A persistent mystery discussed in this presidential campaign has been double standards. In other words, while Donald Trump seems to have a “get out of jail free” card, Hillary Clinton can’t seem to “pass go.”
A case in point is the news last week that the FBI is looking at more emails potentially tied to Clinton. Without knowing anything about their contents – whether they show wrongdoing or not – the pundit reaction was swift and negative, and polls suggested it may have shifted some voters into the Trump column. At the same time, a trail of women accusing Trump of sexual assault and a rape trial failed to generate as much outrage (considering the significance of the alleged wrongdoing).
The possibility of different standards for how voters assess the perceived failings of Trump and Clinton is discussed frequently. New research suggests one reason may be that we actually do hold people we perceive as leaders up to a higher standard – and more importantly, we more easily forgive those we don’t see that way.
The question of how people form moral judgments about corporate executives and other types of spokespeople is important because it reflects on their “brand” or organization.
Companies use celebrities and athletes to “speak” for their products because people develop attachments to such “human brands.” And these positive feelings bleed into the company’s brand as well.
But while hitching one’s brand to a popular celebrity or athlete may make it more relatable and potentially more valuable, there’s a flip side: the more human a brand becomes – and the more influential the spokesperson – the more vulnerable it is to moral judgments, such as when the endorser is caught in wrongdoing and his or her sponsors run for the hills. Think Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong or Ryan Lochte.
Leadership and influence
Most research in this field suggests people in their role as spokespersons for brands or companies are typically judged in terms of attractiveness, trustworthiness and expertise.
That is, we’re more likely to buy what they’re selling (whether a product or an idea) if they are physically appealing, appear trustworthy and/or seem to be an expert in the field.
We wondered whether a fourth criterion should be added: leadership. In other words, we were interested in learning if the perceived leadership qualities of spokespeople influence how people respond to the products, brands or ideas they represent.
For example, when we think of leaders in technology, like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, we think of them almost as synonymous with their companies, Tesla and Amazon, respectively.
That is, how we view corporate executives as leaders is strongly connected to how we feel about their brands – for good or ill. They are CEOs but they are also spokespeople, and their ethical failings can end up destroying their companies.
While most of our research is focused on celebrity spokespeople and how their actions influence the fate of their brands, we thought some of the same insights might apply in the political realm as well. Specifically, how does our perception of them as leaders affect their “personal” brand and how we judge them after a moral lapse?
Leaders get all the blame
To answer that question, we conducted a study in May (just as the presidential nomination battles were winding down) involving 209 college students. We randomly assigned each participant one of five U.S. political figures to evaluate on five criteria: the three typical influential traits of spokespeople (trustworthiness, attractiveness and expertise) as well leadership and their general favorability toward them.
The five figures were President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Participants scored their assigned politician by responding to a series of survey questions for each trait, using a scale of 1 to 7 to measure them on several opposing word pairs related to the category. For example, under trustworthiness, they were asked if the politician was honest or dishonest, whereby 1 was the least honest and 7 was the most.
All of the scores were then tallied to generate an overall measure of each trait.
We then asked each participant to answer three general questions, using a similar 1-7 scale, from strongly disagree to strongly agree:
If this person did something wrong, I would be very disappointed.
I would blame this person if he or she did something wrong.
I would forgive this person if he or she apologized for a wrongdoing.
The results showed that a politician’s score in terms of perceived leadership significantly predicted how people judged them later. That is, a high score in terms of leadership was associated with more blame, more disappointment and less forgiveness (even after an apology). A lower score, on the other hand, correlated to less blame and disappointment and a greater capacity to forgive.
As one might expect, participants who indicated a positive attitude toward the politician were less likely to blame him or her for a wrongful act and more likely to forgive – in other words, they were more likely to give them a break. But despite this, the general link between perceptions of leadership and subsequent moral judgments was very strong.
For example, Obama and Clinton received two of the highest scores in terms of leadership, while Trump was lowest among the five. Yet participants – even those who had a positive attitude toward a politician – if they were viewed as leaders – indicated they would be much less likely to forgive them if they did something wrong.
Interestingly, attractiveness, expertise and trust were not predictors of blaming and forgiveness – that is, they weren’t statistically significant.
The key finding, however, is not each politician’s various scores but that our views of them as a leader greatly influence our tolerance of subsequent bad behavior. In short, the more the person is perceived as being a leader, the more they will be blamed and the less they will be forgiven if suspected of wrongdoing.
Setting a standard
What does this all mean?
Being perceived as a leader comes with a cost: People will hold you to a higher standard, as we intuitively feel should be the case. But on the flip side, our research suggests those whom we don’t see as leaders aren’t judged by the same standard.
The takeaway isn’t that we should lower the standard for our leaders, but perhaps we should raise it for those who want to be among them.