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Table of Contents
Introduction: Why We Care About Status Games
Part I: Why Status Games Are Relentless
1. The Status Games of Animals
2. The Status Games of 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 the Threat of Losing Status
6. Why It’s Always High School in Your Brain
Part 3: How To Free Yourself of Status Games
7. How to Feel Your Strength in a Harsh World
8. How to Wire In Your New Strength Circuit
9. How to Make Peace with the Mammals Around You
Why We Care About Status
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 makes it easy to see patterns that we know so well from daily life. These patterns come from chemicals that the mammal brain releases in response to its social position. These chemicals give 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.
Mammals have status distinctions in their herds and packs and troops. They put great effort into raising their status because it promotes their genes. Of course, they don’t think this consciously— they just do what feels good. Natural selection built a brain that rewards you with a good feeling (serotonin) when you raise your status and 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’s releasing a good or bad feeling. It seeks social dominance without without words or concern for the future. It just strives to repeat behaviors that trigger serotonin and avoid behaviors that trigger cortisol. Our limbic system does the same. Your verbal brain and your limbic brain are not on speaking terms, so 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. We seek recognition in ways that worked in our past. These efforts fail sometimes, which triggers cortisol. That makes status setbacks feel like survival threats, even though you don’t consciously think that.
You can end up feeling threatened a lot in a life that is safer than our ancestors’ wildest imagining. Your cortex tries to relieve the threat. It looks for patterns because that’s its superpower. 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:
- we feel threatened by the natural dips of serotonin;
- cortisol creates a full-body sense of alarm that’s designed to get your attention;
- we presume the alarm is a real threat so we find evidence of threat.
When you don’t know how you are doing this, you presume the world is doing it to you. You think others are putting you down because you are trying to put yourself up and don’t notice.
Disappointment is inevitable when you try 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. Life is easier when you understand your brain. You can accept the natural ups and downs of serotonin. You can stop seeing cortisol as a real threat. You can stimulate serotonin in healthy ways. Step one is to understand the job your brain evolved to do.
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 trying to meet their needs. Mammal stick with the group despite the tension because predators pick off isolated individuals. So the ability to coexist was naturally selected for.
This ability is often romanticized. When you see a group of animals, you think they have the solidarity that you long for. But in fact, they are on the verge of conflict a lot. They avoid conflict because the weaker individual backs down to avoid injury. The mammal brain constantly compares its strength to others. 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 contrasts sharply with the idealized view of animals, so let’s zoom in closer on the drama of nature.
Reptiles don’t live in groups because they can’t get along. 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 have survived for millions of years without making fine social distinctions. With this simple operating system, most reptiles die before they reproduce, but a female reptile can have hundreds of offspring, so enough survive to keep their species alive.
Mammals have few offspring because a warm-blooded baby is harder to gestate than a cold-blooded baby. So mammals do their darnedest to keep each newborn alive. Reptiles leave home as soon as they’re born, and a parent eats them if they don’t leave fast enough. A newborn reptile is hard-wired with survival knowledge. Mammals are born helpless and need parental care to survive. Their survival skills are wired in during this early period of dependence. But mom won’t live forever, so every young mammal must learns to feed itself and transfer its attachment from its mother to its group.
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 to reproduce is even harder. Yet natural selection equipped mammals to learn these social skills. 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 fruit 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, it uses this guidance system to find reproductive opportunity.
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 it’s part of us. This is easy to see in others, but hard to see in yourself. It always seems like others want to grab. Cortisol flows.
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 easily finds evidence to prove that.
Moral superiority feels good because it puts you in the one-up position. You enjoy serotonin 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 feel good when you see yourself in the one-up position, as much as you hate to admit it. The good feeling soon passes, and your brain longs for more. We have more words for this feeling than Eskimos have for snow. We call it: pride, ego, self-confidence, glory, dominance, power, arrogance, assertiveness, manipulativeness, competitiveness, one-upping, status, social importance, being special, being prominent, being a winner, feeling superior, dignity, saving face, and getting recognition, respect, approval, or attention. We use words with positive connotations when people we like seek dominance, and words with negative connotations for people we don’t like.
We need a lot of words for serotonin seeking 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 gain social importance. This brain sees social setbacks as survival threats. 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 with all your might. 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 mammalian social rivalry, but you may have thought it already!
Quest for Serotonin
The disease approach to serotonin prevails in our world today. We learn to think serotonin flows effortlessly in “normal” people. If you don’t enjoy this effortless flow, you are told that it’s a disorder or disease that a professional must fix it. If this theory is working for you, good. If it is not, a one-minute biology lesson reveals the inconvenient truth:
- serotonin evolved to do a job, not to flow all the time for no reason;
- 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 “new and improved” 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 always seeking safe serotonin opportunities.
If you think others enjoy serotonin all the time, you feel like you are missing out. You may think “big shots” get serotonin easily, and you’ve been shortchanged. This is just false. There is no royal road to serotonin. If you were king of the world, you would not feel good every moment. You would live in constant fear of plots against you. The mammal brain lures us into thinking 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. People who use social media learn to blame it for their emotional ups and downs. People who don’t use it feel superior, but they have one-down moments anyway and blame them on everyone else’s use of social media. All through human history, people have used the latest technology to seek serotonin. People quested for “likes” with whatever technology was available in their lifetime. And they feared losing “likes” with the same neurochemical sense of urgency. Blaming social media keeps you safely inside the herd, but it doesn’t help you feel better.
It’s hard to get real about your internal process when everyone else blames their emotions on externals. It’s easy to win friend and influence people when you pander to that externalizing. But if you yield to this temptation, you may end up with 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 see status games as the quest for a fancy watch or a lofty title. You may think of dominance seekers as people who talk over you, or get into bar brawls, or visit their money in Switzerland. These are examples, but there are myriad ways to seek social dominance. Each brain targets what worked in its past and fears losses it has actually experienced. A wide array of serotonin strategies results. Here is a list of examples that you will recognize. 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 for a while, but after a few wins, it didn’t feel as good. And truth be told, I didn’t always win. Our brain habituates to the rewards it has, and weighs the return on the energy it invests. I soon lost interest in spelling status, but retained some positive expectations about my ability with words.
As you read the following list of status-seeking strategies, look for 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, shoes, jewelry, sports equipment, artworks, and clothing are popular status objects. People want status objects if they expect to get respect by displaying them. You build this expectation if you respect people who have a certain object, or grew up around that form of respect. When you buy the object, you feel good for a while, but soon you see others with better objects. 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 despise those with status objects, but this is 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 status because it’s free and doesn’t waste resources. Best of all, you can always declare yourself the winner. 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. Self-destructive habits often go in tandem with a belief in the superiority of one’s ethics. People think, “I have to drink because I feel the pain of others so deeply.” 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.
Your mind judges the appearance of others, so it presumes they are judging yours as well. Animals judge appearances 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 hurt themselves to raise their status, a different game comes to mind:
- My intelligence is higher than your intelligence.
You define intelligence in your own mind, yet your brain is sensitive to real-world feedback. In the past, intelligence was associated with speaking Greek and Latin. Today, we have many different associations. One person cares about “street smarts” while another cares about data-compression algorithms. Test scores and diplomas get attention, but whatever your credentials, you can always find a way to feel smarter than others. The good feeling soon passes so you have to catch them being stupid again and again. While you’re doing that, you may catch yourself doing something dumb. Suddenly you’re one-down. You feel like the smart people of the world are crushing down on you. You urgently try to to stop the bad feeling with a kind of status you can control, like:
- My desk is neater than your desk.
My pie crust is flakier than your pie crust. My crops are plowed in straighter rows. My batting average is higher. These status games are easy to ridicule in others, but it’s useful to take pride in something you have control over. 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’re prone to repeating ourselves, though we get diminishing rewards. Frustration leads to cortisol. If you break out and look 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 our adult emotions. In adulthood, we don’t acknowledge the way we compare partners, but a brain designed to spread its genes tends to go there. Past experience taught you how to rate a partner, so different ratings emerge from a common impulse. When your partner comes out on top, you feel good, as much as you hate to admit that. When they don’t, you feel bad, and may even blame them. This is bad for a relationship, of course, so we may divert ourselves with other status games, like:
- 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 or you have a better drug dealer. Maybe you pride yourself on how long you can go without sleep. Why would a brain that evolved for survival take pride in a skill that is 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, you look for other ways to win social approval, but nothing seems as reliable as what you know. It’s not surprising that people look for something to fall back on, 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 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 accord status to weakness. But the mammal brain finds strength in social alliances, and shared grievances build strong alliances. You can build a strong alliance by telling people they are one-down and promising to raise them. This is what chimpanzees do in a small-cortex kind of way. A dominant chimp asserts control over a bunch of bananas and then gives them to its allies. This is called “sharing” by people who advocate sharing, which overlooks the way the leader got the bananas. You can get free bananas by playing the hardship game, but you have to submit to dominant apes to get them. If this bugs you, other status games may appeal, such as:
- My impact is bigger than your impact.
The human cortex has a terrifying awareness of its own mortality. One way to relieve that sense of threat is to create something that will outlast you. It’s hard to have a lasting impact, however. Much self-assertion is needed, and that brings the risk of conflict. You ease that risk when you assert in the name of others. You expect social support when you appeal to the greater good, so if feels safer to do what it takes to have an impact. This strategy is so appealing that many people forsake other status games and focus on the quest to have an impact. The result is enormous competition to have an impact. You might prefer to escape the competition by focusing 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, or even people who just use the word “portfolio.” But imagine yourself in the days before railroads, when food was so hard to transport that you’d starve if you ran out. To survive in those days, you needed reserves so you could plant next year’s crop, eat until the harvest time, and weather any emergencies. Your reserves could be eaten by vermin or stolen by attackers, so you had urgent feelings about building reserves. Now imagine a neighbor who did not build reserves because they were busy trying to have an impact. Perhaps they were busy telling others how to grow food instead of growing it. Now they feel threatened. They resent your reserves. People have strong feelings about reserves because they were a matter of life and death in the world of our ancestors. If you feel one-down about your reserves, you might seek one-upness by thinking:
- I get more love than you get.
Children compare the love they get from parents and teachers. Teenagers compare the love they get at parties. Leaders in Ancient Rome tragically compared the love they got from the public. You can say you don’t compare, but when you see others getting love, your inner mammal feels like it’s missing something. Fortunately, you can define love however you want. You may focus on the love of God or the love of your dog. You may have an entourage of adoring fans or a long string of divorces. However you define love, your brain notices when others get it. A frail grandma may get more than you from her flock of grandchildren. You don’t see how frustrated she is by the grandma next door who flaunts her own descendants. It’s not surprising that past generations sought status by having more children and sometimes more wives. This mode of social rivalry has obvious drawbacks, so we appreciate alternatives such as:
- My taste is better than your taste.
It’s easy to see bad taste in others and applaud the superiority of your own taste. When you point to bad taste in people with money, you feel you have risen above them. When the serotonin is gone, you can find more faux pas among those you think are above you. In today’s world, the concept of “creativity” is replacing the concept of good taste. When you feel one-down, you can always feel superior about your creativity. The problem is that you’re still keeping score. You’re still judging them because you presume they’re 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 way to convey 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 time-honored path. Monkeys groom the fur of higher-ranking monkeys because 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 it 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 it’s hard to sustain that one-up feeling. It’s not surprising that people resort to primal forms of status, like:
- I can control you.
Imagine you’re waiting on line at the Department of Motor Vehicles. You may feel powerless in that moment no matter how much power you have in the rest of your life. The bureaucrat in front of you might abuse their power because they can. People are often tempted to gain the one-up position in any way available to them. On the other hand, the person you are dealing with might be quite reasonable, and you are blaming your frustration on them because the truth is too painful— like being at the DMV because of your many traffic violations. We are not objective judges of our social interactions. We all have a brain that longs for the one-up position and fears the one-down position. This is why people think their waiter is snubbing them when their water glass is empty. We know we like control, so we may be quick to presume that the other person is seeking control. Fortunately, you have the self-restraint to avoid escalating to:
- I can inflict more pain than you can.
In the modern world, we’re expected to control the impulse to win at any price. Most people learn to restrain their power at such a young age that we don’t know it’s learned. If you grab a toy from another child, or bite the child who grabs your toy, you are taught to restrain this impulse. But for most of human history, and for our animal ancestors, the ability to inflict pain was the coin of the realm. You built that skill and you prided yourself on it. Today we have learned to anticipate consequences. 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 explanation of the cortisol circuit you built as a toddler. You easily see the lack of self-restraint of others. They try to inflict pain because they expect good consequences. This happens when a person grows up seeing bullies prevail. It also happens when a child gets rewarded for bullying behavior. They learn to expect bullying to work. A non-violent way to inflict pain is the game of: “my lawyer is better than your lawyer.” But you can raise your status without inflicting pain with 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 are predicting 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 predict the behavior of predators and prey. They struggled to predict rain. Today we struggle to predict which start-up will take off, which post will go viral, and which athlete or politician will score. Gambling, video games, chess are other ways to feel superior about your capacity to predict. Your brain releases dopamine when your predication 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 predictions prove 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 can easily see the flaws of others, and you can even pride yourself on your perceptiveness. When the good feeling passes, you focus on their flaws again. This thought loop is widespread, so it’s easily learned from others. You are welcomed into the club if you ally with others against “the jerks.” Animals bond in the face of common enemies and spread out when predators are few. People do the same because the mammal brain rewards you with oxytocin when you build social trust. Serotonin is added when your alliance feels superior to “the jerks.” This double reward makes it enormously tempting to bond with perceived good guys to fight perceived bad guys, whether it’s politics, sports, or a casual gripe session.
They Are Putting Me Down
If you monitor your thoughts, you will find that you spend much of your day longing for the one-up position or fearing the one-down position. You might tell yourself you have no choice because others are putting you down. It seems like others are putting you down because their mammalian urge for dominance seems obvious. It’s hard to see that urge in yourself because your verbal brain comes up with other explanations. Thus, our status games always feel like their fault.
Cortisol turns on a full-body alarm when you fear the one-down position. Once the alarm sounds, your cortex is good at finding evidence to explain it. Neural pathways build each time you do this, so we slide into that thought loop quite easily. The belief that you are being wronged is almost irresistible to a big-brained mammal. Yet 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
Many people think their perceived grievances entitle them to break the law. This book rejects that belief. We benefit from the rule of law, and nothing in this book is intended to support the conjecture that one-down feelings justify law-breaking.
It can be hard to see how you benefit from the rule of law, so here is a simple example. Imagine you find a parking ticket on your car and you surge with anger. You feel stupid for making a costly mistake. Blaming yourself feels very one-down, so you find a way to blame the system for your ticket. You feel better for a moment, but this mindset triggers a bad feeling about the system every time you park. Here’s a different way to look at it. Every time you park, remind yourself that this parking spot is available because parking rules are enforced on others. We usually 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 seen as the common enemy in the culture of my “good education.” Then I lived in countries without rule of law and it opened my eyes. Now, when I stand in line at the DMV or send a package at the post office, I am grateful that I will not have to pay a bribe. When I became a parent and a college professor, I was tempted to be an anti-authority authority like the parents and professors around me. But I saw how everyone loses when children are allowed to put themselves above the rules. I wanted to help young people prosper within the rules instead of allying with them against the rules.
Sometimes, the law seems like an obstacle in your one-up position. 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 laws are enforced on others, so you can expect the same constraints on you.
Learn from History
Each chapter of this book ends with the status games of a real historical person. I chose these people because I visited their homes and felt their status frustrations while standing in their living rooms. Their homes are open to the public, so you can do this too. Status frustrations are often blamed on “our times” and “our society,” so it’s useful to see the same patterns in other times and other societies. When the same patterns are everywhere, we can see the underlying mammalian impulses. That makes it easier to accept yourself and others. You can enjoy the world instead of cursing it and spiraling with cortisol.
The Status Games of Charles Darwin
I was thrilled to learn 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 didn’t challenge anyone directly since he was quite meek. But his new paradigm challenged anyone whose status depended on the old paradigm. You may gain status with a new paradigm and shake your head at people who “don’t get it”; but once you’ve built status, you critique new paradigms that undermine your status. You won’t acknowledge your concern for your status, of course. You will point to gross errors in the new paradigm with a firm belief in your own objectivity.
Some of Darwin’s rivals had religious status, some had academic status, and one had almost no status: Alfred Russel Wallace. This is the man who wrote about natural selection before Darwin reported his findings to the world. Wallace was so low on the science pecking order that he had nothing to lose, so he wrote up his thoughts and mailed them to someone he thought might be interested: Mr. Darwin. Wallace humbly asked Darwin to forward his essay on natural selection to his friends. Darwin could have tossed the letter into the fireplace, but he reported it to his well-placed friends.
This is where the story gets personal for me.
Most accounts of Darwin’s story suggest that he had a merry band of influential supporters. When I read that, my inner mammal compares. Where is my merry band of supporters? I feel like something is wrong, even though my life is astronomically better than my mother’s and grandmothers’ lives. So I confess that I felt some relief when I discovered the harshness of Darwin’s life. Any support he had came at a high price, and it tended to disappear 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 after watching surgery on a child before the invention of anesthesia, he refused to attend classes. 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 was deemed a bad student at a time when being a good student meant memorizing Greek and Latin. He was sent to boarding school at age nine, after his mother died, and duly learned his ancient languages. But he spent every spare moment studying nature. Out in the field, he got to know other naturalists— both students cutting class and prominent scientists. When he finished college, one of those scientists recommended him for the post of naturalist on the Beagle, which ultimately led to his fame.
The voyage of the Beagle was quite harsh compared to the image I had of Darwin sunning himself with turtles in the Galapagos. It was planned as a two-year voyage, but the ship’s captain refused to head home for five years. Darwin was seasick the whole time and had intestinal trouble for the rest of his life. On the ship, Darwin shared a cabin with the captain— an honor in principle but distressing in practice. Captain Fitzroy was no sea captain from central casting. He was a dignified man who wanted to a young gentleman aboard to converse with, 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 he was fourteen. Fitzroy 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’s letters home had been reported to the press and made Darwin a celebrity in London while the Beagle was still on the other side of the world. The news reached the ship when it stopped in far-flung ports. Fitzroy reacted by forcing Darwin to publish his journal as chapter of Fitzroy’s journal rather than alone. Darwin complied for the first edition, but 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 their predecessor’s 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. Cook and Joseph Banks wrote journals that became a best sellers and were included in the small library on board the Beagle. As I sat in the replica of their cabin on the Endeavor, I could imagine their influence on the young Charles Darwin.
When the Beagle returned, Darwin became the toast of London society, though he seems to have hated every minute of it. He moved to the country as soon as he could, and 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 analyzed data and looked for ways to present it that would stand up to scrutiny. He also invested time corresponding with sympathetic scientists, and this is the origin of the alleged band of “supporters.”
When I looked closer at this correspondence, I saw that it was not really a “band.” It was a smattering of individuals who supported conclusions that advanced their careers and withheld support when it didn’t. Darwin lived in a world of 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. 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 special 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 his essay on natural selection and Wallace’s essay would be read into the record of the interested group, the Linnaean Society. Darwin had been working on his theory for twenty years by then, but never thought he was ready to present it to the gatekeepers of science. 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.
Who gets credit for an idea is a subject of great interest to human mammals because it feels good to have an impact. It’s important to know that Darwin’s grandfather actually thought of evolution. Charles read his grandfather’s work in his teens, when our neuroplasticity is high. Grandfather Erasmus didn’t get credit because he did not figure out the mechanism of evolution, and because he expounded on so many different topics. Charles spent his life making the case for his grandfather’s insight. As such, he was like every mammal, promoting its genetic inheritance without consciously intending to. That is the job our brain evolved to do.
Charles grew up with constant pressure to do something respectable. He learned that studying nature was a path to respect that he could also enjoy. 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.
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 dominance is asserted, the other individual 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 let a more dominant individual have first crack at any food or mating opportunity that appears. Fights over resources are rare because the pecking order has already been established. You may think they shouldn’t act this way, but a century of research shows that they do. Countless studies in “ethology” have documented the hierarchical behavior of animals. Today, this research has been replaced by studies purporting to show altruism and empathy in animals. Such studies carve out moments of cooperation and omit the larger context, which shows that animals cooperate when it helps raise their status.
Animals can take down a rival by forming an alliance with another individual. If this “cooperation” succeeds, the victors then vie for the open position. Cooperation is part of the status game. Animals are skilled at judging the strength of social alliances in the same way that they can judge the strength of individuals. Humans used social alliances in this way throughout history and we still do today. It cannot be repeated too often that our goal 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. The survival prospects of one’s genes improve with status as they get more food and mating opportunity. 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 types and not others. When you look closely at the group dynamics of animals, it’s clear that each individual strives to advance itself whenever it’s safe. There are always plenty of “betas” vying for the top spot when the incumbent weakens or dies. Instead of blaming status seeking on a certain personality type, it’s important to see that every brain 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 wondering how things might be different. They respond to social situations with neurochemicals wired from 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 anything but breastmilk, so the little monkey must learn to feed itself. Its mirror neurons help initiate the action of reaching for food when it sees others doing that. When the food is tasted, dopamine is released. 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 caution. Nature protects it from getting bitten with “juvenile markings” specific to each species. A white tuft of head fur or other distinctive characteristic tells older monkeys to cut them slack. A little monkey can push and grab with impunity until those markings fade. Then, it’s treated like anyone else. Food may be grabbed from its hands, or even its mouth, and if it resists, it gets bitten. 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 it can control. Dopamine circuits help it scan for opportunity. If it sees something far away, dopamine motivates approach. But as it gets isolated from the group, its oxytocin falls. It loses that nice protected feeling, and its cortisol rises. Now it faces a tough choice. The little brain weighs the threat of predation against the threat of hunger. It does this without words or complex cognition, but with neural pathways built from past experience. Some little monkeys get eaten alive, but enough 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 young monkeys are always wrestling. When a young one prevails in a tussle, a nice feeling turns on. Neurons connect when serotonin flows, and the brain learns to expect more good feelings in similar future settings.
With no abstract concept of status, a young brain wires itself to compare its strength to others and anticipate pleasure or pain. Conscious intent is not needed because the brain’s electricity flows so easily along neurons that were activated before. It’s hard to activate neurons that have not already been activated, so relying on past experience is literally the path of least resistance.
Social rivalry intensifies when a little monkey reaches puberty, and sex hormones expand its definition of rewards. 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 likewise got passed on. This is the brain we’ve inherited. You may find this hard to believe, because it conflicts with what you’ve heard from teachers and media. It also conflicts with the comforting notion that peace and love are the state of nature. You may be wondering what to believe.
Why Haven’t I Heard This?
We hear a lot of research suggesting that animals are altruistic and empathetic. My teachers taught me that the state of nature is peaceful and that “our society” causes dominance-seeking. I went on to teach my students this view. I equated it with virtue and intelligence, so I feared seeming evil and dumb 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 watched wild animals in action, so they would not believe you if you said animals are altruistic. Today, wild animals are hard to see for yourself, so we are easily persuaded by a few widely reported studies. I believed these studies until discrepant evidence got my attention. Here are some of the unexpected facts that led me to unexpected insights:
- A wildcat sanctuary near my home was soliciting contributions. They asked me to help save wildcats that wander into the suburbs. I asked why they want to keep the animals in a sanctuary instead of returning them to the wild. I had to ask this question a few times to get an answer. Finally, I learned that a re-released wildcat lands in the territory of another wildcat, and is killed by it. The good people who promote the sanctuary are reluctant to reveal the inconvenient truth behind the need for their facility.
- 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 all the food and toys they need.
- Jane Goodall introduced the world to a chimpanzee she named Flint. It is widely reported that Flint died of a broken heart when his mother died. This fits romantic notions about animals being loving and empathetic. The truth is much harsher. Flint died once his mother died because he never learned to meet is own survival needs. Flint differed significantly from the norm of his species. He was the first chimp to grow up with Jane’s “provisioning” of bananas, and thus failed to wire in the food-seeking skills that normal chimps spend five years learning. When Flint reached the normal weaning age, he was stronger than his mother because she was elderly and he was fortified by bananas. So when she tried to withhold her breast 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 ideals. Jane stopped provisioning chimps as soon as she understood the consequences. But people who see themselves as ethical and intelligent still cling to the romantic view of nature.
Dominance Hierarchy in Animals
Animals are represented as compassionate in academia and the media today, but the conflict among mammals was well known to twentieth-century researchers. The evidence is still available to anyone who looks for it.
The term “pecking order” was coined by a Norwegian zoologist who grew up with chickens. Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe noticed that one chicken was 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 reported his methodical study of behaviors he’d observed since age ten.
Nobel Laureate Konrad Lorenz continued this work with 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 group mate once and stick with the outcome unless they lose their leader. Then 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. They can even note changes in the relative status of two third parties.
It’s hard for us to see dominance hierarchies the way animals see them because our big cortex can abstract. Monkeys do not think abstractly about “making it to the top.” They just seek rewards and avoid pain. A window into this mindset came by accident when a laboratory monkey had a medical procedure and was returned to its troop before the anesthesia had 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 that such ugliness could be provoked by a momentary weakness. 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.
When you hear about status games in animals, you may get upset about bullies and root for the underdog. But when underdogs rise, they act the same way that their predecessors did. And that’s not necessarily bad. Dominant individuals make positive contributions, like sharing resources, resolving third-party conflicts, and resisting dangerous predators. 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 may find it hard to imagine animals competing for food because we’re trained to think food is easily available in nature. The competition for reproductive opportunity is a more interesting way to understand social rivalry. In biology, “reproductive opportunity” means everything relevant to keeping your genes alive, from competing for high-quality mates to producing rich milk and protecting the young from predators.
No Free Love in the State of Nature
We tend to think love is easily available in the animal world, but in fact, animals work hard for “reproductive success.” Males work hard for the muscles necessary to succeed in the mating game, and females work hard to find enough food to produce rich milk. Animals often fail on the road to reproductive success. Males can get shut out of mating opportunity, and females can lose their young to a wide range of threats.
Status improves reproductive rates. Animals who raise their status make more copies of themselves. No knowledge of genetics is needed for a status-seeking brain to spread. Mammal do what feels good, and status games result. Some examples of animal mating games helps us see how this works.
A farmer introduced me to the facts of mammalian reproduction. He showed me his prize herd of organic cows and mentioned the bulls he rents at breeding time. I asked him why he rents bulls since his cows surely birth some males. He explained that intact males are too aggressive to manage on a farm, so they must be handled by specialists. When the 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 that time, I was studying to be a docent at my local zoo and had just been taught that female bovines push their way to the center of the herd to be safer from predators. As a cow weakens with age, she ends up around the edges where she’s exposed to predators. But a lifetime of pushing may have given her center stage enough to keep her young alive, so her genes will survive. The next generation inherits the drive to push, through some combination of genes and learning.
As I stood with the farmer watching his cows, I connected the dots: at the center of the herd, pushy boy meets the pushy girl. I shared this insight with my Hollywood niece at a family gathering, and she found it instructive. She suddenly realized why her peers spend so much time in lines outside trendy nightclubs: “They expect to meet a ‘ten’ inside!” The point is not that I we should hang around nightclubs or fight for partners. The point is that our brains urgently seek anything associated with “reproductive success,” even if we’re not trying to reproduce.
My education in mating behavior continued in France, at the baboon exhibit of Le Vallé des Singes (Monkey Valley), one of France’s all-primate zoos. A zookeeper was lecturing on social behavior and I heard her say that lower-ranking males do not reproduce. I was surprised and wondered if I had misunderstood the French. So when the talk was over, I went and asked her if it was really true that lower-ranking males never have sex. Her reply was that they have sex but do not become fathers. What did that mean? My French was not good enough for such enigmas, so I decided to research when I got home. I learned that a female baboon is not actually fertile in the first days of estrus. Pheromones announce the impending ovulation, but a mature male of experience knows that it’s not yet worth the risk of conflict. So he doesn’t interfere when lower-ranking males take initiative. Thus, a male may gain experience, but he will not keep his genes alive unless he raises his status.
I was amazed that the real facts of life were on offer at Le Vallé des Singes and went back as soon as I could. This time, my lesson came at the mandrills— monkeys with beautiful rainbow stripes on the snout and bottoms of males. Mandrills look much like baboons, so I asked the keeper if their behavior was 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 must compete, and bright colors are essential for success. In the zoo, the small group has many females, so little competition and little color.
This seemed like the Rosetta Stone of life! If you think of competition over appearance as a substitute for violence, it’s not so bad. Baboon violence is quite nasty due to their huge canine teeth, and mandrills evolved a beautiful alternative. The full facts are not quite so benign, alas. Male displays always come at a price. Researchers find that the traits females select for are always 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 whom they mate with 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 turn our attention to the intense status games of matriarchal mammals.
Women On Top
Female status takes many forms. In some mammals, females dominate the group, while in others, females have their own status hierarchy within a male-dominated group. In some species, a power couple rules the group, while in others, a couple lives alone with no group at all. Yet another common pattern is an all-female hierarchy with males living alone. 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, a gang of meerkats (that’s the correct collective noun) is led by a female who fights her way to the top with raw strength and then selects her consort. She prevents other females from breeding by attacking them if they get near a male. Her consort does the same to any male who approaches a female. If another female somehow reproduces, the queen kills the child. Thus, the whole gang revolves the offspring of the top girl. This is called “cooperative” child-rearing by people who sift for facts that fit their romantic lens and omit the rest of the story.
Hyenas are a female-dominated species with a unique form of aggression. They always give birth to twins, 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. A female with male appearance would survive a predatory older sister, so natural selection seems to have built a way for hyenas to survive, while preserving the aggression they need to compete with lions and cheetahs.
Elephants live in all-female groups. Their boys leave home at puberty due to some combination of wanderlust and expulsion. The result in not the “female power” you may imagine. Female elephants line up in age order and spend their lives following their older relatives. (*A curious exception is the reverse ordering of daughters. The youngest is always next to the mother, which gives older daughters a chance to observe parenting.) If you were a female elephant, you would never make your own decisions until everyone in front of you was dead. 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,” which overlooks the complete submission that their lifestyle depends on.
Macaque monkeys live in large groups with female-dominated status hierarchies. Girls tend to end up at a status level similar to their mothers’. Researchers concluded that monkeys “inherit” status, but then they looked closer and discovered that status seeking is a learned behavior. 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 dominates 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 remains weak, gets weak mating partners, and has weak babies. She cannot forage alone because the risk of attack by neighboring chimp troops is significant. 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 newly discovered ape that is said to be kinder and gentler. Bonobo troops are female-dominated in an interesting way. Females are only about 10% smaller than males, unlike female chimps who 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 male soldier could only rise by becoming a servant to a higher-ranking soldier. Sexual gratification was one of his duties. Female bonobos have the same kind of “mentorship.” Young ladies transfer in from other troops at puberty and attach themselves to a high-ranking female to whom they must totally submit.
You may have heard that bonobos and chimpanzees have “orgies.” When you watch them though binoculars, it’s easy to jump to that conclusion, but systematic study reveals that the festivities are status games. Let’s take a closer look.
The Truth About Promiscuity
Biologists call bonobos and chimpanzees “promiscuous.” That word had no sexual or moral connotation when they first used it. 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 this pattern from “monogamous species,” “harem species,” and “tournament species.” Let’s peak inside the promiscuous world to see what really goes on.
Male chimpanzees are not interested in sex unless a female is actively fertile. This only happens once in five years because newborns are nursed for four years and that inhibits fertility. 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. So to be part of the reproductive in-crowd, a male must court the male power structure. Or, he can risk his life on a quickie when the power players’ attention is elsewhere. Biologists call this “sneaky copulation.”
The female is motivated to mate with as many males as possible because that increases the protection she and her child are likely to get in the future. But if she defies the male honcho, he bites her, so she is always scanning 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 is 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. But they will never kill the child of a female they’ve had contact with, which explains the females’ commitment to diversity. Soliciting partners to prevent infanticide is not “partying” or “free love.” It is currying favor with high-status individuals to help 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 configuration imaginable. 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 despite 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 whose 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 core pattern of seeking status to promotes one’s genes.
Power Couples and the Sexy Son Hypothesis
Different ecological niches produce different status games. It’s fascinating to see how each game promotes survival in specific ecological conditions. Monogamy is adaptive in some conditions, while tournaments work in others. Different games develop from each brain’s quest for the sweet spot between the pleasure of self-assertion and the pain of conflict.
Gibbons are known for monogamy. Once they form pair bonds, they stake out a territory large enough to feed their children. Then they defend that territory from other gibbons in interesting ways. They sing a duet for half an hour when they wake up each morning, with specific male and female parts. Their hoots warn other gibbons to stay out, 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 enters their territory, the male of the couple tries to kill it, and if a female intrudes, the female attacks it. The rain forests looks lush to human eyes, but gibbons starve if their territory is too small. If their territory is too large, they can’t defend it and deadly conflict results. Their singing spaces them out into territories that are 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. This is often referred to as “cooperative” child-rearing,” but that virtuous word misrepresents the underlying impulses. Why don’t the non-dominant wolves leave? They do when food is abundant, but starvation is common among those who leave. A few “lone wolves” survive and go on to start their own packs and preserve their genes. Others stick with the safety of the group, waiting for an 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 in tournament species have thick skulls because they strike each other with such 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 choice to go with the winner. What does she see in the brute? Survival rates are low in the state of nature, and there’s little a female kangaroo, deer, sea lion, or elephant can do to promote the survival of her young, but choosing the best paternal genes is one action she can take.
Combat drains the energy of a species, so non-violent alternatives have evolved. In some species, females just choose the male they see other females with. This is called “mate choice copying” in biology. It has been explained with the “sexy son hypothesis.” Females have limited reproductive potential compared to males, but a female can even the score if her sons are attractive to other females. The best way to do that is to choose an attractive father. This theory can upset 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. It’s comforting to think of this behavior as an improvement over violent competition.
Elephant have evolved an amazing way to avert their brutal tournaments. Male elephants have hormone cycles. Once or twice a year, a male’s testosterone rises to colossal levels, and he becomes so aggressive that other males just 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 compete 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 their peers leads to more nutrition and more reproductive success. Status games are less frustrating when you understand the intentions behind them.
The Center of Attention
Field research shows that animals focus their gaze on the high-status individuals in their group. Laboratory research shows that monkeys are actually willing to “pay” for the privilege of looking at pictures of their group leaders. In these studies, monkeys were given the opportunity to exchange food tokens for the opportunity to look at photos of other monkeys. When they selected images of female fertility indicators, it made headlines. It was hailed as the origin of pornography. But they also exchanged resources for the chance to look at images of prestige members of their group. This is surely the origin of tabloids.
Horses offer us a useful example of the link between status and attention. When you see a group of horses, the leader is not the one in the front— it’s 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 their eyes on 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 often have a one-down feeling of being overlooked. To relieve that bad feeling, people strive to raise their social standing however they can. To better understand these non-verbal impulses, let’s look at 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 tend to fit 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 lack of happy ending: Jane had a bad case of status anxiety. While her verbal brain talked about love, her non-verbal brain worried about status.
Jane’s parents had a bad case of status anxiety. They lived in a system where wealthy families bequeathed everything to their eldest son. This preserved the continuity of a family’s estate, but it left other siblings with little or nothing. These siblings had no obvious way to support themselves in the style to which they had become accustomed. Working for money was considered demeaning and society would shun you if you did. A career in the military or the Church of England was considered acceptable, though low-paying. So society was full of people with lots of rich relatives but no way to meet their needs in the style to which they had become accustomed. Jane’s parents were in that category.
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, and a mum with social ambitions like Jane Austen’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 with little means, and she reproduced that life for her daughter. Jane’s mother spent a lot of her time courting rich relatives, hoping to provide her children with opportunities. 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. Poor, ugly men never get the girl in Austen’s novels. The heroines seem interested a man’s charm and prestige, but not in his potential to work for advancement. The books seem to suggest that by rejecting marriage with an old aristocrat, you will end up with a young aristocrat. Jane gambled on this game and lost.
She blamed her predicament on poverty, but rich girls lived with the same basic predicament. A girl with a dowry had many suitors, but that doesn’t mean she got to marry for love. Few fathers were willing to waste their money on a man just because his big shoulders and witty repartee appealed to his child. Papa looked for an alliance that would raise his own status. The dowry was a way to create prominent grandchildren to carry on your legacy . Whoever your Dad chose, worse things could happen to a girl that marriage with an ugly, old, rich man. Many a girl ended up with a man who gambled away her money and mistreated her. Rich girls and poor girls end up with the same conundrum: looks and charm are poor predictors of a good relationship. Today, we are more free to seek looks and charm despite the fact that they are poor predictors of a good relationship.
The pain that fuels Jane’s work is not really about money— it’s about the pain of rejection. If you “fancy” someone who doesn’t fancy you, a one-down feeling surges. Cortisol makes it feel like a survival threat. Rejection is avoided if your parents do the negotiating behind the scenes. Dating was taboo in Jane’s time. You were considered “ruined” if you were rejected after expressing interest in someone in public. Today, we all face many rejections as we search for a stable relationship. These rejections often trigger extreme threatened feelings even though our lives are safer than any time in the past. If you tell yourself this person is “the one,” being spurned by them means annihilation from your inner mammal’s perspective because it can’t see a way to preserve your genes. This is why our freedom and safety have not made us happy.
Jane’s parents dragged her to Bath, the place to see and be seen by potential mates. Today, you can go to Bath and visit the happening places of the nineteenth-century singles scene. You can also relate to the crushing feeling of being judged and of not being chosen. When you see how universal these feelings are, you can start to see your cortisol as a temporary internal discharge instead of as external evidence of doom.Chapter 2
Social Rivalry Among Early Humans
We’re often told that early humans were peaceful and egalitarian. We imagine them sharing food and bonding around the fire, so it’s hard to imagine their social rivalry. This chapter presents the evidence that early humans played status games that were eerily similar to those of animals. We’ll look at evidence in the first written records, and evidence that pre-dates the invention of writing. We’ll see that people have been one-upping each other since they first walked the earth.
The writings of ancient civilizations give us a window into their thoughts. Much of it is about social rivalry— about great leaders uniting followers to conquer enemies, and eventually being conquered by new leaders. The writings of ancient Egypt, China, Central America, the Middle East, South America, India, Greece and Rome show similar patterns. People cooperated to raise their group above others, and individuals strove to rise within their group. Much of this striving was violent. As a result, people always seemed to be anticipating attack and preparing for it. Being on guard for put-downs from others is a thought loop we can understand.
The patterns in ancient civilizations had a lot in common with animals. Leaders displayed strength, defended territory, and accumulated women. Below the top leader was a privileged nobility, often descended from the leaders’ many offspring. Status conflicts within this elite were intense, but they cooperated 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 thus act 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 very high status.
Ancient civilizations have a bad image today. They are viewed as having destroyed the utopian world that came before them. Academics believe in a peaceful, egalitarian Stone Age because they zoom in on facts that fit 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 evidence of prehistoric status games, what might we find?
Archeology is a good source of information about the distant past. Archeologists have been surprised to find a remarkable number of human skeletons bearing evidence 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. If they conformed to the empathy-around-the-fire view of human origins, they were rewarded with academic status. If they acknowledged the signs of 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 likely 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 out to 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 the animal brain’s perspective. Mammals cluster when predators lurk, and spread out when the expected benefit outweighs the expected cost. Tigers and orangutans are the only mammals to have no predators, and they are the only ones to live alone. Gibbons prevent conflict by spacing themselves out, and it’s easy to see how that would work for humans. Distancing yourself can improve your access to resources. And when you leave, you’re not at the bottom of the hierarchy anymore. Persuade others to follow you and your status rises even more. Some people surely perished in the effort, but others went on to create new settlements that would also fissure in time. Leaving your group is an effective way to raise your status when you cannot 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 it is. But when we shake hands, we echo the old custom of proving that you don’t have a rock hidden in your hand. It’s nice to imagine prehistoric people sharing a peace pipe, but early humans had a lot of conflict.
Trouble in Paradise
Another way to learn about life before the invention of writing is to talk to living people from ancient cultures that had minimal outside contact. That’s hard to do today, but over the past three centuries, many isolated hunter-gatherers were studied at length. I’ve always been interested in those contacts, and when I had a chance to go to Tahiti, my interest grew. I had heard that Tahitian girls rowed out to offer their bodies to the first European ships to arrive. 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 European 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 developed a plan 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 say things that reflect badly on indigenous cultures. But when I retired, I gave myself permission to go with the facts instead of pleasing the priesthood. 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 know our own status games 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 trying 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 the same cultural patterns. One of the first Hawaiians to become literate wrote a book on their ancient traditions. 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 many celebrations of this tradition. Symbols of Hawaiian monarchy are gushed over by people who are otherwise anti-monarchy. The most famous symbol is the Hawaiian chiefs’ yellow robe of feathers. Every three of those feathers killed one bird, so thousands of birds were killed to make one robe. Some chiefs had more than one robe and gave them as gifts. Yet these chiefs are revered by people who are pro-bird and anti-death penalty. Revering indigenous cultures can raise your status by marking you as a member of the educated elite. And believing in a utopia feels good. If you acknowledge the truth about Polynesian social rivalry, your elite status is at risk and your utopia visions are lost. But the truth helps you understand your world and yourself.
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. Studying the conflict of history helped me appreciate the relative peace we have today.
Captain Cook is known for one of the more brilliant status games in history. In his time, many sailors died of scurvy and he looked for ways to prevent it. He 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. Suddenly there was huge demand, and no scurvy ever appeared on Cook’s ships. (Limes replaced sauerkraut as knowledge grew.) Cook’s insight did not protect him from a getting killed on the shores of Hawaii, alas. Dominant chimpanzees rarely die of old age, so it’s interesting to see this pattern in history.
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 the 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 their filter. A teacher can extract one 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 their 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 superior to ours, extra status is accorded. Thus, we end up with a lot of messages about cooperation, altruism, and female power in preliterate societies. That would be great 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 hunter-gatherer 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, while in-groups surge with jealousy, competition, and vengeance.
Non-conforming anthropologists provide another good source of information. They report status hierarchies and a fervent quest for prestige in a large number of small-scale societies. Violent social rivalry was often in evidence too. Examples include long-term research among the Amazon’s Yanomamo and the highland tribes of New Guinea. An extremely high level of conflict was found among these groups. A striking piece of evidence is that dozens of languages exist in a small area, of New Guinea, and the languages of nearby groups are mutually unintelligible. This is evidence of minimal communication with out-groups. Another indicator is the cultures’ focus on preparing for battle. 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. 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. In today’s world, we do not think of violence as a high-status activity. Nor do we measure status by the number of children one has. 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 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 often 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 as well, as leaders tried to buy support in the face of rivals.
Gifts took the form of banquets in many cultures. 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 took the food from the poor they were ostensibly feeding, in one way or another.
The grooming behavior of monkeys is curiously similar to ancient gift-giving rituals. 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 implied bargain is not always honored. A monkey who counts on an alliance may be disappointed in moments of threat. When that happens, monkeys are known to start grooming new partners. 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 inflicting 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. The mammal brain is good as calculating return on investment, even when a gift is cloaked as a magnanimous gesture. Today, it’s taboo to acknowledge the element of reciprocity in gift-giving. We are supposed to see gifts as spontaneous expressions of generosity. But research in diverse cultures shows that extensive rituals guide gift-giving, especially gifts to the gods.
The Best Priests
In ancient cultures, high priests told people the proper way to offer gifts to the gods. Life and death seemed to rest on doing it right because these gods were believe 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 the priests had top status so you tended to believe them.
You wanted to offer the best gifts you could afford, and get the best priests, shamans, or soothsayers you could afford. Huge gifts were sometimes mandated, including human sacrifice. Humans are always eager to take action to prevent harm because our brain is designed to anticipate harm. We respect those who seems capable of relieving future threats. Promising to relieve future threats is a great way to raise your status in the human world.
Most ancient cultures had some sort of priesthood at the top of the status hierarchy. They gained power through their influence over top leaders and their access to force. In many places, they could have you tortured and killed if you didn’t submit to them. Becoming a priest was highly desirable, so the price of admission was high: total submission to the reigning priesthood. Priests appeared to have high status, but they spent their lives submitting to the priestly hierarchy that sustained their status.
A priesthood’s status was always threatened by competition from other priesthoods. If new priests have more success at preventing harm, the old priesthood suffered. So high priests are good at banding together and condemning alternative priesthoods, accusing them of the direst evil. Human history reveals a long series of nasty conflicts between rival priesthoods.
Today, academics and the media are similar to ancient priesthoods. They tell us how to make sense of the world and prevent threats. Their status is high, and even top leaders seek their support. We often submit to them to promote our survival, though their power is fortunately more limited than historical priesthoods. Many rival priesthoods compete for our support, so we get to choose among different views on preventing harm.
The Status Games of Sigmund Freud
I was excited to learn that Freud’s apartment in Vienna 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. 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 rather shady. But the visit piqued my interest so I read more, and started to see him differently. I see how his efforts made our present recognition of the unconscious possible. He helped us believe in our power to redirect our unconscious as well. He played status games on the way to spreading these ideas, but if he hadn’t, we might still believe all the lies we tell ourselves.
Freud status games were fascinating because he was both at the top of the hierarchy and at the bottom. He top spot began with being his mother’s favorite. She expected him to make it big, and openly favored him in front of her five other children. Young Freud was always at the top of his class in school as well. In college, he got internships with famous researchers and was mentored by Vienna’s most prominent doctor. This mentorship included cash “loans” and access to Dr. Breuer’s bathtub and cigar box. He was also invited to tag along to the patient Dr. Breuer treated by listening to her feelings. Freud’s status was crowned by many best-sellers, and the arrival of disciples from around the world to be treated or trained by him.
But his bottom-of-the-barrel experiences were 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 dismissed him as a pretentious twit. In college, he was always looking for money, but when he got some, he felt obliged to share it with his hungry family. Most important from the perspective of evolutionary psychology, it seems like he had no sex at all until he was thirty. Then he got married and a child came almost every year, so after six of them, he went back to total abstinence. And that was not his worst problem, as he saw it.
His problem was how to make it big. He settled on the goal of making a breakthrough in medicine, and it’s easy to see why. The germ theory of disease was revolutionizing medicine in his time. 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 finally grown. This would have gotten Freud’s attention because his father’s first wife died young and his mother was sickly.
Freud’s dream of fame and fortune conflicted with the fact that his laboratory research job paid him about as much as the janitor. He would never have sex unless he started a private practice. After many low-paid years of training, he started treating rich people with nervous disorders. He tried the treatments that were popular in his day, but then gravitated toward the “talking cure.” The more people talked, the more he concluded that sex was at the root of mental health problems. And here the story gets murky since we can’t be sure what his patients said and what he projected onto them.
Freud told 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.
It’s easy to ridicule his theory of infantile sexuality, but the theory rests of two useful insights: 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 who came before us worked to establish them.
So why did Freud go too far and insist on wacky theories? It makes you wonder what was going on in his childhood. I went digging for that.
Freud considered himself a “neurotic,” and psychoanalyzed himself. He wrote a lot about it, but he was selective in what he told us. He revealed more in letters, and many of those letters are in sealed archives. He may have been trying to protect his family, but he may also have been fooling himself to protect his own idealized image of his family. When Freud was born, his father had children from an earlier marriage who were the same age as Freud’s mother. One of those children had children of his own, and they called his father “grandpa.” So little Sigi thought his brother was his father and his father was his grandpa. He had reason to be confused about his mother too, because he spent most of his time with his nurse. She was suddenly banished when he was almost three, and that would have been traumatic since she was his primary attachment. She had also traumatized him with talk of burning in hell. Freud wrote that she touched his male organ when she bathed him, and blames his trauma on that. It’s easy to see how the genital association could remind him of her, and thus trigger the traumatic sense of abandonment and terror he had associated with her. He never figured that out because the whole quest for the early roots of experience was so new. As in most areas of human inquiry, the pioneer doesn’t get it completely right. Even Isaac Newton tried to turn lead into gold.
Freud’s letter express a deep sense of shame. Children often feel shame when something is wrong in their home, even though it’s not their fault. Something was wrong in Freud’s home. One of his grown step-brothers seems to have been quite close to his mother. The young man left the country and appears to have made a living in financial fraud. Freud’s father seems to have participated, which would explain why this father of six had no known employment. Freud’s father had a middle-class income for a while, and then almost no income for the rest of his life. The family lived in tight quarters, so young Freud would have reason to wonder what Daddy was doing to Mommy. But that was not the real trauma. It was Freud’s sense that his family was not respectable like the families of his classmates. So he kept his head in his books.
He was still living with his parents at age twenty-seven, even though he had finished medical school. It seems odd, and yet it was the norm at the time. You didn’t move out until you could support a family. Many young people helped support their parents first, but Freud was allowed to pursue his dream instead. His internship was fascinating. He was taught to diagnose patients in a psychiatric ward, and if they died, to diagnose their brain in an autopsy. His supervisors believed that mental illness always had a physical cause, and they had to keep dissecting brains to find the cure. But Freud needed money fast, so he left the work he loved and hung out his shingle. His talking cure found many paying customers. And thus he started opening his mind to the idea that the mind and body are connected.
What interested me most about Freud was his ability to build alliances to get social support. The odd thing about Freud’s friends is that they often became enemies. Then he’d find a new friend who’d eventually become an enemy. It’s easy to find fault with him, but if he had just gone along with whatever was popular, we might not have our current awareness of our unconscious. Many of Freud’s “enemies” started new therapeutic approaches, which helped spread awareness of the unconscious without the baggage of infantile sexuality.
Criticizing Freud is popular, and I joined in the sneering 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. Freud was vilified by behaviorists, who in turn were vilified by new paradigms, such as cognitive, genetic, evolutionary, social justice, and positive psychology. I have learned to see the vilification as a status game rather than a reliable model of world. I look for the good in each paradigm and ignore the rest. That might be impossible if I were gainfully employed in the psychology work, since my credentials would depend on embracing the paradigm of the prevailing priests. Retirement has freed me to connect the dots for myself.
We all draw our own conclusions about how the mind works in the end. You might think about this on Freud’s favorite walking path in the Vienna Woods. This was the path that Beethoven walked while composing in his head. While you walk the “Beethoven Way,” you can analyze yourself the way Freud did, and discover the circuits you built from early experience. If this leads to a catharsis, you can thank Freud for introducing the concept.
I visited Freud’s home in London as well. He fled there after the Nazis took Vienna, and managed to ship his couch and antiquities collection there. Freud started collecting antiquities as soon as he started making money. He began with artifacts from Greece and Rome, and moved on to objects from other world civilizations. He saw them as reflections of our common unconscious.Chapter 3
Status Games Around the World
Cultures vary widely on the surface, but underneath they have similar status games. Diverse cultures have common patterns that are remarkably similar to the status games of animals.
We tend to blame our own culture for the frustrations of social rivalry, and imagine effortless happiness in other cultures. It’s useful to know that other cultures have the same frustrations. People all over the world try to one-up each other and feel bad about being one-down. Sometimes these behaviors are obvious, like kowtowing to the emperor in Imperial China. Sometimes they’re explicit, like the European aristocracy or the Indian caste system. And sometimes they are so subtle that you don’t realize you’re playing a status game, like wearing blue jeans.
Blue jeans began as work clothes, but they acquired status in the mid-twentieth century by becoming 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 blue-jean wearers are not actually rebelling, of course. On the contrary, they are conforming. But conforming to a symbol of rebellion feels one-up because it says you are not trying to please “the man.” It’s a safe way to oppose stronger individuals, from your mammal brain’s perspective. When you see others wearing jeans, you feel like part of a strong alliance. Blue jeans can give your inner mammal the sense of strength it longs for.
People wear blue jeans all over the world, and many other status games are similar worldwide. This was true long before the age of mass communication. Let’s look at some status games that are common across cultures, from the tangible use of clothing to the intangible quest for “honor.”
We know from Stone Age graves 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 see when you compare. Throughout history, people have tried to use 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,” and harsh penalties were attached. The laws prevented you from looking like a noble just because you could afford a pouffy shirt. You were forced to wear a hat that quickly identified your social rank. In China, specific hats denoted specific levels of aristocracy with a specific feather, tassel, or pompom.
Today, we’d be outraged by laws that limited fashion to all but the rich, so it’s interesting to see these laws from the perspective of Queen Elizabeth I. England’s Renaissance queen knew how much money her courtiers were spending on clothes, and how much time they spent gossiping about the appearance of others. She also knew that court fashions were mirrored by the “common people.” The result was a fashion arms race that was bad for the country. She didn’t want English wealth to be wasted on foreign silk. She wanted it spent on horses because that strengthened national defense. And she wanted people 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 laws 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, and looked for ways to 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. The fad did not stop the fashion arms race, alas, because a white lace collar was permitted. The collar got bigger and bigger and the ruffles grew closer and closer. The cost was enormous due to the delicacy of the lace and the hours of labor necessary to maintain it. Your ruffles had to be pressed to perfection each morning to avoid public shaming. Black dye was also quite expensive and the fabric faded quickly. High maintenance costs are a common feature of status objects.
Black garb was supposed to reduce social distinctions, but it had the opposite effect. The black-wearing people bonded to dominate the colorfully dressed, resulting in the bloody English Civil War. Sophisticated justifications for the war are plentiful, but it’s easy to see how the black-robed Puritans would have felt their strength upon seeing others wear black. The inner mammal feels good when it sees that its social alliance is superior is strength.
In France, social rivalry also revolved around fashion, though in quite a different way. Louis XIV ruled through fashion by adopting new styles every season, and pressuring the nobility to follow his lead. No imports were allowed, and Louis taxed French suppliers heavily. He is credited with starting the French fashion industry. 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. When Napoleon booted her out, his wife’s fashions were suddenly mirrored instead. The hardships of war were no match for the hardship of being seen in last year’s dress, and Josephine’s “empire waist” was the new must-have.
When I was in college, I was taught to blame the fashion industry for luring people to waste their money. I was told to blame the auto industry and the advertising industry for creating the desire to keep up. 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 I’ve forgotten. I wondered how a society could continue if no one dated. I learned 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 is dressed alike. Styles change, but everyone in the painting seems to have gotten the memo, down to the details of their hair and accessories.
It’s easy to ridicule other people’s fashion trends. I ridiculed holes in blue jeans, as each year’s holes got more daring. The high price of ripped jeans is hard to explain, but the one-down feeling of out-dated clothing is easy to explain. 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 the judging you do in your own mind.
Today, the richest people in the world dress in a way that’s extremely similar to everyone else. The differences are so slight that you have to be an expert to 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.
Clothing is cheap in a world of mass production, but the muscles beneath your clothing are hard to come by in a sedentary life. So muscles have become the new status marker, and modern clothing is designed to exhibit your muscles. People who say they don’t care about fashion now invest their effort building muscles that were commonplace in the world before machines.
Honor and Dishonor
Honor is intangible, but the big human cortex can process intangibles. Your big brain tracks honor as ardently as it tracks your more tangible assets. Our verbal brains define honor in different ways, but our mammal brains enjoy the same one-up feeling when we have it. Threats to your honor trigger one-down feelings that feel like survival threats. It’s hard to make sense of intense feelings caused by intangibles, so let’s look at honor in the light of day.
Your culture’s definition of honor may be hard to notice because you wired it in so long ago. Social rankings are often built into a language. 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. I would know when to put people above me or below me with hardly a second thought. To be fair, this has become more a question of familiarity than of status in the modern world, but the ranking impulse remains.
Some cultures teach their children that honor is the most important thing in life, while others teach their children not to make a big deal of it. Some cultures have a big vocabulary associated with honor, while others don’t talk about it. The general concept of “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 “losing face” is a matter of life and death. You learn that dishonor must be repaired at all costs, up to and including suicide and murder. Early experience builds the neural pathways that keep track of honor and dishonor without conscious intent.
Some “honor codes” are explicit. The Mafia code of honor is well known for its life-and-death prescriptions and its emphasis on social alliance. The “Gentleman’s Code of Honor” was the rule book for dueling in centuries past. Dueling seems foolish today, but it was useful at the time when people who felt dishonored just erupted into violence without consulting a rule book. 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 to. In the animal world, status is rooted in brute force, so it’s not surprising to see this impulse in humans.
An extreme code of honor is the ancient Albanian Kanun, which requires a person to kill a relative of anyone who killed one of their relatives. Such “vendettas” and “blood feuds” have existed in many cultures. Retaliatory violence has claimed significant percentages of some populations and terrorized everyone else. This can only happen if people buy into the belief that a retaliatory murder will raise their status, and a failure to avenge will bring shame and even shunning. In Albanian culture, this belief is reinforced with a custom called “coffee under the knee.” When a person fails to avenge his family honor, their coffee is served to them under the table rather than on it at public events. Such public shaming is enough to keep the cycle of violence going.
“Honor among thieves” is a well-known concept even though it’s not a formal code. It emerges organically as people who break the law fear reporting others to law enforcement. This complicity i often glorified as a virtue, though it is obviously self-interested. Movies create the impression that thieves have the strong social bonds that law-abiding folk only wish for. But in reality, law-breakers inflict predatory behavior on each other because they know their victims will fear calling law enforcement. When you watch a buddy movie about criminals, you forget the protection you are getting from the rule of law.
Many universities have an explicit “honor code.” I was happy to hear this because I saw a lot of cheating in my twenty-five years as a college professor. However, I was dismayed when I learned the details of these honor codes. They seem to make it easier to cheat if you want to. What if cheaters go on to become surgeons or pilots or architects? It felt like a life-and-death matter to me, so I decided to enforce the rule of law in my classroom. Most of my colleagues disagreed, saying, “I’m not a policeman.” They thought it was beneath their dignity to enforce rules, so I seemed to be violating their implied code of honor.
People in every subculture fear losing honor as defined by those around them. Defending the honor of others is a popular way to raise your status. Politicians compete with each other by appealing to one-down feelings and promising to raise your status. Mass media and religions do the same. Every subculture has its strategy for lifting underdogs. Chinese mythology 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 many traditional tribal expectations. We can choose our own beliefs, yet we often recreate underdog feelings in our minds. For example, television shows with an upstairs-downstairs theme are quite popular. They lure you to identify with the upstairs people, but also with the downstairs people. For a few moments, you enjoy the pleasure of wearing a different sequined gown to dinner each night. Then the pleasure is ripped away by the cruel hand of fate and you suffer the cold chill of a servant lighting fires before dawn. A good script can manipulate your emotions so that you feel the pain of ancestors you didn’t know you had. The mammal brain’s focus on social comparison keeps us riveted.
Taking offense is a popular status game. Accusing someone of offending is a presumption that they are intentionally putting you down. You interpret your one-down feelings as proof of their offense. You are in the one-up position as soon as you accuse them, whether just in your mind as you feel morally superior, or in public, as your accusation brings support. Being offended is a fast, easy way to raise your status if your social alliance is stronger than the person you are accusing. When they see the strength of your alliance, they are quickly intimidated into one-downing themselves. If you play the game, you support the accusations of others, so they support yours. If you don’t play the game, it’s hard to get support when you’re accused. You end up feeling intimated a lot. You may try to protect yourself by rushing to honor others and take the bottom position to avoid conflict. It’s not surprising that many people prefer to play the game. They strive to join a large social alliance that frequently accuses others of offending. They enjoy watching them kowtow. An arms race of honor and accusation results.
As frustrating as this is, it was much worse in the past. You might have been accused of “treason” by a monarch with the power to torture and execute potential rivals. You might have been murdered by a relative of someone who your grandfather murdered. You might have been challenged to a duel. You would have submitted to every mandate of your culture’s rule book to survive.
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. Each herd mate fights each other once, and a new hierarchy emerges.
Humans have sometimes advocated violence as a way to “change the system,” but the new systems that emerged were weirdly similar to the old ones. This was a surprise to me— I’d been taught about revolutions a lot but little was said about the aftermath. Once I studied history for myself, I learned that the English beheaded a king and then invited his son back. (And he said yes!) The French Revolution was likewise a long killing spree followed by a dictator and his relatives. Fifty years after the French Revolution, the dictator’s nephew ran the country. I wanted to hate him, but I 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 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.
When I was young, I noticed that my parents had strong feelings about status. I saw how they made themselves miserable about “face,” and I vowed not to do. My parents had one-down feelings about people with more education than they had, so I learned to believe in education. Then I got to college and 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 I saw them as the top of the hierarchy.
My professors didn’t see it that way. They saw a world in which athletes and business leaders got more respect than they did, and they bitterly resented it. I understood why after I studied the brain. Our circuits are built by early experience. Academics are people who were at the top of the grading hierarchy when they were students. Experience taught them that there are other hierarchies in life. Any hierarchy that isn’t based on academics is a threat to their status. This perception of threat was constantly repeated in my “good education.” I submitted to my teachers’ thought patterns when I was young because my status depended on it. But my youthful vow to avoid my parents’ status anxiety was still part of me.
As my knowledge grew, I began to recognize this underdog thought habit. I realized that it was a lens on life rather than reality itself. And I started noticed the positives that this negative lens had screened out. Reading about my grandfather’s Sicilian village helped me do this. When my grandfather left in 1910, electricity and hot running water were virtually non-existent. Dirt floors and illiteracy were common. Few people could buy shoes or meat. This was never mentioned to me in person but I eventually found it in books. I suddenly saw the enormous progress that the world had made in a short time.
When my grandfather arrived in Brooklyn, hardly anyone had electricity, indoor plumbing, or a telephone. These luxuries went from near-zero availability in the US in 1920 to taken-for-granted standards for baby boomers like me. This is a miraculous accomplishment when I think about it now. But I was never taught to see the accomplishment. I was only taught to criticie the world for not having 100% penetration rates.
Criticizing the system was the core skill I learned in college. I’d been trained to look for wrongs and find evidence to support that conclusion. Today, I can see that criticizing puts a person in the one-up position. It feels good in the short run and can even raise your status in the long run. But you miss something when you only look for negatives. You overlook positives and miss out on the natural mammalian pleasure of accomplishing something.
Then you see others accomplishing something, and you feel one-down. You look for a way to feel better, and you criticize again because that’s what you’ve learned. I had grown enough to recognize this pattern when the Internet was born. I was thrilled to have fabulous new resources that were practically free, but no one around me was celebrating. They anticipated a world of technological have-nots, and rushed to condemn it. They needed to keep finding new flaws in the world to keep feeling one-up.
I lived in this culture of negativity without noticing the way a fish doesn’t notice water. But small experiences slowly got my attention. One striking example occurred on my internship in Haiti when I was invited to a picnic at dam. The invitation came from a person with proper hippie credentials. I wondered why she, or anyone, would picnic at a dam. 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. My eyes were opened.
Smart phones were born in 2007, as a big economic downturn took hold. By the end of that downturn, the mobile revolution had been accomplished. The same is true of most technologies that improve our lives: they took hold during an economic dip. We constantly hear about the dips, but not about their role in spawning advancements. Positives are hard to see when all your information is negative. The focus on negatives makes us long for change, but it does not equip people with useful skills. Being “critical” can raise your status in the short run, and when the good feeling passes, a you can be “critical” again.
Bureaucratic Status Games
Blaming “the system” for frustrations is a widespread thought habit worldwide. I did it without even noticing until I broadened my experience. The police in Africa were a big eye-opener for me. They pulled drivers over for no reason, and people offered them cash in order to be on their way. I was advised to honor that custom when I borrowed a friend’s car. I learned that the bribery culture was ubiquitous. People had to bribe to get electric service and phone service, and to get their mail at the post office. They had to bribe 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 as well. And this was just the retail level. At the top, a huge percentage of the public budget was siphoned into secret bank accounts.
As shocking as this was, I was more horrified by the way people was justified it. People who were quick to condemn US police would justify the corruption of the police in other countries. They represented their bribery as a sign of their superior concern for the welfare of the police officer or the postal clerk. At first, I was confused by this, since the harm done by bribery seems obvious. Then I realized how one-down it feels to be standing in front of a police officer with arbitrary power, or the postal clerk with the power to disappear your package. It feels one-down to flunk a driving test because you didn’t pay a bribe. So people yield to their mammal brain, and then let their the verbal brain come up with a fancy justification. Citizens of these countries see bribing as a sign of wealth, while visitor see bribing as the culturally sensitive thing to do. The end result is chaos that benefits no one.
Humans will always be mammals. They will always use their strength to seek rewards. A modern organization can only accomplish its goals if rules keep these mammals focused on the needs of the organization rather than their own. The rules must be enforced, of course. In the long run, everyone benefits from enforcement, but in the short run, an individual can benefit themselves by applying the organization’s strength to their own ends.
Different cultures have tried to manage the mammalian urge to put yourself above the law in different ways. Early Catholic popes prohibited priests from marrying to keep them focused on the Church’s future rather than their family’s future. 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. The student was expected to prepare for the exam day and night in a cell for years, and then kick back a share of the rewards to all the people who supported him. The feeling of being above the law remained intact while the ruling class steeped itself in ancient texts rather than practical skills.
The rule of law did not prevail in my grandfather’s village. The Mafia seized any wealth that was created. People submitted to protect themselves from the Mafia’s brutal retribution. Their verbal brains rationalized the urge to join the strongest social alliance around them. I am constantly grateful that I do not live in such a system. I must submit to law enforcement in order to enjoy this protection. Yet I often hear people put themselves above the law, and even take pride in their ability to do so. The brain easily rationalizes this by saying that the bad guys are breaking the law, so the good guys must protect themselves. This thought puts you in the one-up position, so your brain rewards you with serotonin. When the serotonin runs out, you can think it again. Let’s take a closer look at 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 came from, so he planned a trip to their homelands to study conditions. He made it as a search for the person with the worst life, and wrote the 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 “farthest down” was, so I’ll start by reporting that it was my grandfather’s island of Sicily. The book explains why, Washington’s his opinion, the poorest ex-slave in Alabama is far better off than the Sicilian farm worker. Washington also went into the mines with Sicilian miners, and he knew their lives because he worked as a miner at age 14. He was a college president and advisor to US presidents when he wrote the book, 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 was eager to learn to read on emancipation. After a few months in school, 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 whenever he found one. 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 and a network of rural schools staffed by his former students.
BTW believed deeply in education, so he was frustrated when he saw it being perverted. He thought education should raise a person’s productivity, but he often saw it used to raise status. He saw people embrace symbols of education, like reciting poetry, in order to acquire symbols of status, like a top hat and cane. He wanted his educational institution to teach skills with economic value to the community in addition to 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 national 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. Schools had begun passing students whether or not they had mastered any skill level— “social promotion.” Students knew they would get the reward whether or not they did the work. Our brains learn from rewards, so school trained young brains to expect rewards without effort. Education came to be seen as a burden rather than a privilege. I was teaching college seniors who had been shaped by this incentive structure for many years.
What can a teacher do in the face of students who lack basic skills? My colleagues found new ways to justify giving good grades to everyone. If a problem were acknowledged, it was blamed on common enemies. This blame game didn’t satisfy me because my own children were starting school. I wanted a solution fast.
Alas, it took me decades to understand the problem. I saw how child learn to fake it when faced with work above their skill set. Soon they are promoted into even harder work that they are even less likely to tackle. They learn to cover up, strategize, side-step, deflect, panic, and, alas, cheat. Teachers don’t want to “judge,” so the student is deprived of realistic feedback. A kid can easily reach tenth grade with a second-grade reading or math level, because they stopped learning when the work exceeded their skill level.
Imagine sitting in a classroom without understanding for years. Imagine well-intentioned teachers and parents smiling at whatever you do instead of acknowledging the problem. Some students run from education because this feels so threatening. 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. Their efforts have been rewarded so they repeat behavior that worked and life feels predictable.
Actual learning requires work at the level a person is at, and rewards that are based on reality. Contingent rewards are taboo in the world I live in. It is condemned as punitive, and people who advocate it are seen as the “enemy.” This is why I was so intrigued to read about Booker T. Washington. His emphasis on learning a trade had always been condemned in my world, but I started to see it in cognitive terms rather than economic terms. Let’s say a student takes a carpentry class and learns to make a chair. If the chair breaks when they sit on it, they know they have done something wrong. They learn to fix it. They are not being judged by the chair. They are simply grappling with reality.
It takes a lot of skill to build a chair that lasts. And it takes a lot of failure to master a skill. Managing failure is the core of all other skills. Students must learn to try again after they fail if they are to build valuable skills. They must learn to embrace failure as valuable feedback instead of seeing it as an injustice. If teachers see failure as an injustice, students are not likely to learn this.
Failure triggers negative emotions. Managing negative emotions is the most valuable skill as person can have. A system that protects students from failure keeps producing failure no matter how much money is spent. An activity that provides concrete feedback helps students grapple with consequences until the skill is learned. Once the joy of learning is experienced, a person is eager to learn more. I was pleased to find support in this insight with someone who lived a century ago.
BTW arrived in Sicily just when my grandfather was leaving. The book describes the horrendous living conditions to be found. Families lived in one room with their animals, with no lighting at all after dark. Washington saw barefoot women lugging heavy sacs of fruit to market, and he saw them pay a cut to tax collectors 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 working in chain-gang conditions at harvest time, and secluded in mountain village the rest of the year. 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
For most of us, admitting that you enjoy the one-up position is taboo. You can’t even admit it to yourself because you’d feel like a bad person. Our brain goes there anyway, alas, so it’s important to know why. We’ve inherited a brain that rewards you with serotonin when you see yourself in the one-up position. The good feeling is soon metabolized, so we seek it again and again. Here is the evidence.
Monkey studies done in the Psychiatry Department of UCLA Medical School, and at the National Institute for Mental Health, illuminated 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 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 today. 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 easier to offer a pill.
This chapter offers an alternative. It shows how you deprive yourself of serotonin when you see yourself as a little monkey abused by bigger monkeys. If you want to get serotonin from the healthcare system, that’s your right. But habituation and side effects are likely, so it’s good to know that an alternative exists. 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 individual quickly took on the role, and his serotonin rose. Meanwhile, the serotonin of the isolated alpha dropped sharply. When he was returned to the original group, his serotonin shot up while his rival’s serotonin fell back.
It is easy to take this the wrong way— two wrong ways, in fact.
You may jump to the conclusion that some people have serotonin handed to them on a silver platter, while you have been shortchanged. This thought pattern creates a one-down feeling, and it seems like an external fact rather than an internal construct. That distracts you from taking actions that could raise your serotonin.
Or, you might try to win at all costs. You might try to grab the one-up position in the short run and ignore long-run consequences. You end up with conflict and threatened feelings instead of the good feelings you hoped for.
Healthy paths to serotonin are not obvious, which is why short-run solutions are tempting. Part 3 of this book describes healthy paths to serotonin, but first, more biology is needed.
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 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 evidence of food without evidence of 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 presuming 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.
The mammal brain is always weighing the risk of asserting itself against the risk of not asserting itself. A bad decision would 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 are always seeking serotonin in ways that avoid cortisol. There’s no simple way to do that. The following chapter explains cortisol in detail, so let’s zoom in on the other half of our dual guidance system.
A good way to understand our impulses is to watch a chimpanzee grab food and then give it away. They grab to affirm their dominance, and if they’re not hungry, they use the food to cement an alliance. It’s uncomfortable to think a chimp spends its day looking for ways to raise its status. It’s more comfortable to call it “sharing” or “altruism.” But when you understand the truth, you understand your ups and downs.
Some people think the truth hurts the public interest. They think they are serving the public interest when they put a progressive spin on animal behavior. But the romantic view of the mammal brain does more harm than good. It leads you to believe that something is wrong with you if you don’t enjoy that serotonin feeling all the time. It has created a generation of people who think they are broken. It would be nice to have that proud, confident feeling every minute of every day, of course. And it’s natural to compare yourself to others and believe that they are having it. Unrealistic expectations distract us from the work of building the skills necessary to manage our natural impulses.
The romantic view also harms us by fostering blame. We blame others for our one-down feelings when we don’t know how we create them ourselves. People rationalize anti-social behavior by pointing to the dominance-seeking behavior of others. No greater good is served by ignoring the facts. The greater good is served by each person taking responsibility for their mammal brain.
I used to believe in the disease view of serotonin because everyone around me did. Then I learned about the mammal brain from Cesar Millan, the “Dog Whisperer.” Millan 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 observed a lot of pet dogs when he went to Hollywood to pursue his dream of being a dog trainer in the movies. He saw that many pampered pets were miserable and neurotic. Their owners were miserable too because the dog destroyed their home if they left it alone. Powerful celebrities were ruled by their pets until they hired Cesar Millan.
Millan explained that dogs seek dominance. If an owner act submissively toward their pet, the animal presumes they are the leader of the pack. They growl and snap because a pack leader’s job is to protect others from potential threats.
Owners often discipline their dogs for growling and snapping, and they hug the dog after they discipline it. This is the source of the dog’s neurosis. It can’t figure out who is dominant because the rules seem to keep changing. It feels insecure because it doesn’t know how to act. The solution, according to Millan, is to be consistent about your status as the pack leader.
This approach has its critics. I would have criticized it too if I hadn’t watched children grow up as pampered pets. I lived in a world where children were often treated like the pack leader. This avoids conflict in the short run, but I learned from neurotic dogs why it’s a problem in the long run.
Some of the criticism of Millan’s approach is based on a misunderstanding. Many of his cases are 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 his 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, more “nice” is the popular solution. Millan helped me understand why nice-ism doesn’t work.
Managing our dominance impulse is hard work. When we know more about it, the challenge eases a bit. Here are three key facts about serotonin that clarify our impulses.
1.) Serotonin is released in short spurts that are quickly metabolized
Any serotonin you manage to stimulate is soon gone. Your brain reabsorbs it and the good feeling passes. Then you have to do more to get more, which is why life is frustrating. When you know this is natural, you don’t jump to the conclusion that something is wrong with you.
Serotonin evolved to motivate us in appropriate situations. In the wrong situation, it would not promote survival. If you think you’re a big dog when you’re not, you make bad choices. So instead of expecting the good feeling every minute, you’re better off understanding what triggers it and finding safe ways to do that.
It’s helpful to remember that everyone faces the same frustration. You may think others are coasting on effortless serotonin while you are missing out. That’s a one-down feeling! It’s liberating to know that everyone has ups and downs. We all have that treadmill feeling because our brain evolved to promote survival, not to make you feel good. Our brain saves the happy chemicals for survival-relevant moments, but it defines survival in ways that our conscious brain doesn’t understand. When we understand our survival wiring, we can guide it toward new serotonin strategies.
2.) Neurons connect when serotonin flows, which wires you to release more serotonin in similar future 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. Every neuron active at that moment built connections, and they turn on your serotonin more easily when you think about hitting a home run. The expectation of reward motivates you to practice!
Our brain is designed to learn from rewards. Each reward builds the pathway that expects more reward in similar future situations.
Imagine you cooked dinner for your family when you were young and got great recognition. Serotonin built a pathway that expects more good feelings from cooking. Of course it’s more complicated, because experience varies. Maybe your next meal was not appreciated. Each experience of reward or threat builds the capacity of the neurons that were activated, especially when you’re young. Whatever you experience repeatedly builds a big pathway that triggers big expectations when you repeat the behavior. Each brain ends up with a network of expectations about what will feel good and what will feel bad. These expectations are not conscious thoughts, but advance drips of the chemical triggered by the original experience.
The electricity in your brain flows like water in a storm, finding the paths of least resistance. When your senses take in the world around you, they send patterns of electricity to your brain. You make sense of the world around you by matching these incoming patterns to a pattern you experienced in the past. There’s never a perfect match because new experience always differs from the past. But electricity flows so easily into pathways paved by past experience, so imperfect matches feel right and true. The world around you makes sense when your electricity flows effortlessly into your well paved pathways. You don’t even realize that you’ve made a choice. This is why our good and bad feelings seem like urgent facts.
Past experience often builds pathways that are hard to make sense of. For example, children often get rewarded for bad behavior. No one intends to do that, but we’re tempted to give more attention to a child when they rage, or to yield to their whims when they’re aggressive. The young brain feels the reward, and wires itself to repeat the behavior that got rewarded. Each time the bad behavior is rewarded, the pathway builds.
No conscious memory of the original experience is needed. Let’s say you got recognition when you threw spaghetti at the wall. You may find yourself with a strange urge to throw spaghetti at the wall. It depends on the other rewards and threats you experienced. 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 your brain continually receives the same signal, it stops noticing. If you live near a bad smell, for example, you stop noticing it. Even a good smell is soon overlooked. Whether you live near a bread factory or a garbage dump, your brain habituates, and the input stops getting your attention.
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.
We habituate to social rewards in the same way. If you cook dinner every night and get the same words of praise, it does not make you happy.
If you hit a home run every game, it doesn’t feel like a big deal.
If you get the same response every time you throw spaghetti at the wall, the excitement fades.
Our brain habituates to the rewards it has, so it takes new and improved rewards to really stimulate our happy chemicals. We are not designed to waste happy chemicals on the rewards we already have. This explains the treadmill feeling that’s so common in human life.
The struggling artist or actor is a well-known example. When they get a small bit of recognition, they feel great. They think they will be happy forever if they reach a certain level of recognition. But once they get it, the good feeling doesn’t last and they lust for more. They are even offended by rewards that would have thrilled them a year earlier. They keep pushing being their brain want more of that great social-dominance feeling, and expects to get it in ways that worked before. When this person makes it to the summit of achievement as their mind defines it, they do not enjoy serotonin all the time. They live in constant fear of losing their place at the top. Every potential threat to their dominance feels like a survival threat. This is what happens when a future-oriented human cortex is plugged into a standard mammal brain.
This is why people feel like they have to hit more home runs, or cook bigger dinners, or throw more spaghetti at the wall. We don’t know why we do these things, yet the impulse is strong. You think you will be happy forever if you get that promotion or win the affection of that special someone. But the good feeling fades, and you long for more. If you don’t understand your brain, you blame your job or your beloved.
It’s not easy to live with our mammalian urge for bigger and better. It helps to know where this urge comes from. Our ancestors survived because they habituated to the rewards they had and quested for the next big thing. Your Stone Age ancestors were excited when they found a pond full of fish, but if they went back to the same pond every day, it didn’t excited them anymore. It took a new way to meet their needs to excite them. They encountered risks on the path to new and improved, and their cortisol surged, but they were so motivated to do things that triggered their happy chemicals. We are too.
The urge for more is widely blamed on “our society,” but we’re better off knowing its natural origins. I would not be writing this book if my second-grade spelling bee made me happy forever. You would not be reading a book if your first bit of knowledge made you happy forever. Our brain evolved to reward you with happy chemicals when you find new ways to meet your needs. It is not designed to make you feel good when sitting on the couch.
You may see a contradiction between habituation and our use of old pathways. There is a contradiction! And it’s the frustration of our lives. It took big rewards to build an old pathway, so you expect big rewards when you repeat the old behavior. But you only get a trickle when you activate it. The trickle creates expectations, but you have to exceed expectations to get a surge. This is why nothing seems as good as it used to be. The first time you tasted a brownie, it was the the best brownie you ever had. But if you have another, it’s not the best anymore. A first experience connects neurons that make it your baseline. These neurons stimulate the trickle that guide your quest for a surge. If you’re lucky enough to find something big, it becomes your new baseline.
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 help us meet different survival needs. We want all of them. Knowing the difference helps us understand status games.
Dopamine is the basic pleasure of meeting a need. The dopamine of your past wired you to turn it on in anticipation of meeting a need today. It creates the excitement you feel when you expect a new reward. Our ancestors were excited when they found ripe fruit, but in a world where fruit is easily available, it takes an unmet need to excite you.
Dopamine motivates action. A monkey climbs toward a piece of fruit because dopamine creates the expectation of meeting a need. More dopamine is released with each step closer. Dopamine makes you feel good when you have a goal, but you have to keep getting closer to keep stimulating it. Running a marathon or baking a cake stimulate dopamine. You have to take a lot of steps to reach these goals, and more good feelings are stimulated by each step. When you see the finish line in the marathon or smell the cake in the oven, your dopamine surges. But once the goal is reached, dopamine stops, because it has already done its job. Now you have to focus on another unmet need to stimulate it.
A newborn baby’s dopamine surges when it is fed. It doesn’t know what food is, but as soon as the milk raises its blood sugar, dopamine creates the good feeling that a need has been met. Neurons connect and wire the baby to expect relief before the milk gets into its system. Soon, the sound of its mother’s footsteps will turn on its dopamine, though it doesn’t know what a mother is.
Our brain evolved in a world where constant foraging was necessary to survive, and dopamine made it feel good. Our ancestors invested effort when dopamine created the expectation of reward. Today, it’s easier to fill your belly, so you have a lot of energy left to meet other needs. This is why social rewards are so motivating. Oxytocin is one kind of social reward, and serotonin is another.
Oxytocin is the good feeling of acceptance or belonging. Animals release oxytocin when they’re with their herd or pack or troop. Herd life is frustrating because the food you have your eye on is seen and often trampled by others. Animals would rather spread out, but predators are quick to pick off isolated individuals. This is why natural selection produced a brain that rewards you with oxytocin when you stick with the group.
The animal brain makes careful decisions about when to release oxytocin. A gazelle looks for its own herd rather than just any herd. It recognizes its herd with neural pathways built from past experience. Mammals surge with oxytocin at birth because the chemical triggers uterine contractions and lactation. Neurons connect that wire a mammal to release oxytocin when the sights and smells of its youth are present. The mammal brain seeks social support in ways that match its past experience of social support.
Oxytocin is they good feeling that it’s safe to let down your guard. A mammal can eat in peace when it’s surrounded by others because the burden of vigilance is shared. Unfortunately, this only works if you run when the rest of the herd runs. You waste time on false alarms when you stick with the herd, but a mammal does it anyway because its oxytocin falls when it’s isolated.
Mammals spread out when there’s less evidence of threat. Once they smell a predator, they stick close. Common enemies are thus what binds a group of mammals.
Sticking with the herd takes a bit of effort. You have to constantly monitor where others are, and move whenever they move. Isolation can kill you in an instant in the state of nature, which is why people react so badly if “everyone went to the mall without me.” Oxytocin motivates you to stick with the herd by making it feel good.
Touch triggers oxytocin, so apes enjoy it when they groom each other’s fur. But an ape that’s close enough to touch you is close enough to kill you, so the primate brain makes careful decision about when to release oxytocin. When an ape sees an individual linked to it oxytocin in the past, the good feeling of trust turns on. We are always deciding when to trust with neural pathways built by our past oxytocin experiences.
Our ancestors stuck with the same group all the time, but in the modern world, we like our independence. You can distance yourself from the herd without immediate harm. But when you get too isolated, your mammal brain starts feeling threatened and you look for ways to stimulate oxytocin. You find ways to bond with others, with past experience as your guide. You even enjoy dopamine when you plan an oxytocin opportunity.
But our brain is designed to focus on the unmet need. When you have social support and your belly is full, the need 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.
Endorphin is the body’s natural opioid. Its name means “endogenous morphine.” Endorphin masks pain with a euphoric feeling, which enables an injured animal to run to save its life. It takes real physical pain to stimulate endorphin. We are not meant to inflict pain on ourselves to get it. It is meant for emergencies only. We are meant to seek dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin, but we are not meant to seek endorphin. People do, of course, and may even feel one-up about inflicting more pain on themselves than the next guy. This is yet another reason why new paths to serotonin are so valuable.
Your brain is always deciding which need to focus on. We make these decisions without conscious awareness most of the time. To increase that awareness, imagine you’re on a camping trip and you’re hungry, cold, and exhausted. You are constantly deciding which need is most urgent so you can do what it takes to relieve it. When the camping trip is over, you can meet your needs with less thought because life fits your old neural pathways. Now you have more energy left to meet social needs, so they start to feel more pressing. Social status feels less urgent when your energy is used up by chopping wood and finding shelter.
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)