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Study Details What Sets Leaders Apart From Followers

A new study identifies the cognitive and neurobiological processes that influence whether someone is more likely to take on a leadership role or delegate decision-making.

According to researchers at the University of Zurich, leaders are more willing to take responsibility for making decisions that affect the welfare of others.

Whether the decision is made by a parent, boss or heads of state, it can affect not only the decision-maker, but sometimes entire companies or countries.

In their study, researchers from the Department of Economics identify a common decision process that distinguishes followers from leaders: responsibility aversion, or the unwillingness to make decisions that also affect others.

In the study leaders of groups could either make a decision themselves or delegate it to the group.

A distinction was drawn between “self” trials, in which the decision only affected the decision-makers themselves, and “group” trials, in which there were consequences for the whole group.

The neurobiological processes taking place in the brains of the participants as they were making the decisions were examined using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the researchers said.

The scientists tested several common intuitive beliefs, such as the notion that individuals who are less afraid of potential losses or taking risks, or who like being in control, will be more willing to take on responsibility for others.

These characteristics, however, did not explain the differing extent of responsibility aversion found in the study participants, according to the researchers.

Instead, they found that responsibility aversion was driven by a greater need for certainty about the best course of action when the decision also had an effect on others, they discovered.

This shift in the need for certainty was particularly pronounced in people with a strong aversion to responsibility, the researchers add.

“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 lead author Micah Edelson, Ph.D. “These can include authoritarian leaders who make most decisions themselves, and egalitarian leaders who frequently seek a group consensus.”

The study was published in the journal Science.

Source: University of Zurich

Photo: Low responsibility aversion is an important determinant of the decision to lead. Credit: Giuseppe Parente.



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