We are not born with a “tabula rasa,” rather we arrive pre-wired with a number of emotionally based systems and circuits. Mental circuits do not require previous learning, but they do provide the basis for learning to occur. These instinctual systems begin immediately to interact with our experiences and the context of our lives, so that it becomes very difficult to tease apart nature from nurture. These “emotional operating systems” lurk behind the scenes of our conscious experience both shaping and being shaped by it.

Wolves.dominanceOne such system that emerges in social animals is an instinct for social status which results in dominance hierarchies. Hierarchies evolved to help groups develop a more stable and less conflictual way to regulate access to resources. How these hierarchies are organized vary between and within species. Hierarchies allow for a resolution of conflict that does not lead to serious injury. Game theory and computer stimulation analyses have demonstrated that this “limited war” strategy benefits individual animals as well as the species.

All human societies appear to have hierarchies, ascribed systems tend to be very rigid (e.g., caste, class, or rank-based systems), while achievement-based systems allow for more flexibility (egalitarian systems). They develop everywhere, and blossom even when groups try to mitigate their development. The founding fathers declared their independence from an ascribed hierarchy…

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

 …then developed a system that excluded other races and genders from sharing power.

Our mental circuits lead us to feel status, even when it is not made explicit. We seem to have hard-wired “social status detectors.” Human imaging studies at the National Institute of Mental Health have identified brain circuitry associated with social status. When a person moves up or down the pecking order or merely perceives social superiors or inferiors, distinct brain areas are activated. Feeling inferior activates brain regions associated with emotional pain, while rising in status feels pleasurable and is associated with improved mental and physical health. Rising in status comes with a price; the more we stand to lose, the higher our stress levels…the higher we fly, the further we can fall.

Given that we have inherited a social rank system from our ancestors that natural selection kept around to make our survival more likely, it is unlikely that we could eliminate hierarchies in society. They dwell in our subconscious mind and leak out when we try to eradicate them. As a result, human history is a long-running experiment testing many types of organizations and power structures. These have led to our greatest achievements and our most horrific crimes against humanity. Power feels good, and those with it do not want to lose it; the powerful want more power and will go to great extremes to hold it and increase it.

This inherited pleasure and pain based mental system, that once served to help small family and tribal groups live together harmoniously, now influences the fate of more than seven billion people and every other living organism on the planet. Life is no longer harmonious, and the planet’s homeostasis seems to be out of balance, perhaps it is time to make this implicit mental circuit’s role more explicit. The human experiment involves adding reason to our emotional nature, hopefully we can discover a way to sustainably and compassionately organize ourselves for the good of all life on Earth.

Experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny.

— Thomas Jefferson

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