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A Faithful Prototype

by Robert D. Blagg

Whether secular or religious, at some level all of our worlds have been affected by leaders such as Mohandas Ghandi, Ayatollah Khamenei, Pope Benedict XVI, or Nelson Mandela. Dynamic leaders can exert devastating influence over their followers. Such leaders espouse both hard-line or extreme and more moderate perspectives to the groups they head, contingent upon the favorability of the situation to that behavioral style. The social identity perspective describes leadership as a social phenomenon founded in social interaction, group life, and group membership. Effective leaders use their position within the group to wield influence over the values, attitudes, and goals of their followers. The social identity theory of leadership suggests that group prototypicality is a powerful determinant of social influence and effective leadership, specifically where individuals more strongly define themselves in terms of their group membership, as opposed to more idiosyncratic or interpersonal relationships. Data collected from adults (N = 120) were analyzed to assess the possibility that individuals who strongly identify as a member of a particular religious group might give greater support to a leader of their religious group to the extent that he/she is viewed as being prototypical of that group, irrespective of whether that leader advocates a more extremist or a more moderate interpretation of that religion.

The data for these analyses were gathered via an internet survey of adults who indicated a religious preference for Christian, Muslim, or Jewish faith traditions. Participants were initially primed with five statements characterized by a more extreme/hard-line or more moderate interpretation of their religious tradition. The statements were presented as coming from an anonymous leader of their religious group. Participants then answered questions about religious identity (6 items, α = .92), leader prototypicality (2 items, α = .78), and support for the leader (6 items, α = .97).

Correlational analyses revealed that religious identity, leader prototypicality, and support for the leader were all significantly related (rs > .34, ps < .01). Subsequent regression analyses revealed that leader prototypicality significantly mediated the relationship between strength of religious identity and support for the leader, after controlling for the effects of the extreme/moderate leader prime (Sobel test: z = 3.78, p < .001).

These results indicate that despite the leader’s expression of a more extreme or moderate view of a religious tradition, the strength of individuals’ identification with their religious group was associated with their support for that leader to the extent that they viewed them as prototypical of their religious group. This pattern of results supports previous findings indicating that as individuals come to define themselves in terms of their group, prototypicality becomes an increasingly important facet of leadership, and suggests that this may be true despite how marginal a leader’s espoused views might be. 

This and other analyses stemming from this program of research will be presented at the upcoming WPA Conference in Irvine, CA, and the SPSP Group Processes and Intergroup Relations Pre-Conference in Albuquerque, NM.

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