The big man mechanism: How prestige fosters cooperation and creates Prosocial leaders

Joseph Henrich, Maciej Chudek, Robert Boyd

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

85 Scopus citations


Anthropological evidence from diverse societies suggests that prestige-based leadership may provide a foundation for cooperation in many contexts. Here, inspired by such ethnographic observations and building on a foundation of existing research on the evolution of prestige, we develop a set of formal models to explore when an evolved prestige psychology might drive the cultural evolution of n-person cooperation, and how such a cultural evolutionary process might create novel selection pressures for genes that make prestigious individuals more prosocial. Our results reveal (i) how prestige can foster the cultural emergence of cooperation by generating correlated behavioural phenotypes, both between leaders and followers, and among followers; (ii) why, in the wake of cultural evolution, natural selection favours genes that make prestigious leaders more prosocial, but only when groups are relatively small; and (iii), why the effectiveness of status differences in generating cooperation in large groups depends on cultural transmission (and not primarily on deference or coercion). Our theoretical framework, and the specific predictions made by these models, sketch out an interdisciplinary research programme that cross-cuts anthropology, biology, psychology and economics. Some of our predictions find support from laboratory work in behavioural economics and are consistent with several real-world patterns.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number20150013
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1683
StatePublished - Dec 5 2015


  • Cooperation
  • Cultural evolution
  • Prestige
  • Prestige-biased transmission
  • Prosociality
  • Status

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)


Dive into the research topics of 'The big man mechanism: How prestige fosters cooperation and creates Prosocial leaders'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this