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Ambitious leaders and policy fairness

Christopher W Larimer, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


Why do people tend to dislike overly ambitious leaders such as Alexander Haig but embrace reticent leaders such as Colin Powell? I build a conceptual framework drawing from anthropology and evolutionary psychology to suggest that people have a strong predisposition against ambitious decision makers. People tend to have a strong aversion to what anthropologists describe as "big-man" behavior. While people want leaders, they want their leaders to be deserving and meritorious. Overly ambitious leaders are perceived as likely to use power for individual gain rather than the public good; leaders who express a strong desire for power are self-serving and not to be trusted. Using this framework, I argue that people will be less likely to view ambitious decision makers as legitimate and therefore less likely to comply with their requests. In this dissertation, I use original laboratory experiments to test whether people have a strong aversion to ambitious decision makers and are willing to balance against such ambition by selecting non-ambitious decision makers. I find that people assume ambitious decision makers are more likely to behave self-interestedly than reluctant decision makers, and that people tend assume unfair outcomes are the result of ambitious decision makers. I also find an important interaction with gender. People tend to assume an ambitious decision maker is male. However, an ambitious decision maker believed to be female is perceived as just as self-interested as an ambitious decision maker believed to be male. Moreover, because an ambitious female acting selfishly runs counter to gender stereotypes regarding cooperative behavior, people tend to be more accommodating of an unfair outcome from an ambitious male compared to an ambitious female. Most research on candidate traits treats vote choice as the dependent variable. I find that ambition affects other factors, notably perceptions of fairness. This is important because adherence to fairness norms affects a willingness to comply with authoritative requests, suggesting that support for governmental decisions rests on perceptions regarding the traits of individual decision makers, specifically their level of ambition. ^

Subject Area

Political Science, General

Recommended Citation

Larimer, Christopher W, "Ambitious leaders and policy fairness" (2006). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3214105.