Social Susceptibility: Evolutionary ecologist Jonathan Pruitt and colleagues study the leader-follower dynamics of influential individuals in a social group

January 02, 2018

This is the story of a spider, small but bold.

This particular arachnid, in fact, has helped to debunk the Great Man Theory, a 19th-century notion positing that highly influential individuals use their power — be it personal charisma, intelligence, wisdom or political skill — to maximize their impact in shaping the course of history.

How better to test that theory than with Stegodyphus dumicola?

Working with these African social spiders in their native habitats, UC Santa Barbara evolutionary ecologist Jonathan Pruitt created a model for exploring leadership dynamics and social susceptibility — the tendency of individuals to change their behavior in response to interactions with influential group members. He found that the social susceptibility of the population majority — and not the influence of key individuals — is what drives leadership. The results appear in the journal Current Biology.

“We knew from previous studies that in a social group, the rare presence of bold individuals — who constitute between 1 and 5 percent of a population — radically changes collective behavior,” said Pruitt, an associate professor in UCSB’s Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology (EEMB). “This new research evaluates whether the rise and fall of societies could be contingent on having just one or a few of these key individuals and whether the profitability of their presence might change based on the environment.”

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