Monday, June 20, 2011

The Status Paradox

Social hierarchies are quite complicated. In the animal world hierarchies are wildly different based on social contexts, species, and environmental factors. For some animals, such as bull elephant seals, hierarchies are unstable—individuals spend a relatively short times at the top of the food chain—and what these alpha males get in terms of mating preferences, they pay dearly for in terms of physical fighting, aggressive confrontation, and threats from other male rivals. In unstable hierarchies, it’s hard to be at the top.

Deciding who the boss is! (source)
Most hierarchies are much more stable than the example of the bull elephant seal. For instance, in human social life, social hierarchies are typically stable within a specific context. For example, you and your boss aren’t likely to switch roles halfway through the year. And there is good reason for that. If people were allowed to switch willy-nilly between high and low status roles, it would be hard to know who to turn to for advice or guidance, whose directions should be followed, and who should take responsibility for the group's failures. Those are jobs reserved for the leader of the group and not for a random group member.

Hierarchies, in this case, are an essential way in which people can organize their social lives around others. So in some instances, having some people with low status and some people with high status is good: Status disparities set up realistic expectations for the behavior of others, and promote harmonious and (relatively) stable group relations by creating these expectations. Having low status in a group, in-and-of-itself is not necessarily a bad thing then. Sometimes people like to follow rather than lead, or like others to take the responsibility for failure (or success).

Did not having a clear hierarchy hurt the Miami Heat? (source)

There are, of course, some important caveats to this reasoning. First, while status differences are generally not a bad thing—because they organize social life—when these status differences are decided by arbitrary characteristics that have nothing to do with one’s capacity to lead (e.g., racial background, gender, sexual orientation) they create disruptions in social relationships. For instance, a long history of research in social psychology finds that ethnic minority students—a low-status identity decided arbitrarily—under-perform on academic tests when they are told they will be judged based on their ethnic group. When not given this information, ethnic minority students perform as well as other students.

As income decreases, odds of mortality increase
Second, we can’t discount a large history of research on socioeconomic status suggesting that being low in socioeconomic status is bad for your health. In short, you die sooner when you are lower in socioeconomic status relative to others. Read that again. Status may be necessary to organize social life, but having long-term consistency in low status is clearly and robustly bad for your overall well-being.

So how do we reconcile this status paradox? On the one hand, status hierarchies organize social groups and help people get along. On the other hand, being arbitrarily low status or being in a low status position for an extended period of time is really bad for your well-being. It’s one of those problems that doesn’t have a really clear, scientifically supportable solution. That is, unless I’m missing something…

How can we reconcile the status paradox? Let us know in your comments.

Sapolsky, R. (2005). The Influence of Social Hierarchy on Primate Health Science, 308 (5722), 648-652 DOI: 10.1126/science.1106477

Adler, N., Boyce, T., Chesney, M., Cohen, S., & et al, . (1994). Socioeconomic status and health: The challenge of the gradient. American Psychologist, 49 (1), 15-24 DOI: 10.1037//0003-066X.49.1.15


  1. Of course being on the bottom sucks, otherwise nobody would put in the effort to be on top.

  2. That's right, being at the top is a position of greater value, and yet, there are still times where people shy away from high status positions, or gain them in ways that are not merit-based. This is the paradox. Thanks for reading!

  3. Also, how do we reconcile the status paradox when the group leader is inept and others are better able (and willing) to do so?

  4. hierarchies are not necessary for harmonious group dynamics, even when you base your evaluation of the process of creating healthy group dynamics on having understood consistent expectations. it's a myth that's been repeatedly debunked in other cultures. The status kick in the head is extra, and sociologists know it.

    The same sense of harmonious expectations are easily created *without DEVALUING* certain activities actions or positions. It's just not necessary.

  5. Q: "how do we reconcile the status paradox when the group leader is inept and others are better able (and willing) to do so?"

    A: If we could always identify the person who is both willing and able to lead effectively it would be better for everyone to elect that person to lead. The problem is (1) it's not always easy to identify whom is willing and able [i'll write a post about this in the future] and (2) people in power often don't want to give up power.

  6. With regard to the idea that "hierarchies are not necessary for harmonious group dynamics":

    Empirical evidence suggests that hierarchies do indeed lead to harmonious social relations. That's consistent with a lot of research, and I'd urge a reading of Robert Sapolsky's work (google him).

    I would say that I agree with the second comment though, that there are ways to create equilibrium in a social group without status differences. Some sociological examples include the Jewish Kibbutz society or even a Berkeley favorite--The Cheese Board Pizza and Bakery Collective. Both are examples of when groups handle decision-making cooperatively rather than through a centralized source.

    Thanks for reading!

  7. Cool peice, Michael! It seems to me, the only way to reconcile status anxiety is to be extremely congnizant of the fact that social status/heirarchy is extremely powerful in the first place! Undoubtedly, the engineers of cheeseboard in Berkeley had to consciously agree at the outset that they planned on constructing a sort of communal ownership situation. As it turns out, given the right circumstances (namely everyone being on the same page) such a design can function fabulously. I totally agree though, it is a much less pronounced phenomenon in the nature (I.e. outside of the human frontal cortex and foreplanning). The stress-ridden status heirarchies of Sapolsky's baboons are overwhelmingly more common than anything resembling equal opportunity in nature. P.S. Tone down the ideology Sociology person! The world is more nuanced.

  8. For what it is worth, the various degrees of heirarchy seen across species of social animals are fantastic examples of evolutionary stable states. In an ideal world, elephant seals and the like would evolve a perfectly fair, communal system in which nobody had to compete over reproductive rights, because every seal got their fair share of the pie. The problem is, behavior is subject to natural selection just like everything else, and the "most fair" system won't simply evolve because it is the most fair. Put it like this, if elephant seals were conscious enough to decide, they might well have chosen equal rights for all. But the fact is they are not intelligent enough to know the difference(apparently we aren't there either). Thus evolution has had to strike a balance in order achieve social stability, and therefor individual stability.

  9. Thanks P. Heusser for your comments. Lots of good stuff in there to think about. I completely agree that in nature, status hierarchies are the go-to way that social groups organize themselves. That fair societies don't arise as naturally seems sad at first... but then, as Darwin (1871) observed, sympathy "will have been increased through natural selection; for those communities, which included the greatest number of sympathetic members, would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring."

    Perhaps our thoughts about justice and fairness are independent of our thoughts about harm and care toward others. Jon Haidt, the moral psychologist, believes they are separate moral domains.

    Thanks for reading!

  10. Indeed, indeed. Big surprise,right? Darwin making a keen observation! I agree, there are all sorts of circumstances in the natural world where tit for tat reciprocity and cooperation win out over aggressive competitiveness. That being said, yes, its abudantly clear that status heirarchies take the cake, at least with respect to how often they show themselves. On the "it seems sad at first" point: Even if it appears sad at first, in my view, we needn't care too much. Even if 99 times out of 100, animal behavior was absolutely cut throat and brutal, that shouldn't tell us a thing about how we should construct our societies or how we should treat each other. The gift of a theory of mind means we can, atleast in principle, outsmart our less than socially desirable instincts. The fact that we are so tremendously concerned with being accepted by others, gives us all the more reason to employ the golden rule, as an extention of the mammalian attachment system. Ya dig??!

  11. I very much agree with P. Hausser. Behavioral ecology, with its individual-level perspective, would note that in many cases, social hierarchies emerge as a stable result of every individual maximizing its own fitness to the degree it is able to. High-status individuals have every reason to try to keep their status (because as you note, they get benefits from it). This results in low-status individuals being disempowered (or picked on, in the case of chickens, for example). No fun. My point here is not that this is natural or fair, but that it's not truly a paradox. Your definition of "good" in this article is one that maximizes group fitness, but that's never selected for in nature, because individuals can cheat (inadvertently spreading cheating genes and ruining the group cooperation). Better to analyze why individuals remain in social hierarchies, even when it sucks. (I would offer that it's usually because they're prevented from gaining status by other selfish individuals.)

  12. Adding to the debate: The New York Times published a piece today suggesting that people innately favor egalitarian (flat) hierarchical structures. Very relevant to this conversation:

    Thanks for reading Jesse!

  13. Sir Jesse! I can certainly appreciate your selfish geney perspective, and I would venture to guess the author is on board with that much too. However, I do agree with Michael that in the special case of humans, there is very much a paradox going on. Even after we grant the admitted relevance of selfish genes and therefor "me first!" behavior in humans, we would be remiss in failing to remember that we humans(as sociobiologists point out) have evolved various cognitive mechanisms for cooperative behavior, as a result of having evolved in large, tight knit groups where we thus had to factor in the goals and intentions of others-- and then accomodate our behavior to find a middle ground. This may be the origins of "the evolution of fairness" which Sloan-Wilson alludes to in that article. If I understand Michael's concept of the status parodox correctly, I do not think he is making an argument from group selection, which is a distinctly biological paradigm. He is making a social one; namely, an argument about a particular kind of social dissonance. A standard functionist perspective would hold that society operates smoothly when all particular niches are adequately filled...from street beggar, to janitor, to school teacher, to doctor. BUT what's good for society as a whole is not necessarily what's good for individual people. I.E. The doctor will surely experience better health then the beggar, on the average. This is an extreme example, but it illustrates the point. The question becomes, is it possible to have a higher percentage of individuals succeed, without sacrificing the overall positive trajectory of the society...(again, assuming a functionalist perspective. I vote yes, resoundingly.

  14. Agreed! Perhaps I went too biological in my reasoning, there. However, I still see hierarchies as emergent phenomena, and would argue that humans' hierarchies are more stable than baboons' for the cognitive reason you mention (we punish if a single individual gets too much!). If hierarchies emerge from individual behaviors, then they are not inherently good, they just happen. But your point still holds - using our cognitive abilities, it ought to be possible to adjust the costs and benefits of particular positions in the hierarchy such that there is better health at the bottom (and perhaps less power at the top? but maybe that's my politics talking). It would be in the interests of most of society to do so.

    One issue is clearly that when the top positions in the hierarchy offer huge benefits (AND control), there is strong selfish geney incentive for those individuals to keep themselves at the top.

    (The comment in the nytimes article on 7 year olds punishing is highly relevant here...)

    I actually fundamentally disagree with Sloan Wilson and his group selection arguments, most of the time. I think that what's fascinating is that through humans' terrific sociality, we've created an environment where it's very easy (or was very easy) and individually cheap to punish individuals who threatened to usurp power. The threat of group punishment probably held individuals in check, simply because taking more would eventually cost too much.

    Hm. Got a bit rambly there. Hope that made a little sense. I think we generally agree - I see a conflict between levels of society (individual and group) more than a paradox, though.

  15. Very interesting comments. I guess the crux of whether this is a conflict v. a paradox would be whether you think people want to rise in power but can't because of group punishments that hold individuals in check, or if you think people sometimes (and not all people) seek out low status positions.

    I'm certain both are true depending on the context: Even in social psychology we have researchers who exclusively study status domination processes (e.g., John Jost of NYU), and then we have others who study status signaling--wherein individuals can't help but reliably signal to people that they are low/high status (e.g., Nalini Ambady of Tufts).

    Such interesting comments!

  16. Bah! Yes, yes interesting indeed. I also think we are all generally in consensus here. Funny, Jesse, I just got done having a temper tantrum about D.S. Wilson over on Juli's interesting article about shyness. Haha, you're preachin to the choir brother! I personally think Wilson is a very smart, very manipulative fame seeker. I suspect this is why Dawkins will not engage him in his anti-gene selectionist rants. (Sort of an ignore the creationist debaters tactic, so as to not give their views false credibility via association!)

    If I could expand on the second of your two scenarios Michael,I would like to propose a caveat. Perhaps it is less individuals "seeking" out low status, (Though after controlling for the effects of underpriviledged upbringing- this could surely be part of it) but rather, it has to do with individuals having developed low expectations for what they could possibily accomplish, or even what they deserve to accomplish.It's got to be a near lethal combination to have had poor access to education AND to be have developed personal expectations via a looking glass self consisting of primary group members whose worlds were similarly constricted. (quite sure you recognize that jumbo btw, just pointing it out for the sake of convo)! Thoughts?

  17. Groovy caveat. So much research to tie in to this point as well. There are loads of studies on low expectations (of self, and by teachers) in schools, and how these expectations create reality. "Reaching Higher: The Power of Expectations in Schools" is a great book on this by my former mentor, Rhona Weinstein of UC Berkeley.