von Hippel

The Role of Inequality in Moral and Immoral Leadership

von Hippel, B. (University of Queensland), Solda, A. (Queensland University of Technology), Ke, C. (Queensland University of Technology), Page, L. (University of Technology Sydney)

Ballooning levels of societal inequality have led to a resurgence of interest in the economic causes and consequences of wealth disparity. What has drawn less attention in the scientific literature is how different levels of resource inequality influence what types of individuals emerge as leaders. In the current paper we take a distal approach to understanding the psychological consequences of inequality and the associated implications for leadership. We describe how the distribution of resources in contrasting animal and small-scale human societies incentivises dominance-oriented versus prestige-oriented leadership strategies. In particular, we suggest that higher levels of inequality attract and favour dominance-oriented rather than prestige-oriented leaders, and that inequality incentivises leaders to favor their own self-interest over the interests of the organizations they lead. To test this possibility, we present a single pre-registered experiment in which 240 people selected leaders for their group positions under conditions of equal or unequal distribution of rewards. We then examined who was chosen for leadership positions and how well they performed as leaders. Consistent with predictions, inequality led poor performing individuals to aspire to leadership positions with resulting negative outcomes for group members.

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