Study: Harsh Childhood, Poverty Predict Preference For Authoritarian Leaders

Set out to explore the origins of political authoritarianism, French and Romanian researchers have attempted to examine the link between harsh childhood, poverty, and preference for authoritarian leaders in adulthood.

Titled “Childhood Harshness Predicts Long-Lasting Leader Preferences,” published in the peer-reviewed journal Evolution and Human Behavior, this research is a combination of three separate studies. A pre-print of the study is available on

As previous research has shown, authors noted, environmental harshness systematically impacts political preferences. The perceived threat to safety, war scenarios induce a preference for tall, masculine, untrustworthy leaders.

The goal of this paper, the researchers wrote, was to study whether leader preferences are influenced by cues of childhood harshness and resource deprivation, which is, scientists noted, a proxy for the level of external stress experienced during childhood.

Study One

The aim of the first study was to explore the immediate effect of poverty on children’s preferences for strong, authoritarian leaders. Forty one children from the city of Slatina, Romania, aged six to eight years, and from two schools situated in working-class, deprived neighborhoods, were recruited.

The researchers asked children to pick leaders based on facial photographs. Dominant, asymmetrical, untrustworthy faces were chosen by most kids. The results, the researchers wrote, demonstrate that “children’s leader preferences are sensitive to their environment, and deprivation biased these preferences towards strong leaders.”

Study Two

Meant to examine the long-lasting impact of childhood exposure to stress, the second study was conducted on adult participants, asked to choose who would they vote for in a national election. Adults, just like children, were shown facial photographs. Aged 16 to 83 years, 818 French adults representative of the French population were recruited for the study.

Findings show that those who reported experiencing more deprivation in childhood were more likely to choose strong, dominant, authoritarian leaders. The impact of childhood deprivation was present even after controlling for factors such as level of education and parental care.

Study Three

For the third and final study, the researchers analyzed the impact of childhood deprivation on preference for authoritarian leaders in adulthood using a large sociological survey, conducted on 66,281 individuals living in 46 European countries. Europeans who reported experiencing more poverty in childhood were more likely to express a preference for authoritarian leaders.

Just like in study two, the impact of childhood deprivation was present after controlling for participants’ level of education, income level, current level of stress, and childhood exposure to literature and politics.


“With the present experiments, we aimed to understand the impact of childhood environment on political preferences. In line with our hypothesis, we found that experiencing poverty during childhood biases preferences towards dominant leaders. These results are consistent with the literature on the effect of external threats on political preferences,” Lou Safra, Yann Algan, Teodora Tecu, Julie Grèzes, Nicolas Baumard, and Coralie Chevallier concluded.