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Do animals have social status as humans in our society?


As our society and it's functioning is closely related to the ones of animals, one question arises: Do animals in nature have social status as humans? People often display it publicly, by buying nice cars, searching for women and partners and so on, accumulating wealth and so on. Does similar things happens in nature? How our behavior is similar to animals?


Animal social behaviour

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Animal social behaviour, the suite of interactions that occur between two or more individual animals, usually of the same species, when they form simple aggregations, cooperate in sexual or parental behaviour, engage in disputes over territory and access to mates, or simply communicate across space.

Social behaviour is defined by interaction, not by how organisms are distributed in space. Clumping of individuals is not a requirement for social behaviour, although it does increase opportunities for interaction. When a lone female moth emits a bouquet of pheromones to attract male potential mates, she is engaging in social behaviour. When a male red deer (Cervus elaphus) gives a loud roar to signal dominance and keep other males away, he is also being social.

Animal social behaviour has piqued the interest of animal behaviorists and evolutionary biologists, and it has also engaged the public, thanks to life science filmmakers who captured the drama and stunning diversity of animal social interactions in documentaries and other media programs.


Social class through the evolutionary lens

Differences in behaviour between members of different social classes in Britain are very substantial, and have failed to diminish despite decades of increase in the standard of living. Why should these differences persist, and why do they take the form that they do?

There are many approaches one might take to this problem, but I find a Darwinian one helpful. This might come as a surprise to some readers. Evolutionary theory is not the place most social scientists would think of looking to in order to address questions about social differences in behaviour in contemporary societies. This is because offering an evolutionary explanation is often misunderstood as claiming that the behavioural difference in question is somehow genetically determined, or that the social conditions relevant to understanding behaviour are those which faced our Pleistocene ancestors, not those we currently experience. These ideas would rule evolutionary models irrelevant to current social class differences, since the urban poor live in conditions that are novel to the last few hundred years, and since class differences in behaviour are clearly caused by different social environments, not genetic polymorphisms.

However, neither genetic determination nor a disregard of current social conditions is a necessary feature of evolutionary explanations of behaviour. The central premise of behavioural ecology, for example, is that animals possess behavioural flexibility, and use this to do as well as they can in terms of reproductive success given the ecological context in which they find themselves (Krebs & Davies, 1997). Thus, individuals of the same species can behave in dramatically different ways if the pattern of opportunities and dangers that they face varies (Hill & Dunbar, 2002). Genes are causally involved in this behavioural flexibility only at a remove. That is, genetic evolution has created flexible cognitive mechanisms, coupled with deep motivational patterns, which animals deploy strategically given the circumstances under which they have to live.

There is an interesting echo here of the structure versus agency debate in social science (Giddens, 1984). Are patterns of behaviour determined by the choices of individuals, or by the overall structure of society? The synthetic position, that individuals deploy agency but have to do so given the constraints that the social structure imposes on them, is very similar in essence to the basic ideas of behavioural ecology, which say that individual organisms make – at some level – decisions about what to do, but those decisions are conditioned by the ecological context in which they live.

Thus, an evolutionary approach to social class differences would begin by assuming that individuals of different socio-economic positions (SEP) experience different ecologies. By examining the features of these ecologies, we can make predictions about what behavioural differences we should expect to see as people seek to preserve their fundamental interests given their local context.

Life-history theory
Life-history theory is the branch of evolutionary theory that deals with how an individual should allocate energies to different functions – growing, learning, mating, reproducing, self-care – over time (Schaffer, 1983). The optimal balance between these competing activities will depend critically on the local ecological regime. One of the most fundamental features of any ecology is the rate of mortality and morbidity, which acts as a kind of master parameter affecting optimal behaviour. These rates are so important because they dictate the time horizon. A female who delays reproduction may be able to improve her condition by so doing, but this will be maladaptive if she dies or is incapacitated before she gets a chance to reproduce so delaying reproduction is not favoured in harsh environments. Similarly, where mortality is low, a female may do well by having a small number of offspring and investing a great deal of care in each one, but in a high-mortality world, such a strategy would have a high chance of leaving her with no offspring at all surviving to adulthood.

Thus, the general pattern, across a large number of mammalian species, is that the higher the local mortality, the ‘faster’ the life-history strategy individuals follow (Promislow & Harvey, 1990). ‘Faster’ in this context means, for females, earlier onset of reproduction – and hence, early cessation of personal growth – larger numbers of offspring, shorter gestation, and shorter lactation. For males, it means earlier and increased mating effort (which includes male–male antagonistic competition) at the expense of paternal investment and self-care. As well as differences in life history between species, there is flexibility within a species. Between-species differences and within-species flexibility have different origins – fixed genetic differences in the one case, and developmental plasticity in the other – but both can be seen as adaptive responses to ecological context.

Reasoning from evolutionary first principles, then, we could predict that if humans lived in two ecologies, one of which had a low rate of mortality and morbidity, and one of which had a higher rate, then the individuals experiencing the harsher regime would tend to favour earlier reproduction, smaller adult size, larger families with reduced investment in each child, shorter lactation, reduced paternal involvement with children, and greater rates of antagonism amongst young men. Many of these differences are empirically confirmed at the between-population level amongst humans. For example, one recent theory surrounding pygmies is that they are essentially groups facing extreme levels of mortality, who have adapted by early reproduction and hence short adult stature (Migliano et al., 2007). Across a set of small-scale subsistence societies, every 10 per cent decline in the infant survival rate decreases mothers’ age at first birth by a year (Walker et al., 2006). Across the world’s countries, life expectancy is a strong predictor of women’s age at first reproduction (Low et al., 2008). Could such a simple principle as this help explain the striking differences in behaviour within a developed post-industrial society as well?

Dying young and living fast
The first thing to establish is whether different socio-economic groups in Britain actually experience different mortality-morbidity regimes. The answer is a resounding yes. Madhavi Bajekal (2005), head of the government’s Morbidity and Healthcare team, used ‘expectation of healthy life’, the length of time a person can expect to be alive and in good health, as a single index of morbidity and mortality. A deprivation score was then created for each electoral ward, based on the proportion of the residents in semi-skilled or unskilled jobs, unemployment, car ownership, and residential overcrowding. The results (left) showed that people in the most deprived wards of Britain can expect barely 50 years of healthy life, almost two decades less than those in the most affluent areas.

The reader may object at this point that some of these differences in mortality are a consequence of class differences in behaviour, and cannot therefore be used to explain class differences in behaviour. This is true to some extent. Lower SEP is associated with reduced compliance with health advice (Pill et al., 1995), more smoking (Jarviset al., 2003), poorer diet (Panagiotakos et al., 2008) and more violence (Shaw et al., 2005), amongst other things. However, even allowing for these behavioural differences, there is a residuum of increased hazard in the most deprived areas, which stems from more dangerous jobs, the quality of the built environment, less safe vehicles and appliances, pollution, and other environmental factors. Thus, however people in deprived areas behave, they will be exposed to a somewhat harsher ecology than people in more affluent neighbourhoods. Indeed, evolutionary theory actually explains why people living in the most deprived conditions, the very people who seem to have most need to look after their health, have the least incentive to do so.

To understand this, it is important to distinguish between extrinsic and intrinsic mortality. Extrinsic mortality is mortality whose likelihood is relatively unaffected by behaviour. For example, there might
be lead fumes in the air of your neighbourhood, and there is not a great deal that you can do to avoid exposure. Intrinsic mortality is mortality that is a consequence of the individual’s decisions, for example to ignore medical advice or not eat well. The choice to reduce intrinsic mortality by taking care of one’s health can be seen as a kind of investment it takes some effort, and one has to forgo current utility, but there is a payoff down the line. However, as rate of extrinsic mortality goes up, the return on investment in looking after oneself goes down (Robson & Kaplan, 2003). This is intuitively clear: who would spend much money on regularly servicing a car in an environment where most cars were stolen each year anyway? Similarly, why engage with looking after one’s health for the very long term when whatever you do, the long term is not that long? Survey evidence shows that Britons living in more deprived conditions have lower subjective expectation of life, less interest in their health or in the future, and an increased belief in the role of chance in determining health (Wardle & Steptoe, 2003). These might be quite accurate assessments of the circumstances under which they live, and could certainly explain socio-economic differences in health behaviours.

Low-SEP behaviour as an adaptive behavioural syndrome
As we have seen, many important behaviours and outcomes show social gradients in Britain. Epidemiologists are good at describing these gradients, and governments are good at ‘being concerned’ about them, because of their consequences for public health. However, each of the inequalities tends to be treated piecemeal, as if they were unrelated to all of the others, and they are generally conceptualised as the consequence of ignorance or error. For example, the UK government’s attempts to reduce the teenage pregnancy rate are mainly centred around educating young people about reproduction and contraception. However, such programmes appear to be ineffective (Henderson et al., 2007), as it is not clear that ignorance about reproduction is the cause (Arai, 2003). Younger women in low-SEP areas have lower target ages for reproduction (Jewell et al., 2000), and the correspondence between target age of reproduction and actual behaviour is fairly good (Nettle et al., 2009). As Arai (2003, p.212) puts it, ‘policymakers find it hard to believe that young women, often in the least auspicious circumstances, might actually want to be mothers’.

An integrative life-history approach, inspired by behavioural ecology, would instead work with the following premises. First, the different behaviours associated with poverty are not independent. They constitute coherent parts of a way of trying to live. In the animal literature, such suites of different but adaptively coordinated behaviours are known as behavioural syndromes (Sih et al., 2004). Secondly, from an evolutionary point of view, these behaviours may not be mistakes, but adaptive responses to prevailing ecological conditions. For example, the greater anxiety in low-SEP communities reflects the adaptive function of anxiety mechanisms, which is to detect threats and these environments actually are more dangerous. Shortened breast-feeding may reflect a priority to cease investment in already-born offspring early in order to reproduce again soon.

Calling these behaviours adaptive does not mean they are desirable. They are not (although the social stigma attached to teenage pregnancy in Britain is out of proportion to the harm, if any, that it causes Geronimus et al., 1994 Shaw et al., 2006). Maximising reproductive success and being socially desirable are two quite different things, and the one cannot be derived from the other. But it does mean that we can use the tools of evolutionary theory to predict exactly how indicators such as the age at reproduction will respond to changes in fundamental ecological parameters, such as the rate of mortality (Geronimus et al., 1999 Low et al., 2008). It also means that we don’t have to view the poor as stupid, ignorant, damaged, or temperamentally different from anyone else. They are just human beings, doing as human beings do, which is to make the best of the hand they are dealt, and we can build principled accounts of why they do so in the way that they do.

Poverty, poverty, poverty
Sociologists are often critical of public health research, which focuses on individual health issues without regard to the profound structural inequalities under which people live. The view from behavioural ecology is very similar, and this is no bad thing, since Darwinian approaches have more in common with traditional social science than is sometimes claimed (Nettle, 2009). But the Darwinian angle adds value, in two ways.

First, behavioural ecology brings to bear a sophisticated armamentarium of theoretical modelling and empirical knowledge of other species, which may be usefully combined with social science data. For example, Grainger and Dunbar (in press) use an evolutionary simulation technique to show that, in order to achieve equal life-time reproductive success given their known rates of mortality and morbidity, British women in the unskilled social classes need to begin their reproduction at least half a decade earlier than women in the professional social classes, which is exactly what they do.

Second, there are times where evolutionary theory makes a prediction that runs opposite to our pre-theoretical intuitions, but turns out to be right. Intuitively, we might think that increasing the wealth of families in developing countries would only exacerbate those countries’ population explosions, but in fact we know the opposite is true. Intuitively, we might think that low birthweight or early-life stress would slow down girls’ reproductive development. In fact, it speeds it up (Adair, 2001 Ellis, 2004). Evolutionary models successfully predict these dynamics.

The behavioural ecological view may also have implications for public policy. We should not be surprised that social gradients in diet, breast-feeding or teenage pregnancy have failed to diminish, since the underlying inequality of our society has not diminished either. The lesson of behavioural ecology is that if you want to change an organism’s behaviour, you need to change its environment, which means that actually reducing poverty in the most deprived areas of Britain is likely to be far more influential than superficial education or awareness-raising schemes (see Lynch et al., 2000 for a similar argument). For example, a fluke increase in income in a poor US community (from royalties from a casino that happened to be built on their land) led to an unanticipated reduction in conduct disorders amongst young people (Costello et al., 2003). It is hard to identify a deliberately designed intervention that has had such effects. How quickly relief of poverty will affect behaviour will depend, though, on the nature of the psychological mechanisms by which the environment ‘gets under the skin’. Accordingly, behavioural responses to relief of poverty may follow quickly or may take a generation or more to work through. This is an area that researchers are beginning to address.

These are important issues for the well-being of the population – issues where ultimate evolutionary models can play a role in enriching the explanatory depth and predictive power of social theories. However, we can only make progress if we can finally banish the misapprehension that ‘evolved’ means the opposite of ‘learnt’, or that ‘evolutionary causes’ are the opposite of ‘social causes’. To achieve this, social scientists need to learn much more about evolutionary theory, and evolutionists learn much more about social science, because the two are not opposed endeavours. Evolutionary thinking in the human sciences is nothing more or less than the holistic, integrative understanding that we, like other animals, respond to our social and developmental environment in non-arbitrary ways.

Daniel Nettle is Reader in the Centre for Behaviour and Evolution, Newcastle [email protected]


A historical perspective on the study of social behaviour

Various aspects of animal social behaviour intrigued humans for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Social behaviour has been documented by writers starting with Aristotle (c. 330 bce ) however, it was Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859 that initiated the modern approach with its assertion that behaviour, like morphology and physiology, evolves through natural selection. Darwin is also remembered for being the first to discuss sexual selection, the special form of natural selection that acts via competition for mates and female choice of mating partners, accounting for such elaborate traits as the antlers of red deer (Cervus elaphus) and the tails of peacocks (Pavo cristatus).

The study of social behaviour during the remainder of the 19th century focused largely on description and gradual acceptance of Darwinian evolution. Starting in the early part of the 20th century, however, several workers embarked on the study of animal social behaviour from an evolutionary standpoint—for example, British naturalist H. Eliot Howard (Territory in Bird Life, 1920), American entomologist William Morton Wheeler (Social Life Among the Insects, 1923 and The Social Insects, Their Origin and Evolution, 1928), British statistician and scientist R.A. Fisher (The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection, 1930), American ecologist W.C. Allee (Animal Aggregations, 1931 and The Social Life of Animals, 1938), English ecologist Fraser Darling (A Herd of Red Deer, 1937 and Bird Flocks and the Breeding Cycle, 1938), and English ornithologist David Lambert Lack (The Life of the Robin, 1943). In addition, English biologist Sir Julian Huxley’s Evolution, The Modern Synthesis (1942) merged Darwin’s thinking with new knowledge of genetics to transform evolutionary biology into a comprehensive paradigm for understanding evolutionary change.

Lack became particularly influential in the second half of the 20th century, championing the view that virtually all aspects of behaviour could be understood in an evolutionary context by focusing on benefits for individuals. His career peaked with the publication of Ecological Adaptations for Breeding in Birds (1968). This work was one of the first major studies of social behaviour to make extensive use of the comparative method, which attempts to understand how natural selection favours particular traits by comparing the ecology of related species.

Other particularly influential workers in that era included Austrian zoologists Konrad Lorenz, who first described the social phenomenon of imprinting, and Karl von Frisch, who made extensive observations of the social communication and dance-language of honeybees, and Dutch-born British zoologist and ethologist Nikolaas Tinbergen, who was one of the first to perform field experiments to test hypotheses of social behaviour. These three are often considered the founders of ethology, and they shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1973 for their “discoveries concerning organization and elicitation of individual and social behaviour patterns.” That was the only time workers in this field have been so honoured.

Several watershed events in the study of social behaviour took place in the 1960s and ’70s. First was the challenge to Lack by English zoologist V.C. Wynne-Edwards, whose controversial Animal Dispersion in Relation to Social Behaviour (1962) proposed a pervasive role for group selection, allowing sacrificial behaviour for the good of the group or species. Although largely discounted by the majority of workers, who believed that such altruism should rarely evolve, Wynne-Edwards’s advocacy of this view prompted a careful reappraisal of the evolutionary basis of social behaviour that continues to this day.

Second was British evolutionary biologist W.D. Hamilton’s proposal in 1964 that kin selection plays a role in the evolution of altruism, cooperation, and sociality. Kin selection is based on the concept of inclusive fitness, which is made up of individual survival and reproduction (direct fitness) and any impact that an individual has on the survival and reproduction of relatives (indirect fitness). The elements of kin selection lead directly to the concept now known as Hamilton’s rule, which states that aid-giving behaviour can evolve when the indirect fitness benefits of helping relatives compensate the aid giver for any losses in personal reproduction incurred by helping. Hamilton’s theory of kin selection is now considered one of the foundations of the modern study of social behaviour.

The third major advance in social behaviour during this era was the sweeping summary and prospectus of the field provided by American biologist E.O. Wilson with Sociobiology: the New Synthesis (1975), which laid the cornerstone for the modern interdisciplinary study of animal behaviour. Although the bulk of Wilson’s book is not controversial, a final chapter attempting to understand the evolution of human social behaviour using adaptationist principles ignited such an intense debate that the very word sociobiology, until that time used synonymously with animal social behaviour, is now usually restricted to the application of such principles to human behaviour. Although some people remain disturbed by the idea of applying sociobiological principles to human behaviour, the approach has flourished and provided insights into human behaviour that could not have come to light with alternative, nonevolutionary worldviews.

The study of social behaviour remains active, involving the investigation of proximate mechanisms (that is, behaviour triggered by immediate stimuli coming from the outside world or inside the body), the survival and reproductive consequences of sociality, and the evolution of human behaviour and cultural traditions. Social behaviorists today study a wide range of species from ants to whales and an equally wide range of topics that span from the genetic basis of particular social characters to the evolutionary origins of group living.


Five Ways Our Need to Fit in Controls Us

As a society, we Westerners exalt individualism and self-reliance, and yet our biology moves us in other directions. Humans evolved as social animals, and we posses a number of behaviors that motivate us towards group conformity. The feeling of wanting friends, of desiring a peer group and of needing to feel like we are valuable members of that group is something we all can directly relate to, and we usually experience those feelings as a positive thing. Yet there is a bit of a dark side to our social nature that we might not notice, particularly because so much of its action goes on underneath the level of conscious awareness. Our biological wiring for group cohesion is so strong that we will do almost anything to fit in, and feel anxiety if we don't belong or if our sense of social standing is low. Here are five proven ways that we bend over backwards to be part of the group, even when we don't want to:

1. We sway to group pressure.

Nobody likes being the odd one out. That's why many of us will agree with the group rather than stand apart, even when we know that the group is wrong. Take the Asch conformity experiments, in which 1950s students were subjected to a mock vision test. The students were placed in a group of fake "participants" and asked to match up images of lines according to their length. These planted participants stated that certain lines matched when they blatantly didn't. When the real participant was asked to match the lines later in the mock test, he or she would mimic the rest of the group, giving an obviously wrong answer in response to peer pressure.

This bending to conform doesn't just happen in experimental settings everything from teenage trends to political movements utilizes the power of direct peer pressure. Active policing of behavior seen as disruptive to the group has even been observed in chimpanzees. With such strong proscriptions against social upheaval coded in our genes, conformity comes naturally to us. Demonstrating solidarity, whether it's with a particular group or with society at large, marks us as cooperative and predictable group members: an asset rather than a liability.

2. We obsess over broadcasting our status.

When you see somebody decked head-to-toe in designer labels and bling, do you immediately think he has something to prove? Whether its a fast car, an immaculate lawn or a pair of the latest Louboutins, we use these symbols to signal our group status. It's no surprise, then, that studies have shown that when we're reminded of our low place in the social hierarchy and our status feels threatened, we are more likely to buy expensive luxury goods or even to consume higher-calorie foods. The irony is that these unconscious compensatory actions can often indirectly lower our social status by putting us in debt or making us fat.

Among evolutionary biologists, this boasting behavior is known as signalling and is part of selling oneself to potential mates. When the ability to pass on your genes hinges on your place in the hierarchy, status displays become about more than just an ego stroke. Though our ancestors may have been able to show their social status by taking physical risks during a big mammoth hunt, we are left with Ferraris, Hermès and lobster dinners to prove our worth to potential partners.

3. Groups make us stupid.

By their nature, groups can reinforce the roles we have written for ourselves in our heads. Group dynamics can make the shy person withdraw even further and the extroverted person even more outgoing and effervescent. And though many of us consciously dumb ourselves down in social situations for an eventual gain, groups can also insidiously undercut our intellects without our knowledge. For some people, the social cues they receive in group settings can alter the expression of IQ, making them functionally less intelligent. In studies, this was found to be particularly true among women, possibly due to pressure to conform to traditional, weaker gender roles.

A 1996 study subjected Asian-American women to a mathematics test. The researchers found that when the women were first reminded of their ethnic identity by answering a few questions pertaining to being Asian-American before taking the test, they performed better, in accordance with positive stereotypes about Asian-Americans and math. When instead they were reminded of their gender identity beforehand using the same methods, they performed worse, corresponding to negative stereotypes of women and math.

4. We engage in groupthink.

Peer pressure can consciously entice you to change your behavior, but what about those things lying deeper in the psyche? The social milieu in which you exist can also unconsciously shape how you perceive reality itself. A classic example of groupthink in action was how the U.S. military rationalized away any concerns prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Despite ample evidence that the Japanese military was prepping for an offensive attack, the U.S. simply couldn't conceive of the attack being on the United States. The dominant social perception of the invulnerability of the United States colored how its military interpreted information.

Political scientists sometimes talk about groupthink as a spiral of silence , the idea that individuals are unlikely to voice opinions on issues if they feel their opinion is in the minority. As mass media popularizes a certain dominant viewpoint, those who hold contrary opinions will suppress them due to an unconscious fear of becoming isolated as a result of their difference. Groupthink begins to shape not only how these people see the world and those around them, but it can make or break social issues thanks to the sway media has over group opinion.

5. Groups can make you temporarily insane.

So you buy some extra flashy gear, or act a little dumber around cute potential mates. Big deal. You may think that all this social behavior is a bit boring and obvious, but on the far end of group conformity we find a slew of human behaviors that are downright scary, dangerous or even deadly. Consider the mercurial whims of the stock market, and the inevitable pandemonium once a bubble bursts and we scramble to save ourselves. Human "herd behavior" can sometimes veer into extreme, sudden violence like riots and massacres. It may even devolve into genocides like those we saw over the course of the 20th century in Nazi Germany, Cambodia and Rwanda. If a group feels threatened, it takes frighteningly little to convince its members to turn on its supposed persecutors. In these circumstances, the drive to fit in reaches a point where individual identity itself is almost lost.

If you grew up in the Western world, raised to believe in individuality and free will, these insights may be a little unsettling. It's not so comfortable to realize that we are often compelled to follow social norms subconsciously, despite our best efforts to go our own way. This doesn't mean that we're somehow doomed to strict obedience to a herd mentality, but it does help us to understand why we so often feel anxiety about wanting to fit in and to be an asset to the group. And the good news is that the urge to cooperate, properly directed, can help make society function more effectively.


Monkeys show how social status affects stress

You are free to share this article under the Attribution 4.0 International license.

Social status determines how individual rhesus macaques respond to a key stress hormone, glucocorticoid, according to a new study.

Research in recent years has linked a person’s physical or social environment to their well-being. Stress wears down the body and compromises the immune system, leaving a person more vulnerable to illnesses and other conditions. Various stressors, from family adversity to air pollution, can lead to inflammation, diabetes, and heart disease.

But scientists do not fully understand how the association between stress and health plays out at the cellular level. The new study examines one key stress-inducing circumstance—the effects of social hierarchy—and how cells respond to the hormones that are released in response to that stress.

Researchers found that social status in rhesus macaques affected how the animals responded to stress. (Credit: Noah Snyder-Mackler/U. Washington)

‘Under the skin’

“The goal is to understand the mechanisms through which social experiences or environment ‘get under the skin,’ so to speak, to affect health and survival,” says lead author Noah Snyder-Mackler, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Washington.

For this research, the researchers turned to a nonhuman social primate: the rhesus macaque. Scientists mixed up existing social groupings of nearly four dozen macaques, observed behaviors among the new groups, and analyzed blood samples to determine the cellular effects of the new social order. The team specifically measured effects on the peripheral immune system, which are immune cells that patrol other systems of the body, such as muscles.

Macaques were a suitable subject for this research, Snyder-Mackler explains, because they are relatively close cousins of humans but lack certain cultural or societal factors, such as substance use or access to medical care, which can complicate any corresponding study of human health.

The new study extends Snyder-Mackler’s research from his postdoctoral work at Duke University, which in a 2016 study reported that social status had a direct effect on immune systems. The current study altered the groupings of monkeys to see how cells responded to what would happen in a short-term stress situation.

Simulated stress

In humans and other primates, social status has been linked to health and quality of life. Lower social status can mean less social and community support, and fewer buffers against stress or adverse circumstances. In animals, that equates to fewer allies and greater harassment from peers, while in humans, lower status is often tied to struggles with income, employment, and relationship stability.

Organizing the macaques into nine new groups in effect created a new social hierarchy, the authors write, whereby the order in which each monkey was introduced also determined its status. The first in the group became the most dominant and held the highest rank, while the last to join the group typically held the lowest status.

After each group’s hierarchy was established and the team could observe the macaques’ behavior, the researchers then took blood samples and treated them with a synthetic glucocorticoid—which mimicked the macaques’ natural, primary stress hormone.

In both macaques and people, glucocorticoid hormones are activated to mobilize resources during times of heightened stress the ways that cells respond to a surge in stress hormones can indicate whether the body can appropriately respond to the stressor, or whether the stress pathway is chronically activated, which wears down the body and leaves it more susceptible to illness.

By using the synthetic-treated blood samples to simulate what happens inside the macaques during acute stress, the researchers could show how the glucocorticoid hormone could affect cellular behavior in different macaques—particularly whether macaques responded productively to the stress hormone, or had been worn down by it and no longer responded appropriately.

In this experiment, the cells of the lower-status macaques were less able than those of the higher-status animals to respond productively to the glucocorticoid. Researchers found one explanation for this lack of a response within the macaque immune cells’ genetic information. By measuring chromatin accessibility—how the DNA is packaged in the cell—they found that low-status females had immune cells that were less accessible to the signal from the glucocorticoids.

Cellular strain

In humans, stressful or traumatic situations such as losing a job, caring for a chronically ill child, or grieving the death of a loved one have been linked to glucocorticoid resistance—the physical toll, at the cellular level, of stress on the human body. Snyder-Mackler’s work suggests one possible mechanism, namely altered chromatin accessibility, that may underlie glucocorticoid resistance in low-status individuals.

“Given the shared biology and evolutionary history between monkeys and humans, these findings help us better understand how social status can affect humans,” Snyder-Mackler says.

Further research is needed, he adds, to identify the magnitude of the effects of stress, as ignited by a change in social status, and what buffers might protect individuals from those impacts. Not all individuals respond similarly to the same stress some are more resilient—or susceptible—to the same stressor.

“We know that social adversity early in life can have far-reaching effects that extend into adulthood. The questions are, when do these events have to occur, how severe do they have to be, and are they reversible or even preventable?” Snyder-Mackler says.

The National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Canada Research Chairs Program, and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council funded the study. Additional coauthors are from Centre Hospitalier Universitaire Sainte-Justine in Montreal, Emory University, Wayne State University, the University of Chicago, and Duke University.


Cloning

Human cloning may refer to “therapeutic cloning,” particularly the cloning of embryonic cells to obtain organs for transplantation or for treating injured nerve cells and other health purposes. Human cloning more typically refers to “reproductive cloning,” the use of somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) to obtain eggs that could develop into adult individuals.

Human cloning has occasionally been suggested as a way to improve the genetic endowment of mankind, by cloning individuals of great achievement, for example, in sports, music, the arts, science, literature, politics, and the like, or of acknowledged virtue. These suggestions seemingly have never been taken seriously. However, some individuals have expressed a wish, however unrealistic, to be cloned, and some physicians have on occasion advertised that they were ready to carry out the cloning (30). The obstacles and drawbacks are many and insuperable, at least at the present state of knowledge.

Biologists use the term cloning with variable meanings, although all uses imply obtaining copies more or less precise of a biological entity. Three common uses refer to cloning genes, cloning cells, and cloning individuals. Cloning an individual, particularly in the case of a multicellular organism, such as a plant or an animal, is not strictly possible. The genes of an individual, the genome, can be cloned, but the individual itself cannot be cloned, as it will be made clear below.

Cloning genes or, more generally, cloning DNA segments is routinely done in many genetics and pharmaceutical laboratories throughout the world (12, 31). Technologies for cloning cells in the laboratory are seven decades old and are used for reproducing a particular type of cell, for example a skin or a liver cell, in order to investigate its characteristics.

Individual human cloning occurs naturally in the case of identical twins, when two individuals develop from a single fertilized egg. These twins are called identical, precisely because they are genetically identical to each other.

The sheep Dolly, cloned in July 1996, was the first mammal artificially cloned using an adult cell as the source of the genotype. Frogs and other amphibians were obtained by artificial cloning as early as 50 y earlier (32).

Cloning an animal by SCNT proceeds as follows. First, the genetic information in the egg of a female is removed or neutralized. Somatic (i.e., body) cells are taken from the individual selected to be cloned, and the cell nucleus (where the genetic information is stored) of one cell is transferred with a micropipette into the host oocyte. The egg, so “fertilized,” is stimulated to start embryonic development (33).

Can a human individual be cloned? The correct answer is, strictly speaking, no. What is cloned are the genes, not the individual the genotype, not the phenotype. The technical obstacles are immense even for cloning a human’s genotype.

Ian Wilmut, the British scientist who directed the cloning project, succeeded with Dolly only after 270 trials. The rate of success for cloning mammals has notably increased over the years without ever reaching 100%. The animals presently cloned include mice, rats, goats, sheep, cows, pigs, horses, and other mammals. The great majority of pregnancies end in spontaneous abortion (34). Moreover, as Wilmut noted, in many cases, the death of the fetus occurs close to term, with devastating economic, health, and emotional consequences in the case of humans (35).

In mammals, in general, the animals produced by cloning suffer from serious health handicaps, among others, gross obesity, early death, distorted limbs, and dysfunctional immune systems and organs, including liver and kidneys, and other mishaps. Even Dolly had to be euthanized early in 2003, after only 6 y of life, because her health was rapidly decaying, including progressive lung disease and arthritis (35, 36).

The low rate of cloning success may improve in the future. It may be that the organ and other failures of those that reach birth will be corrected by technical advances. Human cloning would still face ethical objections from a majority of concerned people, as well as opposition from diverse religions. Moreover, there remains the limiting consideration asserted earlier: it might be possible to clone a person’s genes, but the individual cannot be cloned. The character, personality, and the features other than anatomical and physiological that make up the individual are not precisely determined by the genotype.


Monsters are people too

Animals, including dogs, dolphins, monkeys and man, follow gaze. What mediates this bias towards the eyes? One hypothesis is that primates possess a distinct neural module that is uniquely tuned for the eyes of others. An alternative explanation is that configural face processing drives fixations to the middle of peoples' faces, which is where the eyes happen to be located. We distinguish between these two accounts. Observers were presented with images of people, non-human creatures with eyes in the middle of their faces (`humanoids’) or creatures with eyes positioned elsewhere (`monsters’). There was a profound and significant bias towards looking early and often at the eyes of humans and humanoids and also, critically, at the eyes of monsters. These findings demonstrate that the eyes, and not the middle of the head, are being targeted by the oculomotor system.

1. Introduction

Animals attend to social stimuli beyond what would be predicted based on physiology and sensory processing alone [1–3]. For example, monkeys and humans look more often towards higher-ranking animals than lower-ranking animals, and look more towards the head than the body [4,5].

Looking towards the head is especially important because it provides gaze information. Friesen & Kingstone [6] first reported that humans will attend automatically in the direction gazed at by a conspecific. Deaner & Platt [7] demonstrated with macaques that gaze following occurs across species, implicating neural substrates that are shared across primates. Other animals have also been found to follow gaze, including apes, birds, dogs, seals, goats and dolphins [8], indicative of a widespread biological process.

Gaze following in diverse species poses an important biological question: what neural mechanisms drive gaze selection and following? For primates there are two viable proposals: (i) a cortical neural system in the temporal lobe, the superior temporal sulcus (STS), is preferentially biased towards processing eye information [9], or (ii) the nearby fusiform face area (FFA), directs fixations to the middle of peoples' faces, which is where the eyes are located [10,11]. Resolving this issue will reveal not only the neural systems mediating social attention within primates, but also the computational and evolutionary links between social attention in different species. It will also inform why a subset of people may fail to select the eyes of others, and what brain mechanisms may be compromised, as in the case of autism. It has been argued, however, that distinguishing between these two accounts may be impossible because human eyes are in the centre of the face [12].

The present study resolves the issue. Observers were presented with images selected from the popular fantasy game Dungeons and Dragons (D&D figure 1a). The images could be of humans, creatures with eyes in the centre of the face (humanoids), and creatures with eyes that are not on the face but broadly distributed on other parts of the bodies, such as the hands or the tail (monsters). The question is straightforward: will there be a preferential bias to select the eyes of monsters despite the fact that their eyes are not in the centre of their face? If people select the eyes early, and frequently, for monsters as well as humans and humanoids, it will show that eyes are selected and not just the centre of the face if the bias to the eyes is manifested only for humans and humanoids, then selection is targeting the centre of the face.

Figure 1. (a) Example of each image type: human, humanoid and monster. Red ovals (which were not present on the image) mark the location of the eyes for each image type. (b) Illustration of how each image type was fixated over the first 10 eye fixations. Dots mark the location of all participants' fixations on all images, with red dots indicating fixations to the eyes in the image. First fixations always begin in one of the corners of the display.

2. Material and methods

Twenty-two naive student volunteers were instructed to simply look naturally at the images (1024 × 768 pixels). Eye movements were calibrated and monitored using an Eyelink 1000 system. At the beginning of each trial, a fixation point was displayed randomly in one of the four corners of the screen. Participants were told to fixate on this point and then press the spacebar to start a trial. This had the effect of constraining the initial fixation to one of the corners of the screen, correcting the eye tracker for any drift, and removing any central bias from the initial fixation. One of 36 pictures was then shown in the centre of the screen. Each image was chosen at random, without replacement, and remained visible until 5 s had passed. This process repeated until all pictures had been viewed. Data deposited in the Dryad repository: doi:10.5061/dryad.4rk06. While D&D images were used in the study, due to copyright, figure 1 presents exemplars.

3. Results

For each image, an outline was drawn around the region of interest. The eye region varied in size from 0.25° to 4.5°, with the average in each image category ranging from 1.7° to 1.9°. We also computed the relative visual saliency of the eyes to other regions in the scene [13] and replicated the finding [12] that the eyes in the images were not especially salient and that visual saliency did not predict fixations to the eyes. Figure 1b presents a scatterplot of the first 10 fixations, with red dots indicating fixations that landed on the eyes. Data are for all participants and images, with the first fixation on the peripheral fixation point at the start of the trial, through to the 10th fixation. What is immediately apparent is that for all images people first make a saccade that moves from the periphery to the centre of the image. This provides a compelling demonstration that there is a marked tendency to land in the middle of images. Note also that because monster eyes are oddly positioned, many of the initial saccades to the centre of the image landed on the eyes.

Figure 1b also shows that the second and subsequent fixations resulted in observers demonstrating a preferential bias to look at the eyes. This was manifested differently for the different image types. Fixations moved vertically up to the eyes of humans and humanoids. In sharp contrast, they remained centralized and distributed for monsters. This was confirmed statistically by comparing the average vertical fixation position in a repeated-measures ANOVA. The starting peripheral fixation was excluded. There was a main effect of image type, F2,42 = 83.0, p < 0.001, showing that fixations were closer to the top of the image in humans (mean position = 3.4° above centre s.e.m. = 0.25) than in humanoids (M = 1.5° s.e.m. = 0.18) or monsters (M = 1.3° s.e.m. = 0.19). This interacted with fixation number, F16,336 = 12.5, p < 0.001, and Bonferroni-adjusted paired comparisons confirmed that fixations on humans were higher than those on monsters as early as the first saccade and that they remained spatially distinct for eight of the first nine saccades (with the exception of the eighth saccade all other p < 0.01). This vertical shift was mirrored for humanoids but lagged by a single fixation, with the second and subsequent three saccades for humanoid fixations being consistently further up the image, indistinguishable from humans and reliably different from monsters (all p < 0.01). Thus fixations to humans and humanoids went first to the centre of the image and then immediately shifted vertically to their eyes fixations on monsters went to the centre of the image and then moved in any number of possible directions as monster eyes were broadly distributed. To test whether the eyes were fixated more often than chance, we also compared the uncorrected proportion of fixations on the eyes to the area of the image that they took up. Across all images and fixations, the eyes were fixated much more often than their tiny area would suggest (one-sampled t-tests, all t21 > 4.5, p < 0.001).

These data indicate that where people looked was different for humans and humanoids versus monsters, but what they looked at—the eyes—was the same. This was confirmed statistically. We calculated the proportion of each participant's fixations that landed on the eyes, splitting the data over time by looking at the first fixation, the second fixation, and so on. Because some initial saccades to monster images landed on the eyes, as a conservative test and to ensure equity we examined only those trials where the initial central saccade was not on the eyes. Figure 2 shows the proportion of fixations on the eyes across the first nine fixations (initial corner fixation is excluded).

Figure 2. A line graph illustrating the proportion of fixations on eyes for humans, humanoids and monsters. Histogram on the right shows the overall mean fixations on the eyes for each image type, across the whole trial (with standard error bars). Blue, humans green, humanoids red, monsters.

Across the whole trial, there was a significant effect of condition (F2,42 = 5.8, p < 0.01). Humans and monsters did not differ significantly (while humanoid eyes were looked at slightly less (p < 0.05)). Figure 2 shows a similar trend over time in all three conditions. There was also an interaction between image type and saccade number (F16,336 = 4.7, p < 0.001). Simple main effects showed that image types were different on the second and third saccade (p < 0.005, because humanoids were lower than humans and monsters) but not on subsequent saccades where there was no significant difference between image types.

4. Discussion

Participants' initial saccade targeted the centre of the image. This confirms that there is a bias towards looking at the geometric centre of objects [11]. For images of humans and humanoids, subsequent fixations quickly moved vertically to the eyes. Similarly, fixations to the eyes also occurred rapidly for monsters, but critically they were manifested in a very different spatial manner. As monster's eyes were unusually positioned, fixations to the monsters' eyes did not yield a vertical shift. Nevertheless, and despite this difference in the spatial allocation of fixations, the target of their fixations was the same as with the humans and humanoids—the eyes. Moreover, the time-course for the selection of monster eyes (e.g. peaking at the third fixation and declining thereafter) closely mirrored the time-course for the selection of human and humanoid eyes. These data cannot be explained in terms of mechanisms within the primate brain that guide selection based on simple visual saliency [13]. Nor can they be accounted for by computational models of eye movements that assume a face-selective mechanism that orients early fixations to the geometric centre-of-faces, e.g. the nose or cheek region depending on head orientation [11,14]. Rather the fact that participants select the eyes early, and frequently, even when they are not positioned in the centre of a face, provides strong and converging evidence that the neural substrate driving the selection of eyes is the STS.

The present study strongly supports the idea that the primate brain is specialized for acquiring social, behaviourally relevant information from others. As gaze selection is the key precursor to gaze following, which is common to both humans and non-human primates, and present in other animals as well, it is reasonable to speculate that this behaviour is subserved by a neural system that is shared within and across species, possibly the phylogenetically old subcortical system that is shared across all terrestrial vertebrates and processes coarse information regarding biological primitives (e.g. prey, predator, conspecific). In primates, the subcortical pathway passes information directly to ‘higher’ cortical systems such as the STS [15].

Our conclusion that human gaze selection is mediated by a specialized brain mechanism, sensitive to the eyes rather than only the head, sheds light on individuals with autism who often fail to select the eyes of others. Naturalistic studies of autism do not distinguish between gaze direction and head position, making it unclear whether individuals with autism are deficient at selecting and targeting the head, or eyes, or both. The present study indicates that typically developing individuals select gaze information, and therefore efforts to train individuals with autism to look at others in a typical manner should focus on the selection of the eyes of others rather than targeting the head alone.


What does inequality do to our bodies and minds? A social psychologist and an epidemiologist discuss

What do a disease-fighting epidemiologist (retired) and an up-and-coming social psychologist have in common? They’re both fascinated by the unseen social problems hidden behind the word “inequality.” Beyond the lack of access to money and power — what does inequality do to us as human beings?

Epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson (TED Talk: How economic inequality harms societies) spent his career studying chronic health problems — with the growing realization that most health issues are caused, or worsened, by poverty and inequality. This awareness led him to co-found the Equality Trust and co-write the book The Spirit Level: Why Equality Is Better for Everyone). Meanwhile, social psychologist Paul Piff (TED Talk: Does money make you mean?) studies the psychological effects of wealth — and what happens when you, say, rig a Monopoly game.

In this freewheeling conversation, Wilkinson and Piff find their common ground — and go from there. A lightly edited version of their conversation follows:

Paul Piff: Richard, maybe we could begin with a description of where you started, and some of your basic findings and how that converges with mine.

Richard Wilkinson: Well, I got into studying inequality from, really, studying health inequality, the huge social-class differences in death rates between rich and poor, between well-educated and badly educated, between people in rich and poor areas, and so on. In most of our countries, people in richer areas live anywhere from 5 to 12 or even 14 years longer than people in poor areas, and that’s always seemed to me like the biggest human-rights abuse you could imagine, worse in a way than locking people up without trial. And people around the world were doing research on the causes of these health differences, and I focused particularly on income, trying to see if health was responsive to changes in income, and from there thinking that the death rates of the poor are more responsive to changes in income than the death rates of the rich were. I thought maybe countries with greater equality — with the rich less rich and the poor better off — would have better overall health. And I found that was much truer than I would have imagined. The relationships I looked at first, I’m talking about the mid-1980s, were much closer than I imagined. With each step up the inequality ladder, bigger income differences between rich and poor, the worse a country did in terms of life expectancy. Very striking relationships.

PP: Yours is some of the work that best shows how inequality shapes people’s individual lives. It sheds light on how inequality shapes the very fundamental outcome of someone’s life, like their health, the physical symptoms of a person’s body. The broad agenda of my research, and it really dovetails with yours, is how inequality and differences in people’s levels of wealth shape the mind, shape the way people see the world and behave towards one another. I’m a social psychologist, and I’m really interested in how status, inequality, stratification, shape the basic things people do, like their tendencies to feel compassion, their tendencies to cooperate with others. These are fundamental questions in psychology. What is it that drives people to band together versus prioritize themselves? One of the broader lessons we’ve been learning over the last 10 years of research is that, in lots of really interesting ways, a person’s levels of wealth, and their status relative to others in their society, shape their tendencies to prioritize themselves, feel entitled, to cooperate versus behave in self-interested ways, across a variety of different domains of social life.

RW: Yes, it sounds like you got into the psycho-social effects of status and inequality from the beginning. But in health, we started off imagining that differences in rates of disease had entirely material causes. And then gradually it looked as if there were psycho-social factors mediated by chronic stress, which acted as general vulnerability factors in health — in a way looking like the effects of more rapid aging, making you more vulnerable to a whole range of diseases. But the most important stressers seem to be things to do with social relationships. For instance, friendship seems highly protective of health, and things to do with low social status are very damaging. The other part of that picture is that a difficult early childhood, stress in early life, seems to cast a long shadow forward. The picture of the importance of these psycho-social things is now really strong, so that in the rich, developed countries, psycho-social factors look like among the most important influencers in population health.

PP: I was curious, when you mentioned psycho-social factors, I just wanted to know a little bit more about the kinds of psycho-social factors you were referring to.

RW: Well, the biology of chronic stress, I suppose, is fairly similar across a wide range of mammals. And in human beings, we had always regarded classification by social class as simply a proxy for the real determinants of health that we saw, that we imagined were material factors — like diet and what you’re working with and what you’re exposed to at work and maybe housing, air pollution, things like that. But gradually, it started looking more and more like social status itself was a really important determinant of health, and that was really confirmed when we became aware of people doing work on non-human primates, macaques and baboons, looking at some of the psycho-social, the stress effects of social status in those animals, and seeing remarkable parallels between what came out of experiments in animals. You could manipulate social status by moving animals between groups, and you could give them the same material conditions and feed them the same diets, and you saw that the social status changes under those conditions had remarkably similar effects to what we were observing associated with social status in human beings. But I suppose I regard social status, ranking systems, as almost the opposite of issues to do with friendship. I think the fundamental issue is whether we fight each other for access to basic necessities, or whether we recognize each other’s need and share access, and one is about status and power and the other is about friendship and reciprocity. Inequality pushes us away from the reciprocity towards competitive striving for personal, individual advantage, not recognizing the other’s needs.

The fundamental issue is whether we fight each other for access to basic necessities, or whether we recognize each other’s need and share access.

PP: Inequality gets reflected in a fraying, if you will, of the social bonds, of social cohesion. It leads to, in many ways, a dissolution of the trust that emergent groups and strong, cooperative groups rely on. One of the things that’s striking to me, and you mentioned work in health and in health psychology, is that for many years, a lot of the research on health and inequality gave rise to this understanding that it’s really the people who feel subjectively lower on the social ladder or who are objectively poorer, who experience all the negative outcomes, whether it’s higher rates of obesity, or increased cardiovascular disease, or higher rates of depression.

Inequality is genuinely bad for those on the bottom, and there are a lot of really intuitive reasons to think about why that might be: They have less control over their own lives. They have less access to resources. They get less respect in the scene, in their social groups. But one of the emerging insights out of our work — and I think your work, Richard, also points to this — is that inequality isn’t just bad for a certain subsection of the population. It’s not just bad for the people on the bottom. It’s actually bad for the group as a whole. In our work, we’re finding that there are these really interesting social costs associated with wealth, in a sense. Wealth shapes behavior in some potentially counterintuitive but certainly pernicious ways and causes people to abandon certain kinds of ethics, to prioritize their own interests over the interests of other people, to behave in ways that are potentially less trustworthy, less honorable. They become more competitive, less compassionate, less moral in certain ways. And your work also suggests that there are costs associated with inequality that resound across all strata of society and not just among those on the bottom, and I wondered if you could say a little bit more about why that would be. Why is it that inequality is costly potentially for everyone and not just those on the receiving end?

RW: We find the biggest effects of inequality are lower down in the social ladder, but it looks to us as if the vast majority of the population is adversely affected by increases in inequality. Simply, people on the bottom of the social ladder are affected more than people further up. And I think that’s because inequality changes the whole social milieu, if you like. It leads to more status competition, more status insecurity. Status becomes more important, you know. Some people are incredibly important, while some of the people at the bottom seem almost worthless — but we all become more worried about where we are. Think of this as an evolved sensitivity to social ranking systems — if we’re in a social environment where rank is important, we are very sensitive to that. We know how to play games to do with status and how to be snobbish and so on, put people down, build ourselves up. But we also know how to develop friendships on the egalitarian basis of friendship. Those are two different ways in which people can come together, and I think the nature of the material differences between us tells us what kind of game we have to play in our society, whether it’s about reciprocity, recognition of each other’s needs, or whether it’s everyone for themselves.

And ranking systems, I think your work shows that very clearly, ranking systems are about self-interest, and the sense of entitlement. Further up, it looks to me very much like the dominant baboon. He’s able to see off the subordinates and can basically do what he likes, rather the way these people with big bonuses have been doing with the runaway top incomes. I’ve been interested in some papers showing that bullying in schools is much more common in unequal societies, because I think that, in a way, hierarchies, certainly in animals, are about bullying relationships. Ranking systems are rankings based on power, and the dominants can see off the subordinates, and whether that’s a nice place to sit in the shade or whether that’s eating first, the dominants have it. Although we don’t have good measures of bullying amongst adults, internationally comparable measures, we do for bullying amongst children, and I think to see those bullying relationships coming out even amongst children among more unequal societies is quite remarkable.

PP: It would suggest that the markers, the effects, the consequences of inequality on the vigilance to status, the anxiety about status, the vying for status, that you see emerge in groups, in societies with increasing levels of inequality, is found not only among the adults, who have already formed an understanding of where they stand in relation to others, but it’s also reflected in the behavior of children, suggesting that the signs of inequality, the manifestations of status anxiety and concern about where one stands in relation to others, emerges very, very young, and is something that people begin to carry around with them or that shapes a person’s life very, very early on.

RW: I’m quite sure that’s true. The very life influence is, I think, powerful and probably includes epigenetic effects, epigenetic responses, ways in which the early environment switches genes on and off, changes gene expression. So, brought up in one environment, you will develop differently than if you were brought up in another environment, and I think family relationships, whether you have a depressed parent or you have a lot of domestic conflict or parents too exhausted to have time for you, all of those things affect your development and lead to being less fully socially developed, compared to if you’re brought up with parents who have a lot of time for you, get used to a lot of eye contact, interaction, handling, physical contact, all that kind of sharing develops you in a much more social way. So I think these things feed into, again, whether you are being prepared to live in a society where we have to fight for what we can get, learn not to trust others because we’re all rivals, or whether we are being prepared for a world in which we will depend on reciprocity and cooperation, where empathy is important. And those are very different developmental trajectories, but I would imagine that you as a psychologist would know more about those kinds of developmental patterns.

PP: Yeah, and it’s interesting that you bring that up. In our work and the work of sociologists and ethnographers studying different kinds of families and parenting patterns as a function of status and wealth, it yields this understanding that the values that children grow up with are often a function of their family’s socioeconomic status. So for instance, the kinds of things that parents value and stress as being of value to their kids often vary as a function of income, often vary as a function of wealth. For instance, whether the family stresses personal achievement, the expression of your individual talents and desires, standing out from the pack — seems to be more a value of individuals in families of upper socioeconomic standing, relative to the values of families that emerge out of lower socioeconomic groups, which really stress the community, relating to others, valuing the well-being of others, and not standing out from the pack but rather fitting in. And it’s interesting to think about how those values might play into the kinds of things you prioritize in your daily life, what kind of jobs you would go for, and also the emergence of exacerbating levels of inequality over time because of what one socio-economic group may or may not value relative to another socio-economic group.

RW: Yes, I agree those patterns are important. I should have said, behavioral outcomes like violence or teenage births or drug abuse. There’s a paper by Sheri Johnson, who you may know, writing about what she calls the dominance behavioral system, showing that there are psychological responses to status differentiation. If you’re in a status hierarchy, then there will be amongst some people a struggle to avoid subordination, or an acceptance of subordination, or a struggle for dominance, and those all contributing to a range of, I suppose, mental illnesses and personality disorders, and I think she mentions things in particular like depression and schizophrenia and antisocial personality issues, all perhaps exacerbated by issues to do with dominance and subordination in our societies.

PP: Yeah, and I think that work is really compelling. In your own book The Spirit Level you talk about not only these kinds of outcomes, for instance incarceration rates, but also various kinds of psycho-social outcomes or consequences of inequality and rising levels of inequality. For instance, we talked about social trust, and did you find, for instance, growing rates of depression in societies with greater levels of inequality?

RW: Other people have. It’s not our work, but there are several papers showing that tendency, for depression to be more common in more unequal societies. There’s another paper showing the same of schizophrenia, and I think Sheri has just completed a paper on psychotic symptoms, which seem more common in more unequal societies. So there are a number of ways in which issues to do with being better or worse than other people, superior or inferior, intrude on social relationships and affect us very deeply. It’s extraordinarily destructive of good social relationships that are so essential to human wellbeing. We all know what we most enjoy is sitting around chatting and joking with friends we are at ease with. It’s damaging to that kind of fellowship.

PP: Yeah. I absolutely agree with that. In our own work, when we ask people to reflect on those things in their lives that they found the most meaningful, people rarely point to individual achievements and the things that they did to outperform and outcompete others. Now, those things are important to well-being. It’s important to think you have done things that are worthy and valued by others. But far more often, people refer to those episodes where they were embedded with a community, those experiences where they really connected with others, connected with loved ones, felt valued, trusting of others, felt like others were respecting of them, like they were actually reaching some deep connection with their social relationships. And I think that’s a really important insight into what it is, both in terms of psychological values but even what the human nervous system, people’s physiological systems, health systems are wired to value and prioritize. It’s really social relations, cooperation, interdependence in many ways. And so social inequality and a constant vigilance towards status and anxiety about where you stand in relationship to others, which you would argue and I would agree is exacerbated in groups with lots of inequality — well then, those are the very things that undermine the social relationships, the trust, the embeddedness, those things that we as individuals care about deeply and that deeply and significantly contribute to our well-being and ultimately to our satisfaction with our lives.

when we ask people to reflect on things in their lives that they found the most meaningful, people rarely point to individual achievements and the things they did to outperform others.

RW: When societies become more fearful, less trusting, less empathetic, you see this more punitive approach to crime. I mean, that’s why imprisonment is more common in more unequal societies, much more common. In unequal societies, perhaps 10 times as high a proportion of the population is imprisoned as in more equal societies. And that is not mainly more crime, it’s mainly about longer sentences. And that is a sign of something going badly wrong with the quality of social relations.

PP: Right. Right. Yeah. As I think about it, this is just a caricature of the work in certain ways, or a generalization, but it’s such an important point, and it makes sense that with inequality emerges an increased awareness and increased incidence of those things that separate people. So with increased inequality come increased markers of status. Your differences, the differences between people become ever salient, and with those factors, whether it’s differences in material well-being, differences in the kinds of cars people drive or the homes they live in, the jobs they have, if those things become increasingly disparate in society, with growing inequality in society, then so too is the decline of trust, those things that you see as making you similar to other people or that are essential to forging relationships and forging independence, people’s relationships become increasingly frayed. Trust will go down. Those perceived similarities between yourself and others will go down, and so too then would the other effects sort of ricochet and resound, like incarceration rates, and this is obviously patterns that emerge over time, over long periods of time, this isn’t something that happens from A to B to C to D in seconds. It’s really an unfolding cascade of effects, but I think it’s a really compelling point to think about how all of this emerges out of the fraying of the social fabric that is a consequence of rising rates of social inequality.

Here’s one of the questions that comes to my mind. I think you, Richard, have encountered criticism of your work or of related work, and I know a lot of our research and other research on the psycho-social effects of inequality has been met with criticism, and it brings to mind an interesting question: Why is it that some people have a resistance to discussing inequality? It’s there, people are aware of it, but why is economic inequality such a controversial, intractable topic in conversation?

RW: I often think it’s because people misunderstand some important causal connections. The common view I suppose is, if you’re bright, you move up the social hierarchy, and if you’re not, you move down, and people feel their position is a reflection of their ability, and we judge each other’s ability by our position in the social hierarchy, and that’s why it’s so hurtful in a way. We take external wealth as an indication of social worth. But the causality, I think, goes mainly in the opposite direction, that differences in ability are much more of a result of the position in the social hierarchy in which you are born and brought up, with fewer opportunities or perhaps less education, a whole range of things like that. I don’t know if you know the stereotype threat experiments, which show that being made to feel inferior in one way or another, how powerfully those affect performance. So rather than your position in the social hierarchy being a reflection of your innate ability, as we learn more about the malleability of the human brain in early life, it becomes clear that the causality is the other way around.

PP: Right. Right. Right.

RW: And I think that’s really crucial.

PP: I think that’s really well put, and in American society, I think talking about inequality, as important as it is, it’s an anxiety-provoking issue, and I’ve been thinking recently about the range of reasons, the myriad reasons why that might be the case, because certainly talking about an important issue is an important step towards being willing to make changes or take efforts toward rectifying whatever that issue might be, including the issue of economic inequality. And it seems to me like the issue of inequality, and certainly the issue of deservingness, comes up once you start talking about social mobility, which itself is sort of a hallmark of the American Dream. American society, in many ways, is built on this explicit idea that if you work hard, because of your individual talents and efforts you can rise in the ranks and attain those things we value so much as individuals. If we begin finding that social mobility isn’t actually randomly distributed across society, that it’s actually concentrated in a particular subgroup, and in particular it’s concentrated among those who are already fairly high up in the hierarchy, well then, that could be a problem, because it suggests that this meritocracy, this society that we want to believe is really premised on individual deservingness where people get what they work for and get what they deserve, well, that’s not the entire story, and that’s a dissonant, threatening thing to accept.

RW: Yes, I remember we published some data suggesting that social mobility is lower in more unequal societies, and we published it when there was very little comparable international data on social mobility, but since then there have been several more demonstrations of that tendency toward lower social mobility in more unequal society using independent data, including one study by Alan Krueger, who is I think chair of Obama’s economic advisory committee, and what inequality does is I suppose strengthen the ability of the wealthy to pass on their advantages to their children, but I also think it strengthens what I also call downward social prejudices. The prejudices, whether it’s class or ethnicity or prejudices against women, prejudice against any weaker group, I think is strengthened by greater inequality, because inequality is about dominance and looking after yourself, often at other people’s expense.

PP: Richard, you mentioned dominance hierarchies among non-human primates or even other mammalian species beyond primate societies or primate groups. So there is reason to think that dominance hierarchies, status, not necessarily social status per se, but dominance and stratification, are a part of life, are in certain ways a fundamental part of how mammals come to be in existing groups. In certain ways, dominant hierarchies can be efficient. They help coordinate action. They help coordinate group life. They help coordinate who does what. And so I don’t know that we could eradicate them even if we wanted to, or that it would even be wise to argue for the eradication of inequality or dominance hierarchies.

RW: The sort of income differences we have in the United States and Britain are twice as big, and if you compare as we do the income going to the top and bottom 20% of the population, the gap between the top and bottom 20% is twice as big in countries like the United States and Britain as it is in some of the Scandinavian countries. And so there’s no doubt where we can have societies with very different levels of inequality. But I think also it’s worth remembering that throughout most of the human existence, prehistoric existence, as hunters and gatherers, you know, we typically lived in very egalitarian societies. I don’t know if you know Christopher Boehm’s recent book Moral Origins, and I think it’s extraordinary. He’s now put together electronically searchable data on I believe 200 hunting-and-gathering societies showing this pattern of remarkable equality. Inequality begins in these terms relatively recently with agriculture, the beginnings of agriculture, in the last few thousand years. And so I think it’s clear human beings have lived in everything from the most egalitarian societies to the most hierarchical, and I don’t think we should regard ourselves as fixed in any way. And indeed, if you think of our closest relatives, non-humans, chimps and bonobos, one, the chimp, is fairly hierarchical, and the bonobo much more egalitarian. The bonobos, I believe the females are smaller than the males, as often happens, but the females eat first, and their social structure is very different. I think it’s important to recognize, as humans, our culture determines how we behave. But our evolved psychology means there are particular aspects of our environment that we are sensitive to, and again and again it seems to me this issue of friendship and reciprocity versus dominance and the pursuit of self-interest.

it’s clear human beings have lived in everything from the most egalitarian societies to the most hierarchical, and I don’t think we should regard ourselves as fixed in any way.

PP: Yeah. And I really like the point that you raised about human nature not being fixed and that people really are in many ways quite malleable and sensitive to changes in the external environment, changes in culture, and that the ways in which behavior emerges and manifests itself are really quite malleable. And in our work, if it’s the case, as we’ve been finding, that wealthy people and less well-off people behave differently, well, it’s also the case, as we’ve been finding, that, for instance, the empathy gap that we often document between those that have and those that don’t, isn’t in any way fixed. It’s not the case at all that wealthy people are characteristically bad and that there’s no way in any way to change their behavior to the positive ends of the spectrum –rather that little behavioral nudges, little reminders of more egalitarian social values, or little bursts of compassion, can have these really interesting and important effects, which would suggest that the effects of inequality, at least on a social, behavioral level aren’t irreversible at all but are really rather quite sensitive to even subtle changes to people’s environments and people’s values.

RW: And in relation to that, what can you say about whether high-status people that you’ve shown behaving badly in a number of ways, whether they’ve been selected with those characteristics, or whether it’s their high status that makes them in some ways more anti-social?

PP: So this is the question, it’s a good question, is it one of causation versus correlation?

RW: Well, it’s easy to imagine people who are out for themselves are dominant.

PP: There’s reason to believe that that’s at least in part what’s going on. I know that there’s other work outside of ours that suggests that people who value individual achievements more are going to be slightly more likely to rise in the ranks of an organization and potentially in groups. But it’s also the case that we’ve been finding a bi-directional thing happening, such that self-interested people over time may be more likely to aggregate resources and become more dominant, although there’s work on Machiavellianism and people who get demoted in groups which suggests that the antisocial people are not those who maintain positions of dominance and leadership but may be more likely to rise over time. But our work would suggest that there is also another arrow flowing from being dominant, being in a position of power, high status, and wealth, that actually causes you to be more entitled or to become more self-focused and self-interested, and in fact, in a lot of our studies, and this is work that’s been shown in other laboratories, is that when you make people, even those who are actually in their real lives not all that high status at all, not that dominant at all, when you bring those people into the lab and make them feel, even temporarily, better off than others, or make them feel more powerful, or make them feel subjectively higher in status or higher in rank, all of a sudden they begin to behave as if they’re actually wealthier or more high status. So this subjective perception of where you stand in relation to others, in particular feeling like you’re better off than others, actually makes you more entitled, more prioritizing of your self-interest, and, in our studies, sometimes more unethical, more likely to even be willing to break the rules.

RW: Does your work suggest that high-stakes people treat everyone badly or just their subordinates badly?

PP: That may be part of what’s going on. We often study the behavior of people towards strangers, so situations are absent cues about who the person is you might be helping, but by default, it might be that wealthier, higher-status individuals just naturally think that they’re going to be interacting with someone who is a subordinate. So it might be in a lot of cases what we might be doing is measuring behavior of high-status individuals toward people that they presume or believe are lower in status. And in fact this is an issue we’re exploring right now, it’s not data that’s out yet, but we’re actually finding that although in general it’s true that higher-status individuals are less socially engaged, less considerate of the needs of others, in general, when it comes to peers or particularly individuals that are even higher status than them, you see a slight reversal in their behavior. Whereas initially they were, say, more self-interested toward a subordinate, when it’s a peer or someone who is in their social group, or someone that they hold in higher esteem than themselves, their values reverse a bit. They become a little bit more cooperative, a little bit more respectful, almost as if they’re becoming a subordinate, taking on some of the characteristics of a slightly poorer person. They become more agreeable, more compassionate, more socially engaged, more socially considerate.


The Psychology of Social Status

Nobel Laureate economist, John Harsanyi, said that &ldquoapart from economic payoffs, social status seems to be the most important incentive and motivating force of social behavior.&rdquo The more noticeable status disparities are, the more concerned with status people become, and the differences between the haves and have-nots have been extremely pronounced during the economic recession of recent years. Barack Obama campaigned directly on the issue of the &ldquodwindling middle class&rdquo during his 2008 presidential run and appointed vice-president Joe Biden to lead a middle class task force specifically to bolster this demographic. Despite some recent economic improvement, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont just two months ago cautioned that &ldquothe reality is that the middle class today in this country is in desperate shape and the gap between the very very wealthy and everyone else is going to grow wider.&rdquo Concerns about status likely will not be leaving the public consciousness any time soon.

Of course, status differences are not simply relevant to economic standing, but they appear to be on our minds at all times. As renowned neuroscientist, Michael Gazzaniga, has noted, &ldquoWhen you get up in the morning, you do not think about triangles and squares and these similes that psychologists have been using for the past 100 years. You think about status. You think about where you are in relation to your peers.&rdquo Between CEO and employee, quarterback and wide receiver, husband and wife, status looms large. Recent work by social scientists has tackled the topic, elucidating behavioral differences between low-status and high-status individuals, and the methods by which those at the bottom of the totem pole are most successful at climbing to the top.

Psychologist PJ Henry at DePaul University recently published an article demonstrating that low-status individuals have higher tendencies toward violent behavior, explaining these differences in terms of low-status compensation theory. Henry began this work by observing that murder rates were higher in regions with landscapes conducive to herding compared to regions that are conducive to farming, consistent with prior research showing an association between herding-based economies and violence. The traditional explanation for this pattern, popularized by psychologists Dov Cohen and Richard Nisbett, is that herding cultures have a propensity for maintaining a Culture of Honor. The story goes that because herders from Southern Britain originally settled in the Southern United States (and also established a herding economy on the new land), this left them in an economically precarious position. The possessions of these herdsmen&mdashthe most important of which was their livestock&mdashwas susceptible to theft, forcing individuals to develop a quick trigger in response to threats, economic or otherwise. In comparison, the farming economy of the North was far more secure, requiring a less aggressive and protective stance toward one&rsquos personal resources.

Henry took on the traditional Culture of Honor hypothesis to suggest instead that differences between herding and farming cultures in violence actually stem from differences in status. His theory is based on a considerable psychological literature demonstrating that individuals from low-status groups (e.g. ethnic minorities) tend to engage in more vigilant psychological self-protection than those from high-status groups. Low-status people are much more sensitive to being socially rejected and are more inclined to monitor their environment for threats. Because of this vigilance toward protecting their sense of self-worth, low-status individuals are quicker to respond violently to personal threats and insults.

Henry first examined archival data on counties across the American South to show that murder rates from 1972 to 2006 were far higher in counties that were dry and hilly (conducive to herding) than those that were moist and flat (conducive to farming). Above and beyond the effect of geography, however, the level of status disparities in a particular county explained these increased murder rates. Even after accounting for the general level of wealth in a given county (wealthier counties tend to have lower murder rates), status disparity still predicted murder rates. Not content with merely looking at the United States, Henry analyzed data from 92 countries around the world, to find a replication of this pattern. From Albania to Zimbabwe, greater status disparities predicted greater levels of violence.

To provide evidence that tendencies for psychological self-protection were the crucial critical link between status and violence, Henry assessed survey data from over 1,500 Americans. In this nationally representative sample, low-socioeconomic status (low-SES) individuals reported far more psychological defensiveness in terms of considering themselves more likely to be taken advantage of and trusting people less.

Finally, in an experiment with both high- and low-SES college students, Henry demonstrated that boosting people&rsquos sense of self-worth diminished aggressive tendencies amongst low-status individuals. Henry asked some students in the experiment to write about a time when they felt important and valuable. Other students did not receive this assignment, but instead completed a rote task about defining nouns. In a second portion of the experiment, all participants answered questions about how willing they would be to respond aggressively to threats. Consistent with the general population studies, college students from low-SES backgrounds expressed more willingness to respond aggressively to insults, but this tendency diminished markedly for those who first wrote about themselves as important and valuable.

Although this pattern of low-status compensation is important on its own, it is also unfortunate given a separate body of research on how people actually attain higher status. This research, recently summarized in an article by psychologists, Cameron Anderson and Gavin J Kilduff, shows that those who are effective in attaining status do so through behaving generously and helpfully to bolster their value to their group. In other words, low-status individuals&rsquo aggressive and violent behavior is precisely the opposite of what they should be doing to ascend the societal totem pole.

Anderson and Kilduff demonstrated in one study that people in a group math problem-solving task who merely signaled their competence through being more vocal attained higher status and were able to do so regardless of their actual competence on the task. Research by psychologists Charlie L. Hardy and Mark Van Vugt, and sociologist Robb Willer have shown that generosity is the key to status. People afford greater status to individuals who donate more of their own money to a communal fund and those who sacrifice their individual interests for the public good. Demonstrating your value to a group&mdashwhether through competence or selflessness&mdashappears to improve status. Anderson and Aiwa Shirako suggest that the amplifier for this effect is the degree to which one has social connections with others. Their studies involved MBA students engaging in a variety of negotiations tasks. They showed that individuals who behaved cooperatively attained a more positive reputation, but only if they were socially embedded in the group. Those who behaved cooperatively, but lacked connections went unnoticed. Social connectedness had similar effects for uncooperative MBA students. Those who were selfish and well-connected saw their reputation diminish.

The sum of these findings can begin to explain the troubled circumstances of those lowest in status. Ongoing efforts to maintain a positive view of oneself despite economic and social hardships can engage psychological defense mechanisms that are ultimately self-defeating. Instead of ingratiating themselves to those around them &ndash this is the successful strategy for status attainment - low-status individuals may be more prone to bullying and hostile behavior, especially when provoked. Research identifying factors that lead to successful status-seeking provides some optimism, though. Individuals capable of signaling their worth to others rather than being preoccupied with signaling their worth to themselves may be able to break the self-defeating cycle of low-status behavior.