chapter  14
15 Pages

Cognitive and Social Adaptations for Leadership and Followership: Evolutionary Game Theory and Group Dynamics: Mark van Vugt and Rob Kurzban

Anthropologists have identified leadership as a human universal (Boehm,1999; Brown, 1991). In his analysis of the anthropological evidence for a range of universal human social behaviours, Brown (1991)—using his fictitious Universal People (UP) as a vehicle-says that:

This description resonates with the literature in social psychology, which suggests that whenever individuals come together to form a group, a leadership

structure quickly emerges (Bass, 1954; van Vugt, 2006). However, despite leadership’s crucial role in social groups and the enormity of the research directed at understanding it, there exists no overarching theoretical structure that organizes the wealth of thought and empirical evidence gathered on this topic (Chemers, 2000; Yukl, 1989). As Hogan and Kaiser (2005) note:

Here, we present a set of ideas grounded in the theory of evolution (Darwin, 1859) in a tentative attempt to integrate the massive body of empirical data into a coherent conceptual framework. (For a set of related ideas and a more thorough review, see van Vugt, 2006.)


Leadership and followership have been defined in a great many ways in the literature (Bass, 1990). Two common construals of leadership are, first, as an individual difference variable (Stogdill, 1974) and, second, the outcome of strategic interactions among rational actors (Hollander, 1985). With deference to the thought that has gone into the research traditions from which these definitions emerge, we introduce here a set of definitions that diverge from these and are, unlike their predecessors, decidedly adaptationist in nature. In particular, we take leadership and follower behaviour to be the product of cognitive adaptations designed to solve adaptive problems humans faced throughout evolutionary history. In this case, these problems are associated with particular features of humans’ social and physical environment (Dunbar, chapter 2, this volume; Kenrick, Delton, Robertson, Vaughn Becker & Neuberg, chapter 4, this volume; Tooby & Cosmides, 1992).