Status

58949722 / State Opening of ParliamentFrom the schoolyards to the networking events to the red carpet, it is intuitively felt. As a social species, humans are highly attuned to social status; one might say that we have a built in “status detector.” Natural selection has rewarded individuals having higher status with better access to mates and food and subsequently more offspring, along with other benefits that improve quality of life. Research suggests that our brain chemistry and subsequently our emotions, mood and behavior are heavily impacted by our position in the social hierarchy.

“Serotonin levels are not innate and inflexible. They are themselves the product of social status. The higher your self-esteem and social rank relative to those around you, the higher your serotonin level is…. There is little doubt that the monkey’s mood is set by its high serotonin levels. If you artificially reverse the pecking order so the monkey is now a subordinate, not only does its serotonin drop, but its behavior changes, too. Moreover, much the same seems to happen in human beings.” — Matt Ridley

Lance Armstrong Tour De FranceHumans ascribe status in many different ways, but these typically come through two basic pathways: gained through achievement or assigned in some way based on aspects such as sex, age or physical characteristics or through background such as lance-armstrongone’s ethnic group or family. Societies can differ on which types of status they emphasize and how rigid the boundaries are between the layers. Status systems create a hierarchy within society that provides those at the top more power and privilege. One might say that these entrenched ways of assigning status create a strong current that can make it difficult and at times impossible to contravene. Within these systems, there are frequently crosscurrents, when various categories of status intersect (for example, women high in social status before women’s suffrage). And, just as status can be gained or assigned, it can be lost or forfeited.

The concept of fraternization occurs when someone within a given status system engages in social relations with people from a different strata as though they were siblings, personal friends or lovers. The resulting impact of these systems is to effect inequality, which leads many institutions and societies to enforce strong prohibitions against fraternizing. This flows from the recognition that intimate relationships work best between peers. Unequal power can distort romantic relationships and create conditions of imbalance that may lead to unresolvable conflict. So, although it is based on a perceived place in the hierarchy, it has dramatic results and impacts our emotions, mood, even physiology and behavior, which one can clearly see in the conduct of winners (arms and chest held aloft) and losers (shoulders and head lowered). Feelings of contempt towards others reflect a perceived higher status, while feelings of resentment reflect perceived lower status. Those above judge and criticize, while those below defend. Aggression comes from a place of power, while passive-aggressive or terroristic behaviors spring from perceived lower status.

Status emerges in human relationships from deep within our subconscious minds, often catching us unaware. It is often reified in institutions and in society as a whole, even considered to be imbued by nature or divinity. Resistance to this idea has been germinating for years challenging nature’s push and society’s hold. There is growing concern about the levels of inequality in the distribution of wealth and resources. We almost universally find it humorous when the pompous are brought down, and some say this is the essence of much of our humor. We are also keenly aware of hypocrisy, especially of those in places of power and prestige. If we notice this force in our lives, and notice that it is based on perception, then we can more consciously consider what role we want it to actually play in our lives and relationships. Significant healing can be achieved when the lowly are lifted up and the playing field starts to level. Given our propensity towards ascribing status, perhaps with greater consciousness, healthier systems of status might emerge which draw out the best in us rather than our baser instincts.

“Human beings are a species splendid in their array of moral equipment, tragic in their propensity to misuse it, and pathetic in their constitutional ignorance of the misuse.” — Robert Wright


John R. Lucy, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice at Decatur Psychology, LLC.

Contempt

“Nothing living should ever be treated with contempt. Whatever it is that lives, a man, a tree, or a bird, should be touched gently, because the time is short. Civilization is another word for respect for life.” — Elizabeth Goudge

Four horsemen

Relationship researcher, John Gottman, has identified four maladaptive emotional reactions that are so toxic for relationships that he has used an end times metaphor from the Book of Revelation to describe them. Gottman’s four horsemen (criticism, defensiveness, contempt, stonewalling) often occur in a negative cascade between partners and represent increasingly severe complementary adverse behavior. While each of these behaviors is destructive, Gottman’s research has identified contempt as the single greatest predictor of divorce. Contempt often becomes mutual and this generally foretells the end times of the relationship, or at a minimum, years of misery.

Robert Solomon, a philosophy professor at the University of Texas, distinguished the three emotions, resentment, anger and contempt from one another based on whether the object of the emotion was deemed to be of higher, equal or lower status. When you have contempt toward another, you are judging the other as beneath consideration, worthless, or deserving scorn, which simultaneously places you in the superior position of a judge. Interestingly, judges preside “over” and sit “above” the courtroom, and violation or disrespect of the court proceedings can lead to a charge of contempt.

The emotion of contempt combines the primary emotions of anger and disgust; thus, one might say that the person feeling contempt, likely feels threatened by someone for whom they feel revulsion. One can see the insidious, damaging impact this emotion has on a relationship; contempt is a cold, condemnation of being an object of disgust, which communicates to the condemned that they should remove themselves from the presence of their superior. This is precisely what happens.

When contempt transpires within couples and families the impact is particularly devastating. To be judged as disgusting by those from whom you most crave acceptance cuts the deepest wounds where we are most vulnerable.  Tragically, children will inevitably align with their parents’ opinion and feel self-contempt, which can lead to a lifetime of highly critical internal dialogue. The devaluing impact of contempt is so painful that many will try to fight off its sting through defensiveness, withdrawal or by developing an impenetrable emotional barrier.

The emotion of disgust, which is part of the contempt formula, evolved to protect us from disease and became part of our behavioral immune system. As it started being applied to people, usually those who carried disease, it became a more established part of our emotional repertoire and was applied to foreigners or nonconformists. In today’s interconnected world we find ourselves drowning in a sea of contempt. Contempt is modeled daily by our leaders, leaders-to-be and the pundits who analyze them. Society’s disadvantaged feel it the most.

We fall into contempt far too easily, and it seems that we have lost sight of its calamitous repercussions. If only we could maintain a sense of shared humanity and keep the playing field level; then we might be able to experience our anger and upset without having to degrade the other person’s dignity. This takes humility, a natural antidote to contempt. Humility is aided through recognition of our subjectivity and drawing upon compassion, both of which will require some reprogramming of our natural tendencies. Our eyes point outwards and we mistake our perceptions for objective truth. Perhaps, we could come off our high horse and remember that there is always more to the other than what we experience.

“There’s nothing wrong with enjoying looking at the surface of the ocean itself, except that when you finally see what goes on underwater, you realize that you’ve been missing the whole point of the ocean. Staying on the surface all the time is like going to the circus and staring at the outside of the tent.”
― Dave Barry


John R. Lucy, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice at Decatur Psychology, LLC.