Leaders Are Born, Not Made

Shinnosuke Nakayama in Scientific American:

Leaders-are-born-not-made-fish-study-finds_1In humans, leaders generally show higher scores in certain personality traits, notably extraversion. Similarly, in animals, bolder and more active individuals tend to be found as leaders. Evolutionary theories suggest that boldness and leadership can coevolve through positive feedback. Individuals who force their preferences on others are more likely to be followed, which in turn encourages these individuals to initiate more often. This feedback results in distinct social roles for leaders and followers within a group, as shown by several experimental studies. It would therefore seem that leaders and followers are born through natural selection, and that you have no chance of becoming a leader if you are born a follower. But our work with stickleback fish suggests that while followers may not have what it takes to lead, leaders can learn to follow. In our paper, we tested the nature of leaders and followers using pairs of fish. Sticklebacks are well known for showing individual differences in boldness, such as when foraging. When they emerge from safe cover to a risky foraging area, the bolder fish are more likely to initiate collective movement, while the shyer animals tend to follow.

We forced the pairs of fish to take opposite roles to see if they could switch with a little training. The shy fish was rewarded with a small amount of food every time it initiated collective movement, regardless of whether it was followed by the bolder partner or not. The bolder fish was also rewarded every time it followed the shyer member, but not when it emerged from safe cover by itself. In this way, we trained pairs to swap their natural roles and compared their behavior to the pairs that assume their natural roles. Our prediction was that bold individuals would perform poorly when forced to become followers, because they are less responsive to the behavior of others in their natural role, while shy individuals would adopt the role of leader more easily. However, the results were completely opposite: for both bold and shy individuals, the tendency to lead is much less flexible than the tendency to follow. The bold fish readily adapted to following but the shy fish could not be trained to lead, even when it learnt to stop following the other fish.

More here.