Prestige

The Appeal of the Primal Leader: Human Evolution and Donald J. Trump

Almost 63 million Americans voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Trump’s victory defied experts’ predictions, and shocked the world.

How could a man widely dismissed as a joke, a conspiracy theorist and an impulsive narcissist with no political experience whatsoever, capture the world’s most powerful political position?

Not only did Trump perform dismally in the presidential debates and routinely spread blatant falsehoods throughout his campaign. He also branded Mexican immigrants as rapists, where footage of him boasting about sexually assaulting women subsequently emerged. Trump mocked war heroes and the disabled, dismissed climate change as a hoax created by the Chinese, and launched personal attacks on members of his own political party.

Many explanations have been presented since the election of President Trump. For example, many point out that Hilary Clinton in fact won the popular vote, and that procedural issues were a contributing factor. The FBI investigation into Clinton’s email usage is also listed as one of the main reasons. Others either highlight the inadequacies of Hilary Clinton’s campaign, or emphasise the sexism Clinton faced as a presidential candidate.

There is some validity to all these points, and they were likely contributing factors. However, these are proximate explanations for why Donald Trump won the election, rather than the ultimate explanation. After all, these factors can’t explain why Trump received the Republican nomination, and managed to secure millions of votes.

A new paper written by psychologist Dan P. McAdams sheds light on the matter.

Inside the Mind of Trump

Dan P. McAdams is a world leading figure on personality, who has helped reconcile various different strands of personality psychology. His three layered model of personality featured prominently in Jonathan Haidt’s book The Happiness Hypothesis

Prior to the 2016 U.S. Election, McAdams wrote an in-depth article for the Atlantic Magazine titled The Mind of Donald Trump. In this piece, McAdams produced an impartial investigation of Donald Trump’s extraordinary personality, and outlined how his personality may shape his possible presidency. (I recall sharing this article on Facebook when it was still deemed unthinkable for Donald Trump to win the election).

McAdams is back, with a publication in the new journal Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture.

Primal Dominance

As opposed to investigating Donald Trump’s personality, McAdams’ new essay provides an overview of leadership and followship psychology through the lens of evolution. Essentially, McAdams argues that Trump’s appeal to millions of voters was his uncanny ability to channel what is termed ‘primal dominance’. “Like the alpha male of a chimpanzee colony, Trump leads (and inspires) through intimidation, bluster, and threat, and through the establishment of short-term, opportunistic relationships with other high-status agents.”

In this light, Trump’s aggressive leadership style is nothing new. Rather, Trump channels the psychology of dominance that traces back millions of years in human evolution, to our primate heritage. The human and chimpanzee lineages split off from their common ancestor approximately 5 to 7 million years ago. According to McAdams, both primate species took with them a proclivity for social hierarchy, and the corresponding psychology of dominance.

To highlight the similarities between the species, McAdams cites the work of primatologist Frans de Waal, who illustrated the aggressive strategies chimpanzees use to secure leadership positions. As stated by McAdams; “The top chimp achieves his standing through aggression, intimidation, and threat. Prerequisites for the top post often include being large and being strong, though smaller dominant chimps can compensate through powerful vocal displays and other intimidating tactics.”

Frans de Waal wrote a book called Chimpanzee Politics back in 1982, which offered the first overview of the lives and social strategies of primates, and provided a mirror reflection of human nature. Apparently politicians such as Newt Gringrich flocked to the book upon its release. However, in many ways Chimpanzee Politics appears more relevant today. As stated by McAdams:

When the first edition of Chimpanzee Politics appeared in 1982, readers were struck by how much chimps turn out to be like humans. But the case of Donald Trump shows how much humans turn out to be like chimps.

However, the story of leadership strategies is a bit more complicated when it comes to us homo-sapiens. We humans are a cultural species, and rely heavily on cultural know-how for our survival and reproduction. We humans have crossed what has been called the ‘Rubicon of cumulative cultural evolution’ by evolutionary biologist Joe Henrich—kicking off an evolutionary process of innovation and knowledge transfer which has shaped our biology, and is now the driving force of human evolution itself.

The Psychology of Prestige

With the emergence of cultural evolution, a new way of attaining status emerged—a form of leadership referred to as prestige. This form of leadership does not rely on brute force and intimidation, but rather on the socially valued skills and expertise. As a cultural species, we grant high status to those who advance cultural learning within our communities—covering domains such a hunting, healthcare, cooking, caregiving, and the arts of defence.

At first glance, one could consider Trump as a prestigious leader. Not only is Trump a prominent businessman, Trump was originally considered a thought leader in business. McAdams highlights that Trump was made famous for his 1987 book The Art of the Deal, which burst in onto the world stage as an expert. If one new nothing else about the Donald, they may assume that Trump used the psychology of prestige to attain his position. However, McAdams states that a casual reading of The Art of the Deal reveals why this is evidently not the case.

But, of course, nothing could be further from the truth, as even Trump’s most ardent admirers would acknowledge. Even a casual reading of The Art of the Deal reveals that the cultural knowledge Donald Trump aims to transmit is not so much a specialized portfolio formulated to address a specific problem in culture but rather a more general set of strategies aimed at achieving social dominance—dominance in virtually any context in which “deals” are to be made, from real estate to politics to interpersonal relationships.

Which brings us to one of the main arguments presented by McAdams. Prestige psychology is a junior rival to primal dominance, and does not necessarily hold an advantage as a leadership strategy. Rather, dominance is in many ways a more successful  leadership strategy than prestige, but comes at great cost to the collective. What is novel is the remarkable extent to which Trump has used dominance as a leadership strategy to secure the presidency. As stated by McAdams:

If President Obama tried to steer the ship of state slightly toward prestige psychology, Donald Trump has swerved violently in the opposite direction, creating a political and psychological whiplash. No U.S. president in recent memory, and perhaps none ever, has tapped so effectively into the primal psychology of dominance.

What is largely omitted from McAdams’ essay is the environmental factors which may have facilitated the rise of Trump. For example, recent research from London Business School suggests a preference for dominant leaders increases during times of uncertainty (primarily economic insecurity, and threats of terrorism and war).

In this respect, one can speculate that the uncertainty caused by a chaotic presidency may actually increase desire for an authoritarian leader, rather than attenuate it. Perhaps this would be another type of ‘political and psychological whiplash’.


Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business

To download the full paper, click here.

References

McAdams, D.P (2017) The Appeal of the Primal Leader: Human Evolution and Donald J. Trump, Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture, 1(2). Available here.

Henrich, J. (2016) The Secret of Our Success: How culture is driving human evolution, domesticating our species, and making us smarter. Princeton University Press

Kakkar, H., & Sivanathan, N. (2017). When the appeal of a dominant leader is greater than a prestige leader. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 201617711.

Tracy, J. (2016) Take Pride: Why the deadliest of sins holds the secret to successHoughton Mifflin Harcourt

Image credit: DonkeyHotey