Mar 152008

Human beings operate based on dominance hierarchies and they are quite a powerful, yet hidden, force. The impact of status in dominance hierarchies is fairly obvious. As with other species, higher status people gain access to more resources including mates and food. In ancient times, being at the bottom of the hierarchy really was not a good thing. You could have been shunned or stonewalled. Because of limited resources, you were likely to get nothing but scraps, and probably be slower and weaker and thus easier for predators to catch and kill. You also probably didn’t get to pass on your genetic material. Nowadays, of course, few people risk dying immediately because they are low in hierarchies, but your perceived position in a hierarchy can still have a strong impact on your health. Also, nowadays you can be a part of multiple hierarchies.

No where are hierarchies more apparent than in high school and middle school-aged children. There’s a fairly strict social hierarchy, with the “cool” kids at the top. Depending on when you are, bullies can inhabit the top, middle or even the bottom of the hierarchy.

Are you afraid of being wrong, or of looking like a fool? That may be the dominance hierarchy at work, or at least your understanding of it. If your internal conception of this dominance hierarchy is that its based on being right (and on intelligence), then if you’re wrong, that could impact your position on the hierarchy. Your self-esteem is an internal indicator of your perceived position on the hierarchy. Your serotonin levels (which affect self-esteem and low levels are correlated with depression) are also indicators of your perceived position in the hierarchy. You act differently based on your position, too. Standing tall and proud is a sign of higher dominance. This will become important a little later.

Human hierarchies can be based on many things, including power, prestige, age, knowledge, etc. For example, I have a merit-based sense of how the world should be, with little regard for age, so I feel that if I know as much as a 60 year-old, I should get the same sort of benefits. On the other hand, this may not be the case, so I might react with resentment and by saying its unfair (unfair according to whom? According to me and my idea of the “rules” of the game). As another example, I’ve worked with people who took offense to suggestions on how to do their job. One way to look at it is that they have their self-esteem tied up with being competent at what they do and suggestions of improvements are attacks on that. Another way to look at it is that they believe their position in the hierarchy has to do with their ability to do their job, and that a public suggestion impacts their position, and perhaps even whether they can hold onto that job or not.

Hierarchies can also be short-circuited by faulty evolutionary heuristics (mental shortcuts). For example, better looking people are rated as more intelligent, more successful, more sociable and friendly and other positive traits. Whether these are actually the case or not, other people perceiving good-looking people as such can cause to become such. Similarly, taller men are considered to be more attractive and higher on a hierarchy, and this becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy, as taller men fill the ranks of managers and high wage-earning CEO’s in disproportionate numbers. Women tend to choose status in men and men tend to choose beauty in women. Taller men did translate to higher status in the good old days of pre-history because taller men could fight better and because height is an indication of good nutrition, therefore more access to resources. More charisma and talking more are also suggested to be related to hierarchical position. But now, it is an outmoded heuristic where the social value of a person has changed from being able to fight and hunt to being able to wrestle with large amounts of data and create social value.

There is a plus side to the faulty nature of these hierarchies, though. Because no one really knows where another person falls on a hierarchy simply because there are so many people and so many hierarchies, it is relatively easy to move onto a higher position on another hierarchy than it used to be in the past. Being at the top of one hierarchy, even if that hierarchy is fairly low in the hierarchy of hierarchy also affects your nervous system and you seem higher-status, period. That is, you stand tall and are confident in yourself and feel good about yourself. Other people can respond to this and thus you can move into a higher rung on a hierarchy than you thought.

Ever seen chimps playfully wrestling with each other? It may seem playful, but it really isn’t. Often, second or third order chimp males will wrestle with each other and with the alpha chimp. If the alpha chimp is sick or simply weak, it will be found out fairly soon and that chimp will be displaced by the one that beats it. In this same way, humans tend to tease each other and poke fun at each other. There is little reason for it except as a sort of strata testing.

The other connection I like to see is how all this connects to the concept of the “ego” and especially the ego as an undesirable in some philosophical traditions. The ego that wants to be right is one that is protecting its position in a dominance hierarchy. The ego that wants to please others is trying to do the same, and/or increase your position in that hierarchy. If the ego does not think itself separate from others and look out for number 1, then others will trample it. The idea of the dissolution of the ego then becomes to stop playing the hierarchy game.

A fear of social rejection can also come from an egoic concern for hierarchical position. Doing some things like asking for a discount can perhaps create a small social drop, but it may also come out with a significant financial gain. The problem becomes where emotionally you are more invested in maintaining your social position than in going after your goals, and your fears and ego prevent you from getting what you want.

Now, while I’ve made some sweeping claims in this post, I’m not entirely sure how accurate it is. This model may simply be too simplistic for all the extrapolations I have made from it. However, it is a very interesting model to think about. There are other, more interesting questions about the ethics or moral value of these sort of hierarchies.

Main Points:

  • Dominance hierarchies are a hidden force in your life and its a fairly invisible but important model to understand.
  • Hierarchies can cause you to be more self-conscious and less willing to make a mistake. Hierarchies are based on a variety of characteristics. They are a sort of ordering or sorting.
  • There are some faulty ways hierarchy positions are determined and this can be advantageous. Be at the top of some hierarchy, no matter if it is something low in the hierarchy of hierarchies. The DM of a LARPing group still stands tall and acts like an alpha person (and I know this from personal experience of dealing with one). If you understood both of those acronyms, get out more. :p
  • Teasing as testing hierarchy positions.
  • Ego as a maintainer of hierarchy position. But perhaps not necessary in today’s world, and/or for your happiness
  • Fear of social rejection and desire to please everyone as a attempts to maintain social position.

More Reading:

Wikipedia: Social Hierarchy

  4 Responses to “We’re Not All That Different From Chimps”

  1. […] reason might be an evolutionary/neurochemical one. Humans have primate dominance hierarchies and being higher in the hierarchy is better from a survival/reproductive purpose. In fact, at least […]

  2. This is all quite interesting. I was wondering who the person who wrote this blog is and how can i get in contact with him/her. thx

  3. Thanks. You can contact me at the contact page:
    Contact me

    or you can email me at rtwolf (AT) Glad you enjoyed it.

  4. […] animals, and try to incorporate our animal instincts into bigger and bigger games. We’re Not All That Different From Chimps | Mind-Manual __________________ Mind-Manual New: "I’m broke and homeless. Now […]

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