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An Evolutionary Approach to Political Leadership

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We combine evolutionary and neurobiological models to provide a theoretically rigorous framework for understanding the origin of political leadership in democratic structures and how such qualities interact with institutional incentives and constraints. Evolutionary, behavioral-genetic, neuropsychological, and physiological studies have identified biological systems related to particular types of leadership behaviors as well as the emergence of leadership itself. These biological systems emerge during specific life stages and interact with a person's life history, influencing the environments one selects into and the perception of those experiences and subsequent reactions to them; these circumstances reinforce, suppress, and inspire various leadership characteristics. Our framework provides insight into the foundational basis of leadership qualities and explains why and how we observe variation in such traits. The evolutionary functions of leadership, including approaches to collective action problems, leader?follower dynamics, institutional and organizational environments, and leader attributes are discussed, and in so doing, we propose several novel questions that can be addressed from this perspective, which suggest new and fruitful lines of research in leadership studies.
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An Evolutionary Approach to Political Leadership
Rose McDermott, Anthony C. Lopez & Peter K. Hatemi
To cite this article: Rose McDermott, Anthony C. Lopez & Peter K. Hatemi (2016) An
Evolutionary Approach to Political Leadership, Security Studies, 25:4, 677-698, DOI:
10.1080/09636412.2016.1220204
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An Evolutionary Approach to Political Leadership
Rose McDermott, Anthony C. Lopez, and Peter K. Hatemi
ABSTRACT
We combine evolutionary and neurobiological models to provide a
theoretically rigorous framework for understanding the origin of
political leadership in democratic structures and how such qualities
interact with institutional incentives and constraints. Evolutionary,
behavioral-genetic, neuropsychological, and physiological studies
have identied biological systems related to particular types of
leadershipbehaviorsaswellastheemergenceofleadershipitself.
These biological systems emerge during specic life stages and
interact with a personslifehistory,inuencing the environments
one selects into and the perception of those experiences and
subsequent reactions to them; these circumstances reinforce,
suppress, and inspire various leadership characteristics. Our
framework provides insight into the foundational basis of leadership
qualities and explains why and how we observe variation in such
traits. The evolutionary functions of leadership, including
approaches to collective action problems, leaderfollower dynamics,
institutional and organizational environments, and leader attributes
are discussed, and in so doing, we propose several novel questions
that can be addressed from this perspective, which suggest new
and fruitful lines of research in leadership studies.
Historically, most inuential extant theoretical models in international rela-
tions tend to dismiss the signicance of individual differences in leadership,
privileging the constraining inuence of state and institutional incentives and
pressures.
1
Although there has recently been a true resurgence in the study of
leaders,
2
almost none of this work provides a framework to sufciently answer
Rose McDermott is the David and Marianna Fisher University Professor of International Relations at
Brown University. She is a fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Anthony C. Lopez is
assistant professor of political psychology and international relations at Washington State University.
Peter K. Hatemi is Distinguished Professor of political science, microbiology, and biochemistry at Penn
State. His work currently focuses on using behavioral experiments, genetics, physiology, and neurosci-
ence to better understand human decision making, political behavior, terrorism, violence, and the nature
of interpersonal relationships in dynamic environments.
1
Kenneth N. Waltz, Theory of International Politics (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1979); Hans J. Morganthau, Politics
among Nations:The Struggle for Power and Peace (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1948).
2
Giacomo Chiozza and H. E. Goemans, International Conict and the Tenure of Leaders: Is War Still Ex Post Inefcient?
American Journal of Political Science 48, no. 3 (July 2004): 60419; Peter K. Hatemi and Rose McDermott, A Neurobio-
logical Approach to Foreign Policy Analysis: Identifying Individual Differences in Political Violence,Foreign Policy
Analysis 8, no. 2 (April 2012): 11129; Peter K. Hatemi and Rose McDermott, eds., Man is by Nature a Political Animal:
© 2016 Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
SECURITY STUDIES
2016, VOL. 25, NO. 4, 677698
http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09636412.2016.1220204
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the fundamental question: Where do leaders come from? Are they born or
made? The answer is obviously that leaders are both born and made. How
that process emerges and takes place holds tremendous implications for our
understanding of the inextricably intertwined inuence between leaders and
institutions.
Much of the recent work on leaders does not focus so much on individual-level
variation as on institutional constraints and incentives.
3
Other work places the iden-
tity of individual leaders and their backgrounds at the center of analysis, but does
not explore the origin of leadership itself in any depth.
4
There is some work that lies
in the middle of this spectrum, but the very existence of this spectrum itself reveals
the depth of the interaction between leaders and institutions.
5
Further explorations
of the microfoundations of leadership behavior have interrogated various aspects of
these traitssuch as resolve and commitmentfrom an experimental perspective.
6
The combination of all of these works provides valuable insight into the nature of
leadership, but shares at least two important limitations. They examine the emer-
gence of individual leaders by observation or manipulation, and they also remain
limited in their ability to say why or how certain kinds of individuals emerge as lead-
ers in certain situations, make better military as opposed to political leaders, or pro-
vide other insights into the underlying origin and nature of leadership itself.
We propose combining extant approaches with evolutionary theories to help
address these lacunae. Our evolutionary approach explains how human psychology
interacts with important institutional and other situational constraints and demon-
strates how leaders are both born and made. In so doing, it also serves to contradict
existing models that assume leadership emerges solely as a function of processes of
socialization, either resulting from institutional pressures or as a result of environ-
mental pressures on individual leaders throughout the course of their lives.
Evolution, Biology, and Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011); Joshua David Kertzer, Resolve in Interna-
tional Politics,(PhD diss., Ohio State University, 2013); Rose McDermott and Peter K. Hatemi, The Study of Interna-
tional Politics in the Neurobiological Revolution: A Review of Leadership and Political Violence,MillenniumJournal
of International Studies 43, no. 1 (July 2014): 92123; Dustin H. Tingley and Barbara F. Walter, Can Cheap Talk Deter?
An Experimental Analysis,Journal of Conict Resolution 55, no. 6 (December 2011): 9961020; Dustin H. Tingley,
The Dark Side of the Future: An Experimental Test of Commitment Problems in Bargaining,International Studies
Quarterly 55, no. 2 (June 2011): 52144; Todd Hall and Keren YarhiMilo, The Personal Touch: LeadersImpressions,
Costly Signaling, and Assessments of Sincerity in International Affairs,International Studies Quarterly 56, no. 3 (Sep-
tember 2012): 56073; Keren Yarhi-Milo, Tying Hands Behind Closed Doors: The Logic and Practice of Secret Reas-
surance,Security Studies 22, no. 3 (JulySeptember 2013): 405-435; Stephen Peter Rosen, War and Human Nature
(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005); Brian C. Rathbun, Hierarchy and Community at Home and Abroad:
Evidence of a Common Structure of Domestic and Foreign Policy Beliefs in American Elites,Journal of Conict Reso-
lution 51, no. 3 (June 2007): 379407; Jonathan Renshon, Why Leaders Choose War: The Psychology of Prevention
(Westport, CT: Praeger Security International, 2006); Elizabeth N. Saunders, Leaders at War: How Presidents Shape Mil-
itary Interventions (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011); Elizabeth N. Saunders, Transformative Choices: Leaders
and the Origins of Intervention Strategy,International Security 34, no. 2 (Fall 2009): 11961; Jessica L. Weeks,
Strongmen and Straw Men: Authoritarian Regimes and the Initiation of International Conict,American Political Sci-
ence Review 106, no. 2 (May 2012): 32647.
3
Chiozza and Goemans, International Conict and the Tenure of Leaders.
4
Saunders, Leaders at War; Saunders, Transformative Choices.
5
Rosen, War and Human Nature.
6
Kertzer, Resolve in International Politics; Jonathan Renshon, Losing Face and Sinking Costs: Experimental Evidence
on the Judgment of Political and Military Leaders,International Organization 69, no. 3 (Summer 2015): 65995; Ting-
ley, The Dark Side of the Future; Tingley and Walter, Can Cheap Talk Deter?
678 R. MCDERMOTT ET AL.
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Why might an evolutionary approach provide added value for our understanding of
political leadership? First, an approach that recognizes the contribution made by bio-
logical factors offers the possibility of both raising novel questions and opening avenues
to different solutions to enduring puzzles. Second, as noted above, evolutionary
approaches can expand upon, challenge, or buttress existing ndings and theories by
focusing not just on the individual, or the institutions in which he or she operates, but
on the interaction between the two. For example, some dysfunction in leadership may
emerge because a person, such as Hitler or Stalin or Mao, may be evil, or it may also
emerge because some ideologies like authoritarianism and its resulting institutions do
not serve the majority of a population. What is more likely the caseas we develop
belowis that leadership dysfunction is better understood as a function of the specic
t between leader attributes, a political system, and the demands on the environment.
There are many different kinds of leadership; consider the important differences
between the most effective military and political leaders. George S. Patton was a phe-
nomenal general on the battleeld but did not possess the requisite diplomatic skill to
succeed as an elected politician who would be forced to engage in political compro-
mise. On the other hand, Franklin D. Roosevelt was an incredibly gifted political
leader, eliciting hard work and loyalty from diverse actors, but likely would have had
adifcult time on a battleeld because of his physical condition. Moreover, even
within a political realm, different leaders may function with different degrees of effec-
tiveness depending on the political and institutional constraints imposed on them, as
well as the nature of the challenges they confront. An effective democratic leader,
such as Abraham Lincoln, might not be as inuential in an authoritarian system, just
as a totalitarian leader such as Stalin would not have been viable under norms of nor-
mal democratic governance. Even a prototypically tyrannical leader like Hitler, who
managed to win democratic election early in his career, quickly changed the rules to
allow more personal control immediately after assuming power.
Recent advances at the intersection of evolutionary theory, neuroscience, and
genetics have greatly improved our understanding of the causes and consequences
of individual behavioral variation in these leadership areas. Specically, key aspects
of leadership, including social intelligence, motivational ability, memory, planning,
creativity, stress reactions, emotion regulation, cognition, theory of mind, and
communication, among many other characteristics, all emerge from genetic, neu-
robiological, and associated hormonal mechanisms.
7
A model which includes the
interaction between biological mechanisms and environments, one which offers
the comprehensive integration of a particular person possessing a specic disposi-
tion exposed to a distinct upbringing operating at the right time and in the best-t
situation will prove far superior for explicating leader behavior and situational out-
comes compared to psychobiographical, historiographic, sociodemographic, or
7
Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis, Social Intelligence and the Biology of Leadership,Harvard Business Review 86,
no. 9 (September 2008): 7481; Nick Lee, Carl Senior, and Michael Butler, Leadership Research and Cognitive Neuro-
science: The State of this Union,Leadership Quarterly 23, no. 2 (April 2012): 21318; Kai Vogeley et al., Mind Read-
ing: Neural Mechanisms of Theory of Mind and Self-Perspective,Neuroimage 14, no. 1 (July 2001): 17081.
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deductive approaches alone. That is, in order to better understand and possibly
predict leader behavior, it is necessary to understand a persons biologically
informed psychological architecture. Evolutionary approaches focus on the univer-
sal existence of these traits, but also on the individual variance in these qualities
through a combination of genetics, biology, and circumstance. Incorporating an
understanding of these factors interacting with political institutions allows for a
more nuanced and sophisticated approach to political leadership than one that
examines regime or personality type in isolation.
Why would this be the case? First, neurobiological and genetic research looks
under the hood of human psychology in ways that previous approaches were unin-
terested in, unable, or unwilling to do, either because methodological constraints
made such examination difcult or unreliable, or due to theoretical commitments,
political views, or other reasons that downplayed the role of individual psychology
relative to socialization or behavioral reinforcement. Second, evolutionary models
focus on explaining how human psychology is designed to respond to situational
and developmental cues in a way that can help elucidate leader emergence in par-
ticular environments or regime types. And nally, evolutionary models focus more
directly on the critical relationship between leadership and followership in explain-
ing mass responses to leader attributes. Previous work that has drawn on psycho-
biographical approaches has tended to neglect this relationship, and as a result, an
evolutionary alternative highlights aspects of leadership that remain hidden from
perspective within traditional models. A biologically informed evolutionary view
can help explain some of the sources of human motivation in terms of the drive to
achieve leadership, its function within a broader population, and the characteristics
that most often embody its effective implementation. In this way, such an
approach provides a comprehensive examination of both universal traits as well as
variance within these types.
In the following discussion, we seek to apply these new tools to examine the
interaction of leaders and certain environmental constraints and incentives, such
as those stemming from institutional design, in order to better identify the factors
that might allow us to explain and better predict the emergence and expression of
leadership traits within particular individuals. By extension, this perspective opens
the possibility of developing objective measures of leadership. In order to develop
and extend an evolutionary perspective into the study of political leadership, our
analysis begins with a discussion of the evolutionary approach to explaining leader
emergence, behavior, and related characteristics. We then review the literature on
the origin and nature of individual variance in such characteristics, focusing on the
genetic and neurobiological mechanisms that regulate leadership development in a
given context, the dynamics between leaders and followers, and their institutional
environments. In so doing, we identify important questions that lie at the intersec-
tion of leadership and institutional structures and the constraints that emerge
from this perspective but have yet to be explored.
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The Meaning and Individuality of Political Leadership
The tremendous degree of observed variation across types of leaders and forms of
leadership makes the task of dening concepts and analyzing their dynamics especially
challenging. To begin with, denitions of leadership are myriad, although some have
proven more useful than others. For example, in their inuential Handbook of Leader-
ship, Bernard Bass and R. M. Stogdill dene leadership as an interaction between two
or more members of a group that often involves a structuring or restructuring of the
situation and the perceptions and expectations of the members Leadership occurs
when one group member modies the motivation or competencies of others in the
group.
8
Other denitions stress the performative dimension of leadership, such as
Robert Hogan and Robert Kaisers, which denes it in terms of the ability to build
and maintain a group that performs well relative to its competition.
9
From an evolu-
tionary perspective, Mark Van Vugt and Robert Kurzban see leadership as inducing
others to coordinate their actions or goals with those of the leader, to foster the
leadersproximategoals.
10
Similarly, the anthropologist Christopher von Rueden
acknowledges that leaders are those individuals who possess or are given dispropor-
tionate inuence over the establishment of group goals, who direct coordination to
achieve those goals, and who monitor and enforce rules.
11
Not surprisingly, international relations scholars use a similar conception of
leadership. In her review of this literature, Nannerl Keohane offers a particularly
useful denition of leaders as those individuals who determine or clarify goals for
a group of individuals and bring together the energies of members of that group to
accomplish those goals.
12
Across these several denitions of leadership, some
commonalities stand out. Therefore, instead of developing a new denition of
political leadership ourselves, we limit our working denition in this paper to an
acknowledgment that leadership tends to be composed of two qualities in particu-
lar. First, leaders establish or identify the immediate and/or long-term goals of the
group. Second, leaders provide the critical function of coordinating behavior and
expectations toward the achievement of those goals.
This core conceptualization of political leadership does not deny that there are
many different types of leadership; rather, our conceptualization reveals that these
types of leadership are variants on a common underlying phenomenon. For exam-
ple, entrepreneurial leadership and transformative leadership both involve chal-
lenges of goal setting and coordination, but they solve these challenges in quite
8
Bernard Bass and R. M. Stogdill, Handbook of Leadership: Theory, Research and Managerial Applications (New York:
Free Press, 1990), 19.
9
Robert Hogan and Robert B. Kaiser, What We Know About Leadership,Review of General Psychology 9, no. 2 (June
2005): 16980, 172.
10
Mark Van Vugt and Robert Kurzban, Cognitive and Social Adaptations for Leadership and Followership: Evolutionary
Game Theory and Group Dynamics,in Evolution and the Social Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and Social Cognition,
ed. Joseph P. Forgas, Martie G. Haselton, and William von Hippel (Washington, DC: Psychology Press, 2007), 230.
11
Christopher von Rueden, The Roots and Fruits of Social Status in Small-Scale Human Societies,in The Psychology of
Social Status, ed. Joey T. Cheng, Jessica L. Tracy, and Cameron Anderson (New York: Springer, 2014), 179200.
12
Nannerl O. Keohane, Thinking About Leadership (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010).
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distinct ways. Thus, part of our goal in this paper is to identify and explore the var-
ious ways leadership psychology both shapes and is shaped by social and institu-
tional contexts. However, since this is a broad challenge, we will nd it useful to
largely restrict the scope of our investigation to political leaders operating under
democratic governance structures, leaving open for future research the larger and
related questions of how these dynamics might operate in other contexts.
One direct way in which evolutionary theory adds explanatory capacity is
through its unique ability to integrate both species-typical (that is, universal) and
individual-level behavioral variation into a single framework. For example, in a
world of states, it is often the character of the leader, including individualspersonal
ambition and motivation to increase their own domestic power, that sets interna-
tional agendas. The pursuit of nuclear weapons represents merely one example in
this regard. For most states, there is great rational self-interest in not developing
such weapons because of the economic costsboth in time and resources
required for the development of such programs and the very costly sanctions from
the international community that are most likely to result from the pursuit of
nuclear weapons. Yet many leaders, including those in North Korea and Iran, con-
tinue to pursue them nonetheless. On the one hand, such motivations are likely
rooted in universal desires for status, respect, and enhanced reputation. On the
other hand, individual differences among the leaders themselves, produced by
recurrent lifehistory interactions between their biological attributes and sociopoliti-
cal environments, help explain their unique manifestation in those particular indi-
viduals. It is here that psychological and biological models are not simply useful
they are necessary because they help to explain the species-typicality of psychologi-
cal adaptations that regulate status seeking and risk taking in all humans, as well as
the distribution and expression of individual uniqueness in speciccontexts.
To be clear, as noted above, we are not making a simplistic case that a single
behavior called leadershipemerges from some specic biological underpinning,
social upbringing, training, or experience. Leadership encompasses a countless
number of traits, some of which likely manifest in other behaviors as well. These
characteristics emerge in different contexts that regulate incentives, reinforce-
ments, and sanctions. Different people follow different trajectories, and individuals
may demonstrate various entry points into leadership positions. No one is
completely born into all the traits that comprise it, even if they are born into the
role. For example, one might be born into a monarchy, with little dispositional
proclivity to lead; similarly, those born with the proclivity to lead can fail to exert
such characteristics because they might, for example, exist in conditions of slavery
or extreme environmental disadvantage. Not all individuals are given opportunities
to lead, and not all individuals given such opportunities take advantage of them.
And of course, some individuals seek the opportunities while others do not. Yet,
individuals with particular dispositions more often self-select into environments
or make choices that reinforce specic patterns and launch the person down a par-
ticular developmental pathway, resulting in what others recognize as leadership
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over time. In this way, behavior patterns become expressed in the context of spe-
cic environmental precipitants that combine selection, disposition, development,
and circumstance. Constraints certainly occur, but opportunities emerge as well
for individuals prone to seek and move rst into such openings.
Given this foundational insight, we can begin to interrogate the biological bases
for these motivations and responses, and examine the critical ways in which these
exigencies interact in recurrent and decisive ways within particular environmental
contingencies to produce the unique leader behavior we wish to explain and pre-
dict. Because human cognitive and emotional architecture remains genetically
informed,
13
the mechanisms underlying the characteristics we seek to illuminate
are often grounded in evolutionarily adaptive strategies of development, although
variation also emerges across individuals, as it does on all complex traits. The
more we are able to learn about the sources of individual variance in the origin of
leadership, the more likely we will be able to explain behavior of interest, including
that of dramatic examples such as Gandhi or Hitler. In addition, the more infor-
mation we can obtain about the personal as well as objective resource constraints
under which any given leader is acting, the more it becomes possible to identify
those critical points, life stages, events, decisions, or environments that set a partic-
ular person on a specic leadership path. By developing an environmental and
neurobiologically informed understanding of individual dispositions and personal
psychology, it may become possible to better locate those triggers that cue a partic-
ular individual to respond in a hostile as opposed to conciliatory manner in the
face of threat, and structure interventions which might provide a rewall between
provocation and response in such a manner as to enhance the possibility for more
constructive interactions between state leaders.
The Evolutionary Function of Political Leadership
What evolutionary function has leadership served, and what social and indi-
vidual characteristics appear most closely correlated with its emergence? Van
Vugt,Hogan,andKaiserarguethatleadership and followership evolved in
ancestral environments to help overcome the repeated challenges associated
with collective action.
14
Accumulating evidence suggests that groups with lead-
ers are better able to solve not only basic coordination problems, but also to
distribute the benets of collective action, such as food, and effectively punish
free riders.
15
Thus, a capable leader may facilitate group movement,
13
Jerome H. Barkow, Leda Cosmides, and John Tooby, eds., The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Genera-
tion of Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).
14
Mark Van Vugt, Robert Hogan, and Robert Kaiser, Leadership, Followership, and Evolution: Some Lessons From the
Past,American Psychologist 63, no. 3 (April 2008): 18296.
15
Anthony Pescosolido, Informal Leaders and the Development of Group Efcacy,Small Group Research 32, no. 1
(February 2001): 7493; Andrew King, Dominic D. P. Johnson, and Mark Van Vugt, The Origins and Evolution of
Leadership,Current Biology 19, no. 19 (October 2009): R911-916; Paul L. Hooper, Hillard S. Kaplan, and James L.
Boone, A Theory of Leadership in Human Cooperative Groups,Journal of Theoretical Biology 265, no. 4 (August
2010): 63346.
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intragroup cohesion, and intergroup competition. Although we take leadership
for granted in many circumstances, from a psychological perspective the chal-
lenge of leadership is computationally complex and integrates a host of varia-
bles that the mind appears designed to track relatively effortlessly and
spontaneously. Importantly, modern leadership is quite distinct from ancestral
leadership in terms of institutional complexity and group size, among other
factors. Nonetheless, our evolved coalitional psychology contains adaptations
for leadership that help structure the ways in which humans think about and
respond to modern collective action problems in the political arena, and thus
interact with modern institutions in interesting and predictable ways.
Although leadership appears to have evolved to solve collective action prob-
lems, not all collective action problems require leadership. For example, small
and cohesive groups (for example, of kin or long-term friends) may be able to
accomplish the tasks of group monitoring and the building of trust that can
facilitate cooperation and prevent cascading defection.
16
This is consistent
with the classic observations by Mancur Olson that collective action is often
best provided in small and homogenous groups.
17
As we loosen these con-
straints by, for example, broadening the nature of the task or increasing the
size of the group, the immediate material rewards and reproductive benets of
successful leadership only continue to mount. There are clear gains to be had
from the successful implementation of leadership, although many of those
benets may disproportionately accrue to the leader exclusively. In addition,
groups in different situations will benet from different types of leadership. In
other words, as noted at the outset, there is no one psychological prole that
transcends time and place as representing the quintessential or domain-general
good leader; this will instead depend on a host of factors. We believe the most
prominent factors that affect the emergence and nature of political leadership
include, but are not limited to, the following: 1) the type of collective action
or task being faced by the group; 2) leaderfollower dynamics; 3) the nature
of the institutional environment; and 4) individual-level attributes, including
genetic variation and life history. We explain each in greater depth in the fol-
lowing sections. Although much of our discussion and examples involve war,
we intend our discussion of leadership here to refer to leaders trying to orga-
nize populations for war, not for the specic form of leadership required to
lead individuals in combat. Although there are likely some overlapping charac-
teristics, some distinct traits clearly exist as well, and so we refer to the feats
of political coordination required to undertake effective local physical combat
more than the specic talents necessary to achieve broader strategic military
victory.
16
Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge
University Press, 2010).
17
Mancur Olson, The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univer-
sity Press, 1965).
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Collective Action Tasks Faced by Leaders
First, the type of collective action facing the group will determine the emergence and
nature of leadership. Van Vugt suggests that leaders emerge in the face of substantial
threats or opportunities, since leaders are typically the people who move rst in such
situations.
18
But not all threats and opportunities are the same, and the leadership
demands facing the group may depend on the nature of the collective action
required.
19
One evolutionarily recurrent collective action problem that continues to
plague even modern humans is warfare, which poses a unique suite of subchallenges
to be solved when ones group is faced with intergroup violence.
20
Warfare is evolu-
tionarily unique in terms of the reproductive costs and benets involved; it is a high-
risk activity that can simultaneously yield a great degree of reproductive benets to
successful leaders and their groups and tremendous losses to unsuccessful ones.
21
Warfare is a collective action problem par excellence, and given the high-risk/high-
benetprole of most warfare, one of the central challenges of mobilizing for coalitio-
nal aggression in ancestral environments (and current ones) has been labor recruit-
ment, that is, the challenge of convincing others to join or otherwise support the
ghting. However, not all coalitional aggression is the same, and to the extent that sta-
ble differences in warfare were recurrent over evolutionary time, we would expect our
evolved psychology to reect those differences in the manifestation of both political
and military leadership even in modern contexts; indeed, distinct challenges, and the
reproductive benets that would have resulted from successful resolution of problems,
may help account for the selection and conservation of different types of leadership
over time in the face of different threats to the group.
Relative numbers constituted one of the most crucial elements in determining
the success of coalitional aggression in ancestral environments. Therefore, the
labor recruitment problem posed a signicant adaptive problem from the perspec-
tive of leaders or individuals who sought to initiate coalitional aggression.
22
Given
the intensity of this selection pressure, many have hypothesized that humans likely
possess adaptations designed specically to assert and respond to leadership, par-
ticularly in conict scenarios.
23
Put simply, where elites stand to benet from
18
Mark Van Vugt, Evolutionary Origins of Leadership and Followership,Personality and Social Psychology Review 10,
no. 4 (November 2006): 35471.
19
Von Rueden, The Roots and Fruits of Social Status.
20
John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, The Evolution of War and its Cognitive Foundations,Institute for Evolutionary
Studies Technical Report 88-1 (1988): 114; Azar Gat, The Human Motivational Complex: Evolutionary Theory and
the Causes of Hunter-Gatherer Fighting,Anthropological Quarterly 73, no. 1 (January 2000): 2034; Azar Gat, War in
Human Civilization (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).
21
Andrew J. King, Dominic D. P. Johnson, and Mark Van Vugt, The Origins and Evolution of Leadership,Current Biol-
ogy 19, no. 19 (October 2009): R911R916.
22
Richard W. Wrangham, Evolution of Coalitionary Killing,American Journal of Physical Anthropology 110, supp. 29
(1999): 130; Tooby and Cosmides, The Evolution of War and Its Cognitive Foundations.
23
Mark Van Vugt and Richard Ronay, The Evolutionary Psychology of Leadership: Theory, Review, and Roadmap,
Organizational Psychology Review 4, no. 1 (February 2014): 7495; Michael E. Price and Mark Van Vugt, The Evolution
of LeaderFollower Reciprocity: The Theory of Service-For-Prestige,Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 8 (June 2014):
363; Brian R. Spisak et al., Niche Construction and the Evolution of Leadership,Academy of Management Review 40,
no. 2 (April 2015): 291306.
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warfare, they face the challenge of motivating recruits (that is, labor) for the effort.
One dramatic way in which modern environments are distinct from ancestral envi-
ronments, however, is through the existence of institutions that require and orga-
nize military service. Nevertheless, even elites with access to standing armies must
persuade a public to support military action, often through fear in dictatorships, or
ideological, economic, or partisan interests in liberal societies. Evidence shows, for
example, that the audience costs associated with a given foreign policy can present
a considerable constraint that elites must navigate.
24
Therefore, although modern
elites have access to military institutions, they remain confronted by the psycholog-
ical challenge of convincing in-group members of the soundness, necessity, and
value of warfare. For this reason, we expect that psychological mechanisms that
evolved to solve the labor recruitment problem in ancestral environments are
active in modern contexts that trigger those systems.
To see how such psychological mechanisms might operate, we must interrogate
the nature of the labor recruitment problem as an ancestral selection pressure in
greater depth. Ancestral coalitional aggression was a risky endeavor, and perceived
risk is an interaction between the features of the situation (for example, late night
vs. daylight; element of surprise vs. pitched battle; relative numbers) and the features
of the individual (for example, age, formidability, number of allies). To the extent
that the interaction of these factors regulates perceived situational risk among indi-
viduals, it is also a measure of population-wide variance in willingness to engage in
a given instance of coalitional aggression. Given that ancestrally, the most formida-
ble individuals (that is, elites) would have had the most to gain from coalitional
aggression, this population-wide variance in willingness to engage in warfare would
have been a direct measure of elite reproductive success in any given conict sce-
nario. In other words, the more effectively elites can solve the labor recruitment
problem, the more they can reap the tness benets of coalitional violence.
Given that the labor recruitment problem is a challenge leaders must
resolve in varieties of collective actions, but particularly in warfare, we can
now ask a more specic question: Have there been ancestrally recurrent forms
of warfare that differ in the structure of the labor recruitment problem posed
to elites? If so, then we can hypothesize that psychological mechanisms exist
that were designed to attend to these contextual differences and facilitate dis-
tinct behavioral strategies from leaders in those contexts.
Broadly, mobilization may either occur in response to aggression (strategic
defense) or to initiate aggression (strategic offense). Unsurprisingly, preliminary
experimental evidence suggests that individuals are generally more supportive of
warfare when it is fought in defense of ones group rather than to initiate aggres-
sion against another.
25
Thus, defense presents an easier problem to solve from a
24
Michael Tomz, Domestic Audience Costs in International Relations: An Experimental Approach,International Orga-
nization 61, no. 4 (October 2007): 82140.
25
Anthony Lopez, The Risk Contract of War: Offense and Defense in the Adapted Mind(PhD Diss., Brown University,
2012).
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leadership perspective: because everyone in a group wants to protect themselves
from invasion and predation, it is easier for individuals to see the immediate ben-
et to themselves from participating in defense, which often offers no choice
under conditions of attack, than those offered by offense, which derive dispro-
portionately to those engaging in combat voluntarily. One distinction that may
prove useful in this regard is that in cases of strategic defense, the challenge of
warfare is more akin to a coordination problem in which a leader must direct
supportersactivities, while in cases of strategic offense, the challenge is for the
leader to build a critical mass of support for aggression from the ground up.
26
If
the result is that the labor recruitment problem has tended to be more easily
solved in situations necessitating defense than in offense, then one reliable way
in which leaders can cheat the labor recruitment problem is by framing the initi-
ation of hostilities as defensive in nature.
Given that the labor recruitment problem faced by leaders in war depends on
thetypeofwar,theelitemanipulationhypothesispredictsthefollowing:when
elites stand to disproportionately benet from the initiation of aggression and
face steep labor recruitment challenges, leaders are more likely to recast aggres-
sion as defensive in nature for the sake of manipulating audience preference
structures toward participation. For example, when a particular opportunity for
aggression is in the interests of elites but does not necessarily benetthegeneral
public, a leaders best available strategy may be to misframe the initiation of
aggression by appealing to either the preventive nature of aggression, or the need
to defend the groups status against potential threats in a preventive fashion.
Japans attack on Pearl Harbor at the outset of the Second World War rested pre-
cisely on the characterization of the need for preventive attack to stave off threats
to status. And certainly President George W. Bushsjustication for the war in
Iraq (although not in Afghanistan) is emblematic of this characteristic. Leaders
tend to be disproportionately sensitive to group threat,
27
and it stands to reason
that leaders in wartime will also be more likely to overestimate the need for pre-
ventive aggression and engage in manipulative framing of the war effort.
LeaderFollower Dynamics
The elite manipulation hypothesis derived from analysis of the labor recruitment
problem above focuses on how the type of collective action may affect the way that
leaders can be expected to react to threats and opportunities in their environment.
However, this discussion clearly overlaps with and leads into the second factor that
shapes the nature of leadership: the leaderfollower dynamic. Specically, whereas
leaders often must confront the challenge of recruitment, the recruits face the
26
Ibid.
27
Russell Spears, Bertjan Doosje, and Naomi Ellemers, Self-Stereotyping in the Face of Threats to Group Status and
Distinctiveness: The Role of Group Identication,Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 23, no. 5 (May 1997):
53853.
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challenge of avoiding exploitation.
28
In the case of warfare, the challenge of avoiding
exploitation is one of avoiding participation in a conict in which elite interest and
recruit interest are nonsynchronous. The labor recruitment problem discussed above,
seen now more directly in the light of the leaderfollower dynamic, reveals an evolu-
tionary arms race between leaders and followers, in which leaders seek to sharpen the
instruments of recruitment, while followers seek greater powers of discernment
regarding signals sent by leaders. This challenge is increasingly complicated and lop-
sided in favor of leaders in modern environments, given leadersdisproportionate
access to resources, media, and institutional levers of power, and followerslack of reli-
able information about the true nature of a threat. It remains to be seen whether the
democratizing of informational access at the heart of globalization can reverse this
imbalance. This imbalance is in direct contrast to ancestral environments, where
anthropologists have noted that hunter-gathers are able to exert a surprising degree of
authority over would-be leaders and individuals of inuence.
29
This reversal is a broad
example of the leaderfollower tension and has encouraged the enduring structural
ambivalence and mistrust between leaders and followers.
30
Additional work exploring the interaction between leadership qualities and follower
performance has drawn upon the Kurt Lewin, Ronald Lippett, and Ralph K. White
paradigm, which varied leadership style across groups and showed that members are
more likely to leave groups with autocratic as opposed to democratic or laissez-faire
leadership styles.
31
This is interesting in light of the fact that the autocratic group in
this exploration was the most productive and efcient, if not the most creative. Signi-
cantly, scapegoating and aggression were most prevalent under an autocratic leader,
whereas performance and satisfaction remained highest in the democratic group.
Importantly, Van Vugt et al. found that such effects held regardless of the personal
resources members derived from leaders, indicating that their objections to an auto-
cratic leadership style resulted from procedural as opposed to distributive reasons.
32
This nding is consistent with the results reported by Kevin Smith et al. that showed
people are perhaps more sensitive to the potential for being exploited by leadership
than perhaps they are for the possibilities that may exist for deriving benets from
leadership.
33
This asymmetry would be consistent with other physiological responses,
such as one-trial food aversions, which privilege loss over gain when confronting
potential risks.
34
28
Kevin B. Smith et al., Evolutionary Theory and Political Leadership: Why Certain People Do Not Trust Decision Mak-
ers,Journal of Politics 69, no. 2 (May 2007): 28599.
29
Christopher Boehm, Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
Press 2001).
30
Mark Van Vugt et al. Leadership, Followership, and Evolution.
31
Kurt Lewin, Ronald Lippitt and Ralph K. White, Patterns of Aggressive Behavior in Experimentally Created Social Cli-
mates,’” Journal of Social Psychology 10, no. 2 (1939): 26999.
32
Mark Van Vugt et al., Autocratic Leadership in Social Dilemmas: A Threat to Group Stability,Journal of Experimental
Social Psychology 40, no. 1 (January 2004): 113.
33
Kevin Smith et al., Evolutionary Theory and Political Leadership.
34
Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision Under Risk,Econometrica 47, no. 2
(March 1979): 26391.
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This nding does, however, run contrary to arguments made by Bruce Bueno de
Mesquita that explicitly focus on how leaders stay in power through their ability to
differentially distribute resources to their winning coalition members.
35
In con-
trast, in the Van Vugt studies, individuals preferred leaders who demonstrated dis-
tributive justice and who manifested high levels of relationship skills and in-group
loyalty. Some of the explanation for this difference may result from regime type;
autocrats can stay in power through the differential distribution of goods to in-
group membersat least for a whilesomething precluded by institutions of dem-
ocratic governance.
Keeping within the leaderfollower dynamic, both intuition and experimental evi-
dence suggests that leaders remain in power not only through their manipulation of
resource distribution, but also through their ability to control and dominate their
domestic rivals. Nicole Mead and Jon K. Maner nd that when leaders perceive a
domestic challenge to their authority in the form of other status-striving individuals,
leaders seek proximity to these challengers as a way to monitor and downregulate the
threat posed by such individuals.
36
Interestingly, and to further underscore the con-
text specicity of these psychological processes, leaders were especially likely to seek
proximity to domestic challengers under conditions of unstable power hierarchies and
the absence of intergroup conict (for example, war). Presumably, under conditions of
war, leaders may prefer to marginalize, exclude, and isolate challengers, which may
only serve to heighten other pernicious biases at work during wartime, such as opti-
mistic overcondence.
37
In addition, domestic challengers may be less likely to
threaten leaders in times of war if they themselves experience a rallying effect in the
face of external threat to the larger group.
Clearly, the effectiveness of leaders depends, in part, on the t between leader
skills and abilities and followersneeds and expectations. Van Vugt and colleagues
have proposed that leadership can serve at least two functions: instrumental and
relational; this mirrors the distinction identied by Sidney Verba in terms of affec-
tive and instrumental functions of leadership. For example, when group identity is
low among members, instrumental leaders were more effective at obtaining bene-
ts from members.
38
De Cremer and Van Vugt posit that the relative importance
of these functions can vary with the salience of group membership to any given
potential follower, and they show that when social identity is salient, committed
leaders who show fairness toward members prove more effective at raising the level
of contributions to the group.
39
However, when personal as opposed to group
35
Bruce Bueno de Mesquita et al., The Logic of Political Survival (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003).
36
Nicole L. Mead and Jon K. Maner, On Keeping Your Enemies Close: Powerful Leaders Seek Proximity to Ingroup
Power Threats,Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 102, no. 3 (March 2012): 587.
37
Dominic D. P. Johnson and Dominic Tierney, The Rubicon Theory of War: How the Path to Conict Reaches the Point
of No Return,International Organization 36, no.1 (Summer 2011): 740.
38
Mark Van Vugt et al., Autocratic Leadership in Social Dilemmas; Sidney Verba, Small Groups and Political Behavior
(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1961).
39
David De Cremer and Mark Van Vugt, Intergroup and Intragroup Aspects of Leadership in Social Dilemmas: A Rela-
tional Model of Cooperation,Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 38, no. 2 (March 2002): 12636.
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identity is salient, leaders with intrinsic skills emerged as more inuential.
40
The
value that individual voters place on these various roles may provide insight
into some of the characteristic differences in valued aspects of leadership style
witnessed across left-right ideological orientations. In addition, environmental
factors can inuence the signicance of this balance as well; in times of attack
or community stress, groups may expect and need different forms of leader-
ship than when times are less stressful. Such a recognition offers insight into
what otherwise seem to be odd changes in leadership in democratic contexts,
such as the parliamentary defeat of Winston Churchill after the Second World
War, when previously no one could have imagined anyone else leading Britain
through the war to victory. Once peace was at hand, voters showed that they
wanted a different kind of leader to shepherd them through reconstruction.
Institutional Environments
In addition to the type of collective action and the leaderfollower dynamic dis-
cussed above, specic features of the institutional environment can shape the
emergence and nature of leadership.
41
Institutions by their very nature are
designed to manipulate the incentives and sanctions faced by individuals by estab-
lishing the rules of the game.
42
Therefore, an evolutionary perspective on leader-
ship psychology would lead us to pose two questions in particular: 1) When and
how do institutional incentives reect, constrain, and enable evolved preferences
for leadership? 2) When and how does institutional design interact with the attrib-
utes of individuals to help explain which leaders are likely to emerge in particular
environments, and what effect they are likely to have on the situation?
The rst question helps reveal that many institutions reect or enhance evolved,
deeply engrained preference structures. This is perhaps most dramatic in the case
of exploitation avoidance, famously illustrated by the checks and balances imple-
mented in the US Constitution.
43
Thus, one explanation for the diffusion of
democracy and its surprisingly widespread psychological appeal is quite simply
that the system of institutional checks that it offers meshes quite well with an
evolved psychology that is designed to manage the tension between the need for
leadership and the desire to avoid the opportunities for exploitation that it gener-
ates.
44
In this sense, when institutions of democracy mesh well with evolved
40
Ibid.
41
Robert Jervis, Do Leaders Matter and How Would We Know?Security Studies 22, no. 2 (AprilJune 2013): 15379;
James M. Goldgeier and Philip E. Tetlock, Psychology and International Relations Theory,Annual Review of Political
Science 4 (2001): 6792; Bo Rothstein, The Quality of Government: Corruption, Social Trust, and Inequality in Interna-
tional Perspective (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).
42
Douglass C. North, Institutions, Institutional Change, and Economic Performance (New York: Cambridge University
Press, 1990).
43
James Madison, The Federalist no. 10, The Utility of the Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insur-
rection,Daily Advertiser, 22 November 1787.
44
Anthony C. Lopez and Rose McDermott, Adaptation, Heritability, and the Emergence of Evolutionary Political Sci-
ence,Political Psychology 33, no. 3 (June 2012): 34362.
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preference structures, these institutions develop more easily, require less effort to
conform to and are more culturally stable.
45
Institutions provide an external window into the current state of the enduring
psychological arms race between leaders and followers; institutional checks and
balances reect circumscribed leader prerogatives, whereas the lack of such
restraints reects relative follower subjugation. This recognition allows us to
develop predictions about the conditions under which prevailing institutional con-
straints should privilege leaders versus followers. Contexts of chronic instability
and resource deprivation or long periods of stability may affect this balance simply
because it affords or deprives the population of the opportunity to implement and
institutionalize various organizational structures. However, more importantly
from an evolutionary perspective are the consequences of leaders who bring war,
deprivation, or other negative outcomes on their population(s). Such outcomes
may lead to overthrow of those specic leaders, but also lead to an increased call
for more systematic institutional constraints, which would prevent the rise of simi-
larly exploitative leaders. Certainly, the development of the Magna Carta in Eng-
land in 1215designed to constrain King John by securing the rights of church
property he had exploited for his own personal usecan be seen in this light. An
evolutionary perspective, while providing new angles from which to view the inter-
action of individual psychology and institutional design, simultaneously reinforces
a point long made in the IR literature: institutions constitute both cause and effect
in political behavior.
46
In addition to the view of institutions as mediators of the incessant arms race
between leader and follower prerogatives, we can examine the ways in which par-
ticular institutional designs interact with specic attributes of individuals to gener-
ate leadership outcomes. The opportunities for study in this arena are vast,
bounded only by the universe of institutional design possibilities and the spectrum
of human phenotypic variation. As just one example: given that there is heritable
variation in basal testosterone levels across individuals, it is likely that this varia-
tion may lead certain individuals to preferentially select intocertain institutions
while avoiding others.
47
Consider, for example, differences in the kinds of people
who would likely be attracted to serving in the institution of the military versus
working in academia; we might expect little overlap between the kinds of people
who would select into each respective environment. These differences reside in
complex ways at a genetic level as well. The relationship between testosterone and
stress, for example, is mediated by particular genetic factors. Individuals with a
specic low-promotion serotonin transporter genotype and high testosterone dis-
play stronger stress reactions, hyperactivity in the amgydala (part of the brain
45
Pascal Boyer and Michael Bang Petersen, The Naturalness of (Many) Social Institutions: Evolved Cognition as Their
Foundation,Journal of Institutional Economics 8, no. 1 (March 2012): 125.
46
Lisa L. Martin and Beth A. Simmons, Theories and Empirical Studies of International Institutions,International Orga-
nization 52, no. 4 (Autumn 1998): 72957.
47
Rosen, War and Human Nature.
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involved in the processing of emotional information), and less connections
between that part of the brain and the prefrontal cortex which engages in complex
decision making under conditions of threat. The opposite is true of those with the
high-promotion version of the serotonin transporter gene who also possess high
testosterone; such individuals showed lower stress reactivity (lower cortisol) in
response to threat. In an elegant series of studies, Robert Josephs et al. demonstrate
this effect under conditions of threats to status as a result of social exclusion, cogni-
tive and perceptual failures, and physical competence.
48
Thus, certain high-testos-
terone people will function very well under conditions of raised stress, while others
will be less successful at doing so.
In other words, under certain conditions the institutional environment may fos-
ter aggressive leadership styles, even if inadvertently. This is in large part a function
of biological processes that vary greatly at the individual level. The emergence of
such leadership styles is likely when: 1) institutional design operates as a selection
mechanism that fosters groups of elites with predictable self-selected qualities; 2)
domestic institutional checks on the dominant behavior of elites is weak, and; 3)
the international environment is permissive.
49
The challenge for future research
is to identify the specic institutional design features that have the greatest selec-
tion effects on various types of people. One rough and ready distinction is that
between proportionality and so-called rst past the post electoral systems. To the
extent that certain electoral environments offer premiums to social strategies that
are associated with phenotypic traits such as dominance and high testosterone, we
may inadvertently prioritize the on-average establishment of a relatively domi-
nance-postured, threat-sensitive leadership, or, conversely, a more egalitarian set
of social welfare systems.
In short, there are at least three dimensions of the institutional environment that
seem to matter most in determining the domestic emergence of leadership types.
First, what are the domestic paths to power? That is, if leaders are elected, how are
they elected? If they are not elected, what is the nature of the social, environmental,
situational, and cultural networks that bring them to power? Second, what are the
domestic checks on power? As Stephen Peter Rosen suggests, we must examine
the distribution of power within the statethat operates to constrain (or enable)
leader prerogatives.
50
Lastly, what are the foreign checks on power? This dimen-
sion relates to the ability of the leader to exercise autonomous action abroad given
the states position in the international distribution of power and in the face of
globalism, international institutions, and norms. These questions are in contrast to
the three questions posed by Fred I. Greenstein, who sought to explain the condi-
tions under which leaders matter: 1) Does the environment allow restructuring
by the actor? 2) What is the location of the actor in the policy environment? and
48
Robert A. Josephs et al., Genetic and Hormonal Sensitivity to Threat: Testing a Serotonin Transporter Genotype£
Testosterone Interaction,Psychoneuroendocrinology 37, no. 6 (June 2012): 75261.
49
Rosen, War and Human Nature, 74.
50
Ibid.
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3) What are the personal strengths and weaknesses of the actor?
51
Whereas Green-
stein and his followers prefer to think of individuals and institutions in terms of
relative power and constraints, our framework focuses on the nature of the interac-
tion between institutional design and individual attributes. In other words, we do
not assume such things as invariant drive for power. Therefore, we move beyond
the question of when do leaders matter?to the question of what is the nature of
the interaction between institutions and leaders?This lens allows us to under-
stand the leadership styles that may be privileged in various contexts, and enables
sharper hypotheses that better isolate causal effects and interactions between indi-
vidual variability, institutional context, and leadership outcomes.
Dispositional Aspects of Leadership
We now turn to the nature of individual phenotypic variability (uniqueness) itself.
As in the previous sections, we continue to note the ways that these attributes
interact with the aspects of the situational environment, but here our focus is more
specically on the origin and variety of individual phenotypic uniqueness and its
impact on leadership outcomes. For example, leadership appears to be related to
certain individual characteristics such as initiative taking, social intelligence, and
specic expertise in the domains of action, generosity, fairness and trustworthi-
ness.
52
Furthermore, according to von Rueden the same individual may be super-
lative on many of the traits conducive to leadershipbecause many traits are
linked by phenotypic correlation.
53
Leaders emerge in the face of substantial threats or opportunities, since that is
when the benets of coordinated action would be expected to prove most substan-
tial. In other work using real-world leader examples, Jessica Carnevale, Yoel Inbar,
and Jennifer S. Lerner found that leaders scored higher on the need for cognition,
meaning they seek out and enjoy effortful cognitive tasks.
54
These individuals per-
formed better on two of four tasks related to decision-making competence, speci-
cally framing and honoring sunk costs. This is particularly compelling in light of
the elite manipulation hypothesis mentioned above, in which a leaders ability to
control and manipulate framing is a direct function of their ability to resolve ances-
trally recurrent adaptive problems relating to labor recruitment and coalition
maintenance. Interestingly, these leaders also outperformed controls, suggesting
that leadership actually does reect some aspect of better skills or ability, at least in
some domains.
But as we discussed above, leadership is not just a function of leader attributes,
but also of follower attributes. This means that perception of leadership skills and
51
Fred I. Greenstein, Personality and Politics: Problems of Evidence, Inference, and Conceptualization (New York: Rout-
ledge, 1992).
52
Van Vugt and Roney, The Evolutionary Psychology of Leadership Theory.
53
Von Rueden, ““The Roots and Fruits of Social Status.
54
Jessica J. Carnevale, Yoel Inbar and Jennifer S. Lerner, Individual Differences in Need for Cognition and Decision-
Making Competence among Leaders,Personality and Individual Differences 51, no. 3 (August 2011): 27478
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abilities may also be subject to evolutionary pressures. Given that certain individ-
ual-specic phenotypic attributes affect the kind of leader one may be (or is per-
ceived to be) in specic contexts, and given that leadership has often been most
useful in moments of coalitional exigency, we should expect natural selection to
have fashioned these leadership preference structures to operate quickly, uncon-
sciously, and in response to the implicit cues that have ancestrally correlated with
leadership success in certain contexts. Indeed, evidence suggests that people are
often able to make many behavior- and character-relevant determinations about
anothers leadership abilities just by looking at them. Much like mind reading, this
skill-reading ability is demonstrated cross culturally and also appears to emerge
surprisingly early in childhood development.
55
For example, certain facial attrib-
utes seem to correlate with ones likelihood to cooperate in certain circumstances,
as well as ones propensity for aggression, and there is evidence that we uncon-
sciously attend to these cues when making implicit decisions of who to trust and
whom we expect will reciprocate cooperation.
56
Clearly, such traits in leaders would be useful in helping to determine what kind
of leader we might prefer in certain contexts (warfare) versus others (peacetime).
Building on this insight, Spisak et al. show that, even when controlling for sex, peo-
ple tend to prefer masculine faces in wartime and feminine faces in peacetime.
57
This is because ancestrally, masculine facial features would have correlated with
other phenotypic attributes that would have promoted group success in battle, the
converse being true in peacetime. As Spisak and colleagues argue, these ndings
suggest that different leadership prototypesmay be more effective in different
political contexts, and these ndings have been demonstrated cross culturally. In
short, humans possess specialized psychological systems that are designed to
match coalitional context with leadership attributes in a way that would have
enhanced successful collective action ancestrally.
Not only do people attend to individual facial attributes; variability in vocal
pitch plays an important role as well. Casey A. Klofstad, Rindy C. Anderson, and
Susan Peters nd that individuals with lower-pitched voices tend to be more suc-
cessful in running for leadership positions, and in a follow-up study Anderson and
Klofstad showed that the preference for low-pitch voices holds with women as
well.
58
In addition to facial features and vocal pitch, age also appears to correlate
55
John Antonakis and Olaf Dalgas, Predicting Elections: Childs Play!Science 323, no. 5918 (27 February 2009): 1183
56
Toshio Yamagishi et al., You Can Judge a Book by Its Cover: Evidence that Cheaters May Look Different from Coop-
erators,Evolution and Human Behavior 24, no. 4 (July 2003): 290301; Michael P. Haselhuhn and Elaine M. Wong,
Bad to the Bone: Facial Structure Predicts Unethical Behavior,Proceedings of the Royal Society B 279, no. 1728 (7
February 2012): 57176; Lindsey A. Short et al., Detection of Propensity for Aggression Based on Facial Structure
Irrespective of Face Race,Evolution and Human Behavior, 33, no. 2 (March 2012): 12129.
57
Brian R. Spisak et al., Warriors and Peacekeepers: Testing a Biosocial Implicit Leadership Hypothesis of Intergroup
Relations Using Masculine and Feminine Faces,PLoS ONE 7, no. 1 (20 January 2012): e30399.
58
Casey A. Klofstad, Rindy C. Anderson, and Susan Peters, Sounds Like a Winner: Voice Pitch Inuences Perception of
Leadership Capacity in Both Men and Women,Proceedings of The Royal Society B 279, no. 1738 (7 July 2012): 2698
704; Rindy C. Anderson and Casey A. Klofstad, Preference for Leaders with Masculine Voices Holds in the Case of
Feminine Leadership RolesPLoS ONE 7, no. 12 (2012): e51212.
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with successful leadership. Spisak et al. nds that in the context of wartime, indi-
viduals also tend to prefer older rather than younger leaders.
59
Thus, a range of
individual attributes contributes to the emergence of leadership in a very complex
but predictable manner made sensible under the light of evolutionary analysis.
Additionally, in certain contexts, various individual attributes may cause others to
perceive those leaders as more capable. As also previously discussed, individuals
with such attributes may themselves self-select into positions of power in these
very contexts. Thus we see the unique interplay of both situational context and
leaderfollower dynamics in these examples of the interaction between individual
attributes and environmental exigencies.
Individual Differences in Biological Aspects of Political Leadership
In public discourse, a great deal of attention has been paid to the question of leaders
being either born or made. Such a question is no longer useful given the weight of
cumulative ndings that that show all human traits to be some combination and
interaction between both forces. The topic is complex, and understanding leadership
emergence requires identication of the iterative and recursive psychological, envi-
ronmental, and biological processes that leads to the emergence of particular leader
behavior. This would include the investigation of two types of mechanisms that, in
interaction with situational cues, affect and generate leadership attributes: 1) univer-
sal psychological mechanisms that all humans possess for asserting and responding
to leadership in ways that would have proven adaptive in ancestral environments; 2)
individual variation, genetic and environmental, that effects the development and
expression of those mechanisms. In short, this perspective argues that leadership
processes are best explained and predicted as a product of the complex interplay of
mechanisms universal to humans in combination with unique biological inheritance
and precipitant circumstance. Humans differ in the biological processes that regulate
these traits, and specic environments elicit, restrict, or develop leadership traits
through those biological processes to varying degrees depending upon the individual.
We explore these universal mechanisms below in the context of neurobiological and
genetic variation, while noting throughout the specic ways in which these systems
respond to various types of situational cues.
Observed variability in leadership traits has neurobiological and genetic deter-
minants, and studies examining this underlying variation have begun to provide
greater specicity about the interaction of genes and environment in shaping lead-
ers, in addition to other applications. A series of behavioral genetic studies has
found that genetic inuences on leadership account for roughly thirty to forty-four
percent of the variance in these traits, measured by a number of characteristics
including social potency and achievement.
60
Such work is often misinterpreted to
59
Spisak et al. Warriors and Peacekeepers.
60
Richard Arvey et al., The Determinants of Leadership Role Occupancy: Genetic and Personality Factors,Leadership
Quarterly 17, no. 1 (Feburary 2006): 120.
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reect a dichotomy of biology versus environment, but in fact is quite nuanced the-
oretically in interpreting such estimates as starting points, which then are further
rened. We discuss this in further detail below. Recent work exploring individual
genetic markers, for example, has implicated variance in dopamine receptors and
activity may be involved in the emergence of leadership role occupancy. Dopamine
functions as a neurotransmitter found to have an important role in risk and reward
areas of motivated behaviors, providing feelings of enjoyment and reinforcement
as well as reaction against aversive conditions; it also plays a role in memory, atten-
tion, cognition, mood, and learning, among other behavioral traits.
61
Dopamine
also has a role in regulating the ow of information between areas of the brain. In
their sample of Chinese managers, Wen-Dong Li et al. found those in leadership
roles showed less proactive personalities, which includes tendencies such as fore-
sight and persistence, but greater rule breaking and other behaviors indicative of
risk taking.
62
The senior author, Richard D. Arvey, notes: You can be in a leader-
ship role, but you might not be effective.
This research demonstrates that while rule breaking and risk taking may be
associated with the likelihood of a rise into leadership positions, it only operates to
the benet of those in such roles in certain contexts, such as Gorbachev at the end
of the Cold War or Nelson Mandela in ghting for the end of Apartheid in South
Africa. But those exact same traits can prove utterly disastrous in other circum-
stances, such as when leaders launch unnecessary and costly wars. The traits that
may suit a person well when transformative leadership is necessary might prove
disastrous when the situation requires simple coordination. In this way, there is
likely a match between leader and context that might inform the international rela-
tions literature on chance. Specically, chance may simply reect an unusually
good circumstantial alignment between specic contextual opportunity and the
unique personal attributes of a given leader.
In addition, developmental factors instigate or restrict the expression of genetic
and biological traits. One example of this comes from work exploring the effect of
biological sex on leadership that identied two of these factors contributing to
leadership roles in women specically: formal work experiences and family experi-
ences.
63
Roughly 32 percent of the variance in leadership role occupancy was heri-
table. Once such genetic factors were controlled for, only work experience
61
A number of other hormones appear to also play a role in the emergence of leadership characteristics as well. See
Douglas Madsen, Power Seekers are Different: Further Biochemical Evidence,American Political Science Review 80,
no. 1 (March 1986): 26169. Madsen conducted perhaps the most comprehensively prescient work in this area in a
series of seminal experiments in the 1980s. This work constituted the rst clear documentation of serotonin differen-
ces among individuals in a critical area directly related to leadership drive. Such novel theoretical and methodologi-
cal approaches helped deepen our understanding of the neurobiological processes undergirding such phenomena
and helped illuminate the basis of important characteristics that potentiate good leadership or precipitate poor
leadership.
62
Wen-Dong Li et al., A Mixed Blessing? Dual Mediating Mechanisms in the Relationship between Dopamine Trans-
porter Gene DAT1 and Leadership Role Occupancy,Leadership Quarterly 26, no. 5 (October 2015): 67186.
63
Richard D. Arvey et al., Developmental and Genetic Determinants of Leadership Role Occupancy among Women,
Journal of Applied Psychology 92, no. 3 (May 2007): 693706.
696 R. MCDERMOTT ET AL.
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remained signicantly related to leadership roles for women. In a large sample of
Swedish twins, Sankap Chaturvedi et al. found that genetic factors accounted for a
signicant proportion of how individuals perceived their own emergent leadership
behavior, although this factor showed a meaningful gender difference as well (44
percent for men, 37 percent for women).
64
Interestingly, this study also found that
the magnitude of the genetic effect on this perception varied with age (but only for
women) with the peak occurring at midlife. If environmental factors, such as being
in leadership positions, matter more for women than men, then it should not be
surprising that such perceptions should reach their apex in midlife in women, for
this would be the time when most women would have completed the bulk of their
childbearing activities, and reached a stage in life when such leadership positions
were open or given to them based on experience and skill, if not intrinsic desire. In
a further exploration of these gender differences, Chaturvedi et al. used a much
smaller sample of female twins from the Minnesota registry and found that dispo-
sitional hope mediates the effect of genetic inuences on their measure of transfor-
mational leadership; however, the sample size is sufciently small so as to warrant
serious caution in the interpretation of these results.
65
Research on the genetic, neurochemical, and phenotypic correlates of leader-
ship reinforces a crucial point regarding the nature and role of biology in
politics: genes, hormones, or other biological markers do not operate in
isolation but rather in interaction with the environment. Thus, presentations of
the etiology of leadership that contrast a stark dichotomy between biology or
environmental factors (for example, are leaders born or made?) necessarily
represent a vast oversimplication of the process of leadership emergence,
reinforcement, and maintenance. It is not the case that one or the other factor
exerts a decisive inuence. Rather, these factors work in concert to produce the
behavior of interest. Understanding the role of biological mechanisms in the
developmental pathways of behavior is critical for identifying the psychological
traits that may contribute to effective leadership in certain contexts. That is,
some part of a persons disposition plays a role in how he or she experiences
the world, makes decisions balancing risk and reward, and makes moral
choices. The question should not be what part of a leader is born and what part
is made, but rather what biological factors contribute to different aspects of
leadership, and how do they express and manifest themselves in leadership and
its social and political demands within particular environmental circumstances?
Knowing more about the pathways to leadership behavior allows observers to
better identify which aspects of leader behavior might be more susceptible to
institutional effects.
64
Sankalp Chaturvedi et al., The Heritability of Emergent Leadership: Age and Gender as Moderating Factors,Leader-
ship Quarterly 23, no. 2 (April 2012): 21932.
65
Sankalp Chaturvedi et al., Genetic Underpinnings of Transformational Leadership: The Mediating Role of Disposi-
tional Hope,Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies 18, no. 4 (November 2011): 46979.
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The Way Forward
The construction of leadership provided here demonstrates novel insights into
leader decision making and behavior that can be revealed using the tools and
insights garnered from an evolutionary perspective drawing upon biological meth-
ods and models. Similar to the study of other traits, adopting a combined environ-
mental and biological perspective could help develop a more comprehensive
theory of the origins, function, and maintenance of political leadership. By explor-
ing the foundations of leadership and followership from a psychologically and bio-
logically informed perspective, we can begin to leverage our understanding of
leadership in service of our very survival through a recognition of those environ-
mental cues, triggers, and constraints which instigate and extinguish our ability to
engage in effective aggression and cooperation. Moreover, we can strive for propi-
tious matches between individual characteristics and environmental circumstances
in creating enduring, effective institutions. One of the reasons the US Constitution
arguably remains such a vibrant and effective document despite tremendous cul-
tural changes and upheavals since its creation is that it provides an effective resolu-
tion to the repeated and enduring challenge of exploitation of followers by leaders.
In addition, using insights gained from an evolutionary perspective, we can begin
to investigate how to create more effective institutional structures which support the
self-selection and emergence of representative, cooperative leaders, while nding ways
to better constrain the potentially destructive behavior of exploitative ones. We can
also begin to examine how to provide more effective mechanisms for followers to
evaluate leaders in large societies to avoid exploitation, and harness insight, dedica-
tion, drive, and motivation for the collective good. It is possible as well to employ an
evolutionary perspective to advance this agenda in productive ways by seeking to
identify the optimal institutional incentives and constraints which operate to promote
positive leaders and constrain negative outcomes in the societies they guide.
Acknowledgments
The authors thank the reviewers at Security Studies for their helpful comments.
698 R. MCDERMOTT ET AL.
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... In international relations, for example, political outcomes are explained as a function of complex interactions between the personal attributes of the leader and domestic or international structural constraints (Byman & Pollack, 2001;Greenstein, 1992;Jervis, 2013). These advances are particularly evident in the context of warfare, as researchers have made great strides in understanding the nature of leadership and its impact upon conflict processes (Fuhrmann & Horowitz, 2015;Horowitz, Stam, & Ellis, 2015;McDermott & Hatemi, 2014;McDermott, Lopez, & Hatemi, 2016). ...
... Leadership is the contingent product of an interaction between individual traits and environmental cues (social, economic, institutional, etc.), and we can see this both in the emergence of leadership as well as in cases in which individuals retreat from positions of authority or find such positions uncomfortable (Josephs, Sellers, Newman, & Mehta, 2006;McDermott et al., 2016). Although there is evidence that certain genetic markers correspond with elevated status and leadership positions in certain contexts (De Neve, Mikhaylov, Dawes, Christakis, & Fowler, 2013), there is no evidence of an uninterrupted arc from birth to leadership that is pre-determined by one's biology. ...
... Another part of the answer lies in the nature of inter-individual differences (D. M. Buss, 1999;Lopez & McDermott, 2012;McDermott et al., 2016;Tooby & Cosmides, 1990). Although theories of individual differences are extensive and deep, I instead merely draw attention to one aspect of individual differences that may prove compelling for future study: sex differences in leader manipulation. ...
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... Spisak and colleagues argue that the challenge of finding, establishing, and maintaining leadership for collective action was a reproductively significant adaptive problem for our ancestors. Indeed, both the reproductive and material benefits of effective leadership for groups in certain contexts -especially collective action -appear substantial (Betzig 1986;van Vugt and Kurzban 2007;Smith et al. 2007;Hooper, Kaplan, and Boone 2010;van Vugt and Ahuja 2011;McDermott and Hatemi 2014;Glowacki and von Rueden 2015;McDermott, Lopez, and Hatemi 2016). Indeed, this constitutes the lion's share of research on leadership from an evolutionary perspective. ...
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Evolutionary approaches to political science are part of a behavioral revolution that is helping to shed new light on old problems and inspire novel hypotheses on emerging puzzles (Hafner-Burton et al. 2017; Kertzer and Tingley 2018). Prior misconceptions of evolutionary theory and its application to the social sciences have been usefully corrected or placed in their proper context, such as claims that natural selection produces inflexibly selfish individuals or that evolutionary processes are indeterminate models of political preference (Lopez, McDermott, and Petersen 2011; Lopez 2014, 2016b). An evolutionary model of political decision-making examines the link between a biological system and political outcomes, and explains the function of that biological system with reference to natural selection operating in ancestral environments (Lopez and McDermott 2012; Petersen 2015). Although our knowledge of ancestral environments is often incomplete, it is not fundamentally unknowable, necessitating methodological triangulation with complementary lines of evidence from many fields such as, but not limited to paleoanthropology, paleoarchaeology, geology, neuroscience, evolutionary game theory, primatology and behavioral ecology. Contributions of evolutionists to our understanding of political decision-making has yielded tangible benefits to a range of research questions, such as: When and why do we cooperate (Milner 1992; Axelrod 2006)? What is the origin and nature of political preferences and ideology (Alford and Hibbing 2004; Alford, Funk, and Hibbing 2008; Fowler and Schreiber 2008; Hatemi et al. 2009; Petersen 2012)? Why might someone sacrifice their lives for their group (Choi and Bowles 2007; Whitehouse 2018)? Why are leaders simultaneously sources of inspiration and insecurity (Smith et al. 2007; Rose McDermott and Hatemi 2014; Rose McDermott, Lopez, and Hatemi 2016; Lopez 2019)? Evolutionary approaches do not make context-general predictions about the content of preferences or beliefs; rather, we expect that organisms are “adaptation executors,” exquisitely sensitive to context in ways that would have been ancestrally adaptive, even if it appears irrational or maladaptive in modern contexts. Sometimes the behavior we observe will be entirely consistent with rational expectations, while at other times it will not be. Put differently, evolutionary approaches can sometimes be used to buttress existing claims, while at others it offers an empirically and ecologically valid replacement (Camerer 1998; McDermott, Fowler, and Smirnov 2008). Despite many gains, evolutionary approaches remain somewhat hindered by the same fundamental limitation that faces the behavioral sciences generally – the so-called “aggregation problem” (Powell 2017). However, this problem is tractable and no longer rests on fallacies that once asserted the blunt irrelevance of individual psychology. Instead, behavioral scientists progressively build a growing edifice of the many direct and indirect pathways by which individual psychology shapes political outcomes. The gains to be had are great, and the limitations are known and scalable.
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