How we really pick our leaders

Written by Simon Lancaster on 24 June 2015 in Opinion
Harriet Harman and Labour should take note: the same leaders we’d have been attracted to 30,000 years ago are the leaders we are attracted to today.

When Harriet Harman launched the Labour Leadership race, she promised to ‘let the public in’.

Well, just a handful of hustings in and already some of the most ardent Labour supporters have walked out.

Seriously: let’s be done with this current race – it’s going nowhere. Let’s start again with a new pool of candidates and a new approach.

I’m proposing a new way of electing leaders, based on the latest communication technologies as well as the latest insights from neuroscience.

Yup. We can do all this via an iPhone App.

It would work a bit like Tinder (either way we get screwed, right?).

So the public start the process off, scanning through photos of all of the party’s 232 MPs, swiping those they don’t like to the left and those they do like to the right. Just like on Tinder.

The most popular MP would then be invited to lead the party. Simples!

I know some political purists will be horrified at the suggestion, saying parties need these opportunities for rational debate. But let’s be honest. There’s nothing even remotely rational going on here.

Everyone is arguing out positions based on instinctive alliances or biases. The only time the rational brain is engaged is to conjure up logical sounding arguments to support the instinctive positions which have already been taken. 

There’s nothing we can do about it. We can’t help it. It’s simply the way the human brain works. Instinct trumps emotion which trumps logic.

It happens in every sphere of our life: personal, professional and political. It’s all about instinct.

This is rarely truer than when it comes to judging people. We all like to claim we’re free from prejudices, but we’re all full of them. It’s a survival mechanism. It keeps us safe.

According to Princeton University, we form opinions of people in just 1/10th of a second. And, once our opinions of people are made, we very rarely revise them.

Our brains have highly sophisticated scanners zooming in and spotting the most subtle signals on in someone’s face to identify whether they are trustworthy or not.

You’ve probably read before about how juries make up their minds about the credibility of a witness before they’ve even opened their mouth. There’s heaps more besides.

Research shows we are more likely to trust people with a narrow face and brown eyes. We are more likely to trust people with a baby face. We are more likely to trust people who look the same as we do.

It’s the blink test. It sounds random but it’s actually brilliant. It’s based on all sorts of clever processing behind the scenes. And it’s normally very reliable. Our instinctive brain is capable of seeing things that our rational mind would never spot.

One piece of research I love involved a group of men who went through a set of photos selecting which women they found most attractive. The men consistently picked the women with the most dilated eyes.

When women are sexually aroused their pupils dilate.  But the men said they didn’t know this. They also said they hadn’t noticed their eyes were dilated.

So what had happened was the instinctive mind had basically done all of the hard work for them, guiding them towards the women who looked - forgive me – most up for it.

It’s the same with leaders. Our instinctive mind can spot a leader who, in survival terms, is strong enough to ensure the continuity of our species in a flash.

We may not like them – that’s irrelevant. We’re looking for people who can protect the tribe.

And the same leaders we’d have been attracted to 30,000 years ago are the leaders we are attracted to today.

And photos do – in a tenth of a second - go a long way towards shaping our judgements.

There was one study where a group of people on one side of the planet were shown photos of candidates in elections on the other side of the planet. With no other knowledge, they were able to predict with 70% accuracy which candidates won those election, based on no nothing more photographs.

A snap decision.

I know this is a radical suggestion. But desperate times call for radical measures. And the trouble is, the more we see and hear of these candidates, the less they seem like leaders. It’s not just the awful clichés -  ‘get out of the Westminster bubble’ or ‘I make no apology for…’ or ‘the status quo is not an option’.

It’s the blinking, blushing and blundering. I’m actually feeling pity for them! I want to wrap them up in a warm blanket and tell them it’s alright.

This is not the way leaders are supposed to make us feel. Leaders are supposed to fill us with meaning, make us feel part of something bigger than ourselves and meet our emotional needs – not the other way around.  

So let’s start again. Let’s have less sniping, more swiping. It would be cheap, easy and it would all be over quicker than you can say Dan Jarvis.





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