TABLE OF CONTENTS
Introduction: Why We Care About Status
Part I: Why Status Games Are Relentless
1. Status Games in Animals
2. Social Rivalry Among Early Humans
3. Status Games Around the World
Part 2: How Our Brain Creates Status Games
4. Serotonin and the Pleasure of Social Dominance
5. Cortisol and Status Threats
6. Why It’s Always High School in Your Brain
Part 3: Healthy Alternatives to Status Games
7. A Healthy Serotonin Mindset
8. Healthy Status vs Junk Status
9. Help Others Escape Status Games
Why We Care About Status
Many years ago, I saw a magazine article called, “Brand You.” It claimed that selling your personal brand was the way to success. That surprised me. I thought success meant you could stop selling yourself and just enjoy life. I did not want to be successful if it meant having to sell myself forever.
I had the same problem with romance. It seemed like people were constantly selling themselves. I thought love meant you could stop selling. I didn’t want love if it meant having to constantly monitor the marketplace and supply what the market demands.
I wondered if something was wrong with me. It seemed like selling yourself came naturally to others and I was missing something. But in time, I realized that most people are uncomfortable about this pressure to market yourself. They blame “our society” and “modern times” for this pressure, and imagine a utopia where everyone feels valued all the time without having to do anything. I looked for that utopia. I didn’t find it, but I found something better: the facts about the brain system that motivate competitiveness. I learned that social comparison is an animal impulse. In the state of nature, social comparison has life-or-death consequences, so the brain responds to it with chemicals that create life-or-death feelings.
Suddenly, my social-comparison feelings felt less threatening. I even became grateful for the pressure to market yourself because it’s a sign of our choices. In the past, you couldn’t choose your career or your life partner because your family chose for you. Today, we can choose and even change our minds and choose again. This abundance of choice triggers the competitive feelings we’ve inherited from earlier animals.
You have a choice about your emotions too.
You can see yourself as “on the market” all the time, with all the pressure that entails. You can give up and resent others for judging you. Or you can find a middle path.
This book describes the middle path. We don’t hear much about it, which is why we tend to flip-flop between excess striving and bitter renunciation. You won’t find the middle path by following the herd. You won’t find it by listening to messages designed to appeal to your animal brain. But you can find it by blazing a new trail through your jungle of neurons. This book shows you how.
A middle path sounds abstract, so here’s a concrete example. We’ve all heard about Lake Wobegon, “where all the men are tall, all the women are good looking, and all the children are above average.” This makes us laugh because we know people think this way even though it’s statistically impossible. But many people have the opposite thought loop: they see their lives as shorter, uglier, and below average. Even Lake-Wobegon people may feel this way in their quiet moments. Your animal brain hurts when you feel less-than, but you don’t know how your brain creates this feeling. So you blame others for making you feel this way, and maybe end up hating Lake Wobegon. But the bad feeling continues. It leaves you longing to be taller, smarter, and better-looking.
Fortunately, you have a choice. Instead of bouncing between the pain of feeling less-than and the pressure of seeking more-than, you can get real about your animal brain. It creates a frenzy of social comparison because that’s the job it evolved to do. You can train your animal brain to feel safe despite this natural impulse. Once you know the source of this impulse, you have power over it.
It’s Not Easy Being Mammal
People are status conscious because animals are status conscious, and we’ve inherited the brain chemicals that motivate them. You may find this hard to believe since we’re told that animals are compassionate and “our society” causes status seeking. But a close look at the status games of animals reveals patterns that we know so well from daily life. Animals try to one-up each other with every ounce of energy left after meeting their basic needs. They do it because the mammal brain rewards you with a good feeling when you succeed. More important, the mammal brain releases threat chemicals when it sees a threat to its social position. We have inherited this brain chemistry. It gives us life-or-death feelings about status despite our best intentions. When you know how your mammal brain does this, you can enjoy the world as it is instead of feeling threatened by status games. You can’t control the world, but you can control your brain more than you realize.
For over a century, researchers have observed status distinctions in mammalian herds and packs or troop. Mammals strive to raise their status because it promotes their genes. They don’t think this consciously, of course. They just do what feels good, and natural selection built a brain that rewards you with a good feeling (serotonin) when you raise your status. It alarms you with a bad feeling (cortisol) when you see a status threat. Humans have the same chemical as animals, and we control them with the same brain structures (the amygdala, hippocampus, pituitary, etc., collectively known as the limbic system). So it’s not surprising that we have strong feelings about our status.
We are different from animals because of our big cortex, which gives us language and awareness of the future. The animal brain cannot process language, so it cannot tell you in words why it releases a good or bad feeling. The animal brain seeks social dominance without without words or concern for the long run. It just strives to repeat behaviors that trigger serotonin and avoid behaviors that trigger cortisol. Our limbic system does the same.
You don’t think this consciously, of course. Your limbic brain and you verbal brain are not on speaking terms. As a result, you can say you don’t care about status even as your inner mammal cares urgently.
Status games result. We seek social importance because our brain makes it feel good. But serotonin is quickly metabolized, so we have to seek it again and again to keep feeling it. Neurons connect when serotonin flows, wiring us to expect good feelings where we’ve gotten them before. This is why you seek recognition in ways that worked in your past. These efforts fail sometimes, and that triggers cortisol. It creates the feeling that your survival is threatened by a status setback, even though you don’t consciously think that.
You can end up feeling threatened a lot in a life that is extremely safe compared to the lives of your ancestors. We strive urgently to relieve threats because our brain is designed to work that way. Our big cortex tries to help by finding patterns. It concludes that others are putting you down.
It’s not easy being mammal.
Why You Play the Game
Status games command your attention because:
- serotonin is quickly metabolized so we always want more;
- cortisol creates a full-body sense of alarm that’s designed to get your attention;
- we interpret these impulses as facts about the world around us because we’re not aware of our mammal brain.
It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that the world is putting you down if you don’t know how you create this thought. You think others are putting you down because you don’t notice that you care about putting yourself up.
It’s hard to put yourself up because you’re surrounded by other mammals doing the same. Your co-workers are mammals. Your friends and family are mammals. Your beloved is a mammal. You are a mammal too. Life is easier when you understand this brain we’ve inherited. You can relax when you know that serotonin will always dip after it spurts, and that cortisol is not necessarily a real threat. You can find healthy ways to stimulate serotonin and relieve cortisol.
Why Animals Care About Status
Mammals care about status because they live in groups. It’s not easy to meet your survival needs when you’re surrounded by other critters who are also trying to meet their needs. But mammals stick with the group despite the tension because predators pick off isolated individuals. The ability to coexist was naturally selected for.
This ability is often romanticized. When you see a group of animals, they seem to have the solidarity you long for. But in truth, they get on each others’ nerves. They avoid conflict simply because weaker individuals back down to avoid injury. The mammal brain compares its strength to others constantly. When it sees that it’s stronger, it feels safe to act on its urge to meet its needs. When it sees that it’s weaker, it feels unsafe and restrains its urges. This is not what you usually hear about animals, so let’s zoom in closer on nature’s drama.
Reptiles do not live in groups because they can’t get along with each other. When a reptile sees a smaller individual, it tries to eat it. When it sees a bigger individual, it runs for its life. When it sees a same-size critter, it tries to mate it. Reptiles don’t make fine social distinctions, but they have survived for millions of years without that ability. They’ve survived because a small brain needs less fuel.
Mammals evolved the ability to retrain the impulse to pounce. Stronger mammals and weaker mammals can live side-by-side as a result. But the harsh fact of life is that stronger group mates steal food from weaker individuals. A young mammal gets bitten if it resists. The pain of a bite wires the young brain to fear asserting itself in the presence of stronger individuals. Each species has a grace period for juveniles, but once those juvenile marking fade, a young mammal struggles to fill its belly. The struggle for reproductive opportunity is intense as well. Yet natural selection equipped mammals to navigate this social minefield.
The mammal brain compares itself constantly to others and releases the stress chemical, cortisol, when it sees itself in the position of weakness. When it sees itself in the position of strength, serotonin is released and the mammal asserts itself. Serotonin is not aggression but a calm confidence in your own strength.
The mammal brain wires itself from experience. Each serotonin experience wires a young mammal to expect more good feelings from similar situations. Each cortisol experience wires it to expect bad feelings in similar contexts. Thus, a young brain gets wired to seek opportunity while avoiding conflict. Let’s see how this works in daily life.
A young monkey wakes up hungry and has to find food to relieve that internal threat signal. It looks around for food. When it sees a piece of fruit, it surveys the social setting before taking action. If a bigger monkey is nearby, it looks elsewhere. If it sees food near a smaller individual, serotonin is released and it takes action. It is good at weighing its relative strength thanks to the activity we call “play.” If you watch young animals at play, you can see that they’re quite rough. Each brain wires in expectations about when to assert and when to hold back. When the young mammal reaches puberty, this guidance system helps it find reproductive opportunity too.
The appetite for the one-up position is more primal than the appetite for food and sex because it always comes first.
The point is not that we should bite weaker individuals. The point is that our brain makes social comparisons and reacts with strong feelings to these comparisons. We learn to restrain the impulse to grab when we’re young, and we have to restrain it a lot because our happy chemicals flow when we meet a need. This is easy to see in others, but hard to see in yourself. It seems like others want to grab, while we are just trying to survive.
This Is Not How I Think!
You may insist that you do not think this way. Your verbal brain does not think this in words, but your neurochemical operating system responds this way without words.
Acknowledging your urge for the one-up position is taboo for many people. That’s why we focus on the urge in others– especially those we don’t like. “They are much worse!” you tell yourself, and your cortex finds evidence to prove that.
Moral superiority feels good because it puts you in the one-up position. Serotonin rewards you in the short run. But in the long run, you flood yourself with cortisol when you see yourself as a little monkey pushed around by bigger monkeys. You might long to become a big monkey to feel better, but that leads to more conflict and more cortisol. What’s a big-brained mammal to do?
You can identify the social-comparison circuits you built in your past and redirect them. You can find safe ways to give your inner mammal the one-up position, to enjoy serotonin and relieve cortisol. You can feel good about your strength without being a jerk.
It’s tempting to blame “our society” for these impulses, but you give away your power when you do that. You have power over your mind. Blaming society for your emotions leaves you powerless. When you know how you produce your emotions, you can produce something different. It bears repeating that our goal is not to justify brutality or crass competitiveness. Our goal is to explain the gnawing sense of being dominated and transform it into confidence in your own survival skills. You can soothe your inner mammal when you understand the social rivalry our flesh is heir too.
You hate to admit that you feel good when you see yourself in the one-up position. To make matters worse, the good feeling soon passes, and your brain longs for more. We have more words for this one-up feeling than Eskimos have for snow. We call it: pride, ego, self-confidence, glory, dominance, power, self-worth, arrogance, assertiveness, manipulativeness, competitiveness, one-upping, status, social importance, being special, being a winner, feeling superior, dignity, saving face, prestigious, exclusive, prominent, getting recognition, and getting respect, approval, or attention. We use words with positive connotations for the dominance seeking of people we like, and words with negative connotations for people we don’t like.
We need a lot of words because our brain goes there so often. This is not a cosmic flaw— it’s the way our brain is designed to work. Social dominance feels good because brains that did that spread their genes. You are not trying to spread your genes, but you have inherited a brain that rewards you with a good feeling when you do that. You are here today because your ancestors thought that way. As they say in the tech world, “it’s a feature, not a bug.” That doesn’t mean you should seek social dominance; it means you must not hate this impulse because you will end up hating everyone including yourself. You can learn to manage this impulse instead. By the end of this book, you will mange it better than anyone you know. That’s a shameless appeal to your one-up impulse, but you would probably think it on your own anyway!
Quest for Serotonin
Most of what we hear about serotonin is filtered through disease model. Little is said about the natural role of serotonin, so people are led to believe that something is wrong with you if you don’t have an effortless flow of serotonin all the time. But research on monkeys suggests a very different picture.
- Serotonin evolved to do a job, not to flow all the time for no reason.
- It rewards you with a good feeling when you see yourself in a position of strength.
- It creates a calm feeling, which helps the stronger individual avoid conflict.
- Neurons connect when serotonin flows, which wires you to expect more of the good feeling in ways that turned it on in your past.
- Serotonin evolved to motivate social judgments that promote survival, not to make you feel good all the time.
- It’s released in short spurts, so you always have to do more to get more.
- The brain habituates to the rewards you have, so it takes a “new and improved” moments of strength to stimulate it.
- When your quest for serotonin is disappointed, cortisol is makes it feel like a survival threat, even though you don’t consciously think that.
- Our brain strives to avoid threats, so we are highly motivated to find the next serotonin opportunity.
The disease model leads you to believe that other people enjoy effortless serotonin all the time. You may feel like you are missing out. You may think “big shots” get serotonin easily, and you’ve been shortchanged. This is false. There is no royal road to serotonin. If you were king of the world, you would not enjoy serotonin every moment. You would live in fear of plots against you. You would search for new and improved one-up opportunities, even as you feared losing the ones you had.
The mammal brain lures us into thinking that status will make us happy, but it does not actually make us happy when we have it. To prove this, read the tabloids!
The urge for social importance is now blamed on social media. If you use social media, you are taught to blame it for your emotional ups and downs. If you don’t use it, you are allowed to feel superior; alas, you will still have one-down moments, but you are allowed to blame them on everyone else’s use of social media. Throughout human history, each new technology became enmeshed in the quest for serotonin. Before you could quest for “likes” on social media, you sought “likes” with whatever technology was available. And you saw the potential threat to your social status with each new technology that came along.
It’s hard to get real about your internal process when everyone else blames their emotions on externals. Public discourse focuses on externals because it’s a reliable way to win friend and influence people. But if you blame externals and ignore your internal process, you risk a tabloid life: miserable on the way up and miserable on the way down.
Status games are natural. Fear of losing status is natural. But you can be “super-natural” by making peace with your inner mammal.
Different Games for Different Brains
You may think of status games in terms of fancy watches and fancy titles. You may think of social dominance in terms of people who talk over you, or get into bar brawls, or visit their money in Switzerland. These are examples, of course, but there are myriad forms of dominance seeking in the world around us. Each brain seeks dominance in ways that worked in its past. Each brain fears losing status in ways it has actually experienced. The result is a wide array of serotonin strategies. Here is a list of familiar examples. But first, I will share a personal example.
I won a spelling bee in second grade. I was the last kid standing in front of the room after every other kid failed. It was the most attention I’d ever gotten in my whole neglected life. My serotonin flowed, connecting all the neurons active at that moment. It wired me to expect good feelings from spelling. This motivated me to study spelling, but after a few wins, it didn’t feel as good as the first time. And, truth be told, I didn’t always win. Our brain is designed to weigh risk and reward to get the best return on its investment of energy. I soon lost interest in spelling status, but I retained some positive expectations about the rewards attached to words.
As you read the following list of status-seeking strategies, remember the common pattern: the urge to be in the one-up position and avoid being one-down.
- My car is better than your car.
Cars, jewelry, artworks, sports equipment, and designer clothing are popular status objects. People want status objects because they feel respected when they display them. This expectation builds because you respect people who have that object. When you acquire the object, you feel good for a while, but soon you see better objects around you. Now you’re one-down, and cortisol tells you to “do something” to relieve it. So you seek the one-up position in the way your brain knows: another status object. Where I live, people with status objects are despised, but that’s just another status game, which we might call:
- My ethics are better than your ethics.
Condemning the ethics of others is a convenient way to gain the one-up position. It’s free and doesn’t waste resources. Best of all, it’s low risk, because you get to decide who wins. You can always find ethical shortcomings in others and applaud your moral superiority. The serotonin is quickly metabolized, so you need evidence of your superior ethics again and again. “Holier than thou” is the traditional name for this status game. Ironically, moral superiority often goes with self-destructive habits: “I have to drink because I’m so sensitive to the pain of others.” You can justify any addiction by pointing to your concern for the greater good. It’s not surprising that so much conversation revolves around the ethical failings of others. We bond with those who share our ethical judgments because it gives our inner mammal the recognition it is looking for. But the more you judge, the more you feel judged. So as ethical as you are, sometimes you long for a more visible manifestation of your superiority, such as:
- My abs are better than your abs.
You judge the appearance of others without conscious intent because you’re a mammal. You presume that others are judging your appearance as a result. Animals judge each others’ appearance in order to predict strength, and we have inherited this impulse. Each generation keeps score in a way that’s meaningful to them. Being fat was a status symbol in the world of food scarcity and being thin is a status symbol in our world of abundance. Muscles are a status symbol in a world of desk-sitters, while soft hands were a status symbol in a world of manual labor. Being in better shape than others is a time-honored source of pride. This status game can help us make healthy choices, but it can also lead to harmful extremes, like the tighter corsets of earlier generations. When you see people do stupid things to raise their status, you might indulge in a different game:
- My intelligence is higher than your intelligence.
You rate your own intelligence, but real-world feedback is part of the equation. In the past, intelligence was associated with speaking Greek and Latin plus another language or two. Today, we define it in a variety of ways. One person cares about “street smarts” while another cares about data-compression algorithms. Test scores and diplomas get attention, but you can find a way to feel smarter than others no matter what your credentials. The good feeling soon passes, alas, so you have to catch others being dumb again and again to keep feeling it. Meanwhile, you might do something dumb. Your cortisol surges and you feel crushed by the weight of the smart people around you. You urgently look for a form of status that you can control, such as:
- My desk is neater than your desk.
My pie crust is flakier. My batting average is higher. My crops are plowed in straighter rows. These status games are easy to ridicule in others, but taking pride in something you have control over is a useful strategy. Whether it’s your well-tended home or your well-tended computer or your well-tended altar to the deities, you have a reliable source of pride…until you fall behind for one reason or another. Then you look for a way to catch up, and your brain relies on the neural pathways it has. This is why we return so often to the skills we take pride in, despite the diminishing returns. You may feel like you’re on a treadmill, so you long for other ways to feel good. You might notice the ever-popular:
- My partner is hotter than your partner.
It’s adolescent, but neuroplasticity peaks in adolescence, so the status games of high school have a big impact on adult emotions. Adults don’t like to acknowledge the way they compare partners, but the thought loop is almost irresistible to a brain designed to spread its genes. You evaluate your partner with neural pathways built from your own past experience, so this common impulse is expressed in many different ways. When your partner comes out on top, you feel good, as much as you hate to admit it. But when they don’t measure up in some way, you feel bad. You may blame them for your bad feeling. You may look for other status games to relieve the tension, such as:
- I can hold my liquor better than you can.
People often take pride in skills that are bad for them. Maybe you can jump from higher cliffs. Maybe you have the best drug dealer. Maybe you pride yourself on how long you can go without sleep. Why would a brain evolved for survival take pride in skills that are bad for survival? Because social approval promotes survival. If an unhealthy skill won approval in your past, your brain expects a good feeling when you repeat that unhealthy skill. When you try to stop, the loss of social approval feels like a survival threat. It’s not surprising that people look for something reliable, like:
- My family is better than your family.
Coming from a “good family” gives you status without lifting a finger. Today, we tend to sneer at this mindset, but if you are honest with yourself, you may notice that your ears perk up when you hear that someone is related to a famous person. Every generation defines status for itself, so the child of a rock star may count as royalty today. Countries with political revolutions typically give status to the children of revolutionaries, thus perpetuating the aristocracy game. It all makes sense when you know that animals compete for partners with good bloodlines. If your family doesn’t score on any indicator, you long for a different status game, like:
- My hardships are harder than your hardships.
This status game is ubiquitous today. On the surface it seems strange that a brain designed to seek strength would base status on weakness. But this makes sense from an animal perspective. The size of your social alliances determines your strength in the primate world. Strong alliances build around common enemies. In the modern world, we build strong alliances by telling people they are one-down due to a common enemy. This strategy is so effective that you want to feel oppressed so you can join the alliance. It’s a double bind, alas, since you have to keep feeling bad in order to feel good. You might try to relieve your pain with another status game, such as:
- My impact is bigger than your impact.
The human cortex is frighteningly aware of its own mortality. A gnawing sense of threat fills our lives as a result. You get relief from this bad feeling when you create something that will outlast you. This is why we long to “have an impact.” Of course, it’s hard to have a lasting impact. It takes much self-assertion, and you risk conflict when you do that. To ease that risk, you can assert in the name of others. This gives you the serotonin of asserting yourself without the ethical taint of “selfishness.” Appealing to the greater good is a safe way to strive for an impact. This strategy has so many advantages that it has become the premier status game of our times. Unfortunately, that means enormous competition to have an impact. When the competition exhausts you, you might focus on something tangible, like:
- My portfolio is bigger than your portfolio.
A big portfolio can give you a feeling of strength even if others don’t know about it. You may hate people with a big portfolio, and even people who just use the word “portfolio.” But imagine your life in the days before railroads, when food was so hard to transport that starvation was always a risk. Our ancestors stockpiled food in order to survive. The bigger their reserves, the safer they felt from the ubiquitous risks to their food supply. The urge to accumulate reserves is natural. It’s hard to do that, of course, especially when you’re busy trying to have an impact or build up your abs. You may fear that your reserves are not big enough. It’s tempting to escape that one-down feeling with a time-honored path to one-upness:
- I get more love than you get.
Everyone compares the love they are getting, as much as we hate to admit it. Children compare the love they get from parents and teachers. Teens compare the love they get at parties. Ancient Roman generals tragically compared the love they got from the public. Punk-music performers compare the love they get to what other punk performers are getting. You can say you don’t compare, but when others get love, your inner mammal notices. Fortunately, you can define love however you want. You can focus on the love of God or the love of your dog. You may have a long string of divorces or an entourage of adoring fans. But a frail grandma be getting more love from her flock of grandchildren than you are getting from your chosen strategy. Of course, she is frustrated by the grandma next door who flaunts her own flock. It’s not surprising that past generations sought status by having more children and even more wives. This mode of social rivalry has obvious drawbacks, so it’s nice to have alternatives, such as:
- My taste is better than your taste.
You can sneer at the bad taste of others and applaud the superiority of your own taste. You can put yourself above people with money by pointing out the bad taste with which they spend it. You will feel good for a moment, and when the serotonin is gone, you can find more faux pas among those you deem “high and mighty.” Today’s culture has replaced the words “good taste” with “creativity.” You can feel superior about your creativity whenever you feel one-down. The problem is that you’re still keeping score. You’re still judging others and presuming that “they” are judging you. So you still need more ways to lift yourself up, such as:
- My friends are more influential than your friends.
Name dropping is a well-known path to status. Friends in high places can indeed bring rewards, so they naturally get our attention. A friend of a friend of the big kahuna gets attention regardless of their status on other indicators. Courting people with influence is a long-standing tradition. Monkeys groom the fur of higher-ranking monkeys and it promotes their survival. Early humans gave gifts to high-status individuals because reciprocation is expected. The drive to make contacts and rub elbows with power is easy to see in others, though we hate to see it in ourselves. If you can’t stand this ritual, you can raise your status by thinking:
- My joy is more joyous than your joy.
People are always telling you what a great time they had, and you wonder if you’re missing something. Whether it was their great trip, their great meditation session, or their great sex, your brain compares. Advice-mongers tell us that experience is more valuable than possessions, so fun plays a huge role in our social comparisons. We decide which kind of joy matters using neural pathways built in adolescence. No matter how you define it, your brain habituates to the rewards you have, so the same-old joy doesn’t thrill you after a while. It’s hard to sustain a one-up feeling, so it’s not surprising that people resort to primal forms of status, like:
- I can control you.
Waiting on line at the Department of Motor Vehicles can easily trigger one-down feelings. No matter how much power you have in the rest of your life, you may feel powerless in that moment. Perhaps you fear that the bureaucrat in front of you will abuse their power. People indeed seek the one-up position in any way available to them. On the other hand, you may blame them for your cortisol because it’s too painful to admit the real reason you have landed in the DMV line. We are not objective judges of our social environment. Each brain looks for ways to feel one-up and avoid feeling one-down. You can’t admit to your own one-upping impulse, but you can jump to the conclusion that your waiter is snubbing you when your water glass is empty. We like control, so it’s easy to see that urge for control in others. Fortunately, you have the self-restraint to avoid letting that impulse escalate to:
- I can inflict more pain than you can.
The impulse to win at any price is not socially acceptable. We must control that impulse to sustain social bonds. We start learning self-control at a young age. If you grab a toy from another child, you are taught to restrain that impulse. If you bite a child who grabs your toy, you learn to restrain that too. But it’s hard, because your brain is inherited from a world in which the ability to inflict pain was the coin of the realm. Thus, we fear the strength of others and long for strength to protect ourselves. Humans have more cortex than other animals, so we have more capacity to anticipate the consequences of our actions. You don’t bite your coworkers because your cortex can predict the outcome. You may insist that you are motivated by compassion rather than fear of consequences, but this is just your verbal brain’s way of making you look good. Underneath your verbal cortex are the cortisol circuits you built as a toddler. You don’t want to bite others, but you fear they will bite you. So you find a socially acceptable way to feel strong. “My lawyer is better than your lawyer” is a common modern solution. And then there’s the subtle strategy of:
- My predictions are better than your predictions.
We don’t consciously think of predicting as the path to status, yet we do it all the time. Whether you predict the weather, the stock market, the election or the big game, you can be right and feel proud. Predicting is the unique capacity of the human cortex, so we have a deep sense of its importance. Our ancestors survived by predicting the behavior of predators and prey. They strived for ways to predict rain. Today we strive to predict which start-up will take off, which post will go viral, and which athlete or politician will score. Gambling, video games, and chess are other popular ways to feel superior about your ability to predict. Your brain releases dopamine when your prediction is correct, and serotonin when your prediction is better than someone else’s. This double dose of happy chemicals makes us keen for prediction games, whether it’s the stock market, the lottery, or the future of life on earth. If your prediction proves wrong, you can fall back on the most basic of all status games:
- They’re all jerks.
Blanket condemnations are a fast, easy way to claim the one-up position. You focus on the flaws of others, and pride yourself on your perceptiveness. It’s the flaws of those you perceive as stronger than yourself that you love to uncover. You enjoy a one-up moment each time you lower “them,” and when the good feeling passes, you can berate them again. This thought loop is widespread, so it’s easily learned from others. They welcome you into the club if you hate the same “jerks” that they hate. Mammals bond when predators lurk, and spread out when predators leave. We have inherited a brain that rewards you with oxytocin when you find social support. Serotonin is added when your alliance is stronger than their alliance. The double reward makes it enormously tempting to bond around common enemies, whether in politics, sports, career, or a daily gripe session. The fast, easy way to do that is to say “they’re all jerks.”
“They” Are Putting Me Down
If you monitor your thoughts, you will find that you spend much of your day longing for a one-up position or fearing a one-down position. You may think you have no choice in the matter because others are putting you down. We easily ignore our own one-up impulse because it happens with chemicals rather than with words. We see other people’s one-up impulse because we don’t trust their words to tell the whole story. Thus, status games always feel like the fault of others.
When you see yourself in the one-down position, cortisol creates a full-body sense of alarm. Once the alarm sounds, your cortex is good at finding evidence to explain it. Neural pathways build each time you do this, so we easily slide into thought loops created by past one-down feelings. It’s hard for a big-brained mammal to resist the belief that it is wronged. Fortunately, we have billions of extra neurons to think new thoughts with. Once you know how you created the old thought loop, you are ready to do what it takes to build a new one. The following chapters show you how.
The Rule of Law
People often suggest that their perceived grievances entitle them to break the law. This book rejects that belief. The rule of law benefits everyone, though the individual brain can always see a benefit it violating rules that others must comply with. Nothing in this book is intended to imply that one-down feelings justify law-breaking.
Since it’s hard to see how you benefit from the rule of law, here is a simple example. Imagine finding a parking ticket on your car. Bad feelings surge, and you look for relief. You feel stupid for making a costly mistake. You feel very one-down, so you look for a way to feel one-up. Blaming the system works, for a moment. But it doesn’t help you do what it takes to avoid parking tickets, so you end up blaming the system a lot. You can end up feeling beset by a cruel world without even realizing that you have made a choice. Here is another way to look at it. Every time you find a legal parking sot, remind yourself that the spot exists because parking rules are enforced on others. We take it for granted when we benefit from the rule of law, but you can learn to appreciate it instead.
I learned to sneer at law enforcement when I was in college. Rules and authority were represented as the common enemy during my “good education.” You had to blame the system in order to be included in social alliances. After college, I lived in countries without rule of law. Suddenly, my eyes were opened. Now, when I stand in line at the DMV or the post office, I am grateful that I will not have to bribe the clerk.
When I became a college professor and a parent, I was tempted to be an anti-authority authority. This was the norm among the parents and professors around me. But I eventually saw that everyone loses when children are allowed to put themselves above the rules. I decided to help young people manage their natural impulses instead of helping them fight imagined enemies. I lost status in the eyes of my peers when I made this choice, but fortunately, there are other ways to stimulate that feeling.
The law may seem like an obstacle in your one-up position sometimes. Your mind may justify illegal conduct even though you dislike illegal conduct in others. Law enforcement exists for those moments. Your life is better because rules are enforced on others, so you can expect the rules to be enforced on you.
Learn from History
Each chapter of this book ends with the status games of a famous person in history. I chose these people because I visited their homes. Standing in their actual living room helped me feel their status frustrations. These homes are open to the public, so you can do it too!
The point of these stories is not that fame feels good. Nor is it to say that fame is bad. The point is that success doesn’t make us happy, but we think it will because each step on the way triggers serotonin. This is the engine of human history.
We need to see the status frustrations of other times and places to escape the habit of blaming our status frustrations on “our times” and “our society.” When you see the same patterns everywhere, it’s easier to see the underlying mammalian impulses. This makes it easier to accept yourself and others. You can enjoy the world you live in instead of cursing it and spiraling with cortisol.
People have felt dominated by others throughout human history. One way to manage those feelings is to attack, when you think you can win. Endless conflict results, so it’s useful to know other ways to manage those feelings.
The Status Games of Charles Darwin
I was thrilled when I learned that Darwin’s home is open to the public. I rushed to the London suburb and stood in the spot where he wrote. I walked the yard where he took his daily stroll and explored the greenhouse where he fertilized his orchids. Seeing his desk, I could imagine him opening the fateful letter from Alfred Russel Wallace, the rival he treated so honorably.
I’m interested in Darwin because he strove to communicate a new view of life based on animal impulses. His struggles are usually blamed on religion, but my research showed me the rest of the story. Darwin’s detractors were people whose status was threatened by his work. He was quite meek, so he didn’t challenge anyone directly. He just kept looking for evidence to better communicate his new insights.
Darwin’s quest for evidence led to a new paradigm, and every new paradigm threatens people whose status depends on an earlier paradigm. When you are confronted with a new paradigm, your inner mammal sees how it may raise or lower your status. You would never admit that your assessment of the facts could be affected by such considerations. When others draw different conclusion from the same facts, you are sure that they lack objectivity. You join your allies to shake your head and sneer that “they don’t get it.”
Some of Darwin’s rivals had religious status, and some had academic status, but his biggest rival had almost no status at all: Alfred Russel Wallace. This is the man who beat Darwin in the game of putting the concept of natural selection on paper. Wallace was so low on the science pecking order that he had nothing to lose. He wrote up his thoughts while gravely ill in an Asian jungle, and mailed the pages to the person he thought might be interested: Charles Darwin. Wallace humbly asked Mr. Darwin to forward that essay to the science community. When Darwin received the letter, he had been thinking about natural selection for two decades but had not published. He could have tossed the envelope from Wallace into the fireplace, but he reported it to his well-placed friends.
This is where the story gets personal for me. Darwin’s friends are often represented as a merry band of influential pals. “Where is my merry band of influential pals?” says my inner mammal when I read that. I end up feeling bad, even though my life is astronomically better than the lives of my ancestors. So I confess to a sense of relief when I discovered the harshness of Darwin’s life. The support he had came at a high price, and it often disappeared at critical moments.
Darwin was born into a family of doctors, and he was expected to be a doctor too. He was sent to medical school at age fifteen, but he refused to go to class after watching surgery on a child before the invention of anesthesia. Now what? The only other suitable career for a gentleman, in his father’s opinion, was the clergy. That was fine with Darwin, despite his disinterest in religion, because clergymen often studied nature and that’s what Darwin wanted to do.
Young Charles had been sent to boarding school at age nine after his mother died. He was deemed a bad student at a time when being a good student meant memorizing Greek and Latin. He did was what was necessary to pass, but he spent every spare moment studying nature. Out in the field, he got to know other naturalists— from other students cutting class to prominent scientists. When he finished college, one of those scientists recommended him for the post of naturalist on the round-the-world voyage that led to his fame.
I imagined Darwin sunning himself with turtles in the Galapagos until I learned the harshness of his trip on the Beagle. It was planned as a two-year voyage, but the ship’s captain refused to head home for five years. Darwin was seasick most of the time and had intestinal trouble for the rest of his life. He was privileged to share the captain’s cabin on board, but the honor came with much distress. Captain Fitzroy was no sailor from central casting. He was a dignified man who wanted a young gentleman on board because protocol barred him from socializing with the crew. But Fitzroy was morose. He was orphaned in youth and had lived on ships at sea since age fourteen. He went on to slit his throat, literally, after making huge contributions to science that were ignored.
Social rivalry was intense in the cabin Darwin shared with Fitzroy. Darwin became a celebrity in London during the trip because his letters home were offered to the press. News of his celebrity reached the ship when it stopped in far-flung ports. It’s as if a CEO were upstaged by his intern. Fitzroy reacted by insisting that Darwin’s journal be published as chapter of Fitzroy’s journal rather than independently. Darwin complied for the first edition. After that, Darwin’s journal became a best seller on its own.
I got to experienced Darwin’s life on the ship indirectly because an exact replica of a predecessor ship is open to the public in Sydney, Australia. A generation before Darwin, Captain Cook sailed the world with a young-gentleman naturalist on board. The journals of Captain Cook and naturalist Joseph Banks were best sellers that Darwin grew up with, and even included in the tiny library on the Beagle. I sat in their cabin on the Endeavor reproduced in Sydney Harbor, and imagined their influence on the young Charles Darwin.
When Darwin returned to London, he became the toast of society. He seems to have hated every minute of it, and moved to the country as soon as he could. There, far from the name-dropping, influence-seeking bigwigs of the science establishment, he developed the theory for which we know him. An inheritance from his father enabled this retreat, but he spent it wisely. He didn’t waste it on status objects or virtue signaling. He gathered data and looked for ways to present it that would stand up to scrutiny. He also invested time corresponding with like-minded naturalists, and this is the origin of the alleged band of “supporters.”
A closer look at this correspondence shows that it was not really a “band.” It was a smattering of individuals who embraced data that advanced their careers and challenged data that threatened them. Darwin lived among mammals like you and me. He seems to have understood that social alliances must be crafted by addressing the other party’s perception of their needs. He didn’t like this exhausting chore, but he did it. He spent a lot of time writing letters that discussed his findings cordially with respect for the reader’s perspective. He was in constant pain while he did this, with ailments that are not fully understood today.
Darwin’s pain was augmented by watching three of his children die. He felt responsible for their infirmity because he had married his first cousin. Genetics was not well understood at the time, but Darwin had a window on the facts because he spent time with animal and plant breeders. The risk of inbreeding was understood in practical terms long before it was understood theoretically. Darwin was at his child’s funeral the very day his work was finally presented to the public.
That public presentation was a triumph of cooperation in a competitive world. Darwin’s friends organized a public event at which both essays on natural selection– Darwin’s and Wallace’s– would be read into the record of the interested group, the Linnaean Society. Wallace was a young man who made his living catching wildlife specimens in rainforests worldwide for sale on the European market. You may hate him for this, but if you read about his difficult life, you may see it differently. You may cheer for the credit he got for his work.
Who gets credit is a subject of great agitation today because we long for the good feeling of having an impact. I was amazed to learn that Darwin’s grandfather actually thought of evolution. Erasmus didn’t get credit because he did not figure out the mechanism of evolution, and because he expressed his insight in the form of poetry. Erasmus died before Charles was born, yet Charles spent his life making the case for his grandfather’s insight. This is what all mammals do: promote their genetic inheritance without consciously intending to. Natural selection built a brain that rewards you with a good feeling when you do that.
Charles grew up with pressure to do something respectable. Such pressure makes us angry when we have it, but when we don’t have it, we resent the loss of status. I was amazed to learn that Charles got respect for studying nature when he was young. A painting of the seven-year-old Charles shows him holding a plant. Studying botany was a popular hobby at the time, and the Darwin family’s science tradition rewarded him for taking that hobby seriously. Charles’ life helps us see how we are shaped by the activities that get applause in our youth.
Why Status Games Are Relentless
Status Games in Animals
When two mammals meet, one makes a dominance gesture and the other makes a submission gesture. A dominance gesture might be an erect posture with a direct stare. Once one individual asserts dominance, the other must submit or risk a fight. Animals rarely fight because they are good at predicting who would win. The weaker individual submits to avoid injury, typically by lowering its head or body. With that uncomfortable business out of the way, two mammals can avoid conflict and even cooperate.
Animals defer to the more dominant individual when food or mating opportunity appears. Fights over resources are rare because the pecking order has already been established. You may think it shouldn’t be this way, but a century of research shows that it is. Countless studies in “ethology” have documented the hierarchical behavior of animals. Today, this research is ignored, and studies purporting to show altruism and empathy in animals are spotlighted. Such studies carve out moments of cooperation and omit the larger context, which shows that animals cooperate when it helps raise their status.
For example, animals cooperate to take down a more dominant rival. If they succeed, they compete for the rival’s position. Cooperation is part of the status game. Animals are skilled at judging the strength of a social alliance in the same way that they can judge the strength of an individual. Humans have used social alliances in this way throughout history and we still do today. The point here is not to justify aggression but to know why we are hypersensitive to perceived differences in strength.
Mammals have social rivalry because it works. It enables weaker individuals to enjoy the protection of stronger individuals in the face of common enemies. Each brain strives to rise in the hierarchy by building strength and skill. It helps them get more food and mating opportunity, and thus spread their genes. A brain that seeks status is more likely to be inherited. We are all descendants of millions of years of status seeking.
We often hear about the “alpha” of an animal group. That word is not used in this book except when it appears in an original source, because it suggests that status seeking is a characteristic of some individuals and not others. The fact is that every brain strives to advance itself. There are always plenty of “betas” vying for the top spot when the incumbent weakens or dies. And plenty of “middling sorts” vying for the beta spots. Instead of blaming status seeking on a certain personality type, it’s important to see that each individual is motivated to assert itself as soon as it sees that it could win. Different species have different social-rivalry rituals, but the common pattern is overwhelming.
Why Animals Seek Status
Animals are constantly deciding whether to assert or hold back. They make these decisions with a very small cortex. An ape’s pre-frontal cortex is about a third the size of a human’s, a monkey’s is about a tenth, and other animals have much less. Animals make social decisions without listing pros and cons or wishing things were different. They respond to social situations with neurochemicals wired by past experience. Let’s see how this works for a young monkey.
Every monkey starts life in a position of extreme weakness. It survives thanks to an oxytocin bond with its mother. But she won’t live forever, and she must invest in other offspring to keep her genes alive. A mother monkey never feeds her child except for milk, so the little monkey must learn to feed itself. Its mirror neurons initiate the action of reaching for food when it sees others doing that. Once it tastes the food, dopamine surges and it feels good. Dopamine is the brain’s signal that a need has been met. Neurons connect when dopamine flows, which wires a young monkey to repeat behaviors that meet its needs.
At first, the little monkey just grabs without social awareness. Nature protects it with juvenile markings like a tuft of white head fur. A little monkey can push and grab with impunity as long as it has juvenile markings. Once those markings fade, it is treated like anyone else. Stronger monkeys will grab food from its hands, and even its mouth. If it resists, it is bitten, and that wires it to restrain itself near stronger individuals. Pain is a big surge of cortisol. Neurons connect when cortisol flows, which builds a neural pathway that turns on the bad feeling the next time the little monkey thinks of grabbing food in the presence of a bigger monkey.
Hunger motivates a young monkey to find food that is not dominated by a bigger monkey. Dopamine circuits help it scan for opportunity. If it sees something in the distance, dopamine motivates an approach. But as a little monkey distances itself from others, its oxytocin falls. It loses that nice protected feeling, and its cortisol alarm blares. Now it has a tough choice. The little brain weighs the threat of hunger against the threat of predation. It does this without words or complex cognition– it uses neural pathways built from past neurochemical experience. Some little monkeys get eaten alive, but enough of them survive to keep the species alive.
A little monkey is not at the bottom of the hierarchy forever. One fine day, it sees a fruit near a troop mate that is smaller. Serotonin is released, and the good feeling eases its fear of asserting itself. It has no ill will toward the smaller monkey. It just wants to relieve its hunger without big risks. It understands its own strength because it wrestles a lot. When it prevails in a tussle, a nice shot of serotonin is released. Neurons connect when serotonin flows, and its brain learns to expect more good feelings in similar future contexts.
No abstract concept of status is needed for a young brain to wire in status consciousness. The brain’s electricity flows easily along neurons that were activated before, but it has trouble flowing down neurons that have not been developed by past activation. Thus, relying on past experience is literally the path of least resistance. Without conscious intent, the mammal brain constantly compares its strength to others and anticipates pleasure or pain by releasing the appropriate chemical.
Social rivalry intensifies when a little monkey reaches puberty. Sex hormones expand its reward-seeking behavior. New pathways build as new assertions succeed or fail. Here again, no conscious intent is needed. Brains that rewarded self-assertion with a good feeling made more copies of themselves. Brains that respond to social setbacks with a survival-threat feeling survived. This is the brain we’ve inherited. You may find it hard to believe because it’s not what you hear elsewhere, and because it conflicts with more comforting notions of peace and love in the state of nature. You may be wondering what to believe.
Why Haven’t I Heard This?
We hear a lot of research on empathy and altruism in animals. I learned in school that the state of nature is peaceful and “our society” causes dominance-seeking. I taught that myself as a college professor. I had learned to equate that belief with virtue and intelligence, so I feared seeming stupid and evil if I questioned it. But the more I learned, the more I questioned social science orthodoxies about the state of nature.
For most of human history, people would not believe you if you said that animals are altruistic because they could see wild animals for themselves. Today, it’s hard to see wild animals in action so we are easily persuaded by a few studies that get widely reported. Information that conflicts with these studies is not widely available. But over the years, bits of conflicting information kept snagging my attention until I could not ignore it. Here are some examples:
- A wildcat sanctuary near my home was soliciting contributions. They asked me to support their sanctuary to save wildcats that wander into the suburbs. I asked why wildcats were put in a sanctuary instead of being returned to the wild. I had to ask a few times to get an answer. Finally, they said that a re-released wildcat would be killed by the wildcat whose territory it was released into. The good people who promote the sanctuary are reluctant to reveal the inconvenient truth behind the need for it.
- A prominent veterinarian advises cat owners to buy separate food and toys for each cat and place them where no other cat can see. The good doctor is too nice to give the reason: stronger cats try to dominate the resources of weaker cats, even when they have plenty of food and toys of their own.
- Jane Goodall introduced the world to a young chimpanzee she named Flint. It is widely reported that Flint died of a broken heart after his mother died. This is often represented as evidence of love and empathy in the state of nature. The truth is much harsher. Flint died because he never learned to meet is own survival needs. Flint did not grow up in the natural state because he was the first chimp to grow up with Jane’s “provisioning” of bananas. He failed to wire in the food-seeking skills that normal chimps take five years to build. Jane is not to blame, since she could not have known what we know today thanks to her efforts. What matters is Flint’s response to his brave new world. When he reached normal weaning age, he was stronger than his mother because she was elderly and he was fortified by bananas. When his mother “Flo” tried to withhold her milk, he overpowered her. Bullying his own mother allowed him to keep nursing throughout his years of neuroplasticity. These facts are in the public record, but they are ignored because they conflict with cherished visions of animals. Jane stopped provisioning chimps as soon as she understood the consequences, but most people still cling to the romantic view of nature. They even pride themselves on their ethics and intelligence as they choose this slice of information.
Dominance Hierarchy in Animals
Today, teachers and media represent animals as compassionate beings, but the conflict among animals was well known to twentieth-century researchers. The evidence is still available to anyone who looks for it.
The term “pecking order” was coined a century ago by a Norwegian zoologist who grew up with chickens. Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe noticed that one chicken always ate first and drove others away from the best pieces of food. He saw how chickens held back until stronger individuals ate, always ending up in the same order. When two strange chickens were put together, huge squabbles erupted, and then one individual gradually put up less resistance until they appeared to coexist peacefully. When a flock had more than thirty chickens, they were unable to remember the pecking order, and endless conflict erupted. Schjelderup-Ebbe’s 1921 PhD dissertation was a methodical study of behaviors he’d observed since age ten.
Nobel Laureate Konrad Lorenz expanded this work to other animals, and learned that most squabbling occurs between individuals of similar rank. Researchers went on to find the same dominance behaviors in dozens of species. They noticed that primates challenge the hierarchy more often than smaller-brained mammals. Herd animals tend to fight each other once and stick with the outcome as long as their leader endures. If their leader dies or is overthrown, everyone fights everyone else until a new order is established. Primates, by contrast, will challenge the hierarchy whenever they think they can win. They have enough neurons to update their mental model based on the outcome. The big primate brain even records changes in the relative status of two third parties.
It’s hard for us to see dominance hierarchies the way animals do because our big cortex creates abstractions. Monkeys do not think abstractly about “making it to the top.” They just strive to trigger good feelings and avoid bad feelings. A window into their mindset has come to us by a fascinating laboratory accident. Researchers returned a monkey to its troop after a medical procedure without realizing that the anesthesia hadn’t fully worn off. The young monkey was less quick witted than usual and its troop mates immediately pounced on the subtle signs of weakness. A bully bit it repeatedly and other monkeys joined in, including its regular playmate. The researchers realized what was happening and quickly took the hapless critter out. They were stunned at the ugliness that a momentary weakness could provoke. Two hours later, the monkey recovered fully from the anesthesia and was returned to the troop. This time it responded to provocations with appropriate signals, and normal social interactions resumed. [Maestripieri, Macachiavellian Intelligence p.125-26]
Stories like this may upset you because they trigger your early experience with social dominance. Your anger may surge at the thought of a bully and you eagerly root for the underdog. But when underdogs prevail, they act the same way that their predecessors did. So instead of yielding to simplistic notions of good guys and bad guys, it’s useful to remember the contributions that go with social dominance. Dominant mammals provide protection from predators, resolve third-party conflicts, and share resources. Their ability to do this is enhanced by the extra food and deference they get. When you stereotype dominants and non-dominants, you miss their common core. Each brain is just doing what it can to spread its genes because that feels good. When you understand this common core, your emotions make sense, and so do the emotions of others. You can navigate toward more good feelings and avoid more bad feelings.
The idea that dominants “share” requires some clarification. When a dominant chimp asserts control over a resource, they may not actually want it. If they have all the food and mating opportunity they need at the moment, they offer the resource to their allies. This strengthens their alliances and thus helps sustain their dominance. Everyone notices the rewards that come from supporting the dominant individual. The expectation of reward motivates a rush to support the dominant. To call this “sharing” is to cover up the harsh facts of life with a Rousseauian veneer.
You may find it hard to imagine animals competing for food because we’re trained to think their food is free for the taking. It helps to explore the competition for reproductive opportunity, which means everything relevant to the survival of your genes, from high-quality mates to rich milk to protection from predators.
No Free Love in the State of Nature
You may think love is easily available to animals, but they actually work hard for any “reproductive success” that comes their way. Males work hard for the muscles necessary to succeed in the mating game, and females to produce strong children and keep them alive. Food- seeking skills are central to producing muscles and rich milk, but social skills are central as well. The stakes are high. A male could get shut out of mating opportunity, and a female could watch her child get eaten alive.
Animals who raise their status make more copies of their genes. No knowledge of genetics is necessary for a status-seeking brain to spread. Mammals just do what feels good, and status games result. Here are some fascinating mating games that show how this works.
I first learned from a farmer. He gave me a tour of his prized herd of organic cows, and mentioned the bulls that he rents at breeding time. I asked him why he rents bulls since his cows surely give birth to males. He said that intact males are too aggressive to manage on a farm, so specialists are needed to handle them. When rented bulls are released into his barnyard, the most dominant bull heads straight to the center of the herd, while the other bulls array themselves around the edges. Paternity tests show that 70% of the young have the same dad.
At the time, I was studying to be a docent at my local zoo. I had just been taught that female bovines push their way to the center of the herd for safety from predators. As a cow weakens with age, she ends up around the edges where she’s exposed to predators. She may have had center stage when she was young, and thus kept her offspring in relative safety. After a lifetime of pushing, her genes will live on, and the next generation will keep pushing.
As I stood with the farmer watching his cows, I connected the dots: at the center of the herd, the pushiest boy meets the pushiest girl. I shared this insight with my Hollywood niece at a family gathering, and she connected dots of her own. She suddenly understood why her peers wait in lines outside trendy nightclubs: “They expect to meet a ‘ten’ inside!” The point is not that we should hang around nightclubs or push others out of our way. The point is that our brains urgently seek everything we associate with “reproductive success,” even when we’re not trying to reproduce.
My education in mating behavior continued in France. At Le Vallé des Singes (Monkey Valley), one of France’s all-primate zoos, zookeepers give lectures on social behavior throughout the day. At the baboon exhibit, I heard a keeper say that lower-ranking males do not reproduce. I was surprised, and wondered if I had misunderstood the French. So after the talk, I asked if it was really true that lower-ranking males never have sex. The keeper replied that they have sex, but they do not become fathers. What?!? My French was not good enough to clarify this enigma, so I decided to research it when I got home. I learned that male mammals are not especially interested in females unless the smell of ovulation is in the air (with the exception of humans and bonobos). But in the first days of estrus, a female baboon is not yet fertile. A mature male of experience can tell by the pheromones when it’s worth risking conflict. Before that, he doesn’t interfere when lower-ranking males take initiative. Thus, a male may gain experience, but will not actually keep his genes alive unless he raises his status.
I was amazed that Le Vallé des Singes was offering the real facts of life in public, so I went back as soon as I could. The next time, I learned a huge lesson at the mandrills. These monkeys have beautiful rainbow stripes on the snouts and bottoms in males. Mandrills look like baboons otherwise, so I asked the keeper if their behavior is similar. She said they are less violent than baboons because they compete with color rather than aggression. She pointed to a picture of wild baboons and explained that their colors are brighter in the wild because there’s more competition. Wild mandrills live in large troops where many males compete, and bright colors are needed to attract the ladies. In the zoo troop, males were few, thus little competition and little color.
This seemed like the Rosetta Stone of life! Competing over appearances is not bad when you think of it as a substitute for violence. Baboon violence is nasty due to their huge canine teeth. Mandrills evolved a beautiful alternative. When I learned the whole story, however, it seemed less benign. Male displays come at a price. Research shows that when females select for a trait, it is indeed a valid indicator of “fitness.” From a moose’s antlers to a peacock’s tail to an orangutan’s cheek pads, the desired trait always correlates with social dominance.
Animals are amazingly picky about their mating partners because the survival of their young depends on it. They invest great effort in everything that affects their access to high-ranking partners. You may think this is just male behavior and would not happen in a world run by females. So let’s explore the intense status games of matriarchal mammals.
Women On Top
Female status comes in many varieties. In some mammals, females dominate the group, while in others, females have their own status hierarchy within a male-dominated group. Another common pattern is an all-female hierarchy with males living alone. Yet other species live in groups ruled by a power couple, and others live in couples with no group at all. These diverse lifestyles have a common core: females cooperate when it promotes their genes, and they’re aggressive when that promotes their genes— just like males.
For example, meerkats are led by a female who fights her way to the top. Once in charge, she selects her male consort, and together, they prevent the rest of the gang (that’s the correct collective noun) from reproducing. The queen attacks any female who goes near a male, and her consort attacks any male who goes near a female. The queen will kill any child other than hers who manages to get born. The whole gang thus revolves around the offspring of the top girl. This is called “cooperative” child-rearing by people who shape the facts to fit their lens and omit the rest of the story.
Hyenas are a female-dominated species with a unique form of aggression. They birth twins most of the time, and the firstborn kills the second born if both are female. To get the full picture, it’s essential to know that female hyenas have the external appearance of males. Their clitoris is enlarged and they have two fatty spheres, thus creating the appearance of a male without the functionality. It seems like natural selection favored females with an appearance that helps them survive a predatory older sister, without sacrificing the aggression hyenas need to compete with lions and cheetahs.
Elephants live in all-female groups. Boys leave home at puberty due to some combination of expulsion and wanderlust. But the result in not what you associate with “girl power.” Female elephants line up in age order and spend their lives following their older relatives with every step. (*A curious exception is the reverse ordering of daughters, putting the youngest is next to the mother, and giving the oldest a chance to observe parenting.) If you were a female elephant, you would never make a decision until everyone in front of you died. This has survival value because the oldest individual has the longest memory of where to find water in a drought. A herd of elephants is often idealized as “working together for the common good.” This ignores the complete submission at the heart of their lifestyle.
Macaque monkeys live in large groups with female-dominated status hierarchies. Researchers found that girls tend to end up at about the same status level as their mothers. This was called “inheriting” status, but a closer look showed the learned behavior involved. Every young female starts out at the bottom of the hierarchy, but if her mother is high-ranking, she learns high-ranking behaviors. She takes initiatives and tolerates risk more that other girls, because she expects it to work. She makes more dominance gestures and fewer submission gestures. Her mother sides with her. She ends up with more conflict but also more food, which builds more strength.
Female chimpanzees have their own hierarchy within male-dominated troops. They follow the highest-ranking female when they go out to forage. When the leading lady finds a fruit tree, she takes the best spot in front of it and the other ladies gather around in rank order. The low-ranking ladies end up with less food and more exposure to predators. If a low-ranking lady is too pushy, she is bitten by the huge canine teeth of a stronger lady. But if she is not pushy enough, she’s malnourished, which leads to weaker mating partners and weaker babies. She cannot forage alone due to the high risk of attack by neighboring chimp troops So she constantly scans for opportunities to ingratiate herself with the mean girls, and her brain is designed to do that!
You may be wondering about bonobos, the allegedly kinder and gentler ape. Bonobo troops are female-dominated in an interesting way. Females are only about 10% smaller than males, whereas female chimps are about a third smaller. Any two female bonobos can win a conflict with a male if they stick together– and they do. But they have not built a utopia with this power. They have built a hierarchical system that’s eerily similar to the Spartan army. In ancient Sparta, a young soldier had to serve a higher-ranking soldier to gain status. Sexual gratification was one of his duties. Female bonobos have the same kind of “mentorship.” They transfer in from other troops at puberty and attach themselves to a high-ranking female to whom they submit totally.
You may have heard that bonobos and chimpanzees have “orgies.” That conclusion is easy to reach from the far end of binoculars, but systematic study reveals that the festivities are actually status games.
The Truth About Promiscuity
Biologists call bonobos and chimpanzees “promiscuous.” That word had no sexual or moral connotation when the label first appeared. In Latin, it means “crowded.” If you say “this is a promiscuous beach” in French, it means “this is a crowded beach.” The term “promiscuous species” was a polite euphemism when biologists used it to distinguish chimp mating patterns from those of “monogamous species,” “harem species,” and “tournament species.” Let’s peak inside the promiscuous world to see what really goes on.
Male chimpanzees are only interested in sex when a female is actively fertile, and that only happens once in five years because a newborn is nursed for four years. When the big moment finally comes, the strongest male engages in what biologists call “mate guarding.” He follows her around and blocks access for other guys’ genetic material. He makes exceptions for his allies, however– the strong males who fight alongside him when the group is attacked. To be part of the in-crowd, a male must court the male power structure for years. Or, he can risk his life on a quickie when the power players are busy elsewhere. Biologists call this “sneaky copulation.”
The female is motivated to mate with as many males as possible because that brings more protection for her and her child in the future. But the male honcho will bite her if she chooses someone who’s not on his list. She is always alert for opportunities to promote her interests without getting bitten.
The word “partying” is often used to describe a chimp troop in estrus, but this is serious business to the participants. A male chimp spends years climbing the ladder in order to be in a position of power when opportunity knocks. The climb was all for nothing if he is booted out before his genes are immortalized. Some chimps commit infanticide because that speeds things along by ending lactation. They will never kill the child of a female they’ve had contact with, however, which explains the females’ commitment to diversity. When females solicit partners to prevent infanticide, I would not call it “partying” or “free love.” It is currying favor with high-status individuals to advance one’s children— a behavior well-known to humans.
Occasionally, two female are in estrus at the same time. The competition that results is not what you’d expect, because male chimps are curiously partial to older females. Research shows higher survival rates in the children of more experienced mothers. Younger females end up in the undignified position of clamoring for the attention of the top-ranking males. What looks like a party to casual observers is actually a collection of individuals promoting themselves. We’ve all been to that kind of party!
Bonobos are known as the “hippie chimp” because they “make love, not war.” To be blunt, they are known for genital rubbing in every imaginable configuration. Research shows that bonobos rub genitals to prevent conflict and to restore peace after conflict erupts. If you get in the way of a stronger bonobo, you can protect yourself from aggression by rubbing their genitals. I would not call this “love.” It’s the opposite of love.
Bonobos are surprisingly competitive over mating opportunity considering its easy availability. The competition takes an unusual form: females compete to be with the sons of high-ranking females. This is akin to human empresses who gave their sons had many mistresses or concubines. It’s hard to get the full facts about bonobos because they are few in number and live in high-conflict regions. But the facts we have are amazingly consistent with the mammalian pattern of seeking status to promotes one’s genes.
Power Couples and the Sexy Son Hypothesis
Different status games emerge from different ecological niches. It’s fascinating to see how each game is adaptive for specific environments. Monogamy is adaptive under some conditions and tournaments work in others. Each behavior is the sweet spot in the quest to get rewards and avoid harm in that niche.
Monogamy is the norm for gibbons. Once they form pair bonds, they stake out a territory large enough to feed their children. They defend that territory from other gibbons in interesting ways. Each morning when they wake up, they sing a duet for half an hour, with specific male and female parts. Their hoots warn other gibbons to stay away, like the bumper sticker that says, “If you can read this, you’re too close.” Their sound projects through the rain forest thanks to a throat sac that expands to the size of their head. If they sound weak, other gibbons are tempted to intrude. If a male gibbon intrudes, the male of the couple tries to kill it, and if a female intrudes, the female attacks it. To us, the rain forests looks lush, but gibbons see their children starve if their territory is too small or too crowded. If their territory is too large, they can’t defend it and deadly conflict results. Singing spaces them out in a way that’s just right.
Wolf packs have power couples. Each pack is led by a dominant male and female who sustain their dominance with methods that should not surprise you by now. The dominant female bites her female pack mates if they go near a male, though they are typically her relatives and even her children. This aggression stresses the subordinate females to the point that they stop cycling. The dominant male exercises the same dominion over his male pack mates. In this way, the whole pack works to support the children of the lead pair. Again, this is glamorized as “cooperative child-rearing,” which misrepresents the underlying impulses. You may wonder why the non-dominant wolves stick around. They do leave when food is abundant, but in their sparse environment, starvation is common among those who leave. A few “lone wolves” survive, and go on to start their own packs and preserve their own genes. Many stick with the safety of the group, waiting for opportunity that may never come.
Tournament species use open combat as their mate-choice mechanism. Males go head-to-head while a female stands by to see who wins. Males have thick skulls in tournament species because they charge at their rivals with full force. You may have heard that big antlers are “just for show,” but if you watch video of these contests, the ferocity is clear. Watch male kangaroos, deer, sea lions, or elephants, and you will wonder how they survive to compete again in the next rutting season.
The tournament system depends on the female’s willingness to go with the winner. What does she see in the brute? Survival rates for babies are low in the state of nature, and there’s little a mother can do to raise the odds except to choose the best paternal genes.
Combat drains a species’ energy, so non-violent alternatives have evolved. In some species, females just choose the male they see other females with. Biologists call this “mate choice copying.” They explain it with the “sexy son hypothesis.” The reproductive potential of females is quite limited compared to males, but a female can even the score if her sons are attractive to other females. The best way to have a sexy son is to choose an attractive father. This theory upsets people who want animals to fit their belief system. But in daily life, it’s easy to see young women concentrating their attentions on a limited subset of males. And it’s nice to think of this behavior as an improvement over violent competition.
Elephant have evolved an amazing way to minimize their brutal tournaments. Male elephants actually have hormone cycles. Once or twice a year, a male’s testosterone rises to colossal levels, and he becomes so aggressive that other males yield to him no matter what his size. The result is genetic diversity for the next generation and fewer skull-crunching dominance contests.
It Starts Young
Animals build status-seeking skills long before puberty. Pigs are an extreme example. A mother pig with eight teats can birth ten infants, so her piglets must compete or starve from the moment of birth. They latch onto a teat and defend it from others. When they’re strong enough, they strive for a better teat– one closer to the mother’s heart where it’s warmer and the fat content is higher. Piglets of both sexes kill their siblings when they have the strength to do so. An hour after birth, the competition stops and each piglet retains its position for good. A poem explaining these facts was written by two researchers:
A piglet’s most precious possession
Is the teat that he fattens his flesh on.
He fights for his teat with tenacity
Against any sibling’s audacity.
The piglet, to arm for this mission,
Is born with a warlike dentition
Of eight tiny tusks, sharp as sabres,
Which help in impressing the neighbors;
But to render these weapons less harrowing,
Most farmers remove them at farrowing.
We studied pig sisters and brothers
When some had their teeth, but not others.
We found that when siblings aren’t many,
The weapons help little if any,
But when there are many per litter,
The teeth help their owners grow fitter.
But how did selection begin
To make weapons to use against kin?[Abstract from the paper “Armed Sibling Rivalry
among Suckling Piglets” by Fraser and Thompson]
The mammal brain cares about status as if your life depends on it because in the state of nature, it does. In the animal world, status is akin to saving money for a rainy day. On a good day, an animal may have extra energy left after it meets its survival needs. How can it invest today’s surplus in a way that helps it survive tomorrow? By raising its status. It could do that by grooming a potential ally, or protecting the child of a potential ally, or even by challenging a rival instead of submitting. Before money was invented, status was the primary path to security. Investing effort in a way that accumulates the respect of peers leads to more nutrition and more reproductive success. Status games are less frustrating when you understand the drives that fuel them.
The Center of Attention
Field research shows that animals focus their attention on the high-status individuals in their group. Laboratory research shows that monkeys will actually “pay” for the privilege of looking at pictures of their group leaders. Researchers gave monkeys the opportunity to exchange food tokens for a peek at some photos. When the photos depicted fertile females, headlines were made, and the study was depicted as the origin of pornography. No headlines reported when monkeys paid to look at prestige members of their group, but it surely depicted the origin of tabloids.
Horses help us understand the link between status and attention. When you see a group of horses, the leader is not the one in the front, but the one in the center. This happens because horses try to follow the strongest individual, and that individual has pushed its way to the center for its own benefit. The dominant leads from the center because the others keep watching it.
When you are with a group, you may feel like certain people are the center of attention. It’s not surprising that humans compete for attention and feel so one-down when they’re overlooked. People strive to relieve that bad feeling by raising their social standing. These impulses are non-verbal, but our verbal brain can understand them by exploring the status games of early humans.
The Status Games of Jane Austen
Jane Austen’s novels made it respectable to marry for love instead of status. When I heard that Jane’s home was open to the public, I couldn’t wait to step into her world. I was shocked by what I learned, however. The tour guide said that Jane never found love herself. I wanted to know more, so I visited some of the many “Jane slept here” spots in southern England, and then did a lot of research.
Modern Austen biographies promote the feminist idea that Jane didn’t care about marriage. But since her books are all about marriage, it’s fair to say that the subject was on her mind. Let’s consider an alternative explanation for her celibacy: Jane had a bad case of status anxiety. While her verbal brain talked about love, her non-verbal brain was so status-obsessed that, like Groucho Marx, she could never accept a man who would accept her.
Jane’s parents had a bad case of status anxiety. They lived in a culture where wealthy families preserved their estates by bequeathing everything to their eldest son. That left other siblings stranded. Jane’s parents were stranded. They had no way to support themselves in the style to which they had become accustomed. Working for money was considered demeaning, and you feared being shunned by “society” if you did. Military or Church careers were acceptable, but very low-paying. Thus, many “society” people could barely survive. Jane’s family were among them.
Jane’s father was a clergyman. He had a coveted spot as the rector of lands owned by his cousin. The rectory had a guaranteed income because contributions to the church were required by law. But it was not much money for a family with seven children like the Austens, especially with a socially ambitious mum like Jane’s mum.
Jane grew up feeling poor because her cousins were in the aristocracy. And she felt poor because her mother felt poor. Jane’s mother was from a wealthy family but her father was a rector at Oxford. She grew up surrounded by rich people but without funds of her own, which is exactly the way Jane would grow up. Jane’s mother spent a lot of time courting rich relatives in hopes of finding opportunities for her children. She succeeded spectacularly in some ways. Two of her sons became heirs to huge estates thanks to relatives with no sons of their own. Jane spent a lot of time on these estates, further solidifying her aristocratic expectations.
What are a girl’s options in that world? Austen’s novels focus on two choices: marry a rich man you don’t love, or hold out for a dashing young man— who just happens to be rich. Loving a poor, ugly man did not seem to occur to Jane. Her heroines are quite interested in a man’s charm and prestige, but not in his career potential. Austen novels seem to suggest that if you reject an old aristocrat, you will end up with a young aristocrat. Jane gambled and lost when she played that game.
She blamed her poverty for this predicament, but rich girls had the same basic problem. A girl with a dowry had many suitors, but that doesn’t mean she got to marry for love. Fathers were not inclined to waste their money on a suitor just because he had a good body and witty repartee. Papa wanted an alliance that would raise his own status. Dowries were a way to create prominent grandchildren to carry on your legacy. If your Dad chose a high-status man who was old and ugly, worse things could happen. Many girls ended up with men who gambled away their money and mistreated them. Rich girls and poor girls face the same conundrum: looks and charm are poor predictors of relationship skills. Today, we are free to gamble on looks and charm, but the fact remains that they are poor predictors of relationship skills.
The pain that fuels Jane’s work is not really about money— it’s about the pain of rejection. If you are rejected by a person you “fancy,” a one-down feeling surges, and cortisol makes it feel like a survival threat. In Jane Austen’s time, you didn’t have to face rejection yourself because your parents did the negotiating behind the scenes. Dating was taboo in Jane’s time, and a girl was considered “ruined” if she expressed interest in someone who did not reciprocate. Today, we face many rejections in mating lives, and survival-threat feelings result. If you think someone is “the one” and they reject you, it means death to your genes. You don’t consciously think that, of course, so you find other threats to explain your threatened feelings.
Jane’s parents dragged her to Bath, to see and be seen by potential mates. Today, you can go to Bath and see the happening places of the nineteenth-century singles scene. I found it a good place to contemplate the social whirl of judging others and feeling of judged by them. When you know how universal these feelings are, you can see your cortisol as a temporary internal discharge rather than external evidence of threat.Chapter 2
Social Rivalry Among Early Humans
We often hear that early humans were peaceful and egalitarian. We hear about them sharing food and bonding around the fire, so it’s hard to imagine their endless social rivalry. This chapter presents the evidence that early humans played status games that were eerily similar to those of animals. The evidence comes from the earliest written records, and from sources that pre-date the invention of writing. It’s clear that people have been one-upping each other since they first walked the Earth.
Ancient civilizations gave us a window into their thoughts by writing them down. Much of this writing is about social rivalry. Great leaders are always uniting followers to conquer enemies, and new leaders are always emerging by challenging the old ones. People cooperate in ancient literature when it raises their status or helps their group rise. Similar patterns are found in the writings of ancient Egypt, China, Central America, the Middle East, South America, India, Greece and Rome.
Violence was often part of ancient status games. People were always anticipating attack and preparing for it. Constant wariness for put-downs is a thought loop that has been reinforced since time immemorial.
The similarities between ancient civilizations and chimpanzee troops are striking. Leaders display strength, defend turf, and accumulate females. The leader shares resources with a privileged group, often descended from his many offspring. This elite has intense status conflicts within it, but they cooperate to resist common threats to their status.
Early civilizations did something that animals do not do: they created abstract concepts to explain their superiority over foes and rivals. We call these concepts “myths” or “legends,” but they were real to the people who lived with them. Animals don’t create verbal rationales to justify their quest for status. Humans developed language to help us meet survival needs. Language helps us refine a plan of action and coordinate with others. Myths and legends help people coordinate their neurochemical reward systems and work together.
The belief systems of ancient civilizations were often imposed by force. Severe punishment was inflicted on those who questioned the prevailing cosmology. There was always a “priesthood” to design and enforce the shared thought loops. Rulers relied on the priesthood to maintain power and impose new thought loops as needed. Thus, priests were richly rewarded and had top status.
Ancient civilizations have a bad image today. They are accused of having destroyed the utopian world that came before them. Academics believe that the Stone Age was peaceful and egalitarian. They zoom in on facts that fit this template and skim over facts that don’t. But we know there was social rivalry in the animal world before the Stone-Age, and we know there was social rivalry after the Stone Age. We know that the brain’s limbic system was the same before and after. If we open our minds to the possibility of prehistoric status games, what might we find?
Archeology is a good source of information about the distant past. Archeologists have been shocked by the number of human skeletons with signs of violent death. This includes:
- skeletons with a stone arrow tip embedded in them
- skulls cracked in the precise way that a blunt instrument causes
- piles of skeletons buried together without care
- skulls with the top two vertebra attached, which results from beheading
- skeletons piled up at the gates of protective walls
- skeletons with cutting and scraping marks suggesting cannibalism
- large stocks of rocks in the missile shape used in battle.
With this evidence, some archeologists have estimated the percentage of deaths attributable to violence in prehistory as quadruple the rate of a dangerous inner city today.
Archeologists ignored this evidence at first because they were convinced that prehistoric humans were peaceful. They looked for other interpretations when they found the artifacts listed above. They were rewarded with academic status if they conformed to the empathy-around-the-fire view of human origins. If they acknowledged prehistoric violence, they were denigrated and ostracized. Despite the significant career risk, evidence of Stone-Age social rivalry accumulated.
Non-violent competition is also apparent in the archaeological record. Ancient skulls in South America show that people flattened the foreheads of their children with pressure devices in order to create a desired appearance. Parents saw the flat foreheads of their neighbor’s children and didn’t want their kids to fall behind.
Another indicator of prehistoric conflict is the dispersion of people around the globe. At a time when the Earth’s population was a tiny fraction of what it is today, humans spread themselves into every corner of it. Scholars tell us that group bonds were the focus of life, but many people obviously left anyway. Perhaps they left in groups, fissuring as a group got too large the way chimps do. But their strong motivation to leave is reflected in the fact that the bones of Stone Age homo sapiens are found throughout the planet.
The urge to leave is easy to understand from an animal perspective. Mammals cluster when predators lurk and spread out when it’s safe. Tigers and orangutans are the only mammals with no predators, and the only mammals who live alone. Gibbons space themselves out in pairs to prevent conflict. It’s easy to see how humans would try to avoid conflict by spacing themselves out. Not only does it improve access to resources, but it frees you from being at the bottom of the hierarchy. If you persuade others to leave with you, you are suddenly in the one-up position. Some people surely perished when they left their natal groups, but others went on to create new settlements that would fissure themselves in time. Leaving is an effective way to raise your status when you don’t expect to win a direct conflict.
Apart from migration, pre-modern people rarely left their village in a lifetime because the risk of getting killed by strangers was so high. Today, we rub shoulders with strangers in safety all the time and don’t appreciate what an achievement this is. But when we shake hands, we echo the old custom of proving that you don’t have a rock hidden in your hand. We like to imagine early humans with a peace pipe, but they had a lot of conflict.
Trouble in Paradise
Another way to learn about early humans is to talk to living people from ancient cultures. Today, that’s hard to do, but in the past three centuries, many indigenous groups were studied at length. It’s easy to criticize these studies, yet they provide a wealth of information about the human core.
I’ve always been interested in early contacts with isolated groups, and when I had a chance to go to Tahiti, my interest grew. I had heard that the first European ships to arrive there were greeted by Tahitian girls rowing out to offer their bodies. I wanted to know the truth of that story.
Step one of my research was easy: the story is true. It was corroborated by many sources, though expressed euphemistically due to the sensibilities of the past. But I wanted to know what motivated the girls. I knew the sexual-liberation explanation offered by anthropologists like Margaret Mead, but I wondered if that was the whole story.
It was not. It is clear from the published journals of eye witnesses that the girls were compensated with an iron nail. Metal did not exist on Tahiti, and the girls’ fathers and brothers were eager to get it. The first British ship to visit Tahiti lost so many nails that it began to fall apart. It returned to London just before Captain Cook’s first voyage. Cook met the returning captain and determined to prevent such “contact.” But just in case, he loaded extra nails.
I spent my life in academia, so I know it’s taboo to acknowledge facts that reflect badly on indigenous cultures. But when I retired from academia, I gave myself permission to follow the facts instead of pleasing critics. I wanted to understand a culture that sold its daughters and sisters to aliens.
I learned that Tahitian girls were taught to please men from a young age. The death penalty is attached to a long list of behaviors in Tahitian culture. These are called “taboo” in the Tahitian language, which is the origin of our word. Women eating with men was one taboo. Even men could be put to death for allowing women to eat in their presence. I could imagine the culture of fear that prevailed in a society with such strictures. I would not call it “sexual liberation” when that society sent girls to get nails for their fathers and brothers. I would call it submission.
Idealized images of Polynesia have been popular for a long time. Paul Gauguin’s paintings of Tahitian women have been popular since the 1800s. I started wondering about the girls in those paintings. I found out that the aging Gauguin lived with a teenager whose mother arranged the association in hopes of raising the family’s status. When we see images of preindustrial societies, we imagine they are happier without knowing the facts. It’s easy to do that because we’re familiar with our own status frustrations but we don’t know theirs. Gauguin’s paintings represent the dream that you can escape status games by going somewhere else. The fact is that Gauguin drank himself to death in Polynesia while striving to become famous in Europe. Sexually transmitted disease speeded the process.
Tahitians came from a seafaring culture that spread throughout the Pacific. When you visit Hawaii, you encounter many of the same cultural patterns. One of the first Hawaiians to become literate wrote a book on their ancient traditions called Hawaiian Antiquities. He described the taboos and the chiefs who enforced them. He chronicled the lavish lifestyle of the nobility. A huge portion of the oral tradition he wrote down pertained to the warfare that brought each chief to power and then replaced it with another chief.
When I visit Hawaii, I see celebrations of this tradition everywhere. Symbols of Hawaiian monarchy are gushed over by people who despise monarchy elsewhere. The symbolic yellow robe of Hawaiian chiefs caused the killing of thousands of birds for one robe, and some chiefs had more than one and gave them as gifts, yet they are widely revered. You raise your status among educated elites when you revere indigenous culture. And you feel good when you believe in a utopia. The truth about Polynesian social rivalry does not feel good. But the truth helps you understand the world and your inner world.
The Europeans who went to Tahiti were mammals too, of course. They competed with each other in world trade, and thus competed for ports to re-stock their ships en route. Different European countries built alliances with different Polynesian leaders. Over time, one alliance fought another. Each group believed they needed dominance to protect itself from dominance-seeking rivals.
Captain Cook’s role in this story is well-known, but his brilliance at status games is not. In Cook’s time, sailors on long voyages often died a horrible death of scurvy. He looked for a solution, and heard that ships serving sauerkraut did not get the disease. The reason was unknown, but he loaded up sauerkraut. His sailors refused to eat it, alas, so he devised a clever strategy. He put large platters of the Vitamin-C-rich concoction on the officers’ table, and gave his sailors unprecedented permission to help themselves from the officers’ table. Suddenly there was huge demand, and no scurvy ever appeared on Cook’s ships. (Citrus fruit replaced sauerkraut in time.) Cook died from conflict on the shores of Hawaii, and his story reminds me that dominant chimpanzees rarely die of old age.
Let’s sail away from Polynesia and look at other sources of information about early humans.
It’s Still the Same Old Story
Oral tradition can tell us a lot about our distant ancestors. When humans invented writing, they wrote down tales that were already being told. Famous examples include Homer’s Odyssey, the Upanishads, and even the Bible. These tales revolve around social rivalry. They suggest a life full of conflict, revenge, and supreme leaders striving to display their power. The status games of high-ranking nobles and priests play a big part in oral tradition too.
We tend to learn about these ancient tales through teachers and the media rather than directly, and thus see them through a specific lens. A teacher can extract a line about peace from a war saga and create the impression that the ancients were focused on peace. A journalist can refer to compassion in the ancient world and ignore the gory cruelty that prevailed. The point is not that we should focus on gore; the point is that we need to understand our deeper impulses in order to manage them. Today’s high priests tend to idealize the past, thus suggesting that today’s undesirable impulses are cause by “our society.” When you rely on them for information, it’s hard to see otherwise.
This filtering is especially marked in Anthropology. A century ago, anthropologists spread around the world to record the traditions of people with no written language. They created a record that fits the academic mindset. An anthropologist must present other cultures in a positive light in order to get respect from other anthropologists. If they suggest that other cultures are actually superior to ours, they get extra status. Thus, we end up with a lot of messaging about cooperation, altruism, and female power in preliterate societies. That would be good if it were true, but a different picture emerges when you look beyond academic sources.
One alternative source is the journals of explorers and missionaries who spent time with pre-literate peoples in past centuries. These sources are often condemned as “racist” and “imperialist,” so you risk being so labelled yourself if you read them. Yet there are a lot of them, and they have much in common. They portray a world of brutal violence toward out-groups, and in-groups surging with jealousy, competition, and vengeance.
Non-conforming anthropologists are another good source of information. They have reported status hierarchies and a fervent quest for prestige in many hunter-gatherer societies. They found high levels of violence, and cultures that focused on preparing for battle. Examples include long-term research among the Amazon’s Yanomamo and the highland tribes of New Guinea. Researchers found that about twenty-five percent of males died in violent conflict— a rate equivalent to Jane Goodall’s estimate of violent deaths among chimpanzees. In New Guinea, dozens of mutually unintelligible languages exist in a small area. This is evidence of minimal communication between neighboring groups. Abuse of women was also widely in evidence.
Most important, researchers found that men who distinguished themselves in battle had more wives and more surviving offspring. Today, we do not measure status by the number of children one has, nor do we think of violence as a high-status activity. But in the past, success in battle was the main way for a male to raise his status. Once you achieved that status, your access to resources improved and your reproductive success improved. You may have died young but your genes were more likely to survive. The result is a culture that glorifies success in battle and prepares children for it at an early age. These battles were not wars the way we think of them today. They were brief raids against neighboring groups. They happened quite often as each group sought to revenge a past raid or forestall a future raid. Few people died in each raid, but cumulatively, they killed a large share of the population. Children grew up learning about wrongs done to their ancestors, and the cycle continued. Chimpanzees raid their neighbors in a remarkably similar way.
Non-violent ways to raise your status are valuable, and in ancient societies, gift-giving was a key way to do that. Group leaders often presented huge gifts to the leaders of neighboring groups. Scholars may call such gifts “sharing” or “altruism,” but weaker leaders gifted stronger leaders to avoid being raided. Gifts were also used to curry favor with a leader to gain access to their resources. Gifts flowed down the status hierarchy too, as leaders tried to buy support in the face of rivals.
Gifts took many forms, from commodities, to precious creations, to your daughter. Banquets were a common form of gifting. People competed for dominance by giving bigger banquets. Today, these banquets are represented as a way to feed the poor. This benevolent view overlooks the way leaders got the food– often from those they were ostensibly feeding, in one way or another.
Ancient gift-giving rituals are curiously similar to the grooming behavior of monkeys. Research has shown that monkeys make careful decisions about who to groom. Sometimes they groom stronger individuals who might protect them in times of threat. Sometimes they groom weaker individuals who might side with them during conflicts. The expected reciprocity doesn’t always happen, alas. A monkey who counts on an alliance may be disappointed when a threat appears. Monkeys start grooming new partners if they survive such betrayed expectations.
The reciprocal nature of grooming is famously portrayed in the opening scene of The Godfather. A man offers gift money to the Godfather in hopes of buying vengeance on an enemy. The Godfather refuses the money, suggesting that he must be groomed regularly rather than just patronized on a fee-for-service basis. The Godfather doesn’t accept gifts from just anyone. You have to join his alliance with repeated gift-giving in order to share in his power.
Acknowledging the reciprocity of gift-giving is taboo in polite society, but the mammal brain is good at calculating return on investment. Your verbal brain represents gift as spontaneous expressions of generosity, and you avoid verbalizing your reciprocal expectations. The rituals of gift-giving in early human cultures help us understand our deeper longings. Gifts to the gods are an especially interesting example.
In ancient civilizations, high priests told people the right way to offer gifts to the gods. It seemed like a matter of life and death because the gods were believed to control the weather, disease, and warfare. With so much at stake, you were eager to know how to please them, and high priests were eager to tell you. It didn’t always work, but priests had top status so you tended to believe them.
You wanted to offer the best gift you could afford, and you also wanted the best priest, shaman, or soothsayer you could afford. Sometimes, they insisted on huge gifts, including human sacrifice. It’s useful to think about why people went along with this. Our brain is designed to anticipate harm and we are highly motivated to prevent harm. We’re not sure what works, so we look for clues. When others assert confidence in their own solutions, and we see them get respect, trusting them meets our need to feel safe. When priests are wrong, you could blame your self for failing to do enough of whatever they proposed.
Top leaders often rely on a priesthood because they fear threats like everyone else. Most ancient cultures had a priesthood at the top of the status hierarchy. Priests gained power through their influence over top leaders. In many places, they could have you tortured and killed if you didn’t submit to them.
Being a priest was coveted position, so the price of admission was high: you had to submit completely to the reigning priesthood. As a result, priests may appear to have high status, but they must live in complete submission to maintain that status.
The main threat to a priest’s status was competition from another priesthood. If new priests prevented harm more successfully, the old priesthood suffered. Thus, we often see high priests banding together to condemn a rival priesthood. Priests accuse their rivals of the direst evil. Nasty conflicts between rival priests play a huge role in human history.
In today’s world, academics and the media are quite similar to ancient priesthoods. They tell us how to manage potential threats, and to give gifts in a way that makes us right with the world. Their status is high, and top leaders rely on them. If you want to share in their status, you have to submit to their dogma. Fortunately, their power is more limited than in the past. We can choose which priests we respect in our quest to feel safe. This freedom of choice intensifies the rivalry among competing priesthoods.
The Status Games of Sigmund Freud
I was excited to learn that Freud’s Vienna apartment is open to the public. You can see the couch where psychoanalysis began, and the toilet where his anal-retention theory developed. You can walk to the cafe where he read his daily newspaper. For me, it was a moving experience.
I didn’t love Freud when I did this. I disagreed with many of his assertions, and I’d learned to see him as a shady character. But in time, I recognized the contribution he made. He showed us the power of our thoughts. He helped us recognize our unbidden non-verbal thoughts and build our power to redirect them. To spread this idea, he played some unpleasant status games. He made some bad calls because he was wired by his own past experience, like the rest of us. But without him, we might still believe the lies we tell ourselves.
Freud’s status games were fascinating because he was both at the top of the hierarchy and at the bottom. He saw himself at the top spot because he was his mother’s favorite. She openly favored him in front of her five other children, and she expected him to make it big. Young Freud was always at the top of his class in school despite coming from a low status family. In college, he got internships with high-profile researchers and was mentored by Vienna’s most prominent doctor. This mentorship included cash “loans” and access to the cigar box and even the bathtub (a luxury at the time) of the eminent Dr. Breuer. He was also invited to tag along when Dr. Breuer treated a patient by listening to her feelings. Freud’s status was crowned by many best-selling books, and many disciples from around the world appearing be treated or trained by him.
But his bottom-of-the-barrel experiences were huge, and foremost in his mind. In school, he was surrounded by the super-rich but often lacked money for the barest food and clothing. His classmates saw him as a pretentious twit, and perhaps he was. In college, he was always desperate for money, but he couldn’t spend any he got without first helping his hungry family.
Most important from the perspective of evolutionary psychology, his sex life was quite deprived. In an era without birth control, respectable women were unavailable until you could support the children who quickly came along. Other women were likely to have venereal diseases, which were incurable then. It appears that Freud had no sexual relations until he was thirty. Then, after ten years of almost constant pregnancy, he went back to total abstinence. (Accounts vary.) And that was not even the problem that concerned him, consciously. He was preoccupied by the problem of how to make it big.
Freud dreamed of making a breakthrough in medicine. It’s easy to see why that would interest him. The germ theory of disease was revolutionizing medicine in his time, and he lived in the center of the action. The hospital he worked at was the site of the famous study about doctors washing their hands to prevent deaths from “childbed fever.” That study was ridiculed and sneered at for years, but by Freud’s time, acceptance had grown. Freud’s father lost his first wife at a young age, and his own mother was sickly, so the subject would have caught his attention.
Freud’s first job in laboratory research paid about as much as the janitor. He would never have sex if he stayed there. He stumbled onto the idea of treating rich people with nervous disorders. At first, he used treatments that were popular in his day, but then gravitated toward the “talking cure.” And the more talk he heard, the more he concluded that sex was at the root of mental health problems.
The story gets murky here since we can’t be sure what his patients said and what he projected onto them. But Freud announced to the world that “infantile sexuality” was the cause of emotional distress. He was shunned by the medical establishment at that point, but his books became popular. People seemed eager for an explanation of human irrationality.
The wrongheadedness of his theory of infantile sexuality should not distract us from its valuable underpinnings: that childhood and sex play a huge role in our emotions. Freud erred by putting these factors together and saying that children are motivated by sex. But the two ideas separately have revolutionary value. They seem obvious today because people worked to establish them in the past.
Why did Freud go too far and insist on such a wacky theory? It made me wonder what was going on in his childhood. I went digging for that.
Freud revealed little of his actual history, despite his endless psychoanalyzing of himself in the abstract. He revealed more in letters, but some of those letters are still in sealed archives today. Fortunately, a lot of information has been compiled by eager researchers.
Freud’s father had children from an earlier marriage who were the same age as Freud’s mother. One of those children had a family already, and they called Freud’s father “grandpa.” So little Sigi thought his half-brother was his father and his father was his grandfather.
He was confused about his mother too, because she left him with a nurse most of the time. The nurse was suddenly banished when he was almost three, which would have been traumatic since she was his primary attachment. She had already traumatized him with her frequent talk about burning in hell. Freud later blamed his trauma on the fact that she touched his genitals when she bathed him. It’s easy to see how his brain would have built a link between her and genitalia, and another link between her and trauma. These links were with him when he listened to his patients’ traumas. So he didn’t get everything right. The pioneer doesn’t get everything right in most areas of human inquiry. Even Isaac Newton thought he could turn lead into gold.
In Freud’s letters, he expresses a deep sense of shame. Children often feel shame when something is wrong in their home, even though it’s not their fault. Much was wrong in Freud’s home. His mother seems to have been quite close to one of his grown step-brothers. That young man suddenly fled the country, and appears to have made a living in financial fraud. Freud’s father seems to have participated in the fraud, which would explain why he had no known employment while a father of six. Freud’s father had a middle-class life for a short time, and then almost no income for the rest of his life. The family lived by begging from relatives. They lived in tight quarters, which is how a boy comes to wonder what Daddy is doing to Mommy. But that was not the real trauma, despite all of Freud’s theorizing about it. It seems that young Sigi knew something deeper was wrong. So he idealized his family, and then kept his head in his books.
Freud was still living with his parents at age twenty-seven, though he’d finished medical school years earlier. It seems odd, yet it was normal at the time. Young people rarely moved out until they were ready to support a family. Before that, they helped to supported their parents. But Freud was mama’s golden boy (literally, she called him that), so he was allowed to pursue his dream instead.
Freud’s medical internship was mind-boggling. He learned to diagnose patients in the psychiatric ward, and then autopsy their brain if they died. His supervisors believed that mental illness always had a physical cause. They were sure the cure would come if they kept dissecting brains. But Freud needed money fast, so he quit the low-paying work that he loved and hung out his own shingle. His talking cure soon found paying customers, and it opened his mind to the idea that our thoughts can affect our body. He worked to spread this insight to others, and for that I applaud him.
Freud spread his ideas by building social alliances. But the record shows that many of his friends became enemies over time. He’d build close bonds with a new friend, only to end up with another enemy. It’s easy to find fault with him, but if he had gone along with whatever was popular, we might not have our current awareness of our unconscious. Many of Freud’s “enemies” started their own therapeutic approaches, which spread his valuable insights without the baggage of infantile sexuality.
Criticizing Freud is popular, and I joined in the sneering myself when I was young. But after reading psychology for decades, I have seen many paradigms come and go. Each new paradigm vilifies the one that came before it. Freud was vilified by behaviorists, who were then vilified by later psychology paradigms, such as cognitive, genetic, evolutionary, social justice, and positive psychology. Vilification is a status game. It masquerades as “science,” but each paradigm is a social alliance that sifts the facts in a way that raises the status of that alliance. I have learned to pick and choose from each paradigm instead of taking any one of the as “fact.” I could not do that if I were gainfully employed in the psychology world, since my credentials would depend on submitting to the high priests of that alliance. Retirement has freed me to connect the dots for myself.
We all draw our own conclusions about how the mind works because our mammal brain cannot talk to us in words. A great place to explore your own thoughts is on Freud’s favorite walking path in the Vienna Woods. It’s called the “Beethoven Way” because it’s the very path that Beethoven walked while composing in his head. You can analyze yourself on a walk through the Vienna Woods the way Freud did. You can discover the circuits you built from early experience. If it leads to a catharsis, you can thank Freud for that concept.
Freud moved to London when the Nazis took Vienna, and I visited his London home too. He managed to ship his couch and antiquities collection there, so you can see the little statues dug up from ancient civilizations that flooded his office. He saw these statues as reflections of the unconscious mind that humans have always grappled with.Chapter 3
Status Games Around the World
Cultures vary on the surface, but underneath they have similar status games. Beneath the diversity we see on the outside, cultural patterns are remarkably similar to the status games of animals on the inside.
We often to blame our culture for the frustrations of social rivalry, and imagine that other cultures have effortless happiness. So it’s helpful to know that other cultures have the same frustrations. All over the world, people are trying to one-up each other, and feeling bad about being one-down. These behaviors might be explicit, like kowtowing to the emperor in Imperial China, or the caste system in India, or the aristocracy in Europe and Japan. But they can also be subtle, so you don’t see them as a status game. Wearing blue jeans is a good example.
Blue jeans began as work clothes, but they acquired status in the mid-twentieth century as symbols of rebellion. Rebelling puts you in the one-up position, at least in your own mind. Rebelling allows young people to feel superior to the parents who paid for their jeans. Most wearers of blue jeans are not actually rebelling, of course. On the contrary, they are conforming. But conforming to a symbol of rebellion allows you to feel one-up while you get on with the business of getting along with your fellow mammal. It says you are not submitting to “the man.” This makes it a safe way to oppose stronger individuals, from your mammal brain’s perspective. When you see others wearing jeans, you feel like you’re part of a strong alliance. Blue jeans can give your inner mammal the sense of strength that it longs for.
Blue jeans are worn all over the world, and many other status games are similar worldwide. Long before modern technology, distant lands had eerily similar status games. Here are some well-known examples, from the tangible use of clothing to the intangible quest for “honor.”
Stone Age graves show us that humans competed with bodily adornment a long time ago. Clothing is central to status games in every culture because it’s one of the first things you notice when you compare yourself to others. Throughout history, people have used clothing to raise their status.
In Medieval Europe and Asia, laws prescribed what you could and couldn’t wear at each level of society. Even the underwear of each social class was regulated by these “sumptuary laws.” Harsh penalties were attached, so you could not look like a noble just because you could afford a pouffy shirt. Everyone was forced to wear a hat that quickly identified their social rank. In China, specific hats denoted specific levels within the aristocracy, using a feather, tassel, or pompom.
Today, we’d be outraged by laws that banned haut couture from all but the rich. But if you look at these laws from the perspective of Queen Elizabeth I, you might see it differently. England’s Renaissance queen knew her courtiers were spending ruinous amounts of money on their clothing. And she knew how viciously they gossiped about the appearance of other courtiers. She also knew that the “commoners” tried to mimic the fashions worn at court. The result was a fashion arms race that was bad for everyone. Elizabeth didn’t want her courtiers to waste their wealth on foreign silk. She wanted them to spend it on horses to strengthen national defense. Also, she wanted her subjects to be able to visit her court without bankrupting themselves on an appropriate outfit. So she passed laws freezing in the fashions of yesterday, hoping to prevent wasteful new styles.
The law did not apply to her, of course. She constantly tried to dazzle the court with bigger fashion statements. As she got old and decrepit, she felt one-down toward the beautiful young ladies at court. How could she one-up them? It’s easy to see why sumptuary laws would appeal to her.
In time, people rebelled by wearing black. Look at a Rembrandt painting and you will see the black style of the time. Alas, the fad did not stop the fashion arms race because a white lace collar was permitted. The collar got bigger and bigger. The ruffles grew closer and closer. The embroidery grew finer and finer. These collars were crushingly expensive due to the labor necessary to maintain them as well as the delicacy of the fabric. Your ruffles had to be pressed to perfection each morning to avoid public shaming. Black dye was also quite expensive and black fabric faded quickly. High maintenance costs are a common feature of status objects in every time and place.
Wearing black was supposed to reduce social rivalry, but the opposite happened. The black-wearing people built strong social bonds and started England’s Civil War. That war is explained with sophisticated rationales, but it’s easy to see how the black-robed Puritans would have felt their strength when they saw how many others wore wearing black. You can see how their internal divisions would ease when they compared themselves to colorfully dressed people. When you see yourself as part of a strong social alliance, your inner mammal rewards you with a good feeling.
In France, fashion was also at the core of social rivalry, but in a different way. Louis XIV ruled through fashion by adopting new styles every season, and pushing the nobility to follow. No imports were allowed, and French suppliers paid heavy taxes to Louis. It was a money machine for him, but he is also credited with starting the French fashion industry. Their garments got bigger and bigger, and when physical limits were reached, Marie Antoinette extended the competition into hair. Her hairdos got bigger and bigger in order to one-up the ladies who imitated her. Finally, Napoleon got rid of her, and people started imitating the garb of Napoleon’s wife. The hardships of war descended on Europe, but they were no match for the hardship of being seen in last year’s dress. Everyone suddenly had to have Josephine’s “empire waist.”
When I was in college, I was taught to blame this behavior on the fashion industry. We were told that greedy capitalists lure people to waste their money on “conspicuous consumption.” We were told the advertising industry creates desire to keep up. I believe the message that was repeated so often by teachers I looked up to. I learned to blame unhappiness on “our society,” so I looked to other societies for happiness.
I got a job in Africa after graduating, and was shocked to hear the same old story from my African office mate. He complained that no one dated in his country because the bride price was higher than anyone could afford. He listed the items he had to give a girl’s parents before he could talk to her: a dozen dresses, a dozen pairs of shoes, a refrigerator, pots and pans, and many other items that I’ve forgotten. I wondered how a society could continue if no one dated. I seems that multiple wives were permissible, so parents who held out for a high bride price would not deprive themselves of grandchildren. This fits the mammalian pattern of a few males getting a lot of reproductive success while others get none.
When I returned from Africa, I got a job at a Japanese company. There I learned that designer labels were extremely popular in Japan. It was the 1970s, and young Japanese women suddenly earned good money as “office ladies.” They tended to live with their parents, so they had a lot of spending money. Extravagant luxury brands suddenly became widespread. You may blame this on “our society” in one way or another, so it’s important to know that Japan had strict sumptuary laws in the Elizabethan age without direct contact. Humans in every society manifest this urge to keep up. Look at any painting from any place or time period and you will see that everyone in the painting is dressed alike. Styles change, but everyone seems to get the memo, down to the details of their hair and accessories.
It’s easy to ridicule other people’s fashion trends. Holes in blue jeans are easy for me to ridicule as each year’s holes get more daring. It’s hard to explain the high price tag on ripped jeans, but it’s easy to explain the one-down feeling of out-dated clothing. You may find yourself conforming to a trend in your world rather than living with that one-down feeling. You may resent others for judging you without noticing that you are judging too.
Today, the richest people in the world dress in a way that’s quite similar to everyone else. Mark Zuckerberg’s hoodie is much like yours, as are Bill Gates’ sneakers. The differences are so slight that only experts can detect them. Is it worth getting upset about tiny differences when you enjoy comfort and safety beyond anything in human history? Apparently so, because many people do.
In the modern world of mass production, clothing is cheap, but the muscles underneath it are hard to come by. Muscles are the new status marker, and modern clothing is designed to show off your muscles. People who say they don’t care about fashion are often quite competitive about muscles. The status value of muscles was low in the world before machines because everyone had them, but in today’s sedentary world, they reflect a big investment of time, effort, and self-discipline.
Honor and Dishonor
Honor is intangible, yet people strive for honor as eagerly as they seek other status markers. The human cortex can keep score with intangibles the way it does with real assets. We define honor in different ways with our verbal brains, but our mammal brains enjoy the same one-up feeling when we have it. And we suffer from the same survival-threat feelings when we think our honor is threatened. Such strong feelings about an intangible are hard to make sense of until you see them as a quest for the one-up position and a fear of the one-down position.
Another culture’s definition of honor may be easy to notice because you learn about it with your verbal brain. Your own culture’s definition of honor can be hard to notice because you wired it in from youthful interactions with the people around you. Thus, it’s useful to look at definitions from a wide range of cultures.
Many languages around the world have social rankings built into them. For example, when you speak Spanish, French, Chinese, or Japanese, you have to designate the person you are speaking with as either above you or below you. When I speak a foreign language, I’m uncomfortable about making these distinctions; but if I had grown up speaking one of those languages, I would do it so automatically that I would hardly notice. Native speakers know how to put themselves above or below with hardly a second thought.
Some cultures teach their children that honor is the most important thing in life. Others teach their children not to make a big deal of what others think of you. Some cultures have a big vocabulary associated with honor, while others don’t talk about it. The general concepts of “reputation” and “saving face” can help us access the common feelings beneath these differences. In some cultures, you are considered “egotistical” if you worry about “losing face.” In others, you are considered crazy is you don’t worry about “face.” You learn that dishonor must be repaired at all costs, up to and including suicide and murder. Early experience builds the circuits linking honor to survival. Your mirror neurons pick up other people’s fear of dishonor, and repetition builds the pathway.
The fear of dishonor has real roots. Being ostracized from society can have serious consequences. Maybe you will die alone in the desert. Maybe your genes will be wiped out because no one will mate with you. Maybe your group will impose a punishment. People fear these consequences, so they strive constantly for honor to relieve those fears. The fear of social ostracism motivates people to strive constantly for honor.
In today’s world, many people pride themselves on discarding old traditions. However, they often replace old honor codes with new ones without noticing. For example, many people are always looking for evidence of racism, sexism and homophobia with which to dishonor others. They create fear all around them, and also in themselves, since they live in fear of being accused too. Everyone strives to protect themselves from accusation by honoring the rules. But the rules change constantly, so there is no way to protect yourself except to submit to accusers constantly.
Some “honor codes” are explicit. The Mafia code of honor is well known for its emphasis on silence and its life-and-death consequences. The “Gentleman’s Code of Honor” was the rule book for dueling in past centuries. Dueling seems foolish today, but it was useful at the time when people erupted into violence without consulting a rule book when they felt dishonored. The Samurai code of honor has been glorified in the media, but it was quote gory in reality. The custom of bowing began as a way of presenting your neck to your superior for them to chop with their sword if they chose. The brute force in so many honor codes is eerily parallel to the status games of animals.
An extreme code of honor is the ancient Albanian Kanun, which requires you to kill a relative of anyone who killed one of your relatives. Such “vendettas” and “blood feuds” have existed in many cultures. They have claimed a significant percentage of some populations, and terrorized everyone else. Such revenge cycles can only happen if people buy into the belief that a retaliatory murder will raise their status, and that they’ll be shamed and shunned if they don’t commit it. In Albanian culture, this belief is reinforced with a custom called “coffee under the knee.” If a person fails to avenge his family honor, their coffee is served to them under the table rather than on it at public events. Small shaming gestures are enough to perpetuate a cycle of violence that’s deeply wired in.
Many universities have an “honor code,” but that usually means “self-policing,” so they actually make it easier to cheat. I saw a lot of cheating in my twenty-five years as a college professor. I discussed this with my colleagues, and most objected to enforcement, saying, “I’m not a policeman.” But I would not like cheating in a classroom for surgeons or pilots or architects, so it seemed fair for me to hold myself to the same standard that I expect of others. So I enforced academic integrity standards in my classroom, though this effectively violated my colleagues’ implied code.
“Honor among thieves” is not a formal code but it’s a well-known concept. It emerges organically because people who break the law fear reporting to law enforcement when they are victims of a crime. This is glorified as “honor,” though it is obviously self-interest. Movies create the impression that thieves have superior social bonds, and criminals are great buddies and lovers. In reality, predatory behavior tends to spiral where the law is not respected.
In every subculture, people fear losing honor as defined by those around them. And in every subculture, defending the honor of others is a popular way to raise your status. Politicians compete by appealing to one-down feelings and promising to raise your status. Mass media and religions do the same, because appealing to underdog feelings is such an effective way to win support. Chinese mythology even has a special deity for people who feel wrongfully deprived of honor. According to legend, Zhong Kui got a high score on the imperial examination, but the emperor refused to give him his due because he was ugly. Zhong Kui killed himself, and when he arrived in hell, he was honored at last. He was placed at the top of the dominance hierarchy of hell, and thus became the spirit you pray to when demons are after you.
Today we are free of much traditional tribalism and we are free to choose our own beliefs. Yet we tend to reproduce the same old underdog feelings. For example, television shows with an upstairs-downstairs theme are quite popular. They lure you to feel the pleasure of wearing a sequined gown to dinner, and then to hate that jeweled person while you identify with the servants. You practically feel the chill of their dank basement even as you sit on your snuggly couch. A good script manipulates your emotions so you feel the pain of downstairs ancestors that you didn’t know you had. The mammal brain’s focus on social comparison keeps us riveted.
Taking offense is a popular status game. You accuse someone of putting you down, although you are actually putting them down by accusing them. Today, it’s easy to get the one-up position by being offended because you don’t need proof to back your accusation– your claim that your feelings are hurt is enough. If anyone is challenges that, you can accuse them of offending you too. This works if you have a social alliance big enough to cause fear in the people you accuse of offending.
When a mammal sees that an adversary has a stronger alliance, they are quickly intimidated into one-downing themselves. People scramble to build large alliances as a result. But it’s a two-edged sword: if you want support in your own conflicts, you have to support others in their conflicts. You end up with a lot of conflict. But if you don’t play the game, you feel like an isolated gazelle in a world full of lions, or the weakest monkey at the bottom of the hierarchy. It’s not surprising that many people choose to play the game. It feels good when they’re in the one-up position, accusing others of offending and watching them kowtow.
This is frustrating, but it was worse in the past. You might have offended a monarch, who’d accuse you of “treason” and have you tortured and executed. You might be challenged to a duel by a person who claims to be offended. You could be murdered by relatives of someone your grandfather murdered. It’s not easy being mammal, so we often submit to our culture’s rule book to survive.
Bureaucratic Status Games
It’s easy to feel one-down when you are dealing with a government office. It’s natural focus on your own needs and ignore the big picture, even as your verbal brain comes up with greater-good arguments. I saw a bigger picture when I spent a year in Africa with the United Nations after college. In the place I lived in, it was routine for the police to pull over a car for no reason, and for the driver to hand over cash in order to be on their way. When I borrowed a friend’s car one day, he advised me to honor that custom in order to stay out of trouble. I agreed, but when the time came, I was so nervous and uncool that I scared the policeman and he waved me off.
In my year in Africa, I learned that the bribery was ubiquitous. People bribed to get electric service and phone service, and to get their mail at the post office. They bribed to get a birth certificate, a death certificate, or a marriage license. They bribed for a driver’s license, sometimes without taking the test. Teachers and doctors took bribes too. And this was just retail corruption. At the top, a huge percentage of the public budget was siphoned into secret bank accounts. I learned this this system was the norm in much of Africa, Latin America and Asia.
As jarring as this was, it was worse to hear people justify it. People from all over the world were quick to blame others for the bribes they paid and received. People seemed to take pride in their bribery skills, as if it were charitable contributions. But bribery has terrible consequences. It hurts everyone by perverting the function a bureaucracy was meant to fill. Roads don’t get built. Traffic doesn’t flow safely. Chaos reins when rules are not enforceable.
Of course it feels very one-down to stand in front of a government employee. It’s easy to blame the system. But none of us is an unbiased judge of the system. When you get a parking ticket you may feel very grieved, but when you find a parking spot, you don’t thank the system for making the spot available. If you get cited for running a stop sign, you may have a grave sense of injustice, but when you see someone else run a stop light, you are outraged and want them to be stopped. The verbal brain uses words like “fairness” and “justice” but defines them in terms of its self-interested survival needs.
It’s hard to manage the mammalian urge to put yourself above the law, and different cultures have tried in different ways. Early Catholic popes prohibited priests from marrying in order to prevent them from feathering their own nest. In Asia, eunuchs were created for the same purpose. In ancient China, the Confucian examination system was designed to base government jobs on merit rather than connections. But that did not stop influence-peddling. Families would pool their money to support one child through long years of study, and expect the student to kick back rewards once they got into the bureaucracy. None of these strategies solved the problem of human mammals putting themselves above the law.
In Chapter 1, we saw that chickens erupt with violence when their group size grows beyond the bird brain’s ability to remember who to submit to.
Herd animals erupt with violence when they lose their leader. The fighting continues until each herd mate fights each other once, and then a new hierarchy emerges.
Humans have also embraced violence to “change the system,” but the new system is often weirdly similar to the old one. My teachers talked a lot about revolutions, but they didn’t talk much about the aftermath. When I read history for myself, I was stunned to learn that the English beheaded a king and then invited back his son. (And he said yes!) The French Revolution was followed by a long period of everyone fighting everyone else, and then a return to a dictator and his relatives. I was shocked to learn that France was run by the dictator’s nephew fifty years after the Revolution. I wanted to hate that guy, but was again surprised to learned that he did a lot of good. (He designed the Paris architecture that we admire today, and made it safe to drink the water.) Communist revolutions have fit this pattern. They’ve unleashed enormous violence, only to end up with regimes that cruelly suppress every aspect of life. My “good education” trained me to see revolutionaries as the good guys, but when I learned the facts, I let go of simplistic good-guy/bad-guy schemas.
In every time and place, people have compared themselves to others and had strong feelings about their relative position. When I was young, I often heard my parents express strong feelings about status. I saw how they made assumptions about the judgments of others, and made themselves miserable over it. I vowed to change that in my own life. I thought education would help since education is often seen as a way to free ourselves from old norms. But when I got to college, I was surprised to hear my professors express the same kind of one-down feelings that my parents had. I couldn’t understand their grievances because they seemed like the top of the hierarchy to me.
My professors didn’t see it that way. They saw a world in which athletes and business leaders got more respect than they did. They bitterly resented this. They’d been at the top of their classes in school, so they could not abide a world that didn’t put them on top. The adult world has many different hierarchies. We can celebrate our freedom to choose the ones we frequent, or we can denigrate the ones that don’t put us on top. Of course, it’s not polite to admit that you hate all hierarchies except the one that you can be at the top of. You learn to find greater-good arguments to justify the hierarchy that works for you.
My professors taught me to criticize the system. I was trained to look for systemic wrongs and find evidence to support that conclusion. Many students have figured out that you can get a good grade by condemning the system whether or not you have done your coursework. Often they do not do their work, since the brain is attuned to short-run rewards. Thus, they do not develop the skills one expects from education, and must rely more heavily on the skill at condemning the system.
Today, I see that criticizing the system is a fast, easy way to gain the one-up position. It feels good in the short run and can even raise your status in the long run. Repetition builds the pathway, so it feel absolutely true unless you build another lens on life.
Fortunately, I had another lens. My parents had grown up hungry, so I was not so easily persuaded that I was living a horrible life in a horrible system. My grandfather grew up in a Sicilian village where electricity and hot running water were virtually non-existent. Dirt floors and illiteracy were common. Few people could buy shoes or meat. Most children had worms. When people made money, the Mafia took a chunk of it. Such a life was common in much of the world until the 1950s, and Western and non-Western countries.
My grandfather left his village in 1910 at age sixteen, with only his eighteen year old brother, to work in Ohio coal mines. They made their way to Brooklyn, where hardly anyone had electricity, indoor plumbing, or a telephone by 1920. Yet, when I was born in the 1950s, these luxuries and many others were taken for granted. Yet twenty years later, my teachers saw the system that created this as an evil that needs to be scrapped.
In diverse cultures all over the world, people are being taught to blame their frustrations on “the system.” For a long time, I didn’t notice this culture of criticism the way a fish doesn’t notice water. But small experiences slowly got my attention. One happened on my internship in Haiti, when I was invited to a picnic at dam. I wondered why people would picnic at a dam, especially since the invitation came from a person with good hippie credentials. I had been trained to condemn dams as a blight on the landscape. She explained that Haitians lacked electricity before the new dam, so they see it as something to celebrate. That helped to open my eyes.
Condemning the system puts you in the one-up position, so your brain rewards you with serotonin. When the serotonin runs out, you want more, so you condemn the system again. To understand this thought loop, we need to understand our serotonin system.
The Status Games of Booker T. Washington
In the early twentieth century, Booker T. Washington noticed the flood of European immigrants into the United States. He started wondering what life was like where they had come from, so he went to study conditions in their homelands. He called it a search for the person with the worst life, and called the resulting book: The Man Farthest Down. I was fascinated by that book, so I was eager to visit BTW’s home at the Tuskegee Institute.
You may be wondering where he chose as “farthest down,” so I’ll start by reporting that it was my grandfather’s island of Sicily. The book asserts that the poorest ex-slave in Alabama is far better off than the Sicilian farm worker. Washington went into the mines with Sicilian miners, and he knew their lives because he worked as a miner at age 14. He became a college president and advisor to US presidents, so I wanted to know more about him. I was thrilled to find in him the ally I’d been looking for.
Booker T. Washington was born into slavery, and eagerly sought opportunities to learn to read. After emancipation, he spent a few months in school, but his step-father pulled him out and made him work. He kept snatching a reading lesson wherever he could, reading the letters on grain sacks and stealing moments with people who could read when one came to town. His colossal efforts to get an education are described in his best-selling autobiography, Up From Slavery. He went on to found a college for African-Americans, a teacher-training program, and a network of rural schools staffed by his former students.
Because he believed in education, Washington was frustrated when he saw it being perverted. He thought education should raise a person’s productivity, but he often sensed that it was being used to raise status instead. He saw people embrace symbols of education, like reciting poetry and wearing a top hat and cane. He wanted his educational institution to teach skills with economic value to the community alongside academic skills. The Tuskegee Institute taught twenty-seven different industrial and agricultural trades. It was so successful that new industries took root throughout the South, and famous millionaires of his era offered funding to expand the work.
But Booker T. Washington had his critics. Any mammal who becomes the center of attention is soon challenged by rivals. BTW rose to prominence with a speech he gave at the 1895 Atlanta Exposition. His speech asked Americans to focus on productivity rather than the “ornamental gewgaws of life.” After the speech, he was hailed as the leading voice of African-Americans. But a week later, rivals attacked him for being too cooperative with the white world. His critics raised their status by bonding against a common enemy. When BTW died, his message was lost and the human urge for gewgaws seemed to gain.
I had a personal stake in this issue because I saw the same perversion of education that he saw. When I was a parent and teacher, schools had embraced “social promotion”– the policy of passing students whether or not they had mastered a skill level. Students knew they would get the reward whether or not they did the work. The brain learn from rewards, so schools that give rewards without effort train young brains to expect rewards without effort. With promotion guaranteed, education came to be seen as a burden rather than a privilege.
The terrible consequences of social promotion are widely overlooked. Children face work above their skill set day in and day out. They learn to cover up, strategize, side-step, deflect, panic, and, alas, cheat. Teachers don’t want to “judge,” so little realistic feedback is available to a student. A kid can easily reach tenth grade with a third-grade reading or math level, because they stopped learning when the work exceeded their skill level.
Imagine sitting in a classroom without understanding what’s going on. Imagine well-intentioned teachers and parents smiling at whatever you do instead of acknowledging the problem. Some students run from education because this is so disconcerting. Others go on to college because faking it has come to feel natural. They may not even realize that they are faking it because they have not experienced actual mastery. They don’t know what they don’t know.
Booker T. Washington tackled this problem by teaching trade skills. He found that academic skills were learned more easily once a student learned how to learn in a trade program. When a student makes a chair in a carpentry class, they must grapple with reality. If the chair breaks when they sit on it, they can respond to the feedback instead of feeling judged by the chair. It takes a lot of skill to build a chair that lasts. And it takes a lot of failure to master a skill. Managing frustration is the core of all other skills. Students must learn to try again after they fail if they are to build valuable skills. They cannot do that if they are taught to see a setback as an injustice. Once the joy of learning is experienced, a person is eager to learn more. I was pleased to find that a century ago, BTW had the same frustrations with education, and reached the same conclusions.
BTW arrived in Sicily just when my grandfather was leaving. The book describes the horrendous living conditions he found. Families lived in one room with their animals, with no lighting at all after dark. He saw barefoot women lugging heavy sacs of fruit to market, and he saw them pay the tax collector in order to enter the town. He saw child labor everywhere, from heavy portage to skilled artisanship. He saw citrus groves guarded by the Mafia, and farming tools that seemed to date from the Bible. He saw women chained together by their own relatives while they they did harvest work, and then sent back to live in seclusion in mountain villages. He imagined the daughters of those women in American schools. I was fortunate to be one of those daughters, in a school that focused on productivity rather than status.Part 2
How Our Brain Creates Status Games
Serotonin and the Pleasure of Social Dominance
Admitting that you enjoy the one-up position is taboo for most of us. You can’t even admit it to yourself because you’re told that it makes you a bad person. But our brain goes there anyway, so it’s important to know why. We have inherited a brain that rewards you with serotonin when you see yourself in the one-up position. Serotonin feels so good that you want to repeat behaviors that stimulated it before. The good feeling is soon metabolized, alas, so we are always looking for ways to stimulate it. Here is the evidence.
Monkey studies done in the Psychiatry Department of UCLA Medical School, and at the National Institute for Mental Health, revealed the job of serotonin in the 1970s and 80s. One landmark study placed a one-way mirror between a group of monkeys and the “alpha” of their group. The alpha could see his troop mates, but they could not see him. He made his usual dominance gestures, but they did not respond with submission gestures because they couldn’t see him. He tried again and again, puffing up his chest and thrusting his head. With each failure, his serotonin fell, and he got increasingly agitated. The experiment continued for four days, during which time his agitation grew. He needed serotonin to keep his cool, and he needed the continual submission of his group mates to keep up his serotonin.
In the late twentieth century, this body of research was reported in the New York Times, major medical journals, and social science textbooks. It was widely discussed in psychiatry circles. Today, it has all but disappeared. Instead, we have the disease view of serotonin, which suggests that good feelings flow effortlessly unless you have a disorder. We learn to link serotonin to genes and the stress of “our society.” Why has the rest of the story disappeared?
One reason is that animal rights activists made violent attacks on monkey researchers in the 1990s. Lives and property were suddenly at risk. Institutions protected themselves by dropping this research except in a few high-security facilities. And researchers protected themselves by dropping any mention of studies done on laboratory animals.
A second reason for the silence is the awkwardness of the truth. If you acknowledge that social dominance feels good, people could take it the wrong way. It’s safer to trust in pills.
Here is an alternative: stop seeing yourself as a little monkey abused by bigger monkeys and you will stop depriving yourself of serotonin. You can stimulate the good feeling without being an abusive big monkey just by trusting in your own strength. If you prefer to get serotonin from the healthcare system, that’s your right. But habituation and side effects may send you looking for alternatives. You can discover the old pathways that trigger your little-monkey feelings, and redirect them in safe, healthy ways.
The Universal Quest for Social Dominance
In the UCLA research, the dominant male in a group of monkeys had twice the level of circulating serotonin as the others. But when he was removed from the group, another quickly took on the role, and his serotonin rose. The alpha’s serotonin dropped sharply while he was isolated. When he was returned to the group, his serotonin shot up and his rival’s serotonin fell back.
It is easy to take this the wrong way. At one extreme, you might see this as evidence that winning at any price is the path to happiness. At the other extreme, you might jump to the conclusion that others have serotonin handed to them on a silver platter while you are hopelessly deprived. Both extremes will hurt you in the long run. You can find a healthy middle ground when you have a deeper understanding of serotonin.
We have more serotonin in our digestive system than in our nervous system. This makes sense when you remember the link between food and dominance in animals. Serotonin motivates a mammal to approach food, so it’s logical that serotonin would also prepare the digestive system to receive food. Even amoeba use serotonin in this way. An amoeba spends its day sampling the water around it for signs of food or threat. It moves randomly until it stumbles on a sample with food and without threat. Then it releases serotonin and moves straight ahead. Serotonin gives it the confidence to push forward– just like us!
It’s essential to know that we all long for serotonin instead of thinking it’s just a certain type. For example, when wolves lose their pack leader, another wolf steps into the role immediately. Every wolf has the capacity to lead when it sees that it is stronger than others— both females and males. When female wolves, cows, or chimps lose their dominant individual, the next strongest critter replaces her. The urge for social dominance is a survival impulse, not a personality type. Each brain seeks the good feeling in ways wired in by its past serotonin experience. This is why we express the common drive in such diverse ways.
Asserting yourself is risky. A bad choice can eliminate a critter from the gene pool. Natural selection built a brain that alarms you with cortisol when you see the risk of conflict, so we look for safe serotonin opportunities. There’s no simple way to do that. It may seem like you only have bad choices between bullying or being bullied. This is not true because we have a big cortex, which makes subtle social comparisons all the time. You can manage your subtle thoughts instead of letting the swing to the extremes of bullying or being bullied. Here are three simple facts about serotonin that will help you do that.
1.) Serotonin is released in short spurts that are quickly metabolized
Serotonin evolved to motivate us in appropriate moments. In the wrong moment, it would not promote survival. For example, if you think you’re a big dog when you’re not, you will make bad choices and get hurt. Your brain evolved to avoid getting hurt. It would be nice to have a proud, confident feeling every minute of every day, but our brain is not designed to give you that.
Any serotonin you manage to stimulate is soon gone. Your brain reabsorbs it and the good feeling passes. A treadmill feeling results. You always feel like you have do more and you see the risk that you can’t make it happen. You fear losing any good feelings you have and failing to get more of it. When you know this is natural, it’s a huge relief. You are not doing anything wrong. You are not living in a terrible world. This is where our animal brain goes until we notice it and grab the reins.
You cannot do that if you don’t see it happening. But that is where you end up if you accept today’s popular psychology. It tells you that self-interest is bad, and happiness comes from devoting yourself to others. If that doesn’t make you happy, it suggests that you have a disease and doctors can fix it. The disease model rests on the presumption that other people are having effortless serotonin all the time, and you are missing out. That’s a very one-down feeling! Now you are even more convinced that something is wrong with you. It seems like your only choice is to bring your brain into the repair shop to have an expert work on it.
Unrealistic expectations distract us from the work of building the skills necessary to manage our natural impulses. It’s more helpful to remember that everyone faces the same serotonin treadmill. They are not coasting on effortless serotonin. Our brain saves the happy chemicals for survival-relevant moments, but it defines survival in ways that don’t fit the romantic view of nature. The romantic view of the animal brain makes it hard to recognize and redirect your own impulses. The better you understand the romantic view, the better you can see how it gets in your way.
My ability to see my inner mammal got a big boost from the “Dog Whisperer,” Cesar Millan. He worked on his grandfather’s farm in Mexico, and dogs worked alongside him. He observed the difference between working dogs and pet dogs. He saw that the working dogs were calm, while pet dogs were often contentious. He went Hollywood to pursue his dream of being a dog trainer, and there he saw a lot of pampered pets. He noticed how miserable and neurotic they were compared to the working dogs of his youth. Their owners were miserable too because their homes were destroyed when they left their pets alone. Powerful celebrities were dominated by their poodles until they hired Cesar Millan.
Millan told them that dogs seek dominance. If an owner act submissively toward their pet, the animal presumes they are the leader of the pack. Then they growl and snap because a pack leader’s job is to protect others from potential threats.
When a dog growls and snaps, the owner’s response often makes things worse. Pet owners tend to discipline the animal and then hug it. This leaves the dog with the impression that it is dominant again, but also that it will be disciplined if it acts dominant. This impossible lose-lose conundrum causes the neurosis we see in pets. A dog feels safe when it has a clear sense of the hierarchy. It feels insecure when the rules change constantly. Millan taught pet owners to be consistent about their status as the pack leader.
He was attacked for this insight by advocates of the romantic view, but people with neurotic pets were thrilled to restore peace in their homes.
When I heard about this controversy, I instantly saw the relevance to parenting. I lived in a world where children were raised as pampered pets. They were often treated like the pack leader. It did not make them happy, alas. I struggled to understand what was wrong, and when I heard Millan’s explanation of neurotic dogs, I understood.
People have attacked Millan’s insights by suggesting that he advocates cruelty. They misrepresent the facts to justify this conclusion. Millan is often called in on emergencies: dogs who have become violent and no longer safe for families to live with. He saves the dog’s life by retraining it, but the retraining has a harshness that is not his usual method. People criticize his harshness without noticing that he is putting his own life at risk with the violent dog. They want him to be “nice” to the dog, forgetting that this has already been tried. We want to believe that being nice to a mammal will make it happy, and when that doesn’t work, that more “nice” is the only solution. Millan helped me understand why nice-ism doesn’t work.
Many schools are disrupted by children who have not learned to manage their natural dominance impulse. Their families and teachers have submitted to their dominance in the past, so their brains have learned to repeat this behavior. As they get bigger, their unrestrained dominance seeking becomes a bigger threat.
Managing our dominance impulse is hard work. We need accurate information to meet the challenge.
Imagine a tiny poodle who barks ferociously at big dogs that pass by. Such behavior would not exist in the natural world, because pain would quickly teach that poodle to restrain its aggression. Only in the artificial world of pet owners will a tiny poodle bark out an unrealistic sense of its own power. We do not want to live in a world of constant barking, so we need a realistic view of our animal brain.
2.) Neurons connect when serotonin flows, which wires you to release more serotonin in similar situations.
Imagine that you hit a home run when you were young and got a huge round of applause. You felt great, thanks to serotonin. Your brain built connections among every neuron active at that moment. The next time you thought about hitting a home run, a bit of serotonin was released. Now you were motivated you to practice because you could feel the reward.
Our brain is designed to learn from rewards. With each reward, you build the pathway that expects more reward in similar situations. A reward is anything that meets your needs. Once your physical needs are met, you focus on social needs. There are two different kinds of social needs: the acceptance of others, and the respect of others. (More on this distinction in the following section.) When you get respect, serotonin paves neural pathways and motivates you to seek more respect in that particular way.
Imagine you cooked dinner for your family when you were young and got great recognition. Serotonin built a pathway that expects cooking to make you feel good. Of course it’s complicated, because experience varies. Maybe your next meal was not appreciated. Maybe you got even more respect elsewhere. Your whole range of emotional experiences built your expectations about what will feel good in the future, because the chemicals of emotion are like paving on your neural pathways. (More on this in the following chapter.) Neurons fire more easily when they have fired before, which is why we all repeat ourselves.
You don’t consciously think of the early experience that created your expectations. You simply have a path to the on switch of that chemical. With effort, you can figure the early experiences that wired you to expect one-up feelings from particular activities. Be sure to look for the pattern rather than just the specifics. For example, when I was young, I did a lot arts and crafts projects. That doesn’t mean I do crafts projects today. The deeper pattern is that my parents respected these projects enough to buy them for me and leave me alone to do them. I was thrilled to focus on a craft to shut out other people’s drama. In short, these projects were an escape from the one-down position. I was in charge when I did them. This built positive expectations about taking on a big independent project. (And yes, I did some crafts as an adult, but when my space filled up, I found other ways to meet my needs.)
Whenever you feel strongly about something, look for an early experience that fits the basic pattern. We all seek status in ways that worked before.
Our pathways do not necessarily make logical sense. For example, children are often rewarded for bad behavior. No one intends to do that, but when a child rages, we’re tempted to give them more attention. When a child is aggressive, we’re tempted to yield to their demands. This feels good to the young brain, and the good feeling wires it to repeat the behavior that got rewarded. The pathway gets bigger each time bad behavior is rewarded.
If you got recognition when you threw spaghetti at the wall, you may find yourself with a strange urge to throw spaghetti. Each brain sees the world through the lens of the neural pathways it has. We have billions of extra neurons available to build alternative pathways, but it’s hard to get electricity to flow into neurons that have not been developed by past activation. This is why we repeat ourselves despite our best intentions. It takes a big investment of energy to steer yourself in to new neural pathways. When you understand this, you are more willing to invest the energy.
3). The brain habituates to the rewards it has, so it takes new and improved social dominance to stimulate serotonin.
If you get the same “thank you” for cooking dinner every night, it stops feeling like a reward. If you got the same round of applause for every performance, you would stop feeling it, even if you were a Broadway star. It takes new recognition to really get your serotonin. If you got a standing ovation one night, your serotonin would thrill you. But if you didn’t get a standing ovation the next night, you’d be disappointed. You might think, “Whats wrong? Why don’t they like me?”
This treadmill is a routine feature of the brain we’ve inherited. It’s frustrating, so it helps to see understand its purpose instead of seeing it as a moral failing. If you would were an animal on the savannah, your survival would depend on your ability to smell food and predators. To do this, your brain habituates to all the usual daily smells, so it can tune in to the smells that hold important information. Today, you might love the smell of a coffee roasting shop, but if you worked in that shop every day you would stop notice the smell. If you live near a bad smell, you stop noticing that too. Our brain is designed to find new information by filtering out old information.
New information about the respect of others has survival value. If a monkey gets groomed by the same old pal every day, their brain doesn’t react much. But an extra grooming by a new friend gets their attention. Of course, a rejection by an old friend is also important information, so it triggers their threat chemicals. Our brain is always comparing new experiences to old expectations.
If you hit a home run, it feels great the first time. But if you hit a home run every day, it would stop turning you on.
If your spaghetti-throwing got the same response every time, the pleasure would fade and you would look for other ways to trigger it.
The struggling artist is a well-known example of habituation. A tiny bit of recognition for your art feel greats when you have none. You think you will be happy forever if you get recognition from a certain status figure in your community. But once you get it, the good feeling doesn’t last and you set your sights on another prestige accomplishment. You might even be offended by a form of recognition that would have thrilled you in the past. And if you reach the summit of achievement as defined by your life experience, you do not live on an endless cloud of serotonin. You live in constant fear of losing your place at the top. Every up-and-coming artist seems like a threat to your survival. You don’t know why you feel this way. You didn’t choose to feel this way. This is what happens when a big human cortex is plugged into a standard mammal brain.
Habituation helps our brain focus on the unmet need. If you were dying of thirst in the desert, any sign of an oasis would thrill you. But when you have unlimited running water, it does not make you happy. Our ancestors survived because they focused their energy on the unmet need. When they found a good fishing hole, they didn’t celebrate forever; they looked for more resources to meet more needs. We have inherited the brain of survivors.
This is why people often feel like they have to hit more home runs, or cook bigger dinners, or throw more spaghetti at the wall. And of course it’s why people think the next promotion or the next romance will make them happy forever. When the good feeling fades and a threatened feeling starts, you don’t know why. It’s easy to blame the job, the romance, and “our society.”
You may see a contradiction between habituation and expectations. There is a contradiction! Old pathways make you think that something will feel good, but when you get it, it doesn’t feel as good as you expect. This is the core of addiction. People “chase the first high” because our brain is so good at recording that first high. Imagine your first bite of a home-made brownie. It thrills your taste buds. It’s the best brownie you’ve very had. But if you have another one, it is not the best brownie you’ve every had. It would take an even richer, gooeyer brownie to get that thrill. The pathways paved by happy chemicals becomes your baseline. In the future, you compare new experiences to that. If it’s not better, your brain doesn’t waste happy chemicals on it.
It’s easy to condemn this impulse in others and in yourself. It’s useful to keep remembering its value. You would not be reading a book if your first bit of knowledge made you happy forever. I would not be writing a book if my second-grade spelling bee made me happy forever. Our brain evolved to reward us for new ways of meeting needs, not for sitting on the couch.
Serotonin vs. Dopamine, Oxytocin and Endorphin
The good feeling of serotonin is different from the good feeling of dopamine, oxytocin or endorphin. Nature gave us different reward chemicals to motivate us to meet different survival needs. We want all of them. Knowing the difference helps us understand status games.
Dopamine is the joy of meeting a need. If you are hungry and see food in the distance, your dopamine surges. You feel excited and energized to approach the reward. If your belly is full, other rewards get your attention. Your big human cortex can anticipate future threats to your resources. You look for ways to relieve potential threats, and when you find something, dopamine is your reward.
Oxytocin is the good feeling of social trust. Mammals seek safety in numbers because it promotes survival. Oxytocin is the good feeling that it’s safe to lower your guard. But sticking with the herd is frustrating and a mammal would rather wander off to greener pasture sometimes. If it did, it would quickly be picked off by predators, so natural selection built a brain that rewards you with the good feeling of oxytocin when you stick with the herd. When you’re isolated, your oxytocin falls and you start to feel unsafe. When you return to the herd, oxytocin surges. This wires you to expect a good feeling from sticking with the herd.
Endorphin means “endogenous morphine.” It’s the body’s natural opioid, and it’s triggered by real physical pain. Endorphin masks pain with a euphoric feeling, which enables an injured animal to run to save its life. Endorphin evolved for emergencies only. We are not meant to inflict pain on ourselves to get it. We are meant to seek dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin, but not to seek endorphin. People do seek it, of course. “Runners high” is the well known example. Runners don’t get high every time they run. They have to run to the point of pain.
Each of these chemicals has its own job to do, but they often work in combination. Let’s see how they combine with serotonin. Imagine that you do a specific task in the expectation of a promotion. Serotonin creates the expectation that a promotion will feel good, and dopamine creates the excitement you feel as you take steps to approach the reward. Imagine that you do a good deed for your loved ones. Your brain anticipates both the oxytocin of social acceptance and the serotonin of social importance. Imagine that you’re training for a marathon. Serotonin creates the expectation of enormous pride if you finish, which stimulates the dopamine that motivates your daily workouts, which stimulates some endorphin.
Each of the happy chemicals is complicated by habituation and past experience.
Imagine a hungry monkey who sees a piece of fruit in the distance. Dopamine is triggered thanks to past experience, and the good feeling motivates pursuit. But the dopamine stops as soon as the monkey gets the fruit because it has already done its job. The reward value of a piece of fruit depends on how hungry the monkey is, and how scarce the fruit it. In a modern supermarket, fruit is so abundant that it doesn’t excite us, but when my mother was a child, it was so scarce that she was excited when she got an orange for Christmas. The good feeling motivated my mother to take steps that enabled her to purchase more oranges in the future.
Imagine two monkeys grooming each other’s fur. Touch triggers oxytocin and it feels good. But any monkey close enough to touch you is close enough to kill you. A monkey doesn’t let another get that close unless it already trusts them. It makes this decision with oxytocin circuits built from past social experiences. Social trust feels good, but trusting everyone is bad for survival. Each mammal brain learns from experience when it is safe to lower your guard and enjoy social support.
Our brain did not evolved to give you free happy chemicals all the time for no reason. It evolved to save good feelings for new action to meet your needs. Today, it’s easier to fill your belly, so other needs get your attention. We have more energy to invest in the pursuit of social rewards because we are not busy foraging for food, water, and firewood. Thus, in a world that’s safer than our ancestors’ wildest imagining, we can end up feeling bad about small social disappointments.
Our brain is always deciding which need to focus on. We are not consciously aware of these decisions most of the time. To become aware of them, imagine you’re on a camping trip and you’re hungry, cold, and exhausted. You decide which need is most urgent, and once you’ve met it, you decide what’s next most urgent. It takes a lot of energy just to meet your basic needs. When the camping trip is over, you go back to meeting your needs on autopilot. Now you have more energy left to meet social needs. They start to feel more pressing. You long for another camping trip. Social status feels less urgent when your energy is used up by chopping wood and finding shelter.
Our brain is designed to focus on the unmet need. When you have social support and a full belly, the urge for status gets your attention. You notice that some of your group mates get more respect than you get. When you don’t get the recognition you expect, you feel one-down. The bad feeling grabs your attention when your other needs are met. You look for a way to stimulate your serotonin to relieve it.
In the state of nature, physical threats were so urgent that we focused less on social threats. Today, social disappointments can feel like survival threats because our other needs are met. To understand this sense of threat, let’s explore the threat chemical— cortisol.
The Status Games of Soong Ching-ling
(Madame Sun Yat Sen)
I visited three former residences of Soong Ching-ling on my visits to China. They gave me a thrilling “insider” feeling on history. If you haven’t heard of Soong Ching-ling, you will understand her dilemma anyway because she was a mammal among mammals just like you. She was widely revered in China as the wife of its first “revolutionary,” but she lost her place on the world stage when she was widowed in her early thirties. She wanted it back.
Opportunities came, as rival factions fought over the vacuum left by the fall of imperial rule. Each faction was eager to have Sun Yat-sen’s widow to confer legitimacy on it. She could have her pick. She chose the Communist Party over the Nationalist Party that her husband and her father had founded. Why?
Sun Yat-sen had lost control over the party before he died. Now, it welcomed Madame Sun as a symbol, but not as a player. Sun himself had allied with the Communists at the end of his life. He could not get support anywhere else after so many of his “uprisings” failed, so he took support from Moscow. The Communists were eager to support Soong Ching-ling too. She loved being in the spotlight again. She didn’t say that, of course. Throughout her life, she explained every decision by invoking her love of China.
The honeymoon was over when Ching-ling realized that the Communists wanted her as a follower rather than a leader. Her male comrades submitted to Moscow and expected her to do the same. But Ching-ling had been a prima ballerina all her life. Her father was one of the richest men in China, having prospered from ties to organized crime. Charlie Soong had spent time at a Bible school in the US South in his teens, and he wanted his three three daughters to have the same opportunity. It was unheard of for Chinese girls to study abroad in the early twentieth century, so the Soong sisters had an unusual breadth of experience.
Ching-ling had growing up seeing Sun Yat-sen work with her father on revolutionary plans in her own living room. When she returned from college, Dad made her Sun’s secretary. Sun was a huge celebrity at the time, and though he was thirty years older and married, Ching-ling responded to the overtures. Dad objected vehemently, having seen Sun mistreat the wife he already had. Ching-ling eloped, citing her love of China.
But Sun did her wrong, alas. Among other things, he endangered her life, and the life of their unborn child, to save his own life. Ching-ling did not want a divorce— she wanted to be a player. From then on, she insisted on accompanying her husband to all political meetings and appearances. Thus, she became the world’s first “First Lady,” because politicians before that had never appeared in public with their wives. Ching-ling’s reign as “First Lady of China” only lasted for two months because that’s how long Sun’s presidency lasted. I was surprised to learn this since he is so well known for that role. Much of his fame flows from the Soong family’s efforts to mythologize him after he died.
Ching-ling clung to the role of “First Lady of China” for the rest of her life. She sustained her image in the public mind by refusing to be seen with other men. But she longed for more power than the Communist Party would give her. It was too late to rejoin the Nationalists because her younger sister had married their new leader, Chiang Kai-shek. The Party was not big enough for two Grande Dames.
To make matters worse, her brother-in-law started killing Communists. Ching-ling took refuge in Moscow and was hailed as a heroine on arrival. But her high-level associates soon informed her that Stalin had executed many of their friends. Now, she was well and truly stuck, and remained that way for the next half century. When Mao Zedong took power, he invited her to join him and gave her a big title, but as a potential rival, he kept her effectively under house arrest. She broke with her family for good, citing her love of China.
Ching-ling had a fabulous standard of living compared to the unspeakable suffering of her compatriots in the twentieth century. But behind the scenes, she lived with extreme threat. As I read about her, I kept coming across the tortures that Chinese leaders used on their political opponents. They were so disturbing that I had to turn the page or fast-forward the audio. But Ching-ling could not do that. These vivid threats were part of her reality since childhood, when her father and Sun lived knew the risks that surrounded them. Ching-ling witnessed a lot of violence in China’s decades of conflict, and the threat of violence was the constant topic of conversation. As an insider in the Communist coalition, she was aware of their violence too. What could she do?
I pondered this question as I stood in her various living rooms, and I did not have a good answer. We are all swept into the flow of history, and it’s easy to feel powerless in the face of events you cannot control. Yet Ching-ling’s life was shaped by her own decisions too. She made those decisions with the pathways carved by the extravagant rewards and horrific threats of her unique individual experience.THIS CHAPTER
STILL IN PROCESS
Cortisol and Status Threats
Our ancestors lived in a dangerous world, so they built a very effective alarm system. We have inherited that alarm system. When you feel alarmed, you presume there must be a real threat because it’s so hard to believe that we can trigger this feeling with our own thoughts. Once you know how your thoughts can trigger cortisol, you can start to feel safer. You can redirect your thoughts to avoid a cortisol spiral.
Cortisol creates a full-body sense of alarm. We presume there must be a real threat because it’s hard to believe that such big feelings could be caused by something small. This is why it’s so important to understand your natural alarm system.
We humans are more helpless and vulnerable at birth than any other creature. A gazelle can run with the herd the day after it’s born, and an elephant can walk to its mother’s nipple. We humans are born with urgent needs but no way to meet them. Hunger triggers cortisol, which makes a baby cry. That works– it brings the support that meets our needs. Exploding with cortisol is our main inborn survival skill.
You are at the top of the status hierarchy when you’re born in the sense that you only have to explode with cortisol and the world rushes to meet your needs. After that, you have the gradual realization that you must meet your own needs. You have the terrible realization that you cannot control the world by crying, and in fact you cannot control the world at all. You have the awful awareness that exploding with cortisol can make things worse. You try to control your cortisol explosions in order to get the rewards you seek. We all begin life with this awful conundrum.
To complicate life further, this early experience is the foundation of your neural network. We are all born with billions of neurons but very few connections between them. Our connections build from experience, and we rely on them heavily because electricity flows so easily along neural pathways developed by past experience. So at the core of our being, we have wired in the experience of being helpless to meet urgent needs. And on top of that, we have the knowledge that exploding can make things worse, even though exploding is already our go-to skill. This is the network that’s triggered when you see yourself in the one-down position. Since we don’t think this consciously, we need to know more about nature’s emergency broadcast system.
Nature’s Threat Detector
Your brain is designed to protect you from having to touch a hot stove twice. If you get burned once, cortisol builds a pathway that turns on the next time you see something similar. The bad feeling warns you in time to pull your hand back and avoid getting burned.
We survive because cortisol is so good at its job. It paves neural pathways that help you notice threats, and it commands your attention with a bad feeling so you do what it takes to make it stop. Nature’s threat detector helps animals avoid threats and then get back to seeking rewards. But the big human brain is so good at abstracting that we can anticipate an endless stream of threats.
Cortisol is nature’s pain signal. When an animal is bitten, cortisol surges and connects every neuron active at that moment. (Neurons never actually connect since there is always a synapse, but experience develops synapses in a way that we can refer to as “connections.”) Thus, the brain connects the smell of the animal to the pain of the bite. The next time that smell reaches the animal’s nose, cortisol surges and motivates action. No conscious thought is needed. The brain simply connects the sights and sounds and smells of the pain moment to the on switch of your cortisol. This works well in the state of nature, but in the human world, it leads to some false alarms.
Animals have false alarms too. Sometimes the herd runs but there’s no predator. An animal usually sticks with the herd despite the false alarms because the thought of being isolated is even more alarming.
Animals learn to fear social isolation in an interesting way. If they had to feel the pain of a predator’s jaws before they learned to fear, few animals would survive. Nature evolved a better strategy. When a young mammal wanders off, it feels bad because it starts to get hungry and because its oxytocin falls. When it’s reunited with its mother, it feels her distress with its mirror neurons and its mother is likely to bite it as well. This builds the connection between separation and pain. A young mammal quickly wires itself to turn on a bad feeling when its separated. No conscious knowledge of predators is involved.
It’s easy to see how humans get wired to fear social isolation. When a toddler wanders off in a supermarket, it is likely to feel fear without any cognitive insight into potential threats. In short, you don’t need to actually think a predator is chasing you to feel like a predator is chasing you. All it takes is a situation that’s similar to a threat in your past.
Cortisol helps animals avoid status threats as well as predator threats. Imagine you’re a monkey and another monkey tries to steal your banana. If you resist, they might bite you and you fear the pain. But if you don’t resist, they might dominate you and you will miss out on bananas and mating opportunities and your genes may be wiped out. Of course the monkey doesn’t think that consciously, but when its status is threatened, it weighs one threat against another. We humans often find ourselves weighing the risk of asserting ourselves against the risk of not asserting ourselves. So it’s great to know that our brain is actually designed to weigh one threat against another. This is the job of the reptile brain beneath your mammal brain.
Your Inner Reptile
A lizard risks being eaten alive every time it goes out to forage. It would rather hide under a rock, but its body temperature falls when it does that. When its temperature or blood sugar falls into the danger zone, cortisol is released, and motivates the reptile to go out and sun itself or find food. The critter stays on high alert, and if it smells a predator, it rushes back into hiding. While hiding, it constantly weighs the threat of being eaten against the threat of starving or freezing to death.
A lizard doesn’t know what death is. It just acts to relieve its biggest cortisol surge. When you see a lizard sunning itself, you may think it is enjoying inner peace, but it is just running from pain. Reptiles have very little cortex, so they don’t do much learning. They rely on skills that are hard-wired at birth. Reptiles are so hard-wired that they leave home the instant they crack open their shell, and if they don’t leave fast enough, a parent eats them. We humans have a very long childhood because we have so much wiring to do. But we have a reptile operating system connecting our big cortex to our spine and thus to our body. It gives us a constant sense of urgency about anything that triggers our cortisol. We are often running from pain like a lizard.
We are vulnerable at birth, but we are not aware of it. As you grow, you have more power to meet your needs, but you also have more aware of your vulnerability. As soon as you learn to walk, you learn what it means to fall. As soon as you build social bonds outside your home, you learn the pain of losing those bonds. Each pain you experience builds a cortisol pathway that helps you avoid that threat in the future. Thus, the worst moments of your life thus become the lens through which you see the world.
To understand our natural danger radar, imagine looking in the mirror and seeing a piece of spinach in your teeth. Now imagine that you just gave a presentation, so you realize that your spinach teeth were on display. Cortisol surges and wires you to turn it on more easily next time. This can be a helpful reminder to check your teeth, but it can awful be a nagging fear of blowing it with some huge gaffe that you never expected. You try to predict every possible gaffe and prevent it, but the pathway keeps alerting you to the risk of humiliating yourself and losing the recognition you so urgently want.
Cortisol makes threats feel urgent. If a gazelle kept munching on grass when it smelled a predator, there would be no more gazelles. Creatures survive because they do something when cortisol creates a “do something” feeling. But what do you do?
Whatever worked before. Whatever relieved threat in your past wires you to repeat that behavior the next time you feel threatened. When food relieves the cortisol of hunger, it wires you to seek food. If thrusting your chest at a troop mate relieves the cortisol of losing your banana, it wires you to thrust your chest at troop mates.
Disappointment and Betrayal
We are often disappointed in our quest for rewards. Disappointment is a big surge of cortisol. You don’t consciously think your survival is threatened when you don’t get what you want, but cortisol makes it feel that way. To understand why, imagine you are a hungry lion and the gazelle you are chasing gets away. Your cortisol surges, and the bad feeling helps you give up on a failed chase. You hate to give up because you haven’t eaten for days, but if you waste energy on a failed chase, you will never catch anything. The cortisol of disappointment protects us wasting energy on failed pursuits so we have enough energy left to actually meet our needs. Lions fail in 90% of their chases. Their live are full of cortisol, but they survive.
Our quest for social rewards is often disappointed as well. Monkeys groom each others’ fur in anticipation of a social reward, but they are often disappointed. Researchers have found that monkeys respond to the distress calls of their grooming partners more than to other troop mates. They are also more likely to include their grooming partners when mating opportunity is available. But their expectations are betrayed sometimes. When this happens, researchers have found that monkeys initiate groomings with new partners. The bad feeling of disappointment motivates a monkey to take action to meet its needs.
Trust is a neural pathway built from past oxytocin experiences. Misplaced trust can threaten survival, so it triggers cortisol. Every social disappointment in your past built a pathway that warns you of potential future betrayals. For example, female chimpanzees steal the babies of weaker females sometimes. The baby will die of dehydration in a few hours, so it is at extreme risk. A mother cannot just grab the baby back without injuring it. So a mama chimp is extremely careful about who she lets near her child. All female troop mates are eager to touch her child, but she restricts access to those she trusts.
The mammal brain is always looking for support because that promotes survival. You do not always get the support you expect, and cortisol surges when your expectations are betrayed. If you don’t understand your internal process, you see this as evidence of an external threat. It’s hard to see how your expectations are the origin of the bad feeling. For example, imagine you anticipate a promotion, or the love of a special someone. When you see evidence of progress, your happy chemicals surge, but when you don’t see evidence of progress, your threat chemicals surge. Cortisol makes you feel as if you are under siege even though your own expectations are the source of the problem.
Imagine that your child is not invited to party. Your cortisol surges because the social acceptance of your child is highly relevant to the survival of your genes. You don’t think this consciously, of course. You might even tell yourself that it’s no big deal. But the pain of your own past rejections built a huge cortisol pathway. When your cortisol turns on, you presume something is wrong, and you find evidence to “prove” it. You come up with a theory to explain the perceived injustice.
We think we are being objective when we find “evidence” of threat. It’s important to know how we actually do it. When a gazelle smells a lion, its first response is to gather information, for it must know where the lion is before it can run. When your cortisol turns on, your first response is to gather information about the threat. You are looking objectively. You are looking for evidence of a threat. Your brain is designed to find what you are looking for. It activates an internal image and then scans the world for patterns that match the internal image. When you find a match, electricity from your senses flows effortlessly into the pre-activated circuit. That creates your sense of the world around you without awareness of your own role in constructing it.
A cortisol spiral can result: you scan for threat signals after that first burst of cortisol, and when you find them, more cortisol is triggered and more scanning for threat signals results. A big brain can end up with a lot of cortisol because it is so good at constructing information.
For most of human history, it was so hard to meet your physical needs that you didn’t have a lot of energy left to seek social rewards. Today, your belly is full, so you have a lot of energy left to seek social rewards, and to fret over setbacks. You can end up feeling very threatened even though your life is very safe.
A monkey feels bad when a bigger monkey steals its banana, but a monkey does not torture itself by imagining bigger monkeys stealing its bananas all the time. A gazelle does not torture itself by imagining predators when they are not there. The big human brain solves problems by anticipating them, but we torture ourselves with cortisol in the process. Small slights can feel like big humiliations because our brain is quick to anticipate threats and turn on the alarm.
It’s hard to see this in ourselves, but in others, it’s easy see our own expectations lead to threatened feelings. A fascinating example is the quest for a high-status burial in centuries past. People lived in fear of losing face after they died with a low-status burial. Poor people lived in fear of being buried in a pauper’s grave rather than having a proper cemetery plot. They even went without food to keep up payments on their burial insurance. Today we dismiss this as a foolish status game because we have other status games to focus on.
The Ultimate Threat
Death is the ultimate threat. The big human brain is aware of its own mortality. Your cortex terrorizes your inner mammal with the knowledge that your efforts to survive will eventually fail. You don’t know what will kill you so you stay alert for everything.
We try to avoid cortisol by avoiding this thought. Distraction is popular because it works. It would not work on the savannah when you faced a real predator, but it works with a big cortex that imagines predators.
The most effective distraction is creating something that will survive when you’re gone. Legacy has always preoccupied humans because it eases our fear of annihilation. For most of human history, your children were your legacy. If you managed to live to age forty, you usually had the pleasure of seeing your grandchildren learn your traditions. It gave you the feeling that something of you would survive. People did not consciously intend to do this; they just did what came natural, and in the world before birth control, a legacy emerged. If they had any energy left after feeding their children, they strove to create other legacies. They planted fruit trees and built monuments to enjoy the good feeling that something of themselves would survive.
Today, few of us get to watch our grandchildren mirror our traditions, for so many reasons. This is why we long so urgently for other forms of legacy. Any way to keep your unique individual essence alive triggers a good feeling. When a carpenter builds a chair or an artists paints a painting, the good feeling of survival is stimulated.
But there’s a catch. When you take pleasure in your legacy, any threat to your legacy feels like a survival threat. Any threat to your grandchildren or your painting or your chair feels like a survival threat. If new styles make your chair or your art undesirable, they feel like a survival threat. If someone else’s grandchildren one-up yours in any way, it feels like a survival threat. You don’t think this with your verbal brain, but you feel it with your mammal brain.
The status of your legacy triggers life-or-death feelings. You can’t admit that, of course, so you say that the welfare of future generations is your only concern. But you define their welfare in a way that just happens to raise the status of our own legacy. It feels good for a moment, but soon you see another potential threat to your legacy.
Relief at Last
We strive to do things that relieve cortisol because that’s how our brain is designed to work. Anything that relieved cortisol in your past built a pathway that turns on the concept in future cortisol moments. When a baboon relieves the cortisol of a lion’s pursuit by running up a tree, they get wired it to look for trees. If you relieve the cortisol of social rejection with a bottle of wine or a workout at the gym, that’s what you look for when you see a similar future threat.
Status relieves a bad feeling thanks to the serotonin reward. If one-upping your neighbor relieves your cortisol, then the next time you feel bad your brain activates the idea of one-upping your neighbor. Thus, we get wired to believe that status will make us happy.
It doesn’t work in the long run, of course. The more status you have, the more you can lose. Threats to your status can preoccupy your thoughts. Roman emperors had themselves declared gods because they already had all other possible form status. But they lived in fear of rivals for their status. They saw evidence of vicious treachery everywhere, from their adversaries to their allies to their subordinates. They even worried about the gods failing to give them their due.
You may hate people you see as high status without noticing that you have the same thought loop. You strive for anything that gave you a one-up feeling in your past. The good feeling doesn’t last, and so you desperately try to keep stimulating even though it leaves you worse off. Gambling is a simple example. Imagine a young person who has a big win at gambling, and enjoys a big night on the town. Good feelings instantly replace bad feelings and their brain learns to expect that. The next time they feel bad, they think of gambling. When they lose, they look for relief, and more gambling is what they think of.
We all enjoy that “winner” feeling. Most of us don’t gamble because we did not experience a big win in youth. We look for that “winner” feeling in other ways, depending on our unique individual past experience. In adulthood, we revise our expectations, but not as much as you’d think. You may let go of your dream of being a ballerina or an astronaut. You may even get past your fear of the bully down the block. But if you examine your habits for relieving distress, you will find amazing overlaps with your early experiences. It’s interesting to find these overlaps in others by asking about their early experience and noticing the match with their present patterns.
Ambition is the pleasure of anticipating a one-up position. Our big cortex is good at anticipating. We plant in the spring because we anticipate our hunger in the fall. We sacrifice for our children because that promotes the survival of our genes. We tolerate today’s cortisol in order to have tomorrow’s serotonin. You enjoy that serotonin today if you imagine yourself gaining status tomorrow. Thus, ambition is an effective way to relieve cortisol.
Ambition is both admired and condemned. People tend to resent the ambition of those they see as potential rivals, while they applaud the ambition of those they see as potential allies. When you watch an athlete perform brilliantly, you feel great because your mirror neurons share their triumph. But if that athlete is on the opposing team, you feel bad, even though you are watching the same behavior. Your chemicals depend on the way you’ve defined the one-up position. If you see an ambitious person as an ally, you feel like their strength is your strength. If you see them as a rival, their strength is a threat.
It feels better to score a goal yourself than to watching others score. Each brain looks for ways to achieve recognition. There’s always a risk when you assert yourself, but if you don’t try, you risk dying without a trace. We feel the clock ticking because our future-oriented cortex is aware of our limited time on earth. This motivates us to tolerate risks on the path to rewards. Natural selection built a brain that rewards you with serotonin and dopamine when you approach rewards in a world full of risk.
Your ambition may get a surprisingly bad reaction from your group mates. They may blast you with alarmed feelings when you seek a one-up position. They’re just trying to protect you, but self-interest is involved because you have less for group needs when you invest in your own needs. All though human history, groups have discouraged individual ambition in order to promote the group’s survival. This is easily done by pointing to common enemies, and by threatening individualists with expulsion.
It feels bad to be shunned by your group, but it also feels bad to give up on your individual goals. We often face two bad choices. Fortunately, we have inherited a brain that can weigh two bad choices.
A popular solution to this dilemma is to seek individual recognition in the name of the greater good. The dream of saving your group is a perennial meme of human culture. Young people have always dreamed of being the hero who rescues their group. The bigger the enemy, the bigger the hero you can be. Today’s focus on “saving the world” is a new manifestation of an old thought loop. Each generation strives to rescue others from threats relevant to their time and place. Each step toward this ambition triggers the good feeling of serotonin. But each setback feels like a survival threat, and you face constant competition form other rescuers of the world. Your ambitions for your group can bring good feelings, but they cannot bring permanent relief from cortisol.
The Status Games of Alexander Hamilton
Hamilton’s “country” home in the north of Manhattan is easy to visit. I went there to stand on his floor boards while pondering the choice to die for status.
How could Hamilton have good judgment about so many things, but such bad judgement about dueling? At first, I thought he wanted to die out of guilt for wrongs he did to his family. But as I dug deeper, I saw how dying for “honor” fit his early experience.
In an adolescent letter to a friend, he said: “I would willingly risk my life, though not my character, to exalt my station.” The same sentiment was expressed by Sigmund Freud in an early letter: “I could gladly throw away my life for one great moment.” Such thoughts are eerily similar to young male monkeys risking their lives to gain mating opportunity. Young male humans have always taken risks to gain the status necessary to win a desirable bride and support offspring. Hamilton and Freud put it in writing.
But Hamilton’s early experience left him with more-than-usual incentive to risk everything for status. He was born a “bastard” at a time when that meant exclusion from most institutions— even school! His social status was a jumble because his parents had an upper-class background but lived in poverty. Hamilton’s career began at age eleven when he was orphaned. He got a job, and was so effective that he was left in charge of the business by age fourteen. He was then adopted into a well-to-do family and gave himself a classical education in spare moments at work. He grew into a powerful mix of upper-class manners and lower-class ambition.
Hamilton survived many enormous threats in his earliest days, so he would have built positive expectations about risk. He kept taking more risks and getting more rewards.
Big rewards did not make him happy, alas. Hamilton always felt like an outsider. In his Caribbean youth, he was an outsider because of his family situation. When he went to America for college, he felt like an outsider because he did not belong to one of the thirteen colonies like his compatriots. He was the first “American” in the sense that he identified with the United States as a nation at a time when most colonists identified with an individual state. He achieved top status in the new country as George Washington’s right-hand man, but he continued to feel one-down.
Hamilton was harshly attacked for being a “monarchist.” I couldn’t understand that charge, since he had done so much to establish the United States Constitution. I looked for explanations, and found many.
First, partisan politics was as nasty then as it is today (and always has been). The Founding Fathers were mammals, and needed a common enemy to cooperate. they cooperated. Once they beat the British, they fought each other for status. The higher a person’s status, the more of a target they become. Hamilton’s status in the new democracy was very high, so he was a good target. Of course his rivals didn’t acknowledge their urge for status. They used greater-good argument to justify their assertions, as people do today. They look for a threat that people already fear, and in Hamilton’s day, monarchy was that fear.
Second, rival leaders interpreted current events through the lens of their unique personal experience. Hamilton had experienced violent insurrection in his Caribbean days, so he refused to support the French who engaged in mob violence. Thomas Jefferson he had just returned from five fabulous years as ambassador to France. He loved shopping for wine and philosophizing with painted women, so the guillotine and the Terror did not dampen his support. The two-party system in the US began from these two opposing views on intervention in the French Revolution. Each party used sophisticated legal language to justify positions that fit their stored experience.
Third, Hamilton had a European accent. He didn’t sound like other Americans. The Caribbean manner of expression he’d grown up with had the courtly tone of upper-class Europe. He sounded like the enemy, from the perspective of his compatriots. Paradoxically, he was also judged for sounding lower class, because he was more assertive than a “gentleman” was supposed to be. He was condemned for having “ambition.” Hamilton was like a gazelle whose stripes didn’t match any familiar pattern.
When challenged to a duel, Hamilton’s response was not unusual for his time. He had always been defensive, so it’s easy to see how susceptible he would be. You can visit the spot where he was killed, but I decided to skip that. Such a sad experience is not worth driving to New Jersey. Instead, I walked past his former home on Wall Street, trying to imagine it as a small-town residential street. When New York had a tiny population, it throbbed with the same in-group/out-group feelings as any cosmopolis today, because we’re all mammals.Chapter 6
Why It’s Always High School in Your Brain
Neuroplasticity peaks in adolescence, which is why our experiences of those years build pathways that endure. No one intends to see the world through a lens built in high school, but myelin makes it inevitable. Myelin is the substance that coats neurons the way insulation coats wires, making them super-fast conductors of electricity. Your myelinated neurons conduct your brain’s electricity so efficiently that you rely on them a lot.
Myelin plateaus at age two, and actually dips by age eight. But it spurts again in puberty. In the years when myelin is abundant, the neurons you activate repeatedly become into superhighways. This is why adults seek rewards and threats in the ways they experienced in youth. Electricity flows so easily into myelinated pathways that old associations spark without conscious effort.
Myelin helps us make sense of the world. We are flooded with more sensory input than we can process. If we paid attention to everything, nothing would make sense. So our brain has a clever way to sift and sort inputs to extract important information. It just allows the electricity triggered by your senses to flow into old pathways. Those pathways are a good indicator of what matters because they were built by real experience. The more those experiences were repeated and connected to emotion, the bigger the pathway builds.
When a new experience is similar to the basic pattern of a past experience, electricity zips down a myelinated pathway and you feel like you know what’s going on. No conscious memory of the old experience is needed. It happens so fluidly that you don’t realize you’ve made a choice. You just anticipate a good or bad feeling because you have a path connecting this pattern of experience to that chemical. The chemical makes it feel urgent so you don’t feel like you are just triggering an old pattern.
Information that fits old patterns is so easy to process that we’re tempted to ignore information that doesn’t fit. Of course we’re not conscious of ignoring it. It’s just that electricity fails to flow because the neurons it activates are not well developed. The struggle to flow along unmyelinated neurons means the electricity is soon too weak to jump across a synapse. No meaning is activated and no chemicals are released to charge the input with survival relevance. I learned this in the 1980s from the field of cognitive psychology, long before modern neuroscience.
You may object. “I am not just imposing old patterns onto new experience!” you may say. We can process new inputs, but it’s complicated. First, it takes your full attention, so you have to stop whatever you’re doing to interpret a new input. You are not eager to do this since you don’t know its value. And even then, you don’t really see it with new eyes. You just try on alternative patterns, and even construct new patterns from parts of old ones. You can never see something with completely new eyes because you are not a baby, and if you were, you couldn’t make sense of what you were seeing. Our cortex constructs meaning by matching patterns build from past experience.
Emotional experience builds pathways more quickly. Emotions exist to alert us to things that are good or bad for our survival. Our brain exists to help us survive by finding things that were good before and avoiding things that were bad before. So your high-school definition of good and bad ends up with curious power over your adult responses. The point is not to criticize your high-school responses, since you were a mammal like everyone else. You were seeking rewards and avoiding pain within the context of your lived experience.
It’s uncomfortable to think about your high-school patterns– they’re so raw because you had less time to coat them with a self-serving veneer. It’s easier to see high-school brain in others. Find out about someone’s adolescence and you will see eerily similar patterns in their life today. This may be uncomfortable for them, so it’s hard to extract the facts. But this will help you see how the brain imposes its templates on the world– even your brain! We often tell ourselves that we learned everything after we left home, and deleted everything that came before. But if you look for the emotional pattern, you will find it.
We hear a lot about the hormonal responses of adolescents, but their mammalian responses are even more fundamental. Teenagers play status games a lot. Natural selection gave them a strong urge for respect and recognition, and strong threatened feelings when that respect and recognition go to others. These chemical responses feel quite urgent to a teenager because that’s the job they evolved to do. Teens say they don’t care with their verbal brain, but repetition builds a pathway that cares a lot. You will find the pattern of your adolescent status games if you look.
It’s tempting to ridicule the high-school concept of “popularity,” yet you may release threatened feelings just from hearing the word. When you understand high school popularity, you will understand the old status circuits in yourself and others.
Popularity is a real thing in the sense that sociologists get consistent answers when they ask students for popularity rankings. Students even report accurate assessments of their own popularity in their school. This is remarkable in the absence of explicit, formal ranking systems. Each brain just observes its fellow mammals and arrives at the same conclusions.
Popularity is a widespread phenomenon because its roots are primal. The characteristics that determine reproductive success in monkeys determine popularity in high-school: a healthy appearance, strong social alliances, and a tolerance for risk. High schools students are not trying to spread their genes, but monkeys are not trying to do that either. We mammals just try to do things that feel good, and natural selection built a brain that rewards you with good feelings when you do things that spread your genes. Serotonin feels good, and behaviors that stimulate serotonin promote reproductive success. This is why adolescents are so motivated to improve their appearance, build social bonds, and take risks.
Each brain defines these traits in ways that work in their own ecological niche.
Teens define a healthy appearance in different ways, but there are core commonalities. Anything that attracts potential mates or displays reproductive potential gets attention. Animals evolve displays to attract their own kind, and teen displays evolve in order to attract one’s own kind. Wearing a corset will not make you popular today, though it was absolutely essential in the past. Nose piercings might work in one niche but not another. Your brain sees what gets rewarded and focuses on that.
Social alliances convey strength, and that makes a mammal attractive. Teen social alliances come in many different forms: street gangs, study groups, social media, athletic teams, formal positions in student organizations, or the iconic table in the cafeteria. Each brain seeks social alliances in the ways it expects to work.
Risk tolerance takes many forms too. It could be adventure sports, academic challenges, or the initiating conversations with the opposite sex. Some teens take big risks with no obvious reward because they’ve observed the popularity of those who take them. Risk-taking promotes reproductive success in the state of nature, so the adolescent brain is drawn to those who take risks. Which risks you tolerate depends on the rewards and pain you observed in your own slice of life.
There is no neat solution to the popularity problem. The harsh fact of life is that some monkeys get more attention than others. Primatologists find that animals in the wild spend a lot of time gazing at the alpha of their group. Laboratory monkeys are known to exchange resources for the opportunity to look at photo of their alpha. They do not pay for photos of other troop mates. They are effectively buying tabloids!
When young humans gather, their attention flows toward “alphas” too. Imagine a high school cafeteria with a table full of “popular” kids. Many people see them laughing and enjoying themselves. Many people feel left out. But those bad feelings are not caused by the “popular” kids. Their table has a limited number of seats and they have a right to choose their lunch mates. Bad feelings are caused by the desire for seats at that table. But without awareness of our brain, many people will blame their one-down feelings on those they see as one-up.
Social media is widely blamed for today’s adolescent angst, but it is just a new vehicle for old impulses. Social media is a new way to project a healthy appearance, build a social alliance, and take risks. When real-life popularity doesn’t happen, it’s an accessible alternative. Each new generation courts popularity with the new resources at its disposal. Past generations settled in distant lands in their quest for respect, and in today’s overpopulated world, you can project your face into distant lands to get respect.
We often hear celebrities say that they were not popular in high school. We hear the same from personal acquaintances. Hardly anyone admits to having been popular. How is that possible? One explanation is that only a tiny percentage are so blessed. Another is that we have an idealized vision of “popular,” so our lives never seem to live up. A third explanation is that claiming outsider status is the modern way to be popular. A final explanation is that we are embarrassed by our adolescent yearnings for popularity, so we deny their existence. All of these are true, and they can all help us identify the adolescent feelings about social importance that shape our emotions today.
This German word means taking pleasure in the suffering of others. Many people take pleasure in hearing that a popular classmate is a wash-out in adulthood. You get to one-up them at last!
The fallen high-school hero is a well-known pattern because the traits that make you popular in high school do not necessarily bring rewards in adult life. This is why adults have always tried to shape the experience of teenagers in ways that build essential skills. Before myelin was discovered, teens were sent to live with other families as apprentices. Harsh treatment was common, and young people learned to manage their impulses to avoid pain. Self-restraint was a skill that was useful in their future, even if it wouldn’t make them popular in a herd of adolescents.
In the 1960s, old customs were uprooted. Parents were told that children’s impulses should be honored. This made it possible for young people to myelinate behaviors that would not serve them in the long run. Courting the approval of your peers is one example. But schadenfreude is another. Teens find it easy to hate those who are getting more rewards than they are, be it romance, grades, money, or just attention. They find pleasure in a rival’s misfortune. Repetition of this mean-spirited thought loop wires it into one’s myelinated autopilot.
Hating rivals does not serve you in adult life. A group-living species needs the skill of living peacefully with stronger and weaker individuals. Mammals learn to feel safe around stronger and weaker group mates. Building this skill takes repeated experience, but adolescents will not necessarily choose that experience. In fact, they are tempted to choose the opposite, because social bonds form easily when you identify a common enemy. You can spend your high-school years hating more popular kids instead of learning to enjoy your own strengths. In the short run, the “us vs them” mindset rewards you with oxytocin, but in the long run, it leads you to conflict, one-down feelings, and cortisol.
This outcome is common because teens outnumber adults in a modern high school. This makes it tempting to mirror teen behavior and court teen approval. The modern high school is historically new. For most of human history, adolescents spent most of their time in mixed-age company. Few people got secondary education, and if they did, it was in smaller groups. Today’s adolescent is surrounded by adolescent status games, so they seem normal. Blaming others for your disappointments and frustrations can seem normal.
Young apes don’t get mating opportunity until they impress their elders. Tribal humans had to impress their elders to get mating opportunity. But a modern high school creates the illusions that impressing other kids is the path to rewards. The past had its problems, since impressing adults often meant participating in their conflicts. But simplistic opposition to adult norms can leave you without essential self-management skills.
The Quest for “Cool”
When an adolescent’s cortisol surges, they feel like it’s a real survival threat.
They feel like they’re under attack.
If they attack back, there are consequences, so they strive to control their cortisol response. This is the quest to be “cool.”
“Cool” has two meanings: being calm under pressure, and being admired by your peers. These are the same in practice, because teens admire those who manage fear and appear calm.
Adolescents learn that managing fear gets rewards. You have to manage fear to take a math test or sing in public. You have to manage fear to talk to the object of your affection. Even shoplifting is a display of fear management. Different visions of cool emerge from the same basic need to manage fear.
We’ve seen that a little monkey has reason to fear asserting itself. It is painfully aware of its relative weakness, but it manages this fear to avoid starving. Young humans, by contrast, can get fed without building much skill. In some countries, young people do not leave home much, and in some places, they even refuse to leave their room for years. Their parents leave food on trays outside their door and they don’t open the door until others are asleep. The brain is designed to weigh risks against rewards. If you get rewards without taking risks, you don’t build any risk-taking skill.
Being cool is an immediate reward. That makes it easier for a young brain to take steps toward longer term rewards.
Being cool helps you build confidence in your own strength. It stimulates serotonin by putting you in the one-up position. It stimulates oxytocin by creating a sense of acceptance and belonging.
But you risk losing everything by doing something uncool. Cortisol surges as you anticipate the isolation and subjugation. This wires in a persistent fear of doing something uncool. It can flood you with cortisol in adulthood and you don’t know where it came from. We call this “stress,” and blame it on “our society,” because high-status people do that, and we mirror them. We are better off understanding the roots of our cortisol circuits.
When you’re a child, you live with the illusion that your parents can protect you from harm. In adolescence, you start to manage your own sense of threat instead of expecting your parents to make it go away. But your threat detector is triggered a lot! Managing all this cortisol is the essential task of adolescence. The pursuit of “cool” is the adolescent label for this necessary pursuit.
For most of human history, you faced fear because you had to. There were wolves in the forest but went there for firewood to avoid freezing. Such displays of strength helped you attract a mate. Once you had a mate, children came quickly and you needed more firewood. You were so busy meeting immediate needs that you didn’t waste energy on impractical definitions of cool.
Birth control has freed adolescents from immediate survival concerns. They have a lot of energy left as a result. They are free to invest their energy in ways that make them cool in the eyes of their peers. Maybe your peers will admire you for skills that bring success in the adult world, but they might also admire you for skills that harm you in the long run. Each brain learns from the rewards and pain it experiences.
No society can protect you from the core frustrations of life. You long for serotonin, but when you get it, it doesn’t make you happy forever. You want more respect from more people, and sometimes get disappointed. You fear losing the respect you have. Cortisol motivates you to “do something” to relieve it. If you have immediate survival challenges, you don’t dwell on the cortisol of status. But if your survival needs are met by others, status games will command your attention.
When you feel one-down, you don’t know how you created this feeling so you believe it was cause by those you see as one-up. Repetition wires you to believe “they” are the cause of your misery. You think you would be happy if it weren’t for “them.”
King of the World
Adolescents long for social importance because serotonin makes it feel good. They learn that bad things can happen if you act on the urge to dominate others. So they start to learn more sophisticated ways of stimulating serotonin instead of yielding to immediate impulses. Each brain learns from the rewards and pain of its own experience.
A young person must build a sense of their own strength in order to become an independent adult. The word “independent” has taken on a negative connotation in today’s culture, where group bonds are emphasized. But a species can only survive if its young can survive the loss of their parents. The mammal brain evolved to grow from dependence to independence. The bigger a mammal’s brain, the longer its childhood, because it takes so long to build neural pathways from lived experience. But how can a young human wire itself for independence if dependence is what it has experienced?
Serotonin helps. It rewards you with a good feeling when you assert and prevail, and that motivates you to seek more opportunities to assert and prevail. Neurons connect when serotonin flows, so you get wired to repeat behaviors that stimulate it. Serotonin helps a young brain build a sense of its own strength.
But the good feeling is hard to sustain.
Each serotonin burst is short, so you are always longing for more. Your growing brain starts to imagine future opportunities to assert and prevail. You feel great when you imagine being king of the world, or at least king of the hill.
But if you overdo it, bad things happen. If you provoke a stronger individual, you end up with pain. Cortisol surges and wires you to fear provoking stronger individuals. You build awareness of your relative weaknesses. You look for ways to assert yourself without triggering cortisol. When your cortisol flows, you think your life is uniquely hellish because you don’t know that everyone confronts the same dilemma.
Fortunately, the big human cortex is there to help. Its extra horsepower can anticipate future consequences. You can try out alternatives in your mind. Our cortex helps us experiment with different ways to get attention, approval or respect, while avoiding behaviors that bring rejection, shame or rebuke. Your pathways build from the results of these experiments. In time, each brain builds expectations about what works.
Most young people figure out that raw dominance-seeking gets bad results. They learn to get rewards by denying their natural urge for importance and appealing to a greater good. Each time that works, the pathway builds. Each time we’re rebuked for openly acknowledging our urge for dominance, we learn to avoid it. You may end up wired to abhor the very thought of your own urge for social power.
This is why the idea of saving others has such appeal to young people. When you imagine yourself rescuing others from threats, you enjoy serotonin without cortisol. You brain define “rescue” and “threat” in ways that fit your lived experience. It’s often hard to see the urge for social power beneath this veneer, though we easily see that urge in others.
Oppressed and Downhearted
The quest for one-up feelings often leads to one-down feelings, alas. This is natural because adolescents start comparing themselves to adults instead of children. They seek adult rewards, and end up with a keen sense of their relative weakness. They see peers start to get rewards, and bad feelings surge.
Bad feelings make us think something is wrong, but the lives of monkeys help us understand the naturalness of ups and downs. A young monkey’s strength depends on getting enough protein, which is hard to do once mother’s milk is gone. A little monkey sees others investing a lot of energy in cracking nuts, so it mirrors them. First, it picks the crumbs from nuts cracked by others. Dopamine surges because protein is scarce. This builds a dopamine pathway that motivates more nut-seeking. Nobody cracks nuts for you in the monkey world, not even your mother. A little monkey spends years staring at those who succeed in order to learn the moves. It doesn’t tell itself that life is unfair. It just keeps trying. It feels bad sometimes, but it doesn’t expect to feel good every minute.
In high school, we watch others get rewards and try to figure out how it’s done. Disappointment often results, for so many reasons. Behaviors that worked in childhood may start to get bad results in adolescence. And even when they work, the rewards seem less meaningful. A teenager wants new kinds of attention, respect, and recognition. Your old circuits are not a reliable guide to getting it, so you look for new information. This leaves you focused on the strengths of others, which heightens awareness of your weaknesses.
Bad feelings come from the universal frustrations of the mammal brain as well as the challenges specific to adolescence:
- the fact that each burst of happy chemical is short so you always have to do more to get more;
- the way our brain habituates to the rewards we have, so it takes something new and improved to stimulate them;
- the brain’s habit of constantly comparing itself to others to avoid conflict;
- the sense that disappointment is a survival threat, though you don’t consciously think that.
Worst of all, adolescents become aware of their own mortality. Their growing cortex increases their capacity to abstract and project into the future, which allows them to see the inevitability of death.
Cortisol is part of life.
Serotonin dips are part of life.
Managing ups and downs is the core skill of life. A young person strives to do that in any way that works. Once they discover a way to feel good, they are eager to repeat it. The more they repeat it, the more the pathway builds.
Daydreaming is one way to feel good. If you imagine yourself in a future position of importance, serotonin spurts right now. If you imagine your importance in a moment of distress, good feelings replace bad feelings. Your inner mammal thinks you saved your life when you change bad feelings to good feelings. It motivates you to repeat those thoughts to relieve distress. By the time you reach adulthood, your grandiose dreams turn on so effortlessly that they seem to have a life of their own.
Of course, real-life recognition feels better than imagined recognition. So a young brain is always eager for any immediate recognition it can get. It looks for opportunity, and notices that some individuals get a lot of recognition.
The Legacy of High-School Brain
Parents want to protect their children from threat. This strong natural impulse has value, yet parents inevitably define “threat” with neural pathways built in their own adolescence. They easily project their own fear of “bullies” onto their child’s school experience. It feels urgent because the survival of their genes is at stake. Good intentions can end up reinforcing a child’s sense of threat instead of relieving it.
And parent’s intentions are not as unselfish as they think. Raising your child’s status triggers your own serotonin. Thus, any threats to your child’s status feel like survival threats.
Teachers, administrators, and voters are mammals too. They all project their mammalian longings onto children. They all want to protect children from the threats defined by their old neural pathways. No one thinks this in words, so it just seems true. Each brain can easily find evidence to prove it. Neurochemicals make it feel real. Thus, in a life that is comfortable beyond the wildest dreams of our ancestors, we can raise children with the perception that they are under siege.
The urge to be “special” is natural. Consciously, an adult knows that every child cannot be the center of attention in every moment. But your inner mammal keeps looking for ways to be special, and making your child or student “special” is an effective way to do that. Thus, any obstacle to the specialness of your child or student feels like a survival threat. It’s hard to believe that you created these feelings if you don’t understand your myelinated pathways. To help you discover them, let’s take a close look at a few well-known examples.
Imagine you’re a teenager who just flunked a math test, and your cortisol is surging. One way to relieve it would be to study more. That would help myelinate problem-solving skills as well as math skills. But studying brings the risk of failure, and if you haven’t learned to manage that fear, you might be tempted by other solutions. For example:
1. You go home and vent to your mother. She gives you a cookie and tells you that teachers are mean and that math-lovers are the real losers. You feel better. However, you fail the next test, and the next. Soon, your bad feeling are not relieved by a cookie with your mother. You wonder if something is wrong with you. You try to relieve distress by venting with friends and relatives. They want to “empathize,” so they agree with your hostility toward teachers and fellow students. By the time you finish high school, you don’t know enough math to cut a recipe in half. And when you think about learning, you release more cortisol than you can manage. Soon, you become a parent and your feelings about school are part of their environment.
2. You leave the ill-fated math test and run into friends who invite you to a party. You drink your first beer and you feel great. You have forgotten about the test, and this teaches your brain that beer relieves threats. The next time you flunk a test, and the thought of beer pops into your head. You succeed at replacing bad feelings with good feelings, so from your mammal brain’s perspective, it works! The next time you have a test, you anticipate bad feelings, so you think of having a beer before it. Now you can barely read the test, and you feel even dumber. But your friends think you’re cool, so you drop out of school so you can feel important full time. You start buying alcohol for younger kids, but you cannot even count your change.
3. A teacher sees you crying after the math test. She says you probably have a learning disorder, and the system is unfair to people with your disorder. You repeat what she said in an essay in her class, and she gives you an A. It feels so good that you repeat the strategy in a class that you didn’t prepare for. You are thrilled by another A. You stop reading and studying entirely, but you listen to a video about injustice. You repeat the words you hear, and the A’s keep coming. You even get nominated for an award. You don’t want this attention because you know you’re unprepared, but they offer you a college scholarship. You can hardly read the college application, but they offer you “help.” They fill out the application for you, except for the essay. You add your usual essay on systemic injustice, and they polish it a bit. Soon you’re in college, where you are thrilled to find that your adolescent strategy still works.
We want young people to feel one-up because we we want that for ourselves. There are many ways to stimulate that good feeling. The better you understand your brain, the better you can understand your options instead of just running on adolescent impulses.
We humans have strong in-crowd/out-crowd feelings because our brains are wired in puberty. The status games of high school channel our social responses in later life without conscious intent.
Myelinated neurons are our autopilot. They are so efficient that we use them for routine tasks, which frees our limited cognitive capacity for more complex tasks.
Myelin peaks at age two, but it remains high until age seven. Then it drops, which is useful because it motivates children to build onto existing circuits instead of storing each new input in isolation. Myelin spurts again in puberty, and it’s easy to see why. In the state of nature, mammals prevent inbreeding by transferring to a new troop at puberty. New skills are needed in a new environment, and the myelin of puberty makes it easier to wire them in. Our human ancestors often found a mate in a new tribe or subculture. They had to learn new faces, new customs, and a new way to get home in the dark. Myelin helped.
After puberty, our myelin is about enough to repair the pathways we already have.
Thus we rely on the superhighways built in youth throughout life. We can build new pathways in adulthood, but it takes so much repetition that people tend to give up. For example, you can learn a foreign language in adulthood, but most people don’t. Your native language was learned during your peak myelin years. A lot of repetition was involved, but you don’t remember that. The words of your native language come easily because those pathways are so efficient. When you try to speak a new language, the neurons are hard to activate.
It’s the same with our emotional responses. We rely on the efficient pathways myelinated by the emotions we experienced repeatedly in youth. Today, you see new experiences through the lens of the pathways you have.
You didn’t decide to activate an old response, and you may not even remember the original experience. It feels like you are just seeing the facts, the truth, reality. Yet a different set of pathways would suggest different “facts.”
The effortless flow of electricity down a myelinated neuron gives you the feeling that you know what it going on. It’s hard to override that response because it’s hard for electricity to flow down unconnected neurons. When you try an alternate perspective, the flow is so weak that the alternative feels less real. This is why we tend to repeat old responses even when we’d rather not. And this is why the experiences of youth shape our adult lives so deeply.
Your adolescent circuits are unique to you, but our patterns have a lot in common. Every adolescent confronts the same core dilemma. We start to realize that our parents cannot meet our needs forever. Some needs cannot be met by your parents at all. Your survival will depend on your own efforts. You seek rewards by observing and mirroring what works. When you see others get rewards, your neurochemicals respond.
We all find ourselves repeating old responses. We can’t explain why we do it because we’re not aware of our own pathways. So we come up explanations that make us look good, or we use the explanations we hear from others. We have more power over our emotions when we understand the circuits that trigger them.
Gazelles are quite picky about who they let into their herd. Gazelles with two stripes on their butt do not mix with gazelles who have one stripe. Gazelles with one black stripe and one white stripe do not mix with gazelles with two black, or two white. Each set of stripes is linked to genetic adaptations that promote survival in specific ecological niches. Offspring have better survival prospects when their parents have the genes adapted to the niche the baby lives in. Gazelles don’t understand genetics, but they spend their lives checking out the butts around them. They also recognize the smell of their herd, and exclude outsiders on that basis. If you try to push your way into a herd that doesn’t recognize your smell, you are more likely to be pushed back to the dangerous outside edge. Thus, herd animals have life-or-death feelings about sticking with your herd.
Chimpanzees have more neurons than gazelles, and they use them to make finer social distinctions. Chimps have subgroups within their groups, and the subgroups stick together when the troop is attacked. But when externals are safe, internal conflicts erupt. Subgroups keep their distance to minimize the friction. Thus, each individual must choose their allegiance.
Each chimp looks for the strongest allies it can get, but they balance that against the risk of having no allies at all. The result is in-group/out-group feelings that we all know well from our own social interactions.
The primate brain is designed to make decisions about which social bonds to invest in. When a chimp’s display of strength is recognized, it enjoys a bit of serotonin. That feels so good that they look for a safe way to display their strength again. If they play the game well, they gain acceptance into a strong coalition. But not every chimp in the troop can be part of the strongest subgroup. And playing the game has a down side: every self-assertion brings the risk of attack and permanent injury. Just getting bitten in a tendon can weaken a chimp enough to bring a quick end.
So instead of running around acting like a big shot, every chimp has a keen self-restraint. Cortisol wires in a fear of self-assertion just as serotonin wires in the joy of self-assertion. The two sets of circuits work together to steer a chimp through social niceties in order to get rewards and avoid pain. Sometimes, the reward is concrete, like a share of meat in a kill, protection for one’s offspring, or a nod from the big kahuna when mating opportunity is available. Sometimes, the reward is just a pleasant serotonin moment with its relief from cortisol.
In the human world, we are constantly navigating social situations in hopes of getting rewards while avoiding pain. When we see an out-group threat, our in-group tensions relax. Once the common enemy is gone, our attention shifts quickly back to in-group rivalries. External enemies help groups cohere, so it’s not surprising that common threats are a frequent topic of discussion in our groups. When outside threats ease, you may notice your attention shifting back toward internal rivalries. Each brain looks for one-up opportunities, and each brain surges with cortisol it that quest is disappointed. We don’t think of this cortisol as a tool for social navigation. We just want it to stop.
The Status Games of Shakespeare, aka Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford
I went to Stratford-on-Avon to visit Shakespeare’s birthplace, and was thrilled to be surrounded by 500-year-old buildings. It helped me think of Shakespeare as a living person, so I wanted to know more about him. My reading led to evidence that “Shakespeare” was a pen-name for someone else. I thought this was paranoia at first, but the more I learned, the more obvious it seemed. Whether or not you see Edward de Vere as the author of the Shakespeare plays, his story is fascinating. His status bounced from high to low with dizzying frequency.
De Vere was heir to the highest peerage in England. His father presided over the coronation of Queen Elizabeth, and half a century later, Edward officiated at her funeral and at the coronation of her successor. But status didn’t bring happiness. A monarch could easily accuse you of treason and chop off your head in the 1500s. Life at the center of power meant constant risk.
When Edward was eleven years old, he’d been a student at Cambridge University for years, and went home to help his parents host Queen Elizabeth’s visit to their castle. None of this was especially unusual for the high nobility. And it was usual to entertain a visiting monarch by putting on plays. Edward’s Dad had his own theatrical troop for this purpose, and young Edward could participate.
Soon after, Dad died under mysterious circumstances, and the young Earl of Oxford became the legal ward of Queen Elizabeth. She brought him to London in a procession of 120 white horses, and fostered him in the home of her chief minister, William Cecil. There, de Vere lived under the same roof as England’s second largest library. Cecil brought the top scholars in the land to tutor the boy in a different subject every hour. At fourteen he was sent to Oxford University, where he learned what was known at the time about astronomy, anatomy, mathematics, and history. He spoke many languages and had advanced skill in many arts and physical pursuits. Elizabeth attended his graduation, and then he went to law school. De Vere may have been the most educated person in history.
But what he liked was theater. He wanted to study theater in Italy, where a hot new form of social media called Commedia dell’arte had caught on. Any parent might object to this plan, and William Cecil was a Puritan who saw theater the devil’s playground. Cecil had other plans: to marry his daughter to the young aristocrat and thus make her the second-highest lady in the land. Fortunately for de Vere, the Queen loved watching plays. He finally got permission, and spent over a year in exactly the places where the Shakespeare plays are set. When he returned to London, he started writing plays that were performed in court.
A royal court is hard to understand from today’s perspective. Imagine every high-status person in the country hanging around with no clear job description, vying for recognition from anyone with influence over the Queen. De Vere got recognition by writing plays that made people laugh.
But it was complicated. His plays were like Saturday Night Live, poking fun at courtiers in ways that insiders understood. People began to resent the young Earl of Oxford, and he made it worse by wearing strange clothes that he brought back from Italy. He persevered, however, and even sponsored drama troops with his own money the way his father did. But he was short on funds. His legal status as a “ward of court” gave the Queen rights to his inheritance, and William Cecil implemented those rights with brutal efficiency.
Trouble bubbled when de Vere’s low-born drama friends leaked scripts of his plays to printers. Printing was the internet of the time— a new, low-cost way to reach a much bigger audience. Printing was highly censored, but people were so eager for good material that they took chances. It was common to see works without an author’s name, and that’s how the first Shakespeare plays appeared. Thus, Lord Oxford’s little hobby could embarrass powerful people in public. What could be done with him?
Around this time, “Shakespeare” started writing historical plays that glorified Elizabeth’s ancestors as well as de Vere’s. The Queen committed to pay de Vere 1,000 pounds a year for life in an executive order that forbade any accounting for services rendered. This was a brilliant move. Theater had the power to build a national identity among people who were a bunch of warring dukedoms before the Tudors. The plays would seem like Tudor propaganda if people knew they were written by a top courtier, so it’s easy to see why Elizabeth would want to disguise their authorship.
Today, it may seem hard to believe that a writer of such plays would give up credit. But remember that Oxford already had top status. And there was always that pesky risk of getting executed, or worse. (If you wonder what could be worse, research torture in that period.) The horrific threat felt viscerally real because severed heads were routinely perched on city gates for everyone to see.
And there were bigger problems. The Queen refused to marry, and without an heir, England could revert to civil war. Her choice is understandable for someone who grew up knowing that her father chopped off her mother’s head. Elizabeth was close to the ax herself when her Catholic older sister was on the throne. So as she faced the end of her fertility, she declared that it was treason to even discuss the succession problem.
But Cecil was a take-charge guy. One theory is that he arranged for a secret marriage between the Queen and de Vere. A legitimate heir with the best blood could be produced for insurance without Elizabeth having to yield power to a husband in public. De Vere was treated like a stud with no rights. This arrangement would explain his strange public announcement that he would not consummate his marriage to Cecil’s daughter. The niceties of Church law would honored despite the irregularity. The child could be passed off as the son of an aristocrat until the time was right. It was easy to find a Catholic aristocrat who would cooperate to escape treason charges.
That child is allegedly the person that “Shakespeare’s” first book is dedicated to: Henry Wriothesley, Third Earl of Southampton. The name “Shakespeare” appeared in print for the first time on a long poem called “Venus and Adonis,” which is the story of a powerful older woman seducing a younger man. (You can’t make this stuff up!) The first page of the book is a dedication to Southampton, who was twenty years old by then. The lad is also believed to be the “fair youth” of the sonnets. Why would “Shakespeare” dedicate his work to this youth?
Southampton’s back story is eerily familiar. His father died in mysterious circumstances when he was nine years old, and he became a ward of court living in Cecil’s home. When he came of age, Cecil insisted that the boy marry Cecil’s granddaughter— the very child Cecil’s daughter produced while de Vere was refusing to consummate their marriage. Cecil’s eagerness to get his genes on the throne is clear, and one could see the same motive in de Vere. But Southampton refused to marry the girl, so Cecil withdrew his support. What could de Vere do about it? It’s easy to see how he’d try to solve it with his pen.
The poem hints at the existence of an heir in a way that would speak to insiders but also protect de Vere from treason charges. The stalemate continued, alas, so another “Shakespeare” poem appeared the next year, with another dedication to Southampton. These works were huge best-sellers, though most copies have mysteriously disappeared.
It’s easy to see how Southampton would have had a sense of his own importance and aspire to be more than Cecil’s pawn. The aging Cecil finally passed on, but before he died, he installed his son Robert as the right-hand man of the aging Queen. Southampton got tired of waiting and tried to take power by force in alliance with another young Earl. The night before their uprising, Southampton arranged a special public performance of Shakespeare’s Richard III, with an added scene in which Richard, looking just like Robert Cecil, hands over the crown in front of the audience. Despite this dramatic incitement, the real-life uprising failed, and the conspirators ended up in the Tower.
Southampton was condemned to death in a trial presided over by Robert Cecil’s first cousin, Sir Francis Bacon. Edward De Vere was brought out to rubber-stamp the jury’s treason verdict. But he would have worked desperately behind the scenes to save his son. We know that Southampton remained in the Tower when the other plotters were decapitated. He was released as soon as power passed from Elizabeth to James I. We know that Robert Cecil had a secret agreement with James of Scotland. And we know that James ordered Southampton’s release immediately on the news of Elizabeth’s death, before he went to London. It seems as if de Vere cut a deal, exchanging his son’s life for a promise to submit and disappear.
The name “Shakespeare” indeed disappeared from print for twenty years. Then, de Vere’s son-in-law published all the plays, including eighteen that had never been seen before. He seems to have found a way to keep the work alive while also keeping himself alive— by hinting that “Shakespeare” was a country bumpkin with that name rather the sire of a rival monarch. The whole drama went dark soon after because the Puritans took over England and shut down the theaters. When the Restoration came decades later, the Shakespeare plays were immensely popular, but no one remembered the inside story.
Imagine de Vere’s grief at the end of his life. Instead of enjoying the comfort of his true legacy, he faced his end without recognition or respect except from the cluster of dramatists he funded. I imagine him thinking just what the dying Hamlet said to Horatio, “What a wounded name shall live behind me, things standing thus unknown.” De Vere really did have a young cousin Horatio, so it’s easy to imagine the dying man begging Horatio in Hamlet’s exact words, “In this harsh world, draw thy breath in pain to tell my story.”
I felt tremendous kinship for a person who stayed focused on writing throughout such trials. I wanted to visit his home and stand where he stood. Unfortunately, London burned in 1666 and those places are gone. But the letters de Vere wrote to Cecil from college and from Italy survive in the archives of Robert Cecil’s country home. I wanted to go there and touch the paper he touched, but you have to be an accredited researcher and I didn’t meet the criteria. The de Vere family castle in rural Essex is still partly standing, and I will go there as soon as I can travel. Until then, I was happy to learn that Southampton’s childhood home was turned into a hotel that I have stayed at!