'If men were angels, no government would be necessary': The intuitive theory of social motivation and preference for authoritarian leaders

Daniel Nettle*, Rebecca Saxe

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Citations (Scopus)


We postulate that at least two distinct cognitive systems affect political judgements. The first system, moral cognition, delivers intuitions about what societal outcomes would be ideal. The second system, which we dub the intuitive theory of social motivation, makes predictions about how other citizens will behave in practice, and hence feeds into opinions on how their conduct should be regulated. Both systems are situation sensitive. We illustrate this thesis through a study of intuitions about redistribution and governance. We present four experiments in which 750 U.K. adults prescribed ideal levels of redistribution for hypothetical societies under different circumstances, and predicted what level of redistribution those societies would actually be able to achieve. Participants judged that the level of redistribution societies would achieve was lower than the ideal. The gulf was particularly large for societies facing war or scarcity, because a subset of people was predicted to respond selfishly to these threats. Strong, authoritarian leaders were seen as more desirable in these circumstances. Specifically, this was because citizens facing these threats were predicted to become less amenable to rational persuasion and their inherent moral sense, and more amenable to control through harsh punishment, which is what strong leaders can deliver. We complement our experimental results with an analysis of World Values Survey data from 52 countries, showing that authoritarian governance preferences are positively associated with the perceived threat of war, and negatively associated with per capita GDP, a proxy for the abundance of resources.

Original languageEnglish
Article number28105
Pages (from-to)1-22
Number of pages22
JournalCollabra: Psychology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 22 Sept 2021
Externally publishedYes

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