Selection into Leadership and Perceptions of Inequality: The Case of Consistency

Project description

Aims and central research questions:

To learn about the origins of inequality in society, we investigate unequal career possibilities due to the selection process of leaders. Because of the difficulty to observe real-world selection processes, we know very little about strategies and characteristics of those who make it to the top. Our aim is to provide a comprehensive analysis of selection into leadership and of people’s perceptions regarding the resulting inequalities.

In a first step, we focus on a selection process in which those who decide about whom to promote can observe little more than the candidates’ behavioral consistency. As ability levels of career aspirants often remain unclear, consistency has the advantage that it is easy-to-apply and seemingly innocuous as a selection criterion. Most people would attach a positive connotation to consistency, which is in line with popular claims of business experts and political pundits who describe consistency as an important facet of successful leadership.


A central manifestation of inequality in Western societies is the heterogeneous nature of labor market outcomes across individuals. A pathway to belonging to the small group of high-earners is through obtaining a leadership position. While only a few end up at the top and are the beneficiaries of a highly skewed income distribution, their characteristics include a variety of apparently irrelevant factors like social background or gender. Arguably, if the selection into leadership is based on differences in ability levels, resulting inequalities might be judged as fair. Criteria like educational achievement or experience seem to be widely accepted. However, if strategic behaviors or inherent traits that are unrelated to ability determine who becomes a leader, resulting inequalities might be perceived very differently. Information about the underlying origins of inequality in the selection of leaders could affect people’s perceptions, thereby affecting preference formation and setting the stage for policy action.


  • Laboratory experiment
  • Online experiment
  • Population-wide survey
  • Manager survey


Economics, Management, Psychology

Starting date:

September 1, 2020



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