In animals with dominance hierarchies, an animal's rank in that hierarchy can greatly influence its physical and mental health. The most commonly studied physiological effect of social status is the response to stress, as shown in the blood level of glucocorticoids (GCs), adrenal steroid hormones that are secreted during stress, such as cortisol or hydrocortisone in primates. GCs help to mediate adaptation to short-term physical stressors, such as the fight-or-flight response to an attacking animal, but GCs become pathogenic when they are secreted chronically, such as when animals are exposed to frequent social stressors because of their ranking in a hierarchy.
Is it more stressful to be dominant or subordinate? In the 1950s, researchers talked about "executive stress syndrome"--the idea that those at the top suffer from the stressful burdens of their responsibilities. Sapolsky thinks this has been mostly refuted by research showing that those at the top of a hierarchy who have a sense of control, but who are not directly responsible for supervising many subordinates, benefit from reduced stress. By contrast, those in middle management, who are responsible for supervising many people under them, but who have little ultimate control, are more exposed to chronic stress.
Early in his career, Sapolsky argued that being subordinate was far more stressful than being dominant. He became famous for showing that the low-ranking baboons that he observed in Kenya showed the bad health consequences of chronic stress, and he suggested that this might also be true for low-ranking human beings.
Later, however, he conceded that things were more complicated--that whether low-ranking or high-ranking individuals experienced the most stress depended on variable social conditions and individual personality traits (Behave, 435-42; Sapolsky, "The Influence of Social Hierarchy on Primate Health," Science 308 [29 April 2005]: 648-52). For example, when the maintenance of a despotic hierarchy requires that the alpha male frequently engages in physical reassertion of dominance, the dominant individual will experience the most stress. But if the alpha male can maintain his dominance by social intimidation (a threatening stare) without violent aggression, then it's the subordinate individual who experiences the most stress. If the hierarchy is stable, the dominant individual is less stressed, and the subordinate individual is more stressed. If the hierarchy is unstable, it's the dominant individual who is more stressed. If the dominants have a personality that make them skillful at exerting social control while being sociable with others, while the subordinates have a personality that make them poor at coping with their subordination and finding support from others, then the subordinates will be more stressed.
Among human beings, Sapolsky argues, the suffering of those in the low status positions does not necessarily come from their being desperately poor, because even in those prosperous societies where there is almost no poverty, the people with low status still suffer from being less well off than those ranked above them. Their suffering comes not so much from being poor as from feeling poor. What counts is not absolute poverty but relative poverty. Even in prosperous societies that have abolished absolute poverty, because almost everyone enjoys an abundant level of economic resources for a materially comfortable life, those who have less than others suffer from the psychosocial stress of living a low-status life. Even those in high status positions suffer from the social maladies caused by inequality--including high crime, low levels of social trust, and a futile pursuit of happiness through competitive consumerism. As Sapolsky puts it, everyone is unhappy because "marked inequality makes people crummier to one another" (Behave, 292).
In surveying the evidence for these conclusions, Sapolsky relies on the work of many researchers, but he particularly stresses the "crucial work by the social epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson of the University of Nottingham" (Behave, 294). Wilkinson argues that a comparative analysis of the international data for socioeconomic conditions shows that the more economically unequal societies suffer far more from bad health and social maladies than do the more equal societies. He contends that social welfare programs for redistributing wealth to achieve more equality--as has been done, for example, in the Scandinavian social democracies--will make life better for all.
Remarkably, Sapolsky does not share Wilkinson's belief that socialist or welfare-state policies can alleviate the suffering from inequality. Sapolsky observes:
"The SES/health gradient is ubiquitous. Regardless of gender, age, or race. With or without universal health care. In societies that are ethnically homogeneous and those rife with ethnic tensions. In societies in which the central mythology is a capitalist credo of 'Living well is the best revenge' and those in which it is a socialist anthem of 'From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.' When humans invented material inequality, they came up with a way of subjugating the low ranking like nothing ever before seen in the primate world" (Behave, 442).So if Sapolsky thinks that neither capitalism nor socialism can overturn the oppressive inequality invented in the move from foraging bands to agrarian societies, then does he think we should look for some way to return to the egalitarian state of nature? No, he dismisses that as a ridiculous idea. He quotes Lawrence Keeley as expressing "a pretty weird worry" in writing: "The doctrines of the pacified past unequivocally imply that the only answer to the 'mighty scourge of war' is a return to tribal conditions and the destruction of all civilization." "In other words," Sapolsky remarks, "unless this tomfoolery of archaeologists pacifying the past stops, people will throw away their antibiotics and microwaves, do some scarification rituals, and switch to loincloths--and where will that live us?" (Behave, 315).
Sapolsky identifies himself as a lefty. But while he shows the lefty lament for the evils of inequality, he lacks the lefty optimism about overcoming that inequality through a collectivist egalitarianism.
I must say that I find it hard to take seriously this leftish moaning about the devastating effects of any social inequality for those who suffer so from a low-status ranking that they can never live a happy life. I am not even sure that Sapolsky really believes what he says about this.
Consider the following remarks by Sapolsky:
". . . in humans, there is a robust imperviousness of SES-health associations to differences in social and economic systems. . . . it is a testimony to the power of humans, after inventing material technology and the unequal distribution of its spoils, to corrosively subordinate its have-nots" ("Social Hierarchy," 652).
"As with other species, human quality of life also varies with the consequences of rank inequalities--there's a big difference between the powerful getting seated at a restaurant before you and the powerful getting to behead you if the fancy strikes them. . . ."
"We belong to multiple hierarchies and can have very different ranks in them. Naturally, this invites rationalization and system justification--deciding why hierarchies where we flounder are crap and the one where we reign really counts."
"Implicit in being part of multiple hierarchies is their potential overlap. Consider socioeconomic status, which encompasses both local and global hierarchies. I'm doing great socioeconomically--my car's fancier than yours. I'm doing terribly--I'm not richer than Bill Gates."
"An example of this [membership in multiple hierarchies] that I found to be excruciatingly uncomfortable: I used to play in a regular pickup soccer game at Stanford. I was terrible, which was widely and tolerantly recognized by all. One of the best, most respected players was a Guatemalan guy who happened to be a janitor in my building. At soccer he'd call me Robert (on the rare occasions when anything I did was relevant to play). And when he came to empty the garbage from my office and lab, no matter how much I tried to get him to stop, it would be 'Dr. Sapolsky'" (Behave, 431).Now I don't think that the Guatemalan guy must necessarily be a desperately unhappy man suffering from stress-related disorders because he happens to be in a low-status job. If his janitorial job is secure, if he's a successfully married man with a family, if he has good friends, if he lives in a good neighborhood, and if he's an active member of his church--if his life has such conditions for a good life--then he's living a happy life. And it does make a big difference that he lives in a liberal social and economic order, where even though Stanford professors have higher status than he does, they are not permitted to behead him if they so choose.
And I don't think Sapolsky really thinks he's doing terribly--as a well-paid Stanford professor--because he's not richer than Bill Gates.
I think both Sapolsky and the Guatemalan are living much happier lives in a liberal capitalist society that allows for inequality of social status than they would in an illiberal socialist society.
I have surveyed some of the global empirical evidence for this claim in my series of posts on "human progress through the liberal Enlightenment" in November and December of 2016.