Animal behavior study debunks a common myth about positions of power

Take it from the fish.

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If a recent study of fish behavior is anything to go by, the human tendency to place the strongest and most aggressive person in leadership roles may be misplaced. It is actually the least aggressive individuals who wield the most influence, according to the paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“In many societies, whether animal or human, individuals in positions of power all possess a similar suite of traits, which are aggression, intimidation, and coercion,” senior author Alex Jordan, a group leader at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior and at the University of Konstanzʼs Cluster of Excellence Centre for the Advanced Study of Collective Behavior, said in a press release. “But effective communication requires the presence of a diversity of voices, not just the loudest. Our results from a natural system show that allowing alternative pathways to positions of power may be useful in creating stronger advisory, governmental, and educational structures.”

The paper, titled “Behavioral traits that define social dominance are the same that reduce social influence in a consensus task,” was based on a study of groups of Astatotilapia burtoni, from the cichlid family of fish, that tend to form groups with strict social hierarchies that may seem familiar to humans.

“Dominant males control resources, territory, and space,” said Mariana Rodriguez-Santiago, co-first author of the study and a doctoral student in the lab of co-corresponding author Hans Hofmann at University of Texas at Austin. “We ask if the colorful dominant males, which are aggressive, central in their social networks, and control resources, are most influential? Or if drab subordinate males wield the greatest influence, despite being passive, non-territorial, and having little or no control over resources.”

Turns out, it’s the latter. The researchers reached this conclusion after they “separated the effects of social dominance from social influence by examining how information flows between either dominant or subordinate males and their groups in two different contexts: routine social behavior, or a more complex social learning task.”

With routine social interactions, the dominant male fish exerted the greatest influence by chasing and pushing the group around, the researchers said. But with the more complex task, this strategy wasn’t effective.

“Effective communication requires the presence of a diversity of voices, not just the loudest.”

For the task, they taught dominant and subordinate male fish that a certain colored light on one side of their tank would signal the imminent arrival of food. They placed these fish into groups that did not yet know about the light to see which of the informed fish would be most effective in teaching the others. In this context, individual fish had a choice of who to follow, and here, the subordinate males became leaders.

“In groups with a subordinate male as demonstrator, fish quickly came to a consensus about which light to follow, moving together as a coherent unit to succeed in the task,” according to a summary of the paper. “With a dominant male as the informant, groups were far slower to reach consensus, if they did at all.”

Why might this be? Utilizing machine-learning based animal tracking to find the differences between dominant and subordinate male fish, the researchers found that the dominant fish frequently interacted with others, but were also avoided by some fish.

“The same traits that make you powerful in one context can actively reduce your influence in others, especially contexts in which individuals are free to choose who to follow,” Jordan said. “Dominant individuals can force their will on the group by being pushy, but that also makes them socially aversive. Our results illustrate that although domineering individuals most often ascend to positions of power, they can in fact create the least effective influence structures at the same time.”

Another study of aggressive leaders found that they are more frequently punished for their mistakes due to a perception that their actions are more intentional. Despite this risk, people are typically attracted to dominant leaders over likable ones, according to a University of British Columbia study. Dominant leaders also rise when people are preparing for conflict, said a study out of Aarhus University.

But if fish are anything to go by, we should avoid choosing the most aggressive and dominant individuals as our leaders because they’re just not that effective.


Dominant individuals are often most influential in their social groups, affecting movement, opinion, and performance across species and contexts. Yet, behavioral traits like aggression, intimidation, and coercion, which are associated with and in many cases define dominance, can be socially aversive. The traits that make dominant individuals influential in one context may therefore reduce their influence in other contexts. Here, we examine this association between dominance and influence using the cichlid fish Astatotilapia burtoni, comparing the influence of dominant and subordinate males during normal social interactions and in a more complex group consensus association task. We find that phenotypically dominant males are aggressive, socially central, and that these males have a strong influence over normal group movement, whereas subordinate males are passive, socially peripheral, and have little influence over normal movement. However, subordinate males have the greatest influence in generating group consensus during the association task. Dominant males are spatially distant and have lower signal-to-noise ratios of informative behavior in the association task, potentially interfering with their ability to generate group consensus. In contrast, subordinate males are physically close to other group members, have a high signal-to-noise ratio of informative behavior, and equivalent visual connectedness to their group as dominant males. The behavioral traits that define effective social influence are thus highly context specific and can be dissociated with social dominance. Thus, processes of hierarchical ascension in which the most aggressive, competitive, or coercive individuals rise to positions of dominance may be counterproductive in contexts where group performance is prioritized.
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