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With Age Comes…Success in Battle?

As Michael Corleone becomes the new head of the family in The Godfather, one of his first acts is to dismiss Tom Hagen as consigliere, an esteemed position that functions as a top advisor or counselor. “Mike, why am I out?” the young Hagen asks. Corleone simply replies that Hagen is not a wartime consigliere, and besides, “who’s a better consigliere than my father?” Michael Corleone thus effectively replaces the young but very experienced Tom Hagen with the council of his much older, and equally feared, father – Vito Corleone.

Obviously the internal leadership mechanisms of the mafia function quite differently than in a democracy (let’s hope), but is there a sense in which some commonality can be detected in terms of our preferences for leadership during wartime? In a previous post, I covered some research that investigates the way that humans attend (often unconsciously) to cues in other people’s faces when deciding who to trust, or even when deciding whether to support a political candidate. Brian R. Spisak, one of the authors mentioned in that post, has a new paper that builds on this line of research. The general question he has been asking is two-fold: 1) what personality traits would have correlated with success in ancestral environments of coalitional aggression (e.g. dominance, high status, skills), and; 2) what cues in the face would have correlated with these personality traits? Spisak hypothesizes that natural selection should have favored mechanisms in the brain that attend to such ancestral adaptively-relevant cues. Specifically, he argues that older age is a facial cue that would have correlated with personality traits (e.g. dominance leadership) that would have been especially beneficial during coalitional conflict. The author’s findings indicate that older faces are indeed preferred during situations of inter-group conflict.

The reader should take care to notice a nuance in the argument. There is indeed a relationship between male age and status/dominance; this has also been observed in other primate species, such as Chimpanzees and Japanese Macaques, as Spisak recognizes. Importantly, however, the relationship is not monotonic but likely quadratic. In other words, there comes a point in old age when the older you get, the more likely you are to lose your dominance and status, if at least in terms of formidability. The reader should also remember that life expectancy in modern environments is much greater than in ancestral environments. Although Spisak’s results are compelling, future research should attend more dynamically to the nuances of life history variables, which rarely interact monotonically with other reproductively significant variables such as leadership and dominance. Lastly, there are likely those of you out there who are thinking, “this effect probably has more to do with experience, rather than age.” Spisak controls for this. wink

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Interested? Check out the full article here. This research is published in PLoS ONE (Public Library of Science), and is open access.


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