Service-for-Prestige Theory of Leader-Follower Relations
KeywordsCollective Action Leadership Service Collective Action Problem Reciprocal Exchange Reciprocal Altruism
An evolutionary theory of leader-follower relations that aims to explain why these relations can range from being “bad” (i.e., based on coercion) to “good” (i.e., based on mutually beneficial exchange).
The service-for-prestige theory (Price and Van Vugt 2014, 2015) takes an evolutionary perspective on leader-follower relations in order to accomplish two main aims. The first aim is to explain why these relations can range from being “bad” and coercive (i.e., based on a leader’s ability to harm followers) to “good” and voluntary (i.e., based on a leader’s ability to benefit followers). The second aim is to propose that “good” leadership is governed by the logic of reciprocity, whereby leaders deliver public goods to followers in exchange for elevated social prestige. Both of these aspects of leader-follower relations are examined in more detail below.
What Are the Characteristics of “Bad” Versus “Good” Leadership, and Why Does Leadership Quality Vary So Widely?
People from a diverse variety of cultures tend to agree about what constitutes good leadership. The GLOBE survey (Den Hartog et al. 1999) measured preferences for leader traits across 61 cultures. The most consistently valued leader attributes were those which allow a leader to benefit followers via prosociality (e.g., trustworthiness, fairness) and ability (e.g., intelligence, competence). Similar findings are reported in a review of characteristics of successful leaders (Hogan and Kaiser 2005). These sources both suggest that followers prefer leaders who would make good exchange partners: people who have the skills that would enable them to benefit followers and who can be trusted to not be deceptive or exploitative. By the same token, these sources also suggest universal aversion to traits indicating that a leader would be a poor exchange partner (e.g., dominance, selfishness); leaders are generally reviled if they exploit their positions for their own benefit and at the expense of their followers (Tooby et al. 2006).
This spectrum of leadership styles, from bad (self-serving and exploitative) to good (trustworthy and productive of group benefits), can be observed in modern environments. These leadership styles map on fairly well to the two kinds of social status that are commonly distinguished in behavioral science: dominance and prestige (Henrich and Gil-White 2001). The high status of bad leaders constitutes dominance, and leaders extract this status coercively, via their ability to harm followers. In contrast, the high status of good leaders constitutes prestige and is conferred voluntarily on leaders by followers, in exchange for the benefits that the leader provides. Humans obviously possess the psychological machinery necessary for engaging in both dominance-based and prestige-based leader-follower relations in modern environments, and service-for-prestige (Price and Van Vugt 2014, 2015) describes the kinds of hunter-gatherer environments of the evolutionary past that could have selected for this machinery.
Prestige-based leadership is common in the kinds of societies that were probably most typical of our evolutionary past: small (25–50 members) bands of nomadic hunter-gatherers. In contemporary examples of such societies, good leaders are described as skilled individuals who are voluntarily appreciated, respected, and followed by others, whereas bad leaders are group members who attempt to become too pushy, dominant, and coercive (Price and Van Vugt 2014, 2015). It’s difficult to be a bad leader for very long among nomadic foragers because people will be both eager to get away from you and also relatively able to do so; in the fission-fusion societies of nomadic hunter-gatherers, it’s relatively easy to leave one band and join another, and bands commonly break apart due to social conflict (Kelly 1995). Moreover, because these groups tend to be so small, organizing group members for collective action tends to be a relatively simple undertaking, and there is no great need for strong leadership in order to solve problems related to group coordination and free rider punishment. These two aspects of typical nomadic hunter-gatherer societies – the relative ease with which members can escape bad leaders and the reduced need for leaders to solve collective action problems – combine to create an environment in which follower dependence on leaders is relatively low.
In other kinds of hunter-gatherer environments, however, the dependence of followers on leaders – and thus the power of leaders – can become much stronger. Indigenous peoples of the North American northwest coast lacked agriculture, but were nevertheless able to live in sedentary villages, because they settled close to rivers which allowed their main protein source – salmon – to deliver itself directly to them. These villages could grow to include hundreds of residents, much larger than nomadic hunter-gatherer bands, and so their collective action problems were more challenging to solve without strong leadership. Moreover, the sedentary nature of these settlements made fission-fusion social organization less feasible, and it therefore became harder to simply pack up and leave a leader who became too dominant. Increased dependence on leaders along the northwest coast created a niche for the emergence of leadership that was significantly more dominant than that seen among nomadic foragers; for example, although slavery is unknown among nomadic hunter-gatherers, it was common along the northwest coast (Kelly 1995).
According to service-for-prestige, the kinds of hunter-gatherer environments that selected for dominance-based and prestige-based leader-follower relations in the ancestral past are both represented in the modern world. The theory expects that in modern environments, dominance-based leadership will emerge most often in social environments more similar to northwest coast, that is, environments in which followers have low ability to reject or escape leaders (due to, e.g., poor exit options) and/or in larger social organizations in which strong leadership is required to solve collective action problems. In contrast, prestige-based leadership should more likely emerge in environments more similar to those of nomadic foragers, that is, environments in which followers have greater freedom to desert or depose leaders, and/or in smaller organizations in which coordination problems are relatively easily solved at a local level.
Leader-Follower Relations Are Perceived as Good When They Involve Voluntary, Mutually Beneficial, Service-for-Prestige Exchange
It was noted above that according to surveys of leadership preferences such as the cross-cultural GLOBE study, followers prefer leaders who would make good exchange partners: leaders who are willing and able to produce benefits for followers and who can be trusted to not abuse their power for their own narrow self-interest. Service-for-prestige (Price and Van Vugt 2014, 2015) suggests that people prefer leaders to be good exchange partners because in the evolutionary past, this preference would have enabled followers to engage benefit-generating leaders in mutually advantageous and therefore sustainable relationships.
How would this mutually beneficial exchange have played out in the evolutionary past? In hunter-gatherer environments, competent leadership benefits follower fitness by facilitating cooperation in activities such as warfare, big game hunting, forging political alliances, maintaining within-group order, and camp migrations. However, leadership roles often involve substantial costs for leaders, such as time and energy investments, stressful decision-making, and physical risk-taking. For these costs to pay off, and for leaders to be motivated to continue to lead, they must be compensated by some kinds of return benefits.
Accordingly, leaders do appear to be rewarded for the contributions they make. As high-prestige individuals, leaders are highly valued as friends, allies, and mates; and therefore social, material, and sexual resources tend to flow their way. Evidence that hunter-gatherer leaders receive relatively large shares of material and social resources can be challenging to collect, since this increased access may be observable only over the long term or under conditions of unusually great need such as sickness or sustained hunger. Nevertheless, respected leaders in small-scale societies have been observed to be rewarded over the long term with social, political, and material support (Bird and Bliege Bird 2010; Gurven et al. 2000; Von Rueden et al. 2014). And when the focus is on reproductive rather than social and material resources, the rewards of leadership become relatively easy to observe. The high status of male leaders is attractive to women (Ellis 1992) as well as to parents who wish to form alliances with a leader by betrothing their daughter to him (Kelly 1995). In small-scale societies, higher status men are reported to have more wives and sexual partners, higher-fertility wives, and more surviving offspring (Chagnon 1979, 1988; Von Rueden et al. 2008, 2011).
Service-for-prestige suggests that just as leadership services were costly for leaders to provide, prestige allocations to leaders were costly for followers to make. Prestigious leaders have high power to benefit followers, so followers will invest time and resources to remain in good standing with them. Such investments may take the form of, for example, deferring to leader interests, sharing resources with the leader, taking pains to avoid harming the leader, and cooperating with a leader’s directions instead of pursuing one’s narrow self-interest (Price and Van Vugt 2014, 2015).
Prestige-based leader-follower relations constitute reciprocal exchange (Price 2003), then, because just as leaders voluntarily pay costs to deliver leadership services in exchange for prestige, followers voluntarily pay costs to deliver prestige in exchange for leadership services. However, because this prestige must often be allocated to the leader by a whole group of followers, it’s a more complicated form of reciprocity than the dyadic reciprocal altruism first described by Trivers (1971). Although leader-follower reciprocity has aspects in common with dyadic reciprocal altruism, it also shares characteristics with n-person reciprocity (Tooby et al. 2006) and can be considered a form of collective action. And as in any collective action, a free rider’s advantage (Olson 1965) will accrue to group members who accept the benefits of cooperation (in this case, a share of the services that the leader is motivated to provide, by virtue of being compensated with prestige) but who do not pay contribution costs (in this case, the cost of allocating prestige to the leader). Service-for-prestige predicts that in order to neutralize this free rider’s advantage, high contributors – that is, high allocators of prestige – will experience punitive sentiment towards those who fail to “pay respect” to leaders (Price et al. 2002). This phenomenon could be observed repeatedly in the notoriously violent rallies that occurred during Donald Trump’s campaign to become the US Presidential nominee for the Republican Party, beginning in the latter months of 2015. A pattern developed at these rallies in which attendees who were perceived as not being sufficiently supportive of Trump would be humiliated and forced to leave, or even physically attacked, by other attendees who apparently considered themselves vociferous Trump supporters (Jacobs 2016).
Finally, it should be noted that the free rider problem described above applies only to prestige-based leadership scenarios, in which leaders are perceived by the group as being valued providers of public goods. In dominance-based leadership scenarios, in which the power of leaders is based on their ability to harm and intimidate followers, the logic of this collective action should essentially flip. If a leader is perceived as exploitative and parasitic rather than benefit-producing, then the collective action should focus not on maintaining leader motivation to lead but on removing the leader from power. In this flipped context, the role of selfless contributor would now be played by the member who undermines the leader’s authority by rebelling against it and who thus risks attracting the leader’s wrath. The free rider, meanwhile, would now be the member who continues to allocate status and thus lend support to the harmful leader. A real-world example of this sort of collective action would be Boston’s famous 1773 “tea party,” initiated by rebellious colonists to outrageously undermine the authority of what they perceived to be an exploitative royal regime. From the perspective of tea party supporters, the rebels were heroic risk-takers, whereas the King’s supporters were traitors who deserved to be publically humiliated (tarred and feathered).
Leadership is not unique to humans and indeed is a feature of a vast variety of species, from bees to ravens to nonhuman primates (King et al. 2009). But whereas leader-follower interactions enable many species to solve coordination problems and share information, it is apparently only in humans that these interactions occur as reciprocal interactions, in which followers reward high-contributing leaders with allocations of social status. This context of reciprocity would have enabled human followers to allocate relatively large incentives (in the form of prestige) to their leaders and to thus embolden their leaders to make relatively costly and substantial leadership contributions. Thus, because they occurred as reciprocal exchanges, human leader-follower relations may have enabled the emergence of a kind of leadership that was more risk-seeking and self-sacrificial, more creative and committed, and generally higher quality than leadership in other species. Even if reciprocity-based leadership is indeed higher quality, however, this was apparently not enough to permit its evolution in nonhuman species. It seems that leader-follower reciprocity, like other forms of complex cooperation that can occur among nonkin (Tooby et al. 2006), is a behavior that the human brain is especially well adapted to achieve.
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