Logan L. Watts, PhD
For years House of Cards was one of my favorite shows. It was one of those shows that I could binge-watch all day on Netflix without experiencing a moment of boredom. It transported me into a world of complex political drama. I loved Kevin Spacey’s powerful portrayal of the character, Frank Underwood. Now I hate Kevin Spacey for ruining the show. If you’re not aware, Kevin Spacey was asked to leave the show in 2017 after news broke about a history of sexual assault (Gonzalez, 2018). But that’s not what I want to write about today. I want to write about stories, and how the stories we consume influence the ways that we think and behave.
For those who are interested in theories of outstanding leadership (Mumford, 2006), the character of Frank Underwood is a classic pragmatic leader with a deeply personalized power orientation. In contrast with socialized leaders who are primarily motivated to achieve goals for the good of the group, personalized leaders are infamous for exploiting others to achieve their personal objectives. If you’re having trouble imagining the difference between socialized and personalized leaders, just think about MLK and Hitler (in that order).
In analyzing why some leaders turn out so bad in the end, prior research by O’Connor et al. (1995) points to two important causal variables: 1) negative life themes and 2) object beliefs.
We all carry around life themes, or deeply held beliefs about how the world operates. These themes color how we interpret and make sense of our world, and leaders are no exception. Life themes stem from people’s tendency to view their existence as an unfolding story. These themes emerge early in life (e.g., in childhood) and give rise to deeply held beliefs about how the world functions and one’s role in it. An example of a negative life theme is holding cynical beliefs about the motives of others. Have you ever known someone who didn’t seem to trust anyone, even their closest friends? They were probably holding onto deeply-rooted, negative life themes. Related to negative life themes, object beliefs refer to the tendency to view other people as objects, pawns, or tools. The writings of Machiavelli present a classic example of object beliefs in action.
In episode after episode of House of Cards, Underwood manipulates those around him for personal gain, thereby demonstrating the negative life themes and object beliefs upon which his character’s identify is forged. Sometimes after watching the show I felt like I needed to wring the negative life themes out of my clothes. And yet I couldn’t resist hitting the “next” button to be transported back into this all-to-real, fictional world. My own behavior made me begin to question, “Why are some stories about personalized leaders so engaging?”
Underwood is a character that people both love and hate. His capacity for manipulating others is truly remarkable, even creative. On the other hand, he’s creepy, controlling, and destructive to nearly everyone around him (including himself). We want to see his ploys succeed, but it’s in the same way that most of us would’ve raced outside to watch Icarus fly toward the sun only so we could say afterward, “Told you so!” Put differently, we don’t mind watching a personalized character hurt those around him in a story as long as we’re confident that, in the end, there will be justice.
This is why we call it “tempting fate” when people behave in a way that violates social norms. When characters violate the social code, we need to see them crash and burn. This ancient plot sequence of cause and effect reinforces the deeply held, and comforting belief that the world is a safe and secure place where the good prosper and the bad are held accountable. In turn, these beliefs in a just world may have a reinforcing effect on our own ethical behavior.
Another example may be observed in the character of Jordan Belfort, played by Leonardo Dicaprio in Wolf of Wall Street. I found it wildly entertaining to watch Belfort’s rise to power even though he cheated lower and middle class families out of millions of dollars. It was entertaining because I intuitively knew the arc of the narrative would swing toward justice. That those who do wrong will be held accountable. This is the narrative underlying most of the stories we consume every day—chaos followed by order (Peterson, 2002). But what happens when chaos is only followed by more chaos? What happens when the house of cards doesn’t fall?
When we’re exposed to stories that violate, or simply fail to affirm the belief that the world is a just place, will our own view of the world become more distorted, resulting in less ethical decisions? Put simply, I don’t know. I want to do this study. However, my colleagues and I recently published the results of an experiment that speak to this line of thinking (Watts et al., 2018). We had undergraduates read short stories about famous, 20th century political leaders. Some participants read only stories about socialized leaders (e.g., MLK) and others read only stories about personalized leaders (e.g., Adolf Hitler). Most importantly for our current discussion, we only included stories that had positive or ambiguous endings for the leaders. Thus, none of the stories ended negatively, even though some leaders clearly engaged in personalized behavior. In other words, participants never witnessed justice coming to personalized leaders. After reading the stories, participants solved four ethical business cases as a measure of ethical decision making.
We found that participants who wrote the most ethical case responses were those who read stories about socialized leaders, and the least ethical case responses were written by those who read stories about personalized leaders. The results were a bit more complex than this, however. Specifically, we found that the pattern just explained emerged most clearly among participants who reported that they found the stories to be engaging. So, reading stories about socialized and personalized leaders only impacts ethical decision making for those who find the stories they read to be engaging. This may seem like an obvious point, but it is important, because some people (including me) are prone to find stories more engaging, in general, than others (Green & Brock, 2000). Thus, some people may be more susceptible than others to being influenced by stories, resulting in a hopefully temporary, but nonetheless distorted response to ethical dilemmas. Does this mean I’m going to pass on watching the final season of House of Cards when it comes out later this year? Hell no. It’s worth the risk.
Green, M. C., & Brock, T. C. (2000). The role of transportation in the persuasiveness of public narratives. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 701-721.
Mumford, M. D. (2006). Pathways to outstanding leadership: A comparative analysis of charismatic, ideological, and pragmatic leaders. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.
O'Connor, J., Mumford, M. D., Clifton, T. C., Gessner, T. L., & Connelly, M. S. (1995). Charismatic leaders and destructiveness: An historiometric study. The Leadership Quarterly, 6, 529-555.
Peterson, J. B. (2002). Maps of meaning: The architecture of belief. Routledge.
Watts, L. L., Ness, A. M., Steele, L. M., & Mumford, M. D. (2018). Learning from stories of leadership: How reading short stories about personalized and socialized politicians impacts performance on an ethical decision-making simulation. The Leadership Quarterly, 29, 276-294.
The Ethics Advantage Team