Strong leaders who punish freeloaders and cheats can benefit society: research

September 24, 2008

A strong leader who punishes cheats and freeloaders can increase the cooperation and riches enjoyed by the rest of the group, according to psychology and economics research at the University of British Columbia, Sheffield Hallam University and the University of Kent.

In a study that looks at the evolutionary role of leaders in society, the researchers explored how having a leader in charge – with the power to punish – works better than spreading responsibility through the entire group. Their findings appear in today's issue of the online journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

"One person can make a difference," says UBC Assoc. Prof. Joe Henrich, who teaches in the departments of Psychology and Economics. "Having a solitary leader can efficiently galvanize group cooperation."

Henrich holds the Canada Research Chair in Culture, Cognition and Evolution. His co-authors are Rick O'Gorman of Sheffield Hallam University and Mark Van Vugt at the University of Kent.

The study ran a series of experiments with 135 undergraduate students at the University of Kent at Canterbury. The students, of whom 35 per cent were male, were divided into groups of 20-24. In the form of computer-based investment games, students each received $20 and were given the opportunity to anonymously contribute some or all of their money toward a communal group project.

Once collected, that lump sum was doubled by the researchers and divided equally among the students regardless of their contribution. Within each group, one person would act as the leader with the power to see what the other students gave and punish those deemed shirking their responsibility to contribute.

"This addresses the classic human cooperation dilemma," says Henrich. "In society, you have those who cheat on their taxes, but still receive universal health care, or those who don't recycle, but will get the benefits of a cleaner environment."

To explore the motivation and behaviour of leaders, the researchers also designed an experiment in which the leader had to pay a fee before imposing punishment.

"Our findings show that even if a person has to sacrifice something to lead the group, they will do that to benefit the greater good," says Henrich.

Source: University of British Columbia

Explore further: Clean water for Nepal

Related Stories

Clean water for Nepal

July 23, 2015

On the steep, tea-covered hillsides of Ilam in eastern Nepal, where 25 percent of households live below the poverty level and electricity is scarce, clean running water is scarcer still. What comes out of the region's centralized ...

You need this hole in the head—to be smart

July 15, 2015

University of Adelaide researchers have shown that intelligence in animal species can be estimated by the size of the holes in the skull through which the arteries pass.

Researchers discover seaweed that tastes like bacon

July 15, 2015

Oregon State University researchers have patented a new strain of a succulent red marine algae called dulse that grows extraordinarily quickly, is packed full of protein and has an unusual trait when it is cooked.

Better chocolate with microbes

July 15, 2015

For decades, researchers have worked to improve cacao fermentation by controlling the microbes involved. Now, to their surprise, a team of Belgian researchers has discovered that the same species of yeast used in production ...

Recommended for you

French teen finds 560,000 year-old tooth (Update)

July 28, 2015

A 16-year-old French volunteer archaeologist has found an adult tooth dating back around 560,000 years in southwestern France, in what researchers hailed as a "major discovery" Tuesday.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.