Why We Follow the Wrong People
By Kevin A. Thompson
Why do we follow the wrong people?
Why does our viewpoint get pushed aside as our boss follows someone who is obviously wrong?
Why are we tempted to vote for people who can’t do the job they are elected to do?
Why does a negative person have such sway on an office, church, or community?
There are two reasons:
1. We are prone to believe those who portray certainty.
2. We are tempted to fake certainty when we are unsure.
The intersection of the two is disastrous. (See: Why Others Don’t Trust You)
Humanity has a history of following the wrong people. From the deceptive sales person to the slick politician, we are easily fooled. While we desperately need good leadership, we are horrific at identifying quality leaders. Our struggle is primarily due to these two human tendencies.
We are drawn toward certainty because we are uncomfortable with ambiguity. We don’t like mystery. We want a black and white world with a clear distinction between good and evil, right and wrong, success and failure. But that is not the world in which we live. Sometimes life is grey.
Because of our desire for clarity, we are tempted to believe others when they portray certainty. Despite our knowledge that total clarity rarely exists, we ignore what we know and follow what we feel to be right. The mirage of certainty makes us feel secure so we seek it even when we know it does not exist.
The same uncomfortableness with mystery causes us to fake assuredness even when we don’t feel it. Ironically, the more uncertain we are, the more we are tempted to show conviction. One of the greatest signs of doubt is the overblown appearance of confidence. The more dogmatic we are, the more doubt we likely possess. We feign certainty in order to cover our doubt. (See: Why Your Co-Worker Screams His Beliefs)
Either of these tendencies are harmful, but the combination of them is disastrous.
The well-intended woman falls for the wrong guy because he appears to have it all together.
The faithful are milked for millions because the televangelist claims to know the secret to success.
The electorate is led astray by the smooth politician because he promises to bring change instead of the status quo.
When combined, these two human tendencies are tragic. They make us more likely to follow disingenuous people who cannot lead us in the best way.
So how do we prevent it?
1. Be quick to admit your own uncertainty. We must embrace the mysteries of life. While we desire clarity, we live in a world full of doubt. That is okay.
2. Be skeptical of someone who is over-confident. While it is acceptable to have an opinion, it is questionable to be certain that opinion is the only way. Over-blown confidence is more often a sign of doubt than a sign of being right. Always assume someone who is overly confident is trying to convince themselves and you that they are right.
3. Never trust someone who doesn’t show some doubt. If a person thinks it’s impossible for them to be wrong, they are likely wrong. One of the prerequisites for having a right opinion is fully understanding the issue. Those who are certain on a topic probably haven’t fully evaluated the situation. This doesn’t mean we can’t have opinions, we can and should. It does mean our frailty, the complexity of life, and our humility should prevent us from being certain about many things.
It’s an odd intersection–our longing for certainty and our tendency to fake it. While we should recognize it in our own lives, we should be on guard against it in regards to others. There is nothing wrong with having weaknesses, we just can’t be led by them. (See: Dangerous Leadership–When Power Intersects Lack of Appreciation)