How to win over followers and influence people

14 Feb 2018
Donald Trump
Be wary of assuming that followers of political outgroups are sheep who will only respond to coercion. (Image: Joseph Sohm /

If you think followers of your own political party are intelligent and hardworking while followers of the opposition party are ignorant and brainwashed, you’re not alone.

Research led by University of Queensland School of Psychology researcher Dr Nik Steffens found that people see followers of groups they identify with (called ingroups) as dedicated lions and followers of groups they don't identify with (called outgroups) as conformist sheep.

“There were striking differences in how people in the US characterised supporters of the same party — that is, Democrats or Republicans — and how they regarded supporters of the other party,” Dr Steffens said.

“People described ingroup followers as lions, wolves, tigers, and dolphins; while outgroup followers were seen as sheep, snakes, hyenas, and lemmings.

“These differences were also seen in the attributes people ascribed, regarding followers of their own group as loyal, dedicated, hardworking, intelligent, and caring, but followers of other groups as brainwashed, ignorant, hateful, racist, and religious.”

Dr Steffens said these viewpoints led people to believe in particular ways in which they could influence people to convince them of an idea or to change their behaviour.

“When dealing with ingroup lions and tigers people thought that they were best influenced by persuasion; when dealing with outgroup sheep and snakes they thought they were best influenced by coercion,” he said.

“This explains a lot when it comes to understanding how some world leaders treat outgroup members: they often don’t try to persuade them but think the best thing is to bully them into submission.

“We live in an age of increasing polarisation and fraction with bitter conflicts between opposing groups, whether this is in the case of Trump, Brexit, One Nation, or other extremist or populist movements.

“These results remind us that we should be wary of assuming that our followers are thoughtful and caring but their followers are brainwashed and hateful — not least because from their perspective the opposite is likely to be true.”

The study, in collaboration with UQ researchers Professors Alex Haslam and Jolanda Jetten and Dr Frank Mols, is published in Political Psychology journal.

Media: Dr Niklas Steffens,, +61 7 3346 9506; Dani Nash, UQ Communications,, +61 7 3346 3035.