Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Students conduct research on leadership

The experimenters: Back (l-r) Graham Rodwell, Leia Cao, Claudia Hong, Sanda Noronha, Ryan Wiebe, Teresa Rodrigues, Kenda Dean; Front (l-r) Johnny Guan, Sharinder Riat
By Tamara Letkeman, doug Editor

Ever wonder why we are we more influenced by some people than others? Or what makes us choose one leader over another?

Research in applied psychology indicates that we are drawn towards leaders who are typical of our group and whose characteristics reflect the group identity. So is there any hope for leaders who are atypical? Are there circumstances when we might support uncharacteristic leaders and trust them just as much as leaders who are typical?

Research published this year by leading researchers in the field argued that we are more likely to support atypical leaders when we are uncertain of ourselves and our future. Now, a group of Douglas College students has carried out their own study to see if they get the same results.

Fourteen students in Psychology and other disciplines just finished conducting a large-scale experiment on leadership, which examines some of the key factors that cause us to support one leader rather than another.

The original study confirms that the type of leaders we usually support are those whose characteristics represent the group that we want to be part of - irrespective of whether they have any particular skills or knowledge, says Graham Rodwell, Chair of Social Science and Psychology, who is overseeing the study.

“Basically it’s because they are typical, rather than uncharacteristic,” he says. “And we choose people who are closer to this prototype. We tend to listen to them more, we find their arguments more persuasive, and we attribute more vision to them. The question is: does this all change when we become unsure of ourselves and our future?”

Once the students have reviewed the data, they will see whether their results replicate the results of the original study. The goal is to produce publishable results that will contribute to the development of leadership theory and can be presented at conferences.

The takeaway for students

Some students took on the roles of coordinators to recruit the 150 participants. Others were trained as research assistants to ensure the experiment was carried systematically and carefully. Five of the students are recent graduates of the BA Psychology program at Douglas.

Graham says the experience of organizing and running a research lab is valuable for students and helps them develop leadership skills, and is especially useful for students who are thinking of applying to graduate programs.

Sanda Noronha, a graduate of the Psychology program, says she chose to come to Douglas to get her BA because of opportunities like this.

“This project is helping establish the foundations of undergraduate research at Douglas, so it's basically building the foundation for future research,” she says. “As students, we’re not only gaining knowledge and experience through classroom work, but we’re getting hands-on experience as well.”

Graham says the Psychology Department aims to run at least one large research study on leadership and related topics every summer and give different groups of students the opportunity to participate.