Leader or follower: What distinguishes leaders from others?

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A new study done by researchers from the University of Zurich talks about the the cognitive and neurobiological processes that can decide how likely a person to take on leadership act as a representative for other people.

Decisions like choosing the school your kid will go to or which employee to let go off during the lay offs affect not only the decision makers but also people around them- so people like parents, company bosses and other important authoritative figures have to make such decisions. The consequences of such decisions would be borne by these individuals but sometimes also by organizations and countries.

The research team from the Department of Economics set out to examine what exactly makes leaders shine differently than their peers. The study was published recently in the journal Science and identifies the decision process that leaders usually follow which sets them apart from followers- Responsibility Aversion- which is the unwillingness and aversion to make a decision that also affects others.

For the study, the research team worked with groups of people, the leaders of the groups had to make a decision on their own or delegate it to their group. There was clear distinction between “self trials” and “group trials”, which involved making decisions that affected only the decision makers and those that affected the whole group respectively. All the neurobiological processes that were taking place in the brains of the participants when they were making these decisions were analysed by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

Scientists tested various intuitive beliefs like the concept that people who are not too afraid of the potential losses that their decision might bring or taking on risks, or people who like to be in control, are more inclined to take on responsibility for others.

However these characters couldn’t explain the diffrent extents of responsibility aversion that were seen in participants. It was found that responsibility aversion was actually because of the need for certainty that the leaders are choosing the best course of action- this was seen especially in people who demonstrated 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”, said Micah Edelson, who is the lead author of the study. “These can include authoritarian leaders who make most decisions themselves, and egalitarian leaders who frequently seek a group consensus.”

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