Do we want our leaders to be positive and supportive? In a paper published in October in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, UVA associate professor of public policy Eileen Chou, drawing on a series of 11 studies, offers a provocative “no.”

Eileen Chou
Eileen Chou Dan Addison

Contradicting research and Gallup Poll results that suggest that people want the kind of leaders whom Chou terms “cheerleaders,” she argues that in fact “we instinctively empower naysayers”—people who exhibit an “unbridled and vitriolic style of discourse”—because we perceive them to be more powerful. Citing examples from Philippine President Duterte to the acerbic television personality Simon Cowell, Chou provides evidence that the negative, critical style of such naysayers is interpreted as a power-signaling cue.

We see the willingness, and the ability, to flout norms with impunity as evidence of an individual’s independence or greater agency, “untethered from any social constraints or dependence on other people’s resources,” Chou writes. In other words, whether or not the perception is accurate, “people perceive naysayers as powerful by inferring agency to speak their mind.”

In one of Chou’s studies, for example, a group of more than 500 eligible U.S. voters judged a “naysaying” presidential candidate not only more powerful than a “cheerleading” candidate, but predicted that the negative candidate would be more effective in office and expressed willingness to vote for that candidate over the more positive one.