Being cooperative makes you a leader

October 27, 2019

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Being cooperative makes you a leader

Game theory is a field which applies mathematics to understand the science behind logical decision-making behavior and social structures. It has been used to study cooperation and hierarchy, and has sought to explain why individuals cooperate, even though they might be better off if they don’t.

Scientists recently re-examined a classic game theory called the prisoner’s dilemma. The prisoner’s dilemma is a decision analysis, where two prisoners, who are unable to communicate with each other, have to choose to either cooperate with each other or act in their individual best interests. If the parties choose to cooperate, they both get shorter prison sentences, but if one betrays the other, the betrayer will get zero prison time, and the other will get a larger sentence. The new study was described in the journal Chaos.

The authors used a specialized graph to map a real-world social network of cooperators and their neighbors in a range of organizations. They discovered cooperators can attract more neighbors to follow their behaviors and are more likely to become leaders, indicating different learning patterns exist between cooperators and defectors.

What the researchers say: “Through the correlation analysis, we found that the more time an individual holds on to cooperation strategy, the more likely they are to become a leader whose behavior is easier to be imitated by their neighbors. This can build up a long-term reciprocity among them,” said the lead author.

From previous studies we know that individuals adapt the successful behaviors of others to move upward in society. The authors discovered cooperators and neighbors who mimic the successful behavior of cooperators and become cooperators themselves are not all collaborating peers but instead form a hierarchy—some become leaders.

“The different learning patterns between cooperation and defection may provide some clues to predict the strategy an individual holds to by analyzing the learning process of her or his neighbors,” the researchers said. Which, perhaps, is another way of saying that the shorter time it takes imitators to naturally adopt the cooperators patterns of behavior, the more likely that person is to become a leader.

Further development of this research is expected to help scientists understand how epidemics spread and oscillators synchronize.

So, what? It has often been assumed that non-collaborators become leaders more often than cooperators. Largely that’s because we are genetically geared to call on “leaders” in a crisis and eschew them otherwise.

What this research seems to be indicating is that the process by which leading members of the “council of elders” would be selected in early human societies is also part of our hardwiring. These leaders emerge due to their cooperative behaviors, and their wisdom. Members of the band would take their behavioral cues from them and themselves become more cooperative, paving the way for the next generation of elders. The C-suite should emerge in the same way.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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