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Wired for Hierarchy ?

Here’s an interesting bit of research: the human brain appears to have a serious bias toward hierarchical structures that makes issues of status and rank a distracting and destabilizing variable:

Human Brain Appears “Hard-Wired” for Hierarchy

Human imaging studies have for the first time identified brain circuitry associated with social status, according to researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) of the National Institutes of Health. They found that different brain areas are activated when a person moves up or down in a pecking order – or simply views perceived social superiors or inferiors. Circuitry activated by important events responded to a potential change in hierarchical status as much as it did to winning money.

“Our position in social hierarchies strongly influences motivation as well as physical and mental health,” said NIMH Director Thomas R Insel, M.D. “This first glimpse into how the brain processes that information advances our understanding of an important factor that can impact public health.”

… “The processing of hierarchical information seems to be hard-wired, occurring even outside of an explicitly competitive environment, underscoring how important it is for us,” said Zink. Key study findings included:

  • The area that signals an event’s importance, called the ventral striatum, responded to the prospect of a rise or fall in rank as much as it did to the monetary reward, confirming the high value accorded social status.
  • Just viewing a superior human “player,” as opposed to a perceived inferior one or a computer, activated an area near the front of the brain that appears to size people up – making interpersonal judgments and assessing social status. A circuit involving the mid-front part of the brain that processes the intentions and motives of others and emotion processing areas deep in the brain activated when the hierarchy became unstable, allowing for upward and downward mobility.
  • Performing better than the superior “player” activated areas higher and toward the front of the brain controlling action planning, while performing worse than an inferior “player” activated areas lower in the brain associated with emotional pain and frustration.
  • The more positive the mood experienced by participants while at the top of an unstable hierarchy, the stronger was activity in this emotional pain circuitry when they viewed an outcome that threatened to move them down in status.  In other words, people who felt more joy when they won also felt more pain when they lost.

“Such activation of emotional pain circuitry may underlie a heightened risk for stress-related health problems among competitive individuals,” suggested Meyer-Lindenberg. 

Read the rest here

With such a strong intrinsic reward system, the incentives for maintaining high status in an organization would outweigh those involved in carrying out the organization’s core mission – i.e. ” leaders” have a built-in drive to maintain the status quo at the expense of any possible nominal objective. The predisposition would also be present to look for hierarchical couterparts that do not exist in adversarial organizations that have a network structure and to ” sabotage” networked and “modular structures” on our own side in order to transform them into a hierarchy than can better fulfill the ego-needs of a “high status” individual.

2 Responses to “Wired for Hierarchy ?”

  1. tdaxp Says:

    The desire for a high social status seems to explain why drug dealers earn less than employees at McDonalds.As to the hierachy question, this is certainly true.  We see the same thing in our nearest cousins, the chimpanzees.  A difference between us and them, however, is that we have a much more advanced social sense.  A typical dominant chimp’s behavior would rather quickly get him thrown into prison, or, if already in prison, killed.

  2. zen Says:

    Hi Dan,
    "A typical dominant chimp’s behavior would rather quickly get him thrown into prison, or, if already in prison, killed"
    Very true. People who believe chimps are "cute" would be in for a shocker when an aggressive male grabbed them since an adult chimp, despite their small stature, is stronger than the average adult human male and their other behaviors aren’t going to help matters.

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