News Release

Accepting responsibility for others separate leaders from followers

Peer-Reviewed Publication

American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)

A willingness to shoulder responsibility on behalf of others is an important and common trait in all who choose to lead, a new study finds. The research provides new insight into the behavioral and neurobiological foundations of leadership and what makes some individuals more likely to lead over others. Whether directing an army, nation or classroom, leadership is critically important at all levels of society, however, what drives people's choices to lead or follow is not well understood. Often, those who lead are required to make tough decisions and do so knowing their actions will likely impact the well-being of others, but not all accept this responsibility. In fact, according to Micah Edelson and colleagues, most actively avoid it. Through a series of trials, Edelson et al. assessed a participant's willingness to make decisions on behalf of a group when their own rewards and those of others are at stake. The authors also used computational decision-making models to identify underlying motivations for choosing to lead or follow, as well as brain imaging to examine the neurobiological basis of leadership choices. Edelson et al. found that most people are unwilling to make decisions that impact the welfare of others - what the authors term "responsibility aversion" - and did so despite their own personal preferences and valuations. Those who did not shy away from responsibility for others scored higher on questionnaire-based leadership scores and reflected real-world measures of leadership, like holding higher military ranks. Preliminary data gleaned from imaging suggest that interactions within the brain can help predict a willingness to lead across individuals. Edelson et al.'s study identifies responsibility aversion as the best predictor of a willingness to lead and provides a cognitive and neurobiological framework to better understand the nature of leadership. "By employing the tools of decision neuroscience, it may be possible to reverse engineer not only leadership decisions but also the ingredients of good leadership," write Stephen Flemming and Dan Bang in a related Perspective.


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