Follow the Leader: What Sets Leaders Apart?

Summary: A new study reveals the cognitive and neurobiological processes that influence whether a person is likely to be a leader or follower.

Source: University of Zurich.

Leaders are more willing to take responsibility for making decisions that affect the welfare of others. In a new study, researchers at the University of Zurich identified the cognitive and neurobiological processes that influence whether someone is more likely to take on leadership or to delegate decision-making.

Which school should I send my child to? Do I need to scale back the workforce in my company? Should the soldiers launch an attack tonight or wait until tomorrow? Parents, company bosses and army generals as well as teachers and heads of state all have something in common: They all have to make decisions that do not just affect themselves, but also influence the welfare of others. Sometimes the consequences will be borne by individuals, but sometimes by whole organizations or even countries.

Responsibility Aversion makes all the difference

Researchers from the Department of Economics investigated what it is that sets people with high leadership abilities apart. In the study, which has just been published in the journal Science, they identify and characterize a common decision process that may distinguish followers from leaders: Responsibility aversion, or the unwillingness to make decisions that also affect others.

Controlled experiments and brain imaging

In the study leaders of groups could either make a decision themselves or delegate it to the group. A distinction was drawn between “self” trials, in which the decision only affected the decision-makers themselves, and “group” trials, in which there were consequences for the whole group. The neurobiological processes taking place in the brains of the participants as they were making the decisions were examined using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

People who take on responsibility need more certainty

The scientists tested several common intuitive beliefs, such as the notion that individuals who are less afraid of potential losses or taking risks, or who like being in control, will be more willing to take on responsibility for others. These characteristics, however, did not explain the differing extent of responsibility aversion found in the study participants. Instead they found that responsibility aversion was driven by a greater need for certainty about the best course of action when the decision also had an effect on others. This shift in the need for certainty was particularly pronounced in people with a strong aversion to responsibility.

a follow and lead sign
Low responsability aversion is an important determinant of the decision to lead. image is credited to Giuseppe Parente.

Theoretical concept for different leadership types

“Because this framework highlights the change in the amount of certainty required to make a decision, and not the individual’s general tendency for assuming control, it can account for many different leadership types”, says lead author Micah Edelson. “These can include authoritarian leaders who make most decisions themselves, and egalitarian leaders who frequently seek a group consensus.”

About this neuroscience research article

Source: Micah Edelson – University of Zurich
Publisher: Organized by
Image Source: image is credited to Giuseppe Parente.
Original Research: Abstract for “Computational and neurobiological foundations of leadership decisions” by Micah G. Edelson, Rafael Polania, Christian C. Ruff, Ernst Fehr and Todd A. Hare in Science. Published August 1 2018.

Cite This Article

[cbtabs][cbtab title=”MLA”]University of Zurich”Follow the Leader: What Sets Leaders Apart?.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 3 August 2018.
<>.[/cbtab][cbtab title=”APA”]University of Zurich(2018, August 3). Follow the Leader: What Sets Leaders Apart?. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved August 3, 2018 from[/cbtab][cbtab title=”Chicago”]University of Zurich”Follow the Leader: What Sets Leaders Apart?.” (accessed August 3, 2018).[/cbtab][/cbtabs]


Computational and neurobiological foundations of leadership decisions

Decisions as diverse as committing soldiers to the battlefield or picking a school for your child share a basic attribute: assuming responsibility for the outcome of others. This responsibility is inherent in the roles of prime ministers and generals, as well as in the more quotidian roles of firm managers, schoolteachers, and parents. Here we identify the underlying behavioral, computational, and neurobiological mechanisms that determine the choice to assume responsibility over others.

We developed a decision paradigm in which an individual can delegate decision-making power about a choice between a risky and a safe option to their group or keep the right to decide: In the “self” trials, only the individual’s payoff is at stake, whereas in the “group” trials, each group member’s payoff is affected. We combined models from perceptual and value-based decision-making to es­timate each individual’s personal utility for every available action in order to tease apart potential motivations for choosing to “lead” or “follow.” We also used brain imaging to examine the neurobiological basis of leadership choices.

The large majority of the subjects display responsibility aversion (see figure, left panel), that is, their willingness to choose between the risky and the safe option is lower in the group trials relative to the self trials, independent of basic preferences toward risk, losses, ambiguity, social preferences, or intrinsic valuations of decision rights. Furthermore, our findings indicate that responsibility aversion is not associated with the overall frequency of keeping or delegating decision-making power. Rather, responsibility aversion is driven by a second-order cognitive process reflecting an increase in the demand for certainty about what constitutes the best choice when others’ welfare is affected. Individuals who are less responsibility averse have higher questionnaire-based and real-life leadership scores. The center panel of the figure shows the correlation between predicted and observed leadership scores in a new, independent sample. Our analyses of the dynamic interactions between brain regions demonstrate the importance of information flow between brain regions involved in computing separate components of the choice to understanding leadership decisions and individual differences in responsibility aversion.

The driving forces behind people’s choices to lead or follow are very important but largely unknown. We identify responsibility aversion as a key determinant of the willingness to lead. Moreover, it is predictive of both survey-based and real-life leadership scores. These results sug­gest that many people associate a psychological cost with assuming responsibility for others’ outcomes. Individual differences in the perception of, and willingness to bear, responsibility as the price of leadership may determine who will strive toward leadership roles and, moreover, are associated with how well they perform as leaders.

Our computational model provides a conceptual framework for the decision to assume responsibility for others’ outcomes as well as insights into the cognitive and neural mechanisms driving this choice process. This framework applies to many different leadership types, including authoritarian leaders, who make most decisions themselves, and egalitarian leaders, who frequently seek a group consensus. We believe that such a theoretical foundation is critical for a precise understanding of the nature and consequences of leadership.

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