Houston, Texas, USA : A willingness to shoulder responsibility on behalf of others is an important and common trait in all who choose to lead, a new study finds. The research provides new insight into the behavioral and neurobiological foundations of leadership and what makes some individuals more likely to lead over others.
Whether directing an army, nation or classroom, leadership is critically important at all levels of society, however, what drives people’s choices to lead or follow is not well understood.
Often, those who lead are required to make tough decisions and do so knowing their actions will likely impact the well-being of others, but not all accept this responsibility.
In fact, according to Micah Edelson and colleagues, most actively avoid it. Through a series of trials, Edelson et al. assessed a participant’s willingness to make decisions on behalf of a group when their own rewards and those of others are at stake
Leaders must take responsibility for others and thus affect the well-being of individuals, organizations, and nations. The study identifed the effects of responsibility on leaders’ choices at the behavioral and neurobiological levels and document the widespread existence of responsibility aversion, that is, a reduced willingness to make decisions if the welfare of others is at stake. In mechanistic terms, basic preferences toward risk, loss, and ambiguity do not explain responsibility aversion, which, instead, is driven by a second-order cognitive process reflecting an increased demand for certainty about the best choice when others’ welfare is affected. Finally, models estimating levels of information flow between brain regions that process separate choice components provide the first step in understanding the neurobiological basis of individual variability in responsibility aversion and leadership scores.
They 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.
They 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 authors also used computational decision-making models to identify underlying motivations for choosing to lead or follow, as well as brain imaging to examine the neurobiological basis of leadership choices. Edelson et al. found that most people are unwilling to make decisions that impact the welfare of others – what the authors term “responsibility aversion” – and did so despite their own personal preferences and valuations.
Those who did not shy away from responsibility for others scored higher on questionnaire-based leadership scores and reflected real-world measures of leadership, like holding higher military ranks.
Preliminary data gleaned from imaging suggest that interactions within the brain can help predict a willingness to lead across individuals. Edelson et al.’s study identifies responsibility aversion as the best predictor of a willingness to lead and provides a cognitive and neurobiological framework to better understand the nature of leadership. “By employing the tools of decision neuroscience, it may be possible to reverse engineer not only leadership decisions but also the ingredients of good leadership,” write Stephen Flemming and Dan Bang in a related Perspective.
“The large majority of the subjects display responsibility aversion, 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 research team wrote.
Video : Illustration Video of main findings. This material relates to a paper that appeared in a recent issue of Science. The paper, by Micah Edelson at University of Zürich in Zürich, Switzerland, and colleagues was titled, “Computational and neurobiological foundations of leadership decisions.”
Video credit : Janine Moroni