Power is toxic: Dominance reduces influence in groups

Groups led by subordinate males outperform those led by dominant and aggressive males.


Being the strongest, biggest and most aggressive individual in a group might make you dominant, but it doesn't mean you make all the decisions.

A new study of fish behaviour shows that dominant individuals can influence a group through force, but passive individuals are far better at bringing a group to consensus. The study overturns assumptions that dominant individuals also have the greatest influence on their groups and sheds light on the potential of domineering individuals to obstruct effective communication in organisations. Dominant individuals can force their will on the group by being pushy, but that also makes them socially aversive. When it comes to bringing peers to consensus during more sophisticated tasks, it is the least aggressive individuals that exert the greatest influence.

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.

To disentangle the effects of dominance and influence, the researchers studied groups of a social cichlid fish, Astatotilpia burtoni. According to them, this species form groups with strict social hierarchies, in which dominant males control resources, territory, and space. The researchers 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 behaviour, or a more complex social learning task. The researchers observed the movement of the fish and found that in routine social interactions the dominant males exerted the greatest influential by chasing and pushing the group around. But in the more complex task, where influence was not forced on the group, but rather individuals had a choice about whom to follow, it was subordinate males who wielded the greatest influence in their social groups. By using additional machine-learning-based animal tracking, employing cutting edge techniques developed in the computer sciences, researchers were able to break down the behavioural differences between dominant and subordinate males: dominant males were central in behavioural social networks (they frequently interacted with others) but they occupied peripheral locations in spatial networks (they were avoided by others). The technology provided insights never before available, revealing the mechanisms of influence as well as the outcome. This result touches on the evolution of animal societies as well as leadership structures in organisations. Source: University of Konstanz