22 June 2007 - Mark van Vugt

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22 June 2007 - Mark van Vugt



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    Evolution and the social psychology of leadership:

    The mismatch hypothesis

    Mark Van Vugt, University of Kent

    Dominic D. P. Johnson, University of Edinburgh

    Robert B. Kaiser, Kaplan DeVries Inc.

    Rick O’Gorman, Sheffield Hallam University

Please do not cite or circulate manuscript without permission from the authors

Chapter for ―Social psychology and leadership‖ edited by C. Hoyt, D. Forsyth, & A.

    Goethals. New York: Praeger Perspectives.




    An evolutionary perspective on leadership assumes that leadership consists of a constellation of adaptations for solving different coordination problems in human ancestral environments, most notably pertaining to group movement, social cohesion, nd intergroup relations. Our evolved leadership psychology influences the way we a

    think about and respond to modern leadership, which creates the potential for a mismatch between leadership requirements in modern versus ancestral environments. This chapter provides some evidence for this mismatch hypothesis and notes some implications for leadership theory and practice.



    Evolution and the social psychology of leadership:

    The mismatch hypothesis

    When Tony Blair stepped down as prime-minister of Britain in 2007 after ten years in office most British voters were glad to see him go. Despite his numerous contributions to reforms of the health care system, education, civil law, and government, he will be mostly remembered for his decision to send British troops into Iraq. Matters of life and death ultimately determine the historical judgment of leadership. In times of crises we turn to leaders to give us comfort, hope, and a sense of directionand if they fail, they must go.

     Leadership failure is common in modern society. Scholars estimate a 60-75% failure rate in business and political leadership with sometimes dire consequences for the welfare of followers (Hogan, Curphy, & Hogan, 1994). Why does modern leadership fail so often and sometimes so spectacularly? There are many possible answers but we focus on one here. Perhaps the failure of modern leadership is a consequence of it sometimes being at odds with aspects of our evolved leadership psychology (Van Vugt, Hogan, & Kaiser, in press).

    It is argued that we have a natural way of thinking about and responding to

    leadership which has been shaped by several million years of human evolution. But because modern human environments are so dramatically different from ancestral environments in which leadership and followership evolved this creates the potential for a mismatch. As a result, the way leaders and followers interact in modern societies might not always produce adaptive outcomes. This mismatch hypothesis can explain many counter-intuitive findings in leadership research with various implications for leadership theory and practice.

    Evolutionary Social Psychology



    Evolutionary social psychology has its roots in social psychology, evolutionary psychology, and evolutionary biology (Schaller, Simpson & Kenrick, 2006). Evolutionary social psychology (ESP) is based on the Darwinian assumption that human psychology is the product of evolution through natural selection in the same way that natural selection has shaped human physiology. Because the

     humans are first and environment in which humans evolved was primarily social

    foremost a group living species (Dunbar, 2004) -- ESP proposes that the human mind is essentially social, comprising many functional psychological adaptations specifically designed to solve particular adaptive problems of ancestral group life. Examples of such adaptations include parental care, language, social cooperation, and social intelligence (Buss, 2005; Van Vugt & Schaller, in press). Individuals possessing these traits would have been better equipped to extract valuable resources from group life needed for their survival and reproduction. This then enabled these traits to spread through the population and reach fixation. Here we entertain the possibility that leadership and followership have evolved as adaptive solutions to a range of group problems.

     Evolutionary Origins of Leadership

    The human species is estimated be 2 to 2.5 million years old. For most of this period, humans probably lived in small kin-based bands in savannah-type environments (Dunbar, 2004; Johnson & Earle, 2000). These family-level groups were connected to others, forming clans and tribes that came together at seasonal gatherings to exchange mates, goods, and information (Richerson & Boyd, 2006). For ancestral humans, group life was the best survival strategy in a hostile environment in which predation must have been high and resources scarce (Foley, 1997).



    Collective action in the form of hunting, sharing food, and defending the group may have provided a buffer against these threats and this presumably created a niche for leadership to organize group activities (Van Vugt, 2006). For instance, in planning a group hunt people must decide who will join the hunting party, where they will go, when they go and when they return. Such decisions create coordination problems and these can be better solved if an individual initiates and coordinates the group-decision making process. In recent papers (Van Vugt, 2006; Van Vugt, Hogan, & Kaiser, in press) we have identified three ancestral coordination problems for which leadership would have been critical, that is, group movement (e.g., hunting), group cohesion (e.g., promoting cooperation, managing conflict), and intergroup politics (e.g., warfare, peacemaking).

    There is some suggestion that leadership predates humans. The phylogenetic evidence suggests that pre-adaptations for leadership and followership are found in quite primitive social species like the waggle-dance in honey bees and flying formations in migrating bird species (Van Vugt, 2006). These examples suggest that

    species lacking complex cognitive capacities can display followership using a decision rule as simple as ―follow the one who moves first.‖

    Leadership is also observed in our closest genetic relative, the chimpanzee, with whom we shared a common ancestor approximately 5-7 million years ago. Chimpanzees live in fission-fusion societies of around 30-50 individuals in a large territory. They frequently form coalitions with each other for activities like hunting and foraging, internal politics and protecting territory boundaries, and leadership is prominently displayed in these situations by usually the most dominant troop member, the alpha male (Boehm, 1999; De Waal, 1996).

    Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness



    The social complexity of leadership most likely increased with the arrival of early humans some 2 million years ago. This period marks the beginning of the Pleistocene period which ended as recently as 13,000 years ago with the agricultural revolution. This period is sometimes referred to as the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness or EEA for humans (Foley, 1997; Van Vugt, Hogan, & Kaiser, in

    1 Modern hunter-gatherer societies such as the !Kung San of the Kalahari desert, press).

    the Shoshone of the American Great Basin, the Yanomamö of the Amazon river basin, the Inuit of the Arctic coasts, and the Aborigines in Northern Australia may provide the best model we have for human social organization in this stage (Boehm, 1999; Chagnon, 1997; Johnson & Earle, 2000).

    Extrapolating from this evidence, conditions in the EEA were largely egalitarian and there was no formal leadership structure. There were so-called Big Men, often the best hunters or warriors in the band, who could exercise disproportionate influence on group decision-making within and sometimes even outside their domain of expertise but their power was severely curtailed (Diamond, 1997; Johnson & Earle, 2000). Attempts by Big Men to dominate group discussion

    dominance is a legacy of our primate past-- were met with fierce resistance from the rest of the group. Anthropologists talk about a reversal of the dominance hierarchy to indicate that, unlike in nonhuman primates, subdominants can band together and limit a leader's power through various strategies--so-called levelling mechanisms (Boehm, 1999). For instance, to keep overbearing leaders in place they can use instruments like gossip, ridicule, criticism, ostracism, and the threat of punishment and sometimes

     1 The term environment of evolutionary adaptedness refers to the environment to

    which a particular evolved mechanism is adapted. Evolutionary psychology proposes that the majority of human psychological mechanisms are adapted to reproductive problems frequently encountered in Pleistocene environments in which humans spend 95% of their history. These problems include those of mating, parenting, social coordination and cooperation.



    even assassination (Boehm, 1999). Across evolutionary time these levelling mechanisms may have paved the way for a more democratic, participatory group decision-making process in which dominance hierarchies were replaced by a more consensual leader-follower decision structure (Van Vugt, Hogan, & Kaiser, in press).

    The Mismatch Hypothesis

    We believe that the EEA reflects our natural way of thinking about and responding to leadership with substantial implications for modern leadership theory and practice. If humans are mostly adapted to Pleistocene environments this means that some aspects of our evolved leadership and followership psychology may not be very well adjusted to modern environments. Remember that human psychological mechanisms evolved because they produced reproductive and survival benefits in ancestral environments. Because genetic evolution tends to be a slow cumulative process such mechanisms might not produce adaptive behaviours in modern environments, particularly if these environments differ in important ways. This logic applies particularly to human activities because our social and physical environments have changed dramatically in the last 13,000 years or so since the agricultural revolution (Diamond, 1997).

    The discrepancy between modern and ancestral environments potentially creates a mismatch between aspects of our evolved psychology and challenges of

    modern society and this may have substantial implications for a range of social traits such leadership. Mismatch theory is an evolutionarily informed concept. It applies to all organisms possessing traits (including behavioral, emotional, and biological) that have been passed down through generations favored by natural selection because of their adaptive function in a given environment. Yet the evolutionary environment may be quite unlike the current environment. Therefore, traits that were adaptive in



    ancestral times are no longer adaptive in the new environment. As Pinker writes ―our

    ordeals come from a mismatch between the sources of our passions in evolutionary history and the goals we set for ourselves today (2002; p. 219)

    We illustrate this mismatch hypothesis with two examples from human psychology that can be interpreted as supportive evidence. One classic example is the fear of snakes and spiders, which were common threats for humans in ancestral environments. Yet in modern societies like the US they kill less than 20 individuals per year, most of whom are owners of dangerous snakes and spiders. In contrast, car accidents kill about 40 to 50,000 people a year in the US (NHTSA, 2005; Yet decades of research has shown that fear of snakes and spiders is more readily learned than fear of more lethal, recent, dangers such as cars, guns, or electrical appliances (Ohman & Mineka, 2001).

    Another example of a potential mismatch is our trust in strangers (Hagen & Hammerstein, 2006; Burnham & Johnson, 2005). Lab research shows that people readily cooperate with anonymous strangers in one-shot prisoner dilemma games (De Cremer & Van Vugt, 2002). This defies fundamental assumptions of economic and evolutionary theory--people are expected to maximize their personal pay-offs in anonymous exchanges because their altruism could be exploited. However, one-off encounters with complete strangers were presumably very rare for ancestral humans. They probably mostly interacted with family members and therefore did not evolve the cognitive machinery to deal with novel situations like interacting with complete strangers. Our research shows that people are more likely to trust strangers if they look familiar--for instance, if they share the same facial features, speak the same language, or wear the same clothes (Park, Schaller, & Van Vugt, in press). Thus



    behaviours that were adaptive in ancestral environments sharing resources with

    people who looked and behaved like you -- may have potentially maladaptive consequences in present society.

    Contemporary Evidence for Ancestral Leadership Psychology

    Our leadership psychology evolved over several million years during which time people lived in small, kin-based egalitarian bands in which leadership was informal, consensual, and situational. Since the agricultural period there has been a steady increase in the size and complexity of societies. Simple band structures have been replaced by complex social structures of chiefdoms, states, nations, and empires in which thousands or even millions of people must live and work peacefully together. Such problems, brand new on an evolutionary time scale, create new leadership challenges to which our evolved leadership psychology may not be well adjusted (Van Vugt, Hogan, & Kaiser, in press).

    Here we review evidence for the influence of our ancestral past in the way we evaluate and respond to modern leadership challenges. To the extent that these challenges are evolutionary novel there might be the potential of a mismatch with negative implications for leadership practice and group welfare.

    Prototypical Band Leadership

    Since humans evolved in small scale societies without any formal leadership structure, and near-equal power relations between (adult male) group members it should be reflected in the way modern humans evaluate leadership. In particular, there should be universal agreement on what followers regard as positive leadership qualities and these qualities should closely match the prototype of band leadership. The GLOBE-project data are useful to test this hypothesis

    ( In a study of leadership in 61



    cultures GLOBE-researchers found that leaders, across many cultures, were described using certain terms, many of which were positive. Examples are integritygood

    leaders can be trusted; fairnessgood leaders are just and equitable; diplomatic

    good leaders handle conflict well; decisivenes?good leaders make sound and timely

    decisions; intelligence and competencegood leaders contribute to the group's

    good leaders can describe a desirable future (Den performance; and, finally, vision

    Hartog et al., 1999; see also Epitropaki & Martin, 2004; Hogan & Kaiser, 2005; Lord & Maher, 1993). These leader prototypes closely match the perception of respected Big Men in traditional band societies (Boehm, 1999; Johnson & Earle, 2000; Sahlins, 1963).

    Dominance is the Anti-thesis of Leadership

    An important aspect of band leadership is that, except in special circumstances, one band member cannot tell others to do something they do not want to do. Members of hunter-gather societies are fiercely autonomous and it is not uncommon for them to ignore or disobey a person who assumes too much power and authority. Anthropologists report that the rank-and-file sometimes simply ignore chiefs who issue commands as opposed to making suggestions (Freeman, 1970). If a chief becomes too bossy group members sometimes literally ―vote with their feet‖ and

    leave the overbearing individual behind (Moore, 1972).

     Echoing our ancestral past there should be a general aversion against bossy, self-centered leaders in modern environments. Again, the GLOBE project data are useful here. Tyranny, dominance, and selfishness are universally regarded as negative leader attributes (Den Hartog et al, 1999; Epitropaki & Martin, 2004; Hogan & Kaiser, 2005). But why do such leaders emerge in modern organizations? One explanation derived from the mismatch hypothesis is that, unlike in traditional Big Men societies,

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