. In looking at animals, we can see what they do, and compare some of our behavior. Baboons and elephants move in groups led by the elder member of the group. It is believed this is so because the older members have unique knowledge they are able to offer the group. We humans, may use age a guide of who we may choose.

When the group has activities that require stamina and strength, they look for a leader who is physically fit, have higher energy levels, and are in good health. In modern times, current voting statistics show that we look for a political leader who is physically fit, and taller. In ancient times, those who were taller may have intimidated the enemy, or gave the impression of being more powerful. . Natural selection would play a part in who we looked at as having the potential to be a good leader.

During times of war, U.S. voters have chosen presidents who seem more charismatic.

We Are Only Human After All

Our mind is influenced by evolution and the survival mechanisms that helped us endure through time. Many of these influences served us well during ancient times. But today, we don’t need some of these unconscious and perhaps maladaptive thought processes. The leaders we choose may not give us what we need because we are making choices based on erroneous information that is hard wired within us.

We can’t help ourselves, evolution is a powerful force, and is greater than any intellectual process we try to battle it with. Flawed thinking may allow us to choose flawed candidates. We may be helpless in our decision. We do the best we can, we are only human after all.


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    • toknowinfo profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago

      Hi Glass, Thanks so much for your liking my hub. I am glad I gave you something to think about. Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting.

    • glassvisage profile image


      6 years ago from Northern California

      Wow, what great information and analysis! This is very interesting and gave me something to think about as far as how I vote, etc. This has a lot of information - I like the way you broke up this Hub with the headers and photos.

    • toknowinfo profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago

      Thanks for the congrats. I didn't think I would care how many followers I had, but when I saw the number, it feels exciting. As far as the banana and lemon candidates, I think they are both interchangeable. You will just have to use your evolutionary instinct to choose. Think, what would Darwin do? And then we all hold our breath until the next presidential election.

    • kashmir56 profile image

      Thomas Silvia 

      6 years ago from Massachusetts

      OK but what do i do till then ??? Just want to say Big congrats to you for having 1000 followers, awesome !

      Have a awesome weekend my friend !

    • toknowinfo profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago

      Hi Tom, I will never say which one is the banana and which one is the lemon. When we get a politician that is a real peach, then I will tell you.

    • kashmir56 profile image

      Thomas Silvia 

      6 years ago from Massachusetts

      Hi my friend, great informative hub and very interesting, but very sad to.But does not surprise me at all, but in your comments to Bill you say that if we only have a choice between a banana and a lemon what choices do we really have ? Now what i want to know is which guy is the banana and which is the lemon so I'll know which one to vote for ???

      Vote up and more !!! SHARING !

    • toknowinfo profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago

      Hi Bill, Far be it from me to be discouraging to you! It may not be so much our fault of who we pick, but who chooses to rise up and lead us. If we followers only have a choice between a banana and a lemon, what choices do we really have? As far as the debates go... Hofstra University is 8 miles from where I live. My two older daughters attend Hofstra. My youngest daughter is applying to Hofstra as I write this. Hofstra is my Alma Mater and for my older daughter, she was at Hofstra for the first debate too. So we are so psyched up, and elated to be part of something that is so big! It is a wonderful experience for all these college kids.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      6 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Well that was discouraging! lol We can't help who we elect? Sigh! Makes the big debate tonight rather senseless, doesn't it?

      This was actually very interesting, and something I had never thought of. The scary thing to me is it makes sense. That might explain why the United States has had so many bad Presidents.

      Great job my friend; hey, you only need one more follower for 1000. I'll just say congratulations now since it will be happening soon. :)


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