Jonathan Pruitt, University of California Santa Barbara – The Great Man Theory

Is a good leader always able to rally the troops?

Jonathan Pruitt, associate professor in the department of ecology, evolution and marine biology at the University of California Santa Barbara, explores this question.

Jonathan Pruitt performed his graduate studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville under the direction of Susan Riechert. He then conducted postdoctoral studies at the University of California, Davis with Andy Sih and Jay Stachowicz. He joined EEMB in 2016.

The Great Man Theory


The great man theory posits that to understand history, one need only really understand its greatest heroes and villains.  Influential individuals emerge in a variety of non-human animals as well. In the social spider Stegodyphus dumicola, for instance, rare bold individuals are known to shape the collective behavior and success of their society.

In a recent study, we were able to show that the effects of bold individuals on colony behavior varied across environments. When bold individuals were present in colonies in arid desert sites, they increased colony aggressiveness; which increased the chances that their colony would survive.

In contrast, at wet sites, adding bold individuals to colonies had no effect on the colony behavior or survival.

Thus, bold individuals seemingly differed in their social influence across sites. Bold individuals at arid sites seemed especially influential. The spidery equivalent to a Great Man.

To probe this hypothesis, we created colonies of mixed origin: pairing bold individuals from arid sites with shy individuals from wet sites. We then took bold individuals from wet sites and placed them with shy individuals from arid sites.

When we did this, we found that bold individuals from arid sites were not able to wield their influence over foreign spiders. Whereas, shy individuals from arid sites followed any bold individual, regardless of where it came from. They were even willing to follow bold individuals of a totally different species.

Thus, great influence appears little to do with the traits of leaders per se, but instead emerges due to the social susceptibility of the population majority. In the hands of the truly socially susceptible, anything even coarsely approximating the traits of a leader will apparently do the trick.


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