Monday, October 28, 2019

The Desire for Status Ranking (2)

Status striving is a universal human desire (Anderson, Hildreth, and Howland 2015; Barkow 1989; Brown 1991).  In every human society, human beings seek high rank.  They want people to look up to them and defer to them.  And they try hard to avoid disrepute, dishonor, and disgrace.

There's an obvious objection to this claim--that for most of human history, human beings lived in nomadic foraging bands that were so egalitarian that they did not recognize any status distinctions.  But as I have indicated previously (here), even the most egalitarian hunter-gatherers show respect for those individuals with superior skills or knowledge, who can become informal leaders; and although foragers punish people for trying to become dominant over others, the need for such punishment shows that status-striving individuals do exist, and they must be monitored.  In his often cited article on foraging bands as "egalitarian societies," anthropologist James Woodburn observed that "people are well aware of the possibility that individuals or groups within their own egalitarian societies may try to acquire more wealth, to assert more power, or to claim more status than other people, and are vigilant to prevent or limit this" (1982, 432).  Foragers recognize some people as leaders, but only as long as they don't act like bosses.

Status hierarchies form quickly.  In one study of 59 three-person groups of individuals who had previously been unknown to one another, who were given 45 minutes to carry out a task, a clear ranking of the three people into high, medium, and low status emerged within 1 minute for half of the groups and within 13 minutes for the other half.  The high status individuals were identified as those who initiated action more frequently, who were the center of the discussions, and who were evaluated by the others as contributing the best ideas and guidance to the group in executing its task (Fisek and Ofshe 1970).

Psychologists studying infants (11-16 months old) in infant daycare centers have seen dominance structures with high, mid, and low rank subgroups.  The dominant individuals were the center of attention who were imitated by the others (Russon and Waite 1991). Studies of schoolchildren have shown that beginning in the first grade the children can generally agree on which children are the "toughest" and the "smartest," and they show somewhat lower levels of agreement on which children are the "nicest" and have the "most friends" (Omark and Edelman 1975).

In his first political campaign statement, announcing his run for the state legislature, Lincoln said that his "peculiar ambition" was "that of being truly esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem."  He would feel pride in being esteemed by his fellow citizens and shame if he were to lose that esteem.

For most human beings, the emotions of pride and shame motivate them to become valuable to their fellow group members.  These emotions can be seen as evolved traits of the human mind favored by natural selection because they solve a major adaptive problem faced by our ancient hominid ancestors. Our foraging ancestors lived in a harsh world with high rates of starvation, disease, injury, and attacks from predatory animals and other humans.  In such a dangerous world, our ancestors needed the help of others in their group to secure their survival and reproduction.  To persuade others to help them, individuals had to make themselves valued and respected by others in their group.  Pride could have evolved to guide individuals towards behavior that would win valuation and respect from others.  Shame could have evolved to deter individuals from behavior that would provoke scorn and disrespect from others.

This evolutionary theory of pride and shame as universal traits of our evolved human nature generates some testable predictions.  Shame should track the threat of social devaluation, so that individuals feel more shame for traits or actions that are more negatively evaluated by others.  Pride should track the reward of social praise, so that individuals feel more pride for traits or actions that are more positively evaluated by others.  Furthermore, this experience of shame and pride should be expressed universally across different cultures.

Some recent cross-cultural research by Daniel Sznycer and his colleagues has confirmed these predictions (Sznycer 2019; Sznycer et al. 2016, 2017, 2018).  For their study of shame, hundreds of people in the United States, India, and Israel were recruited through Amazon Mechanical Turk--a crowdsourcing internet marketplace--to fill out a survey questionnaire.  The researchers created 29 scenarios in which someone's actions, traits, or situation might elicit social disapproval.  They divided the participants into two groups--the "audience" group and the "shame" group.  Those in the audience group were asked to react to 29 scenarios involving a third-party individual.  Here are four examples.  "He stole goods from a shop owned by his neighbor."  "He is not generous with others."  "He is not very smart."  "He hosts his extended family for a holiday meal, but he burns the food."  The participants were asked to "indicate how you would view someone of your same sex and age if they were in those situations."  They indicated their reactions on a scale ranging from 1 (I wouldn't view them negatively at all) to; 7 (I'd view them very negatively).  Thus, they provided a measure of how much they would disapprove of someone in such a scenario.

In the shame group, participants were asked to indicate how much shame they would feel if they the individual in the 29 scenarios.  For example, "you stole goods from a shop owned by your neighbor," or "you are not generous with others."  They ranked their shame on a scale from 1 (no shame at all) to 7 (a lot of shame).

The prediction was that the intensity of shame elicited by a scenario would track the intensity of social disapproval elicited by that scenario.  This prediction was confirmed both within each of the three cultures and across those cultures.  Scenarios that aroused great disapproval by society induced great shame in individuals when they thought of themselves as displaying those scenarios.  And the pattern of disapproval and shame was generally the same in the United States as in India and Israel.

There were some cultural differences, however.  Some scenarios elicited more disapproval in India than in the United States--for example, marrying someone without consulting your parents, and addressing your father by his first name.  And some scenarios elicited more disapproval in the United States than in India--for example, yelling at your maid, and telling your sibling that their daughter should whiten her skin.

What this shows is that there will be both universal patterns in what is regarded as shameful and some cultural variation corresponding to the local social ecology.  This is dramatically illustrated in the debate over slavery in the United States before and during the Civil War.  Some Southerners did not regard slave-owning as shameful, but as Lincoln pointed out, slave-trading was scorned as a dishonorable activity--gentlemen would refuse to shake hands with slave dealers.  To justify slavery, some of the proslavery advocates were forced to make the implausible argument that slavery was a "positive good" for both the master and the slave, and so Harriett Beecher Stowe's depiction of the cruelty of slavery in Uncle Tom's Cabin was simply false.

If slavery was good for the slaves, then one might have expected that they would be willing to fight in the Civil War as Confederate soldiers.  The Confederate Congress repeatedly rejected black enlistment until March 13, 1865, when in desperation to find soldiers they passed a law authorizing black men to enlist, but with the stipulation that there would be no emancipation of slaves who fought in the Confederate army.  Active fighting ended less than 3 weeks later, and there is no record of any black units in the Confederate Army.  Four days after this law was enacted, Lincoln spoke about this before a regiment of Union soldiers from Indiana:
"The great question with them was, whether the negro, being put into the army, would fight for them.  I do not know, and therefore cannot decide. (Laughter.) They ought to know better than we.  I have in my lifetime heard many arguments why the negroes ought to be slaves; but if they fight for those who would keep them in slavery it will be a better argument than any I have yet heard. (Laughter and applause.) He who will fight for that ought to be a slave. (Applause.) . . . While I have often said that all men ought to be free, yet I would allow those colored persons to be slaves who want to be; and next to them those white persons who argue in favor of making other people slaves. (Applause.)  I am in favor of giving an opportunity to such white men to try it on for themselves. (Applause.) . . . " (CW, 8:361-62)
It is laughable and shameful to suggest that slaves would fight for their own enslavement, and that white men defend slavery as a positive good for others but not for themselves.

After Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation, black men were recruited into the Union Army.  By the end of the war, there were 179,000 black soldiers (10% of the Union Army) and 19,000 in the Navy.  16 black soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor.  Frederick Douglass actively recruited black men with the argument that such honorable service in war would prove that they had earned their citizenship.

Lincoln took pride in launching this campaign for emancipation.  Indeed, as he told Joshua Speed, in proclaiming the Emancipation Proclamation, he thought he had finally achieved what he had long yearned for--to do something great for his fellow men, so that he would be remembered forever.

This emotion of pride can be explained as part of our evolved human nature.  Using the same method that they employed in their study of shame, Sznycer and his colleagues have surveyed thousands of people in 16 nations and 10 small-scale societies scattered around the world, presenting them with scenarios and asking them either how praiseworthy the circumstances of those scenarios might be or how proud they would be as the individual in those scenarios (Sznycer et al. 2017, 2018).  So, for example, some participants were asked to rate the praiseworthiness of three scenarios: "He keeps his promises."  "He is smart."  "He is a productive worker, and can keep his children healthy and well fed."  Others were asked to rate how proud of themselves they would be in three scenarios: "You keep your promises." "You are smart."  "You are a productive worker, and can keep your children healthy and well fed."  They found that the intensity of the pride that individuals anticipate for a potential action or trait tracks the magnitude of the approval or respect they would expect to receive from the people in their society.

This confirms the prediction of evolutionary psychology that pride has evolved by natural selection as an adaptive solution to the problem of how individuals secure the help of others in their group, because pride motivates people to do what wins the esteem of others, and thus makes it likely that others will act for the good of those they esteem.

For Lincoln, that meant that his proud pursuit of a praiseworthy deed like the Emancipation Proclamation was rewarded with the prestige of being the Great Emancipator.


Anderson, C., J. A. D. Hildreth, and L. Howland. 2015. "Is the Desire for Status a Fundamental Human Motive? A Review of the Empirical Literature." Psychological Bulletin 141: 574-601.

Barkow, Jerome. 1989.  Darwin, Sex, and Status: Biological Approaches to Mind and Culture. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Brown, Donald E. 1991. Human Universals. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Fisek, M. H., and R. Ofshe. 1970. "The Process of Status Evolution." Sociometry 33: 327-46.

Omark, Donald R., and Murray S. Edelman. 1975. "A Comparison of Status Hierarchies in Young Children: An Ethological Approach." Social Science Information 14 (5): 87-107.

Russon, A. E., and B. E. Waite. 1991. "Patterns of Dominance and Initiation in an Infant Peer Group." Ethology and Sociobiology 12: 55-73.

Sznycer, Daniel. 2019. "Forms and Functions of the Self-Conscious Emotions." Trends in Cognitive Sciences 23: 143-57.

Sznycer, Daniel, et al. 2016. "Shame Closely Tracks the Threat of Devaluation by Others, Even Across Cultures." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113 (10): 2625-2630.

Sznycer, Daniel, et al. 2017. "Cross-Cultural Regularities in the Cognitive Architecture of Pride." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114 (8): 1874-1879.

Sznycer, Daniel, et al. 2018. "Invariances in the Architecture of Pride Across Small-Scale Societies." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115 (33): 8322-8327.

Woodburn, James. 1982. "Egalitarian Societies." Man 27: 431-451.

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