From 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
Humans 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 one’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