How do individuals attain influence, status, and leadership?

Status hierarchies exist across diverse animal species and are a universal feature of all human societies. Hierarchies in human social groups, however, are unique in that status is not merely based on violence, force, and threat—as often observed in primates and other animals—but also depends on competence, ability, and expertise. We are interested in the psychological underpinnings of these two forms of status, labeled dominance and prestige. This theoretical perspective, which initially emerged from ethnographies of human small-scale societies that resemble the living conditions important in our evolutionary past, enables us to understand both the proximate and ultimate causes of hierarchy and leadership emergence. Our recent work reveals that both fear- and respect-based strategies co-exist to effectively promote influence, attention, and leadership in groups, but when used by leaders they have differential costs and benefits for follower well-being and team cooperation, productivity, and creativity.  


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Like other animals, humans exchange a variety of nonverbal signals that function to facilitate interactions and resolve conflicting interests. Our recent studies on task groups contrived to interact in our lab reveal that individuals use dynamic changes in voice pitch to signal dominance standing: Individuals who spontaneously lower their voice pitch are deemed more dominant and emerge as influential leaders, whereas those who raise their pitch come to occupy lower ranks. These results emphasize the role of transient behavioral signals in tracking, signaling, and coordinating human social relationships. Our other ongoing work examines voice pitch dynamics in competitive negotiation and bargaining games, and postural behaviors that underpin prestige and dominance strategies to rank.

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How does hierarchical standing (and other social experiences) shape neurobiology?

For many centuries, scholars have been interested in the mind-body connection—how psychological states can influence biology and health (and vice versa). One example of this is the “winner effect,” a well-documented finding in biology that previous victories increases testosterone levels and the likelihood of winning subsequent contests. We are seeking to examine whether and how a similar process applies to humans. Our ongoing work with naturalistic teams and groups in the field examines how gaining status and recognition in the eyes of one’s teammates—a proxy for the level of social victory (vs. defeat) experienced—may influence testosterone and other hormone profiles over time. Our other work uses biomarkers of stress to identify the personality traits that buffer or amplify the effects of psychological experiences of stress on biological functioning.


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What are the roots of overconfidence?

Of the many psychological biases and illusions that humans possess, overconfidence is among the most consistent, powerful, and pervasive. Why are individuals overly confident in the face of objective reality, overestimating their capabilities, intelligence, morality, and likelihood of success in diverse domains? Drawing on the observation that humans are extraordinarily influenced by their social environments, we are currently testing whether overconfidence transmits across people via imitation, and whether this contagion mechanism can explain patterns of variation in levels of overconfidence long observed across groups, teams, and populations.


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