Charismatic Leadership Through the Lens of Evolution

One of the defining features of human psychology is our extraordinary prosociality. How can cooperation and prosocial behaviour be maintained, despite the immediate temptations to free-ride and deflect?

In a paper published in the September edition of the journal Evolution & Human Behavior, organisational psychologists Allen Grabo and Mark van Vugt explore the origins and functions of charismatic leadership.

Charismatic leaders have played a prominent role throughout history, and yet a definition of what charismatic leadership actually is remains elusive.

The authors argue that the ultimate function of charismatic leadership is to effectively promote and sustain prosocial behaviour within groups. Using the terminology of evolutionary psychology, the authors contend charismatic leadership is “[…] a signalling process in which a leader conveys their ability to solve urgent coordination and cooperation challenges in groups”.

They continue:

This process is context-dependent, but fundamentally consists of (1) attracting attention to recruit followers, (2) making use of extraordinary rhetorical abilities and knowledge of cultural symbols and rituals to inspire and offer a vision, (3) minimizing the perceived risks of cooperation, and (4) aligning these followers toward shared goals.

Grabo and van Vugt suggest charismatic leadership helps foster group cohesion, even as populations grow larger and less kin-based than those of our hunter-gather ancestors.

The Charismatic Prosociality Hypothesis

Three studies were conducted to test the ‘charismatic prosociality hypothesis’. The authors recruited participants online, and used charismatic stimuli and experimental economic games to test it.

For the first two studies, the researchers capitalised on the wealth of TED talks available, and identified videos which viewers found similarly interesting but were presented by speakers scoring high or low in charisma. Participants watched either a high or  low charisma scoring TED talk, before participating in experimental economic games: the ‘Dictator‘ and ‘Trust‘ Games.

Participants who had watched the more charismatic TED talk gave more in the Dictator Game than the participants in the non-charismatic condition. For those playing the Trust Game, the Trustees behaved more pro-socially  (returned more of an initial amount sent by the first player) in the charismatic condition, versus the non-charismatic condition.

To test the generalizability of the effects observed in the initial studies, the authors made use of an entirely different ‘charismatic manipulation’. The authors instead primed participants by asking them to imagine a charismatic (or non-charismatic) individual, and to write a short description about this person. Afterwards, the primed respondents participated in the experimental economic games. The authors added ‘The Stag Hunt‘ Game, which measures cooperation in a more abstract way than the strict allocation of money.

The increased prosocial behaviour observed  in the high charisma condition within the Dictator and Trust games was replicated with the prime. In the Stag Game, participants in the charismatic condition were more likely to cooperate than those in the non-charismatic condition.

Overall, the findings provide initial evidence for the theory of charismatic leadership being an instrument to galvanise cooperation and prosociality among strangers.

A limitation of the research methodology arguably further supports the hypothesis: that the studies were confined to online experiments. One would expect significantly stronger prosocial effects when people are exposed to charismatic leaders in naturalistic settings.

The Dark Side of Charismatic Leadership

Of course, the authors focused on the positive aspects of charismatic leadership. Charisma has a dark side, which Grabo and van Vugt acknowledge.

The present article focuses exclusively on the positive effects of charismatic leadership, but this is by no means the entire story. In fact, there is much more to be said about the “dark side” of charismatic leadership, the dangers which can result when a leader takes advantage of the extreme devotion and commitment of followers for selfish or immoral reasons by signaling dishonestly their intentions to benefit the group. History is full of examples of individuals, such as cult members or suicide bombers, who were unable to abandon their commitment to a charismatic leader even in the face of conflicting information, with disastrous outcomes. One way of understanding such actions is to view them as the results of an evolved “psychological immune system” which functions to defend firmly held convictions against change by novel information. While such a system might have been beneficial for group cohesion in the past – when contact with outgroup members was rare and perhaps more dangerous – it is perhaps best considered an evolutionary mismatch in the modern world.

Click here to read the full paper

Post written  by  Max Beilby for Darwinian Business

You can read Max’s review of Mark van Vugt and Anjana Ahuja’s book  Selected: Why some people lead, why others follow, and why it matters here 

 

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