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Study: Leaders Among Fish Are Born, Not Made

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A new study of fish finds that leadership is an innate quality, and while leaders can learn to be followers, natural followers cannot learn to be leaders. (JOE KLAMAR/AFP/GettyImages)

A new study of fish finds that leadership is an innate quality, and while leaders can learn to be followers, natural followers cannot learn to be leaders. (JOE KLAMAR/AFP/GettyImages)

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WASHINGTON (CBS DC) – A new study of fish finds that leadership is an innate quality, and while leaders can learn to be followers, natural followers cannot learn to be leaders.

Published in the August edition of the Royal Society, the study’s authors analyzed how many animal groups coordinate and distribute activity through the emergence of leaders and followers. The study of fish looked at how, if such roles are reversed through positive reinforcement, the group can function at the same level.

To find whether natural followers could be turned into leaders, and vice versa, the researchers gave incentives to stickleback fish to see who would take the lead on “risky” and “safe” foraging trips for food. Stickleback fish are known to have a natural split between shy and bold individuals within a group.

After determining whether each fish was a “shy” or “bold” type, the researchers gave rewards for behavior that was the opposite of their natural inclination as they were paired into “safe” feeding tanks and “risky” ones.

The analysis showed that the leaders were happy to become followers when incentivized, but that the shy fish were not inclined to rise to leadership roles.

“Our prediction was that bold individuals would perform poorly when forced to adopt the role of follower, considering that they are less responsive to other individuals’ behavior,” study co-author Shinnosuke Nakayama of the University of Cambridge’s zoology department, told AFP.

“Fish can learn to follow but struggle to learn to lead,” added Nakayama.

The researchers said that they hope the research raises questions about social roles and group behavior in other species of animals and humans.

“Strong positive effects of personality variation are only likely to emerge when members of a group are free to establish their own roles, such that bolder (or, in the human case, more extroverted) individuals can assume leadership,” Nakayama told AFP.

“It appears to be better for us to adopt social roles of leader and follower in the way we feel natural.”

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