The neurobiological basis of leadership rests in low aversion to responsibility

Low responsibility aversion is an important determinant of the decision to lead.

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.

Parents, company bosses and army generals, as well as teachers and heads of state, all have to make decisions that affect not only themselves, but also influence the welfare of others. Sometimes, the consequences will be borne by individuals, but sometimes by whole organizations or even countries.

Researchers from the Department of Economics investigated what distinguishes people with high leadership abilities. In the study, which has just been published in the journal Science, they identify a common decision process that may characterize followers: 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).

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.

“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.”

More information: Computational and neurobiological foundations of leadership decisions. Science: August 2, 2018. DOI: 10.1126/science.aat0036

One thought on “The neurobiological basis of leadership rests in low aversion to responsibility

  1. I kind of love to hate these kinds of research studies, since their conclusions are so obvious, but they go to great lengths to justify the enormous expenditures of time, resources and money utilized to “arrive” at their conclusions.

    My favorite one (learned in the 1970s social psychology classes): “The Law of Propinquity” (not making this up) = Researchers, after extensive study, concluded that we are more likely to befriend and date those who live near us than those who live farther away from us. They studied young adults in dormitories. “This was first coined by social psychologists Festinger, Schachter and Back in 1950 in a study now called the ‘Westgate Study.’ They interviewed college students staying in identical dormitory buildings and asked them with whom had they formed the closest connections. The study proved that proximity makes a difference, as students revealed that other students living one or two dorm rooms away were closer friends than those beyond.”

    They made it sound very scientific and mathematical because they used ratios related to which floors they lived on and how much time they spent in elevators to ride to their floors. Hilarious, right? “The law of propinquity. The law of propinquity [another word for ‘proximity’] states that the greater the physical (or psychological) proximity between people, the greater the chance that they will form friendships or romantic relationships.”

    Thanks, Professors Obvious and More Obvious, for reminding us that leaders are usually those who want to volunteer (or,more likely, be PAID) to take responsibility more than followers do..

    Best to you,

    Sally Ember, Ed.D.

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