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    In Democracies, Do Leaders Age More?

    Published on September 22, 2021

    You’ve seen the photos: before and after images of U.S. presidents that show just how much their hair grays while they’re in office. Now, research shows that they’re not alone: in fact, elected leaders in democracies are perceived to age much more than are leaders in autocracies, according to studies conducted by researchers at the Villanova University and University of Utah.

    In a two-part study, researchers presented participants with images of leaders around the world and found that a leader’s age depends on the level of democracy in the country that they lead. Even though democracy enjoys higher well-being and greater life expectancy, democracy limits its leaders. That is, the benefits of democracy do not have similar effects on the aging of its leaders and its followers.

    The findings appear to reflect greater stress and pressure on leaders of democracies, who negotiate intensive decision-making processes with policymakers while facing routine elections, research suggests. The very reasons that increase the well-being of the people in a democracy, such as freedom of choice and collective decision-making, impose higher responsibility on its leaders. Whereas, leaders in autocracies wield more control over their countries’ resources.

    The researchers arrived at these findings after controlling for not only individual specific covariates such as age, gender, and race of the leader and country specific covariates such as life expectancy, GDP, latitude-longitude of the country but also source from where the pictures were used. In an autocracy, the government can exert control over how they are depicted in the media. Whereas, in a democracy, less flattering photos could be selected because media have a lot more freedom to choose the images they want. To address this concern, researchers used the source of the pictures – local media or foreign media outlet – in their analysis.

    In part two, the researchers aimed to examine whether perceptions about age affected an individual’s perception of leadership ability. Results showed that autocratic leaders were perceived not only to be younger, but also to be more charismatic, to adopt an active style of leadership, to be more inspiring, and to make better decisions under complex circumstances.

    There are upcoming elections in India in 2022, which makes this work especially timely. If indeed elected leaders age much faster in democracies, then the citizens of our country may perceive their leaders as having lower leadership skills than those who have spent less time in office. Consequently, our leaders must find ways to appear younger by attending photo-ops that show them as young, exercising, eating healthy, and engaging in outdoor activities. In conclusion, this research provides useful insight into how politicians, both current and future, might be perceived by the public as they hold office for a long time.

    Shelly Rathee, who is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at Villanova University, collaborated in the research with Arul and Himanshu Mishra, who are David Eccles Professors of Marketing at the University of Utah. The work relied largely on participants’ assessments of photos of 268 world leaders of 140 countries across different continents, race, and gender. For a copy of the paper please find the link here.