I, Mammal: make peace with the animal urge for social power

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An animal who gets respect can spread its genes, and natural selection built a brain that rewards you with the good feeling of serotonin when you get respect. Our brain seeks respect and attention as if your life depends on it because serotonin makes it feel good. Whatever worked in your youth built neural pathways that tell you where to expect it today.

But serotonin is quickly metabolized and you have to do more to get more. This is why we mammals are so eager for social power and feel so threatened by minor obstacles to social power. This book helps you make peace with your inner mammal to feel good without an endless quest for “junk status.”

Mammals live in groups for protection from predators, but group life is frustrating. Higher-status individuals end up with better mating opportunity and foraging spots. You are not trying to spread your genes, but natural selection built a brain that rewards you with a good feeling when you do things that promote your genes. Our appetite for status is as natural as our appetite for food and sex. This is why “junk status” gets people’s attention. This book shows you how to enjoy serotonin without the frustrations of an endless quest for social power. You may say you’re “against status,” but if you filled a room with people who said that, a status hierarchy would soon form based on how hard each person insists. You would never think this in words, but the mammal brain works with neurochemicals instead of words.

Your neurochemical ups and downs make sense when you know how social power promotes survival in the animal world. Nothing is wrong with us. We are mammals. We work hard to restrain these urges, and we can celebrate how well we do with the mental equipment we’ve got instead of focusing on our flaws. The mammal brain evolved to promote survival through social alliances. It equips a mammal to live alongside stronger and weaker individuals. It constantly compares itself to those around it. If it sees itself in the position of weakness, it releases cortisol (“the stress chemical”), which motivates it to hold back to avoid conflict. If it sees itself in the position of strength, it releases serotonin and yields to the impulse to meet its needs. We humans feel this dynamic constantly, which is why we have so many words for it: ego, competitiveness, pride, respect, one-upping, self-confidence, attention-seeking, social dominance, arrogance, social-climbing, assertiveness, manipulative, ambitious, oppositional.

We can finally make sense of our hybrid brain thanks to an accumulation of research in animal science and neuroscience. It’s not easy being mammal! The urge for social power is easy to see in others, especially your social rivals. It’s hard to accept in yourself and your social allies. You can wire yourself to stimulate your serotonin without being a “jerk.” When you understand your inner mammal, you can learn to relax about your social position instead of being a prisoner of “junk status.” What a relief!

You can manage your happy brain chemicals when you know how they work in the state of nature

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Happy Neurochemicals Shape These Behaviors

Dominance Seeking

Mammals are amazingly picky about whom they mate with. More dominant mammals end up with more and better mating opportunities. Males and females both invest energy in the pursuit of social dominance, varying their strategies in ways that work. Free love is not nature's way. It would lead to overpopulation. In most mammalian species, males compete vigorously for mating opportunities, and females contend for the best foraging spots. The winners have more surviving offspring, which pass on the trait. Actual fights are often unnecessary because the threat of being bitten, kicked and scratched motivates weaker mammals to submit. Animals remember the outcome of past conflicts, and defer to prevent injury. Status hierarchies are simply reminders of past conflicts, and as such prevent fights.

Displaying

Mammals communicate without words. Their neurochemicals trigger body movements that other mammals recognize. Mammals avoid dangerous conflicts by reading each others' display. It's a life-or-death matter because an injured mammal is soon picked off by a predator, but a mammal that never asserts itself fails to pass on its DNA. We are descended from successful communicators. Mammals communicate without words. They are always watching others for useful information. If you are angry or lusting, other critters notice because it's relevant to the survival of their DNA. No intent to communicate is necessary. The neurochemicals that create your emotions also trigger your body. Your troop mates notice your body posture, and their mirror neurons trigger their stored experience with that posture. Now they know what you mean.

Herd Following

Leaving the herd means death in the jaws of a predator to the mammal brain. Sticking with the herd protects the young, who are most vulnerable to predators. So the mammal brain releases happy chemicals in the safety of the herd, and stress chemicals when the risk of separation is perceived. Oxytocin produces the feeling we humans recognize as "trust" It rewards mammals for sticking with the herd, and building social bonds. Separating from the herd gives your mammal brain the feeling that you are about to be eaten by a predator. You don't think that in words, of course. But the loss of trust triggers unhappy chemicals, which your brain interprets as an urgent threat warning. Oxytocin paves the neural circuits for touching, sex, attachment, bonding and trust. Oxytocin feels good, so we're motivated to repeat the behaviors that seem to stimulate it.

Protecting Children

Before there were mammals, creatures made lots of babies and let most of them die. Mammals pioneered the strategy of having few babies and doing their darnedest to keep each one alive. The bigger a mammal's brain, the longer its childhood, and the more it invests in its offspring.

Reciprocating

Mammals help those who can help them. Mammals with bigger brains cooperate more because they can anticipate future reciprocation instead of focusing only on immediate rewards. A low-status monkey spends years grooming others before being rewarded with reproductive opportunity.

Alliance Building

A mammal with more allies has better survival prospects, so mammals do all they can to create allies. Mammals with bigger brains invest more in social negotiations because they are able to update their memories to reflect the outcome of each conflict.

Your mammal brain cares about status as if your life depended on it because from the perspective of your DNA, it does. When you feel one-upped by someone, your mammal brain treats it as a survival threat. Neurochemicals ups and downs are the brain's way of promoting its own legacy. It's way of promoting its own legacy. It's not easy managing the brain you've inherited from your ancestors.
It's the challenge that comes with the gift of life.

Nothing is wrong with us. We are mammals.