Tag: Prestige

The rise and fall of the dominant leader

Ranking people by their social status seems to come naturally to us humans. Indeed, social hierarchies are ubiquitous across cultures and throughout human history.

Social hierarchies have allowed humans to coordinate effectively, and enabled large groups to make decisions and address collective action problems.

Whether small-scale societies or industrialised nations, one can think of various hierarchical structures that have been the result of conflict and brute force. However, many forms of hierarchy are also the product of leaders being freely chosen. What isn’t well understood by social scientists is how people climb these more productive forms of hierarchy.

To put it another way, what strategies actually make a leader successful in modern organisations, and which of these is more successful over time?

Keeping in sync with the latest research, Daniel Redhead and his colleagues Joey Cheng, Charles Driver, Tom Foulsham and Rick O’Gorman have just published a study the journal Evolution & Human Behavior, that helps answer this question.

Two ways to the top

Before delving into the particulars of the study, we need to establish what scientists already know. What strategies are known by evolutionary psychologists to increase one’s rank in the social pecking order?

Firstly, there’s dominance– increasing one’s social status through intimidation, manipulation, and coercion. This type of leadership is ancient, and traces back millions of years to our primate heritage.

Throughout the natural world, animals which are the most powerful and menacing fighters are generally granted high status (if you’re not convinced, watch one of David Attenborough’s latest documentaries).

In the tree of life, human and chimpanzee lineages split off from their common ancestor approximately 5 to 7 million years ago. With this, both primate species took with them a proclivity for dominance hierarchies, and a psychology sensitive to dominance.

However, the story of leadership gets a bit more complicated when we home in on homo-sapiens. Unlike other animals, we are a cultural species. We need to be socialised, and depend on collective wisdom for our survival (how long would you be able to live on your own in the wilderness?). As a result, we seek leaders with the knowledge and skills that our group needs to succeed.

This path to leadership is very different than what you usually see in a wildlife documentary, and is aptly called prestige.

Intriguingly, research shows that both paths are equally effective ways of gaining status. That is, one can get to the top either through dominance, or by leading through prestige. What wasn’t known by social scientists is how these different strategies play out over time. In other words, which leadership style is more effective in newly formed groups, and which is more successful in the long-run.

Cue Daniel and his research team.

Brains over brawn

For a couple of reasons, Daniel and his colleagues suspected dominance wouldn’t be an effective leadership strategy over time.

They state:

We proposed that the context of time and place is fundamental to the nature of human dominance… Unlike non-human primates, physical strength and size are not necessarily the most essential determinants of victory during antagonistic contests between humans. The presence of allies and coalitions shrinks the perceived size and muscularity of a foe and the widespread development of lethal weaponry potentially neutralizes human physiological dominance.

Translation: we humans take out overbearing arseholes (tarnishing their reputation through gossip and ostracism. Or if stigma doesn’t do the trick, pelting rocks at them will).

The authors stress that there needs to be certain social and environmental conditions for dominance to be a viable way of gaining status. For example, if bullying and violence are prevalent in the social context one faces, then dominance may prove to be an effective strategy (indeed, it may also be an essential survival strategy).

Conversely, Daniel and his colleagues argue that prestige should be a universally effective way of gaining social status over time. Why? Because prestige is marked by the respect earned by others, which requires a leader to build and maintain a good reputation.

So how did they go about testing their hypotheses?

The researchers used newly formed groups of American students to see how effective dominance and prestige were over time. Specifically, these student groups were formed for an assignment, which counted towards their end of year grades.

In total, 263 students were randomly assigned to a mixed-sex group, and were followed over 16 weeks.

The researchers got these students to rate each other on their leadership styles, and what they thought their peers’ positions were in the social pecking order. They also completed surveys about themselves throughout the semester.

Nice guys finish first

So what did they find?

Replicating previous studies, the researchers found that both dominance and prestige were a successful way for students to acquire status in these newly formed groups.

The authors write:

These results align with previous work that suggests that humans have a disposition to defer to those that they perceive as able and willing to confer benefits or harm, even among groups of undergraduate students, whereby fear and threat may not be particularly potent. 

Critically however, dominance lost its sticking power in the weeks after the groups were formed. Conversely, prestige strongly increased students’ social status over the period of the semester.

With this experiment, the researchers were able to rule out an alternative explanation for dominance’s effectiveness: that dominant individuals are simply mistaken for being prestigious. Rather, the experiment clearly showed that individuals in unacquainted groups can gain status either through aggression and coercion, or by building respect through their skill and competence. These are distinct leadership strategies, which also had different trajectories.

Another insight gleamed from the study is that prestige and social status are a two-way street. That is, being a student high in prestige increased one’s rank in the social pecking order. However, promotions in social rank also bumped up one’s prestige a couple of notches. This was not the case for dominance, where ratings of dominance remained largely unchanged for those who gained higher social status.

Finally, the researchers found that although prestige and dominance have a negative relationship with each other, they are not entirely separate either. In other words, a leader can be both dominant and prestigious at the same time.

The prestige premium

As is always the case, there are limitations to this study.

Like the majority of psychological studies, these experiments were conducted with American university students. However, we know that these people are really WEIRD. That is, they represent a slice of humanity who are Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic, who do not necessarily reflect humanity overall. Further experiments would need to be conducted cross-culturally to confirm whether or not these findings are universal.

The authors argue that as the students had a vested interest in making sure their groups performed well, these project teams paralleled work in the outside world of business and government. However I’m not so sure. For various reasons, I suspect students generally are not that invested in the outcomes of group assignments.

As Daniel and his colleagues note themselves, there may be contexts where dominant leaders are able to sustain their advantage over an extended period of time (for example, when working in large and fragmented organisations). Likewise, dominant leaders may deploy tactics to maintain their social rank, such as ostracising their competitors or modifying group structures, to prevent challenges to their power base.

These points aside, this study sheds light on aspects of leadership which had previously been left in the dark. What the study answered is not whether dominance is a successful leadership strategy, but when it is. 

Contrary to what is taught in many business schools and psychology departments, dominance is an effective way of gaining status. Indeed, it is likely those who rise to the top of corporate and political hierarchies have a combination of dominance and prestige in their repertoire, and deploy both strategies when needed (think of Jeff Bezos for example, and imagine what it must be like working in his executive team… Did you experience a pang of fear?).

However, a domineering leadership style also comes with a hefty price tag; less satisfied employees, reduced creativity, and people rushing for the next exit. On top of this, we now have evidence suggesting that leaders high in dominance are less successful in the long-run. To put it bluntly, being a leader who’s an arsehole is unsustainable.

Or to frame it in the positive, we modern humans place a premium on prestige. Whether it’s your organisation’s leadership capabilities or your own development, make sure you invest your capital wisely.

Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business

The Appeal of the Primal Leader: Human Evolution and Donald Trump

Almost 63 million Americans voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Trump’s victory defied experts’ predictions, and shocked the world.

How could a man widely dismissed as a joke, a conspiracy theorist and an impulsive narcissist with no political experience whatsoever, capture the world’s most powerful political position?

Not only did Trump perform dismally in the presidential debates and routinely spread blatant falsehoods throughout his campaign. He also branded Mexican immigrants as rapists, where footage of him boasting about sexually assaulting women subsequently emerged. Trump mocked war heroes and the disabled, dismissed climate change as a hoax created by the Chinese, and launched personal attacks on members of his own political party.

Many explanations have been presented since the election of President Trump. For example, many point out that Hilary Clinton in fact won the popular vote, and that procedural issues were a contributing factor. The FBI investigation into Clinton’s email usage is also listed as one of the main reasons. Others either highlight the inadequacies of Hilary Clinton’s campaign, or emphasise the sexism Clinton faced as a presidential candidate.

There is some validity to all these points, and they were likely contributing factors. However, these are proximate explanations for why Donald Trump won the election, rather than the ultimate explanation. After all, these factors can’t explain why Trump received the Republican nomination, and managed to secure millions of votes.

A new paper written by psychologist Dan P. McAdams sheds light on the matter.

Inside the Mind of Trump

Dan P. McAdams is a world leading figure on personality, who has helped reconcile various different strands of personality psychology. His three layered model of personality featured prominently in Jonathan Haidt’s book The Happiness Hypothesis

Prior to the 2016 U.S. Election, McAdams wrote an in-depth article for the Atlantic Magazine titled The Mind of Donald Trump. In this piece, McAdams produced an impartial investigation of Donald Trump’s extraordinary personality, and outlined how his personality may shape his possible presidency. (I recall sharing this article on Facebook when it was still deemed unthinkable for Donald Trump to win the election).

McAdams is back, with a publication in the new journal Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture.

Primal Dominance

As opposed to investigating Donald Trump’s personality, McAdams’ new essay provides an overview of leadership and followship psychology through the lens of evolution. Essentially, McAdams argues that Trump’s appeal to millions of voters was his uncanny ability to channel what is termed ‘primal dominance’. “Like the alpha male of a chimpanzee colony, Trump leads (and inspires) through intimidation, bluster, and threat, and through the establishment of short-term, opportunistic relationships with other high-status agents.”

In this light, Trump’s aggressive leadership style is nothing new. Rather, Trump channels the psychology of dominance that traces back millions of years in human evolution, to our primate heritage. The human and chimpanzee lineages split off from their common ancestor approximately 5 to 7 million years ago. According to McAdams, both primate species took with them a proclivity for social hierarchy, and the corresponding psychology of dominance.

To highlight the similarities between the species, McAdams cites the work of primatologist Frans de Waal, who illustrated the aggressive strategies chimpanzees use to secure leadership positions. As stated by McAdams; “The top chimp achieves his standing through aggression, intimidation, and threat. Prerequisites for the top post often include being large and being strong, though smaller dominant chimps can compensate through powerful vocal displays and other intimidating tactics.”

Frans de Waal wrote a book called Chimpanzee Politics back in 1982, which offered the first overview of the lives and social strategies of primates, and provided a mirror reflection of human nature. Apparently politicians such as Newt Gringrich flocked to the book upon its release. However, in many ways Chimpanzee Politics appears more relevant today. As stated by McAdams:

When the first edition of Chimpanzee Politics appeared in 1982, readers were struck by how much chimps turn out to be like humans. But the case of Donald Trump shows how much humans turn out to be like chimps.

However, the story of leadership strategies is a bit more complicated when it comes to us homo-sapiens. We humans are a cultural species, and rely heavily on cultural know-how for our survival and reproduction. We humans have crossed what has been called the ‘Rubicon of cumulative cultural evolution’ by evolutionary biologist Joe Henrich—kicking off an evolutionary process of innovation and knowledge transfer which has shaped our biology, and is now the driving force of human evolution itself.

The Psychology of Prestige

With the emergence of cultural evolution, a new way of attaining status emerged—a form of leadership referred to as prestige. This form of leadership does not rely on brute force and intimidation, but rather on the socially valued skills and expertise. As a cultural species, we grant high status to those who advance cultural learning within our communities—covering domains such a hunting, healthcare, cooking, caregiving, and the arts of defence.

At first glance, one could consider Trump as a prestigious leader. Not only is Trump a prominent businessman, Trump was originally considered a thought leader in business. McAdams highlights that Trump was made famous for his 1987 book The Art of the Deal, which burst in onto the world stage as an expert. If one new nothing else about the Donald, they may assume that Trump used the psychology of prestige to attain his position. However, McAdams states that a casual reading of The Art of the Deal reveals why this is evidently not the case.

But, of course, nothing could be further from the truth, as even Trump’s most ardent admirers would acknowledge. Even a casual reading of The Art of the Deal reveals that the cultural knowledge Donald Trump aims to transmit is not so much a specialized portfolio formulated to address a specific problem in culture but rather a more general set of strategies aimed at achieving social dominance—dominance in virtually any context in which “deals” are to be made, from real estate to politics to interpersonal relationships.

Which brings us to one of the main arguments presented by McAdams. Prestige psychology is a junior rival to primal dominance, and does not necessarily hold an advantage as a leadership strategy. Rather, dominance is in many ways a more successful  leadership strategy than prestige, but comes at great cost to the collective. What is novel is the remarkable extent to which Trump has used dominance as a leadership strategy to secure the presidency. As stated by McAdams:

If President Obama tried to steer the ship of state slightly toward prestige psychology, Donald Trump has swerved violently in the opposite direction, creating a political and psychological whiplash. No U.S. president in recent memory, and perhaps none ever, has tapped so effectively into the primal psychology of dominance.

What is largely omitted from McAdams’ essay is the environmental factors which may have facilitated the rise of Trump. For example, recent research from London Business School suggests a preference for dominant leaders increases during times of uncertainty (primarily economic insecurity, and threats of terrorism and war).

In this respect, one can speculate that the uncertainty caused by a chaotic presidency may actually increase desire for an authoritarian leader, rather than attenuate it. Perhaps this would be another type of ‘political and psychological whiplash’.

Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business

To download the full paper, click here.


McAdams, D.P (2017) The Appeal of the Primal Leader: Human Evolution and Donald J. Trump, Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture, 1(2). Available here.

Henrich, J. (2016) The Secret of Our Success: How culture is driving human evolution, domesticating our species, and making us smarter. Princeton University Press

Kakkar, H., & Sivanathan, N. (2017). When the appeal of a dominant leader is greater than a prestige leader. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 201617711.

Tracy, J. (2016) Take Pride: Why the deadliest of sins holds the secret to successHoughton Mifflin Harcourt

Image credit: DonkeyHotey