Did Leaders Evolve To Be Good Or Evil?

Did evolution design leaders to serve their followers or to exploit them?

Posted Jun 09, 2014

Virtually everyone agrees that in cultures all over the world, leadership is an important aspect of human social life. Virtually no one has any deep understanding of why this is true. I say that because science lacks a comprehensive theory of why human leader-follower relations evolved. And if we don’t understand the evolved function of the psychological mechanisms that enable leaders to lead and followers to follow, then we can’t know what these mechanisms were designed (by natural selection) to accomplish, or why leadership and followership exist at all.

That’s not to say that evolutionary psychology has ignored leadership. On the contrary, researchers such as psychologist Mark Van Vugt and colleagues [1,2] have illustrated very effectively how our understanding of leadership can be illuminated by considering its evolutionary origins. And now, Van Vugt and I have published a paper [3] in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience that attempts to lay the foundations of a comprehensive evolutionary theory of leader-follower relations in humans: ‘The evolution of leader–follower reciprocity: the theory of service-for-prestige’ (click on the title to access it for free).

Good leader

However, regarding leader-follower relations as mutually beneficial exchange may seem a little too optimistic. If human leaders evolved to benefit followers, then why does leadership so often go so wrong? Why are human organizations and societies so frequently bedevilled by leaders who focus much more on exploiting, coercing, and even murdering their followers, as opposed to providing them with benefits? The service-for-prestige theory attempts to account for such “bad” leadership, in addition to the “good” (reciprocal) leadership described above. We argue that bad leadership becomes more likely in environments in which followers lose social power relative to leaders. When followers have less power to escape or depose a leader, then the leader has reduced incentives to provide benefits to followers. It’s costly for leaders to provide these benefits, but when their followers have high social power, they must pay these costs in order to defend their own high status. When their followers are socially weaker, however, leaders will more likely find that it is cheaper for them to defend their status by coercing and exploiting, rather than benefitting, their followers.

Bad leader

We don’t claim that good leadership is more “natural” than bad leadership or vice versa; people are adapted for both reciprocal and exploitative leader-follower relations. However, reciprocity involves (by definition) the greater degree of mutual benefit, and represents the kind of leadership that people overwhelmingly prefer. By learning more about the evolutionary foundations of good and bad leadership, we will empower ourselves to encourage the good and abolish the bad.


1. Van Vugt, M., Hogan, R., and Kaiser, R. (2008). Leadership, followership, and evolution: some lessons from the past. Am. Psychol. 63, 182–196.

2. Van Vugt, M., and Ahuja, A. (2010). Selected: Why Some People Lead, Why Others Follow, and Why it Matters. London: Profile Books.

3. Price ME and Van Vugt M (2014) The evolution of leader–follower reciprocity: the theory of service-for-prestige. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 8: 363.

4. Trivers, R. L. (1971). The evolution of reciprocal altruism. Q. Rev. Biol. 46, 35–57.

5. Alexander, R. A. (1979). Darwinism and Human Affairs. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Copyright Michael E. Price 2014. All rights reserved.