Leaders Get Ahead by Making Downward Social Comparisons

Topic(s): leadership
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (2012)
Article: Looking Down: The Influence of Contempt and Compassion on Emergent Leadership Categorizations
Authors: S. Melwani, J.S. Mueller, J.R. Overbeck
Reviewed by: Ben Sher

New research (Melwani, Mueller, & Overbeck, 2012) has provided new insight into why certain people are perceived as leaders. Unlike past research, which has focused mainly on personality traits, this study found that certain emotions can be influential as well.


In three separate studies, the researchers found that people who display two types of emotions are more likely to be perceived as leaders. These two emotions are contempt and compassion. Even though contempt seems like a bad emotion and compassion seems like a good one, these two emotions have something in common. Both involve making a downward social comparison. This means that someone who displays these emotions appears to be better off than the target of the emotions. For example, you might show contempt for someone who has failed in some way that you have not. Similarly, you might show compassion for someone when some element of their life is worse than yours.

But even if people who display contempt and compassion look better by comparison, why does this make people view them as leaders? The researchers found that displaying contempt and compassion make people look smarter by comparison. Why has the other person failed at something and you have not? Perhaps it is because you are smarter. Why has something bad happened to the other person and has not happened to you? Perhaps it is because you are smarter. This fits with past research that shows that people who seem to be smart are also identified as leaders.


If you want to gain influence over others, you need to display the right kind of emotions. It does not matter if they are good emotions like compassion or bad emotions like contempt. As long as your emotions make you seem better than the target of your emotions, you have a chance to affect the way people think of you and increase your perceived leadership abilities. As devious as this sounds, this study gives us greater understanding about how leaders emerge. Armed with this knowledge, we are in a better position to select and train leaders who will be successful at earning the respect of followers.


Melwani, S., Mueller, J.S., & Overbeck, J.R. (2012). Looking down: The influence of contempt and compassion on emergent leadership categorizations. Journal of Applied Psychology97(6), 1171-1185.