Social Hierarchies from the Bottom up: How Relational Schemas Shape the Emergence of Informal Leadership Structures



In an attempt to shed light on the micro-foundations of social structure, we examine how relational schemas impact the emergence of leadership hierarchies within informal groups. Relational schemas provide the cognitive models through which social structures are represented and encoded in the minds of individuals, as well as enacted in actual social interactions. Elaborating on this argument, we suggest that individuals employ relational schemas to assess whether their leadership perceptions are consistent with the broader leadership structure that is emerging around them. We further hypothesize that whenever inconsistencies arise, individuals are induced to minimize them by realigning their own leadership perceptions to the relevant schemas. We test the implications of this argument using a multi-method, multi-study approach. Study 1 captures the effects of relational schemas on the evolution of leadership relations in the context of two naturally occurring informal groups. Study 2 and 3 use an experimental design to directly test whether relational schemas shape people‚Äôs cognitive representations of leadership. An important contribution of the paper is that it illuminates how a micro-level cognitive process contributes to  the formation and evolution of social hierarchies.