It is a disturbing truth to humanity that we are inherently hierarchical. Our brain is a meaning-making operation, and one of its basic procedures is to organize concepts in a hierarchical fashion. Hierarchies make order out of chaos, and the order they make is useful for survival. A system that ranks threats and opportunities hierarchically based on their likelihood and level of urgency has the advantage over a system that responds randomly or identically to every threat and opportunity.
For a social animal like us, hierarchical organization offers distinct advantages. Like political scientists Dominic Johnson (University of Oxford) and Bradley Thayer (University of Iceland) write:
“A species that lives in a community could have two main forms of social organization. The group may accept an organization with some centralization of power (hierarchies of dominance), or it may engage in perpetual conflict (“scrambling competition”), which incurs costs in terms of time, energy and energy. injury, as well as depriving the group of many of the benefits of community existence, such as more efficient use of resources. Among social mammals, and primates in particular, hierarchies of dominance have become the primary form of social organization.
Unfortunately, the hierarchical order, like any order, makes winners and losers; thus, it generates discontent. Over time, social hierarchies inevitably take a heavy toll, generating tension and conflict. These difficulties become particularly important in market economies, where disparities in status are often manifested in terms of relative wealth.
Like the work of the British social epidemiologist Richard wilkinson As has been shown, large disparities in status predict poorer health outcomes, more social conflict and more violence. Disparities in status, in fact, predict the well-being of society better than per capita income. Citizens of a rich but highly unequal society tend to have poorer health outcomes than those who live in a poorer but more egalitarian society.
In general, human societies try to solve these problems inherent in the hierarchical structure either by seeking to reduce inequalities (e.g. progressive taxation, etc.) or by promoting cultural narratives (“rags to rich”) and myths (“the land of opportunities”) that camouflage it. Yet while reducing extreme social disparities is a laudable goal, eliminating them altogether is probably untenable.
I should know that. I grew up on a Israeli kibbutz, a radical social experiment of the 20th century in which young socialist revolutionaries sought to create a new non-hierarchical social order – an equal, egalitarian, cooperative and truly classless system. For example, the kibbutz workforce did not have a “career ladder”. Positions were assigned on a rotational basis. Communal income was shared equally among members, who also received equal communal housing, education and services. All members participated equally in municipal decision-making, through a direct democratic voting process. The kibbutz system, in other words, has demolished all structural and formal hierarchies.
Unfortunately, in the absence of material and formal hierarchies, other hierarchies, more intangible but no less consistent, have arisen. For example, since the kibbutz movement was revolutionary, agricultural and democratic, true believers gained status over skeptics, well-spoken members gained inordinate influence, and physically fit people gained weight over dreamers and the poets. To paraphrase the old saying, you can take humans out of the status hierarchy, but not the other way around.
“Social status”Is a multidimensional construct, made up of both“ attributed ”elements, attached to the individual at birth (think gender, ethnicity and age) and“ affected ”elements, obtained through individual action (think of income, level of education). Social status is coveted because its implications are profound. On the one hand, humans live in groups, and the group will offer greater protection to highly esteemed members. Group protection, in turn, is the most effective type of protection available to humans. High status improves your chances of survival.
In addition, high social status also confers reproductive advantages. Evolutionary psychologist David Buss writing: “Resources relevant to reproduction, including food, territory, mating opportunities, powerful coalition alliances and group-provided health care, flow to those with high status and not flow only slowly to those with lower status. “
Beyond survival and reproduction, a extensive literature has also documented the effects of social status on health and longevity. The general conclusions are quite intuitive: higher social status leads to better health. For example, “Studies in Sweden have shown that men with doctorates have a mortality rate that is 50% lower than men with higher education. In the United States, the poorest households are almost four times more likely to die than the richest households. In the UK, office workers are more likely to die from coronary heart disease as they move down the hierarchy. “
Once we have established that status affects health, the next question is: how? In general, it is quite obvious that low status is a stressor, and we know that stress negatively affects health. But what is specifically stressful about low social status?
Perhaps the best answer to this question has been provided by British researcher Sir Michael Marmot, who has spent more than three decades documenting the health trajectories of British white-collar workers, a group characterized by similar working conditions and access. equal to health care. The work of Marmot revealed the existence of a strong “health gradient,” whereby workers’ health improved in direct proportion to their rank.
However, these status benefits were not a function of access to health care (they all had it) or of income disparities (low in this group). On the contrary, higher status conferred better health by improving two main psychosocial factors: personal autonomy and social connections. “The lower you are in the hierarchy, the less likely you are to have full control over your life and opportunities for full social participation … Autonomy and social participation are so important to health that their lack leads to a deterioration of health.”
Once we understand that status is strongly linked to health, and once we understand the mechanisms underlying this link, the next question becomes: How does one achieve high status? Obviously, being born to the right parents at the right time and in the right place – the “assigned” status items – is a good start. Namely: in the United States, the best predictor of success is parental wealth. Yet a person’s personal traits and habits – the elements of “achieved” status – also matter.
A 2020 to study by David Buss and colleagues makes this point. The authors asked 2,751 participants in 14 countries to rate behaviors and multiple traits based on their degree of promotion (or demotion) in social status in males and females. The results provide “the first systematic documentation of potentially universal and gender-differentiated status criteria”.
The study identified several behaviors that serve to promote higher status across genders and cultures. Among them are (in order of importance): being a trusted member of the group; to be intelligent ; be accepted into a prestigious university; to be an exceptional leader; have a wide range of knowledge; to be creative; always be honest; be able to speak well in public; have a well-paid job; have a good sense of humor; have a managerial position; be nice; be courageous in the face of danger; have a college education; and be a hard worker.
In contrast, the main traits of “decreasing status” were: failure to complete a group task; get kicked out of school; to be lazy; being unable to control their sexual behavior while intoxicated; be unreliable; act in an immature or irresponsible manner; being mean or mean to others; makes racist remarks; bring social shame on his family; have bad manners; takes illegal drugs; contracting a sexually transmitted disease; to be stupid; to be unclean or dirty; and be known as a thief.
However, several differences between the sexes emerged. For example, in all countries drug use and delinquency were considered to be much less detrimental to the status of men than to that of women, while crying in front of friends was considered more detrimental to the status of men than to that of women. that of women. The ability (and willingness) to protect others through risk-taking, acts of bravery, and physical strength valued men’s status more, while qualities related to domestic skills (i.e.) tended to have more value. importance for the status of women. And while sexual promiscuity lowered the status of both sexes, it further damaged the status of women, even in sexually egalitarian cultures. Long-term relationships, on the other hand, increased the status of both sexes, albeit more so for women.
Bus and colleagues conclude thus: “many status criteria… seem to have similar effects from one country to another… suggesting a possible universality. Actions, characteristics, and events that are associated with general value to the group and to individuals within the group, value to loved ones, and physical health are three candidates for the universal status criteria.
In other words, while being born well is important, so is behaving well. Prosocial habits such as loyalty, honesty, conscientiousness, creativity, and kindness are likely to elevate your social status, and with it, improve your health and longevity.
Perhaps the old adage needs to be revised like this: Nice guys (and girls) pass away last.