For American voters and the rest of the world, the final weeks of the U.S presidential election campaign have become a spectacle to behold – or perhaps to turn away from.
For Jessica Tracy, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, it’s a research opportunity like no other.
Dr. Tracy’s work includes the study of status hierarchies – the way human societies decide who gets to be in charge. In 2012, she and her colleagues found evidence that there are two avenues that would-be leaders can take to achieve status, one based on respect and one based on intimidation. But never in her wildest dreams did she expect to see those divergent pathways manifest so vividly in the head-to-head contest now playing out between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
In one current project, Dr. Tracy aims to put the candidates under the microscope by examining how their gestures and other non-verbal displays match up with their distinct approaches to voters.
“Here’s a situation where there are two people explicitly trying to attain power by using exactly these two different strategies,” she observes. “That’s extremely rare in American politics.”
In prior work, Dr. Tracy’s team at UBC conducted experiments in which small groups of individuals were asked to perform a collective task. The goal was to see who emerged as influencers and achieved social rank within each group.
The results suggest that sometimes status is granted to those who – consciously or unconsciously – achieve respect by demonstrating their know-how and experience. Social psychologists have dubbed this the “prestige” route. At other times, those who rose to the top did so using the “dominance” route, prevailing through aggression and fear.
In such cases, study participants later said they did not necessarily feel they were being physically threatened , but rather that the situation would get uncomfortable if the dominant personality did not get his or her way.
“The fear is part of it,” said Dr. Tracy, whose recent book Take Pride includes an exploration of the competing strategies. “It’s easier to give in than fight.”
She notes that the parallels with this year’s presidential campaign are striking.
Like most mainstream politicians, Ms. Clinton, the Democratic nominee, appears to be working the prestige path by putting forward her credentials and trying to project competence and reassurance. In contrast, her Republican rival, Mr. Trump, has been bellicose and provocative. To many, his looming presence behind Ms. Clinton as she spoke to audience members during the second presidential debate appeared to offer a textbook display of dominance.
Both approaches have their origins in human evolution, according to Joe Henrich, an economist and anthropologist at Harvard University and senior fellow with the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.
Dominance is essentially the only way to the top for non-human primates such as chimpanzees. In 2001, Dr. Henrich and co-author Francisco Gil-White argued that prestige arose as a viable alternative among humans because of the importance of culturally transmitted information, which makes it advantageous to emulate and follow those who appear to have superior knowledge and experience.
In the UBC experiments, the individuals who achieved social rank through dominance were rated as less likeable than those who took the prestige route, but both strategies were shown to be about equally successful.
This could help explain why Mr. Trump was able to dispatch a slew of more experienced candidates to claim his party’s nomination and why he has continued to poll well with a large swath of the U.S. electorate.
Gavin Kilduff, who specialized in management and organizations at New York University, said there could be another effect at work. A 2009 study of which he was the co-author proposes that dominant individuals may achieve their status because they tend to appear competent even when they are not.
“The form of dominance we were looking at is more about confidence and assertiveness,” he said. “You can intimidate your way to the top in a small group, but I’m not sure how relevant that is to explaining the popularity of a public figure.”
Dr. Tracy suggested that Mr. Trump’s followers are motivated by the belief that he will intimidate those they don’t like. This echoes the findings of University of Manitoba psychologist Robert Altemeyer, among others, that show people tend to favour authoritarian leaders when feeling threatened.
Gender could also be playing a role in how the candidates are perceived. For example, in a 2008 study, Dutch evolutionary psychologist Mark van Vugt found that people tend to gravitate toward male leaders when perceiving competition from other groups and female leaders when facing competition within their own group.
Whatever effect proves most relevant, this year’s election seems destined for the social psychology textbooks because of the impact of Mr. Trump’s unconventional campaign, said Douglas Kenrick, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University. “It’s certainly the closest an American candidate for president has ever come to playing the authoritarian card,” he said.
Dr. Tracy, who is a U.S. citizen, said she takes issue with those who lump Ms. Clinton and Mr. Trump together when decrying the tone of the race. “I find that shocking. There’s a huge difference,” she said.
Exactly how huge is what her data may soon reveal.