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Follow the leader: how those in charge make themselves known

Recently published University of Leeds research shows that if you want to be a leader you’re better off at the edges of a crowd, and not in the middle of the action.

In a series of experiments on crowd behaviour, a research team from the Faculty of Biological Sciences at the University of Leeds also found that successful leaders display more decisive behaviour, spending less time following others and acting more quickly than others in the group.

Lead researcher Jolyon Faria, who conducted the study as part of his PhD, said: "It was interesting to find that the most effective leaders remained on the edges of the group and attempted to lead from the front. You'd think leaders in the centre of the group should interact more often with others and therefore be more effective but here this wasn't the case."

Understanding how individuals behave in groups is important in predicting how the whole group behaves en masse, and has implications for the management of our physical environment.

Faria said: "For instance, a better understanding of human crowd behaviour can help us design buildings more effectively for evacuation scenarios. It can also inform strategies for moving large numbers of people, useful for events where large crowds need to be moved as quickly and efficiently as possible by a relatively small number of event staff."

The research team, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), asked groups of eight students to walk around continuously in a specified area and remain as a group without speaking or gesturing to one another.

One person was asked to move towards a target, whilst remaining a member of the group, without letting the others know that he or she was leading them to a target. In a second set of experiments, the students were told to follow "the leader", but not told who the leader was.

In the second set of experiments, it was found that those leaders who remained on the edge of the group were able to move their group towards a target much more quickly than the leaders that chose to remain in the centre.

"We wanted to find out how people decided who to follow" said Faria. "We found that people were able to identify their leader by what position the leader takes, which goes some way to explain how animals in groups - such as birds and fish - can be led by only a small minority, even when leaders don't signal their identity.

"Our findings have illustrated a general principle behind group behaviour. These can also be applied to animal groups, something which could help in the management of the natural environment, as well as in the management of the urban environment."

Jolyon Faria is available for interview.

A multimedia clip of one of the experiments that formed the basis of this research is available.

Further information:
Jo Kelly, campuspr Ltd. Tel 0113 258 9880, Mob 07980 267756, Email jokelly@campuspr.co.uk

Guy Dixon, Press Office, University of Leeds. Tel 0113 3438229, Email g.dixon@leeds.ac.uk

NOTES TO EDITORS

  1. This research is published in the April issue of Animal Behaviour, in a paper entitled Leadership and social information use in human crowds. A copy of the paper is available to journalists on request.
  2. Jolyon Faria is in the final year of his PhD in the Institute of Integrative & Comparative Biology, Faculty of Biological Sciences at the University of Leeds. His PhD project focuses on understanding how animals behave in different environments.
  3. The Faculty of Biological Sciences at the University of Leeds is one of the largest in the UK, with over 150 academic staff and over 400 postdoctoral fellows and postgraduate students. The Faculty is ranked 4th in the UK (Nature Journal, 457 (2009) doi :10.1038/457013a) based on results of the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). The RAE feedback noted that "virtually all outputs were assessed as being recognized internationally, with many (60%) being internationally excellent or world-leading" in quality. The Faculty's research grant portfolio totals some £60M and funders include charities, research councils, the European Union and industry. www.fbs.leeds.ac.uk
  4. The 2008 Research Assessment Exercise showed the University of Leeds to be the UK's eighth biggest research powerhouse. The University is one of the largest higher education institutions in the UK and a member of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities. The University's vision is to secure a place among the world's top 50 by 2015. www.leeds.ac.uk
  5. Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)
    BBSRC is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £450 million in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life in the UK and beyond and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders, including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors.

    BBSRC provides institute strategic research grants to the following:
    The Babraham Institute, Institute for Animal Health, Institute for Biological, Environmental and Rural Studies (Aberystwyth University), Institute of Food Research, John Innes Centre, The Genome Analysis Centre, The Roslin Institute (University of Edinburgh) and Rothamsted Research. The Institutes conduct long-term, mission-oriented research using specialist facilities. They have strong interactions with industry, Government departments and other end-users of their research.  www.bbsrc.ac.uk