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Stereotype of dominant male leader takes a hit

ASU study points to preference for knowledgeable leaders over aggressive alpha males


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Photo courtesy iStock/Getty Images

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February 16, 2024

What does a leader look like?

One long-held stereotype is that leaders are alpha males — dominant and forceful. 

But does that assumption mean that people prefer this type of leader?

According to recent research, that’s not the case. 

The study, led by first author and ASU alumnaWiezel completed her PhD in psychology at ASU in 2023. Adi Wiezel and titled “Stereotypes Versus Preferences: Revisiting the Role of Alpha Males in Leadership,” found that most people were strongly opposed to the alpha male leader, instead preferring women and "prestigious" leaders with knowledge and expertise.

The findings were published in this month's issue of Evolution and Human Behavior. 

Despite that preference, Douglas Kenrick, a President's Professor in the Department of Psychology who was part of the research team, says that only one-quarter to one-third of the people in high-powered positions in Congress are women. So why the discrepancy?

Kenrick spoke with ASU News about the study and what it means for those seeking leadership positions.

Editor's note: Responses have been edited for length and clarity. 

Question: What was the purpose of this study?

Answer: The purpose of the study was to delve into something called the alpha male stereotype. It's this idea that people think of leaders as men. And it's an alpha guy. It's a big, dominant, football player kind of guy.

And therefore, because we have that stereotype, when we choose leaders (it's assumed) we prefer leaders who match our stereotype. We wanted to investigate whether or not that's true. 

Q: Whether it was true that people had this stereotype, or that they had this preference?

A: It's good that you made that distinction because that's actually the presumption — that one leads to the other. I have the stereotype and therefore, that leads to a preference. 

But what we found was that one part of that equation is true. We still have the stereotype despite all the advances that have been made in terms of equality in the workforce and so forth. We still have the stereotype in our minds that the classic leader is a male. But what we didn’t have was the preference. And that is what the study uncovered. 

Q: What were your findings? 

A: The research showed that when people looked highly dominant, that produced a negative effect on the participants' willingness to vote for that person. There's a very strong preference against dominance — at least against that alpha male dominance. People don't like it. 

When they looked like a prestigious person, who was knowledgeable — whether they were a man or a woman — people were more likely to vote for them.

And across all of the candidates, the study showed that when it comes to voting, people have a tendency to vote more for women.

Q: There is an alternative to the alpha leader — a prestigious leader. How would you describe that alternative? 

A: Humans have a path to status that doesn't involve grabbing power. It involves having power bequeathed to you. The individual gets this status because they have experience and expertise and the ability to instill trust in the rest of the group, so that the group wants to give them a position of leadership.They are really looked up to by their peers. They're admired and well respected.

Q: Despite the preference for women, they are still underrepresented in leadership positions. Is this because we have made progress, but haven’t come far enough yet? Or is it due, in part, to these stereotypes? 

A: One hypothesis is that we are heading in that direction, and that we will be Sweden in another 10 to 15 years. There is much more equality there — at least at the high levels of leadership.

And that's probably true to some extent.

There is data to suggest that women are as electable as men, but the fact is that there still remains a minority of women in leadership roles. Why is that?

One reason is that women are not being recruited for leadership positions as much as men are. And that may be because people think they are less likely to win — and they are not ready to vote for women in positions of leadership. That's probably the first explanation. 

Still, another reason we continue to have dominant leaders, even though people prefer prestigious leaders, is that dominant people want more power. So lots more of them go up for office. 

Q: What does your research say about what it takes to be a leader moving forward?

A: In general, people prefer leaders who show high levels of expertise and who do not seem to be personally power hungry. 

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