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Did the earliest humans have persuasive leaders?

As David Cameron and Ed Miliband gear up to the local and European elections on May 22, a new study suggests that our ancestors may have held leadership contests too.

Evolutionary psychologists Dr Michael E. Price from Brunel University, London, and Professor Mark Van Vugt, of the University of Amsterdam in The Netherlands, have published a study to show that people tend to follow a possible leader who, in evolutionary terms, will help them to survive.

Dr Price explains “Leaders and followers benefit from a mutually beneficial exchange. Leaders produce the public goods, and followers provide the leader with prestige.” But, their findings, published in the journal, “Frontiers in Human Neuroscience,” also show that once the leaders have power, the old adage “power corrupts,” may be biologically inevitable.

“As leaders gain more relative power and their high status becomes less dependent on their willingness to pay the costs of benefitting followers, relations between them will become based more on leaders’ ability to dominate and exploit rather than benefit followers,” he added.

Dr Price and Professor Van Vugt say that specific neurological systems connected with good and bad leadership can be identified.Said Professor Van Vugt, “There is a biological risk that the more social power some leaders have, the more likely those leaderships are to deteriorate from being mutually beneficial to being toxic and exploitative.” Something today’s voters will no doubt bear in mind.