Responsibility aversion and leadership – a mechanism for choosing to lead
Leadership decisions are taken at every level in society, from parent to president, and directly affect the well-being of individuals, families, organizations and entire nations. Previous research has primarily focused on categorizing leadership types and the circumstances that facilitate leadership as opposed to directly examining the choice to lead itself. Consequently, the internal decision-making processes driving choices to lead rather than follow are currently unknown. We developed a new multi-level analytic approach to address this question. Behavioral analyses of two independent datasets revealed that, on average, individuals prefer to control their own outcomes but are also averse to taking responsibility for others’ well-being. Structural estimation of computational models indicates that responsibility aversion represents a reduced willingness to accept the inherent uncertainty of making the best decision when the payoffs of others are affected.
Critically, responsibility aversion is fundamentally different from standard preferences such as risk, loss, ambiguity or social preferences, and has – in contrast to these standard measures – high and robust explanatory power for leadership qualities. Those with low responsibility aversion display high leadership qualities and are willing to make decisions in the face of inherent uncertainty about what constitutes the best choice for the group. Finally, by combining computational modeling of behavior with dynamic neural-network-interaction models we identify and characterize brain activity patterns predictive of leadership choices and responsibility aversion. Machine-learning and neural network analyses demonstrate that neural connectivity patterns have high out-of-sample predictability for responsibility aversion and leadership and emphasize the importance of information transfer between brain regions, beyond that of the local processing of separate decision attributes, in determining an individual’s level of responsibility aversion. Taken together, these findings constitute a microfoundation of decisions to lead at the psychological, computational, and neurobiological levels.
Micah G. Edelson, Rafael Polania, Christian C. Ruff, Ernst Fehr and Todd A. Hare