Tag Archives: social hierarchies

Who attains status (and how do they attain it)?

This week’s edition of Psych Wednesdays was written by Michael Kraus and was originally published on Psych Your Mind on July 31, 2011.

“Of Mankind we may say in general they are fickle, and greedy of gain.”  –Machiavelli (1532)

Previously on the Psych Your Mind blog, we have written about the various forms and functions of social hierarchies in society. For instance, we have written about the perils of economic inequality here and here; we have written here about how power can corrupt people unless they are prosocially oriented (read: nice); we have written here about our paradoxical need for status hierarchies despite some of their negative qualities; and finally, we have written about various aspects of obedience to authority figures here and here. Extending our tour of social hierarchy, today I’d like to discuss who attains status, and precisely how they attain it.

As we have discussed in a previous post, having high status is good for your social life, your health, and your well-being. We also know that people pursue high status in their daily lives– although not all people do so with the same success or the same vigor. Here I will outline some of the keys to status attainment in face-to-face groups.


The status paradox

In our second installment of Psych Wednesdays, Michael Kraus, a postdoctoral scholar at UCSF, writes about the role of status in social heirarchies.  This post originally appeared on Psych Your Mind on June 20.

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.

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).