Why We Strive for Status
Science is revealing the biological roots of men’s persistent one-upmanship
By Geoffrey Cowley
June 16 issue — Genghis Khan was not one to agonize over gender roles. He was into sex and power, and he didn’t mind saying so. “The greatest joy a man can know is to conquer his enemies and drive them before him,” the emperor once thundered, “to ride their horses and take away their possessions!”
GENGHIS KHAN CONQUERED two thirds of the known world during the early 13th century, amassing an empire that stretched from Eastern Europe to Korea. And he may have set an all-time record for what biologists call reproductive success. An account written 33 years after his death credited him with 20,000 descendants. Today researchers believe that 8 percent of the people living in the former empire may bear the leader’s genes.
Men’s manners have improved markedly since Genghis Khan’s day. Harems went out of style centuries ago, and even despots now disavow pillage and oppression as ideals. At heart, though, we’re the same animals we were 800 years ago. Which is to say we are status seekers. We may talk of equality and fraternity. We may strive for classless societies. But we go right on building hierarchies, and jockeying for status within them. Can we abandon the tendency? Probably not. For as scientists are now discovering, status seeking is not just a habit or a cultural tradition. It’s a design feature of the male psyche—a biological drive that is rooted in the nervous system and regulated by hormones and brain chemicals. The drive for dominance skews our perceptions, colors our friendships, shapes our moods and affects our health. But we’re not always worse off for it. Hierarchies can produce harmony as well as strife and injustice. And even if we can’t level them, there is no question we can make them more benign.
Males are not the only ones who crave status (remember Tonya Harding?), but we pursue it more doggedly than females at every stage of life. Studies suggest that boys are more assertive than girls at 13 months, more aggressive as toddlers and more competitive at almost any age. While schoolgirls engage in cooperative play, boys as young as 6 establish dominance hierarchies and maintain them through rough-and-tumble games. As adolescents, we boast, threaten and joust more than girls do. As adults, we’re less bothered by social disparities, more supportive of military spending and less likely to share intimate feelings with friends of the same sex. “Men’s relationships are more like alliances,” Durham University psychologist Anne Campbell observes in her recent book “A Mind of Her Own.” “They support one another and share their interests and activities, but always with wariness.”
How do we know this relentless one-upmanship is a biological endowment? If the tendency showed up only in certain societies, it would be easier to dismiss as something we learn. But anthropologists find the same pattern virtually everywhere they look—and so do zoologists. Male competition is fierce among crickets, crayfish and elephants, and it’s ubiquitous among higher primates. “Male chimpanzees have an extraordinarily strong drive for dominance,” says Frans de Waal, a behavioral scientist at Emory University and the Yerkes National Primate Research Center. “They’re constantly jockeying for position.” Like human males, chimps will bluff, scheme and sometimes murder to maintain or usurp rank. And, like human males, they respond physically as well as emotionally to advances and setbacks. When men prepare for a fight, or even a chess match, their bodies produce a surge of testosterone, a hormone known for boosting body mass and aggressiveness. “The testosterone level peaks during the contest,” says Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham. “Afterward it stays high in the winner but declines in the loser.” In other words, our glands are set to push us into winnable conflicts and to discourage foolish ambitions. Coincidence?
Evolutionists don’t think so. From their perspective, life is essentially a race to reproduce, and natural selection is bound to favor different strategies in different organisms. Why should males be more primed than females to jockey for dominant status? In reproductive terms, they have vastly more to gain from it. A female can’t flood the gene pool by commandeering extra mates; no matter how much sperm she attracts, she is unlikely to produce more than a dozen viable offspring. But as Genghis Khan’s exploits make clear, males can profit enormously by out mating their peers. “If 10 percent of men can have a monopoly on 50 percent of the female population,” Campbell observes, “other men are faced with the possibility of going to their graves childless unless they fight for their share of the reproductive opportunity.” It’s not hard to see how that dynamic, played out over millions of years, would leave modern men fretting over status. We’re built from the genes that the most determined competitors passed down.
Fortunately, we don’t aspire to families of 800. As monogamy and contraceptives may have leveled the reproductive playfield, power has become its own psychological reward. “It’s part of the male identity,” says University of Connecticut psychologist James O’Neil. “We strive for success and upward mobility.” But those who achieve high status still enjoy more sex with more partners than the rest of us, and the reason is no mystery. Researchers have gathered voluminous data on women’s mating preferences over the past half century. They have studied primitive societies, conducted international surveys, run lab experiments—even analyzed personals ads—and they have consistently found that women favor signs of “earning capacity” over good looks. For sheer sex appeal, a doughy bald guy in a blue blazer and a Rolex will outscore a stud in a Burger King uniform almost every time. Power, it seems, really is the ultimate aphrodisiac.
By the same token, powerlessness can be toxic. Scores of studies have linked male depression to problems with success, power and competition. A sudden loss of employment can be especially devastating, says University of Texas psychologist David Buss, costing men their marriages as well as their self-esteem. The stress of subordination may even cause physical illness. “Low socioeconomic status carries with it an enormously increased risk of a broad range of diseases,” says Stanford biologist Robert Sapolsky, “and this gradient cannot be fully explained by factors such as health-care access.” Animal studies suggest that low status can raise blood pressure, suppress the immune system and damage the heart. The effects on human health are less clear, but Sapolsky predicts that scientists will uncover the same connections.
Is there any hope for peace, justice or widespread happiness in a world so ineluctably stratified? The prospects aren’t nearly as grim as all these findings suggest. Men may be obsessed with rank, but we’re not always in conflict over it. In fact, once we work out who’s higher and lower, we often relax and get along quite well. “If resources are divvied up unevenly,” says Sapolsky, “you can fight it out tooth and claw for everything, or you can have a stable dominance system that gets you the same result without having to go through the battle every time. It’s a conservative way of avoiding fighting.” True, life at the bottom of the heap can be awful, but the top is not the only place to find fulfillment. “People often think that social rank is about everybody trying to get high rank,” says University of Derby psychologist Paul Gilbert. “There’s an important difference between pursuing high rank and avoiding low rank.” Middle management can be a good deal if the boss is not a tyrant. And even if you land at the bottom of one hierarchy, it’s often possible to distinguish yourself in another one. Janitor by day, martial-arts master by night.
That’s not to say things always work out for the best. The world is full of would-be despots, and “take more than your share” is still the alpha-male motto. Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner notes that America’s top CEOs now average $37.5 million in annual earnings—more than 1,000 times the salary of an average worker. Genghis Khan would approve. The good news is that status doesn’t survive by power alone. Even among nonhuman primates, the most durable leaders are those who kiss babies, flatter allies and share their bounty—in short, the ones who govern by consent. They may have testosterone to spare, but it is matched and balanced by serotonin, a neurotransmitter critical for controlling impulses. And though quick to confront potential challengers, they employ more bluff than force. “If you have to abuse your power,” says Sapolsky, “you’re probably in the process of losing it.” Men will surely continue to learn that lesson the hard way. But we’ve come a fair distance already, and the millennium is young.
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