A study published in Scientific Reports has found that individuals with authoritarian bosses are more likely to agree with fake news, suggesting that leadership styles can influence perceptions of misinformation. Despite variations in demographics and political ideology, the study, which included responses from individuals in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia, uncovered a consistent pattern across these nations, signaling the significant role leaders play in shaping people’s responses to potentially untruthful information.
The study was motivated by the underexplored role of social factors in shaping people’s responses to fake news, focusing on the desire to conform to influential figures in one’s life, like a boss, as a powerful motivator for agreeing with misinformation. The researchers sought to examine the unique contribution of different types of leadership (authoritarian, paternalistic, and autonomous) in shaping individuals’ reactions to fake news while controlling for other leadership dimensions.
“Broadly, we were interested in this topic because leaders or powerholders have the potential to influence the flow of information and change the narrative to be aligned with their interests,” said study author Juan Ospina, a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in experimental psychology at The Ohio State University.
“In other words, followers may end up believing, or at least create the illusion of believing, what their leader shares with them. If the leader is authoritarian, this could potentially create vicious cycles where the leader continues to promote their false beliefs, and followers continue to agree with them, but because most followers wouldn’t want to disagree with their leader, this may create pluralistic ignorance.”
In their study, the researchers collected data from 501 respondents in the UK, US, Australia, and Canada through the online platform Prolific. The survey was launched in June 2022 and included participants with part-time (28.5%) or full-time (71.5%) jobs who were nationals of their respective countries and primarily English speakers. The participants were asked to categorize their immediate superior into one of three leadership prototypes: autonomous, paternalistic, or authoritarian.
An autonomous leader is characterized by a leadership style that values individual autonomy and independence among employees. Such leaders typically encourage employees to take initiative, make decisions, and contribute their ideas to the organization.
A paternalistic leader, on the other hand, tends to take on a more caring and protective role towards their employees. They may show concern for the well-being of their team members, both personally and professionally. While paternalistic leaders do make decisions, they often do so with the best interests of their employees in mind.
An authoritarian leader is characterized by a more controlling and directive leadership style. Such leaders tend to have a strong focus on maintaining authority and control within the organization. They make decisions without much input from employees and expect strict compliance.
The participants were tasked with assessing the accuracy of four fake news headlines. Participants were also asked to consider a hypothetical scenario: imagining that their boss had shared one of these fake news articles on social media. In this scenario, participants were questioned about the extent to which they would expect themselves to openly agree with their boss regarding the content of the fake news headline.
The researchers found a significant relationship between leadership style and the participants’ responses to fake news. Specifically, participants with authoritarian bosses were more likely to agree with fake news compared to those with autonomous leaders. Additionally, participants with paternalistic leaders also showed a higher propensity to agree with fake news compared to those with autonomous leaders, although the effect was not as pronounced as with authoritarian leadership.
The findings provide evidence “that the more control a leader has over their subordinates, the more compliant their subordinates become. In other words, when leaders are more controlling (i.e., authoritarian leaders), people are more likely to comply with their leader and agree with them when asked about fake news articles,” Ospina told PsyPost.
“Conversely, when leaders give more freedom to subordinates (i.e., autonomous leaders), people are less likely to comply with their leader and disagree with them when asked about fake news articles. Thus, if you want people to blindly follow your orders, you should be really controlling. But if you want to hear what people really think, you should give them the space and freedom to voice their own opinions.”
Leadership styles also appeared to influence participants’ perceptions of the accuracy of fake news headlines. Those with authoritarian bosses tended to rate fake news articles as more accurate compared to participants with autonomous leaders. However, the correlation between leadership styles and accuracy perceptions was weaker than the correlation with the willingness to agree with fake news.
Ospina was surprised to see “how stable this effect of agreeing with fake news articles was across different Western Democracies. We launched this study in the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom, and the effect was very similar across these countries.”
Furthermore, the study’s findings remained consistent even after controlling for various factors such as the perceived competence of the leader, transformational leadership, demographics, and political ideology. This suggests that the observed effects of leadership styles on agreement with fake news were robust and not easily explained by other individual differences.
But the study, like all research, includes some caveats.
“Our research is not an experiment but a cross-sectional survey, so we can’t really argue that authoritarian leaders create this compliance effect among their subordinates,” Ospina explained, “but we have evidence that there is a relation between the control of leaders and compliance such that employees with more controlling leaders are more likely to agree with their leaders when asked about a fake news article. Also, this study was conducted in Western Democracies, but we may find different results in different cultures (e.g., Eastern societies, authoritarian regimes, etc.).”
“We have been developing this theory of leadership for the past two years and we will have more findings to share soon,” the researcher added.
The study, “The relation between authoritarian leadership and belief in fake news“, was authored by Juan Ospina, Gábor Orosz, and Steven Spencer.