Hierarchy, Status, and Pride

Hierarchies are central to the human social environment. Consequently, status—our position within a hierarchy—is crucial. In human society there are many different hierarchies. Hierarchies form based on factors such as geography (e.g., neighborhood, city, state) and subject (e.g., economic, political, social, professional, recreational). The types of hierarchies likely have expanded as humans progressed from living in small tribes to living in large, complex nations. Look closely, and you can see hierarchies everywhere.

Humans have an innate and powerful desire to advance their position in the various hierarchies affecting them because higher status has benefits. Emotions, pride and ambition, for example, facilitate prospering within hierarchies. Often our pursuit of status is instinctive and unconscious. Pursuing higher status is two-edged. It can help us be good, do good and thrive. Or it can lead to the opposite.

Learning to function positively within a hierarchical social environment helps us live better. Like most people, I am competitive and want to improve my position. But I had to learn to channel my desires to benefit from them and avoid the many poor choices possible when pursuing status. It is a constant battle to make the right choices.

The first step is understanding the roots of hierarchies, the role of status in society, and the mechanisms for navigating hierarchies. This understanding makes it easier to see how status-related choices affect happiness.

The Evolutionary Roots of Hierarchy and Status

Like much of human nature, hierarchy is a product of evolutionary biology. Many animals became hierarchical as a successful adaption to their environment. As hierarchies helped a species survive, Individuals with traits improving functioning in hierarchies were more successful in passing on their genetic advantages.

Hierarchies help survival by facilitating stability, cooperation, and specialization. They help bring order to chaos. They enable leveraging the unique talents and abilities of individuals. They allow individuals to organize themselves for mutual benefit.

For example, we look to those who excel at something for guidance and leadership. We want those who excel to have more influence because we benefit from their competence and accomplishment. There are parallels with the insight of Adam Smith that the pursuit of self-interest can produce public good. People motivated by the desire for high regard from others often make valued contributions to their community.

There are negative aspects of hierarchies, especially for modern humans, where survival is less precarious. For example, they can be oppressive and limit freedom. Hierarchies based on accidents of birth, violence, raw power, and oppression rarely move society forward. Those tend to reward the status quo rather than progress. People criticize hierarchies for this, and it is fashionable to denigrate hierarchies.

But the existence of destructive effects of hierarchies should not close our eyes to the benefits hierarchies provide to society, especially those based on competence and accomplishment. The many species adopting them demonstrate their overwhelming survival benefits. It is a real-world experiment in a social structure that worked. We wouldn’t be here without them.

How hierarchies work from the individual perspective is complex. Status refers to where an individual fits relative to others in any given order. Status is the public recognition that someone exhibits more of a characteristic than others. It can range from pure physical strength to sophisticated skills and knowledge.

We benefit from knowing where we fit. We know who to follow and who to ignore. But, significantly, we benefit from improving our position. Why? Simply, higher status generally brings more resources for survival and reproductive success.  

Many illustrations show how this works in a hunter/gatherer world. For example, a tribal chief at the pinnacle of the political/social hierarchy may have several wives, increasing his chances of reproductive success. As Henry Kissinger once said, “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.”

The skilled tool maker—the top of the tool-making hierarchy—may be sought out and rewarded for that skill with more or better food, shelter, or mates. Likewise, someone with exceptional healing skills may acquire more resources from their high position in the healing hierarchy.

Society has many hierarchies – social, political, financial, technical, spiritual, etc. Some are more important than others. The relative importance of different orders may change over time as the social environment changes. But the common feature is that a higher position brings more benefits.

The converse is also true. Low-status individuals may face significant barriers to resources necessary for basic survival. Many studies on hierarchical non-human animal communities show that lower-status individuals experience more stress, less food, and more disease. From an evolutionary point of view, status is a matter of life and death.

Given this evolutionary history, it is no mystery that people are intensely aware of hierarchies and have a powerful drive to move up.

The Route to Higher Status

Psychology research has identified two fundamental routes to higher status within a human hierarchy. One is dominance. The origins of this approach may be physical. The stronger individual can dominate the weaker. But there are means other than physical to dominate others. People can dominate others through coercion and intimidation. The schoolyard bully is a good archetype for this strategy.

The second route to higher status is prestige, where skills, competence, and respect determine the position. Others look up to people with recognized knowledge and skills. Their expertise is sought and rewarded.

There is mutual benefit from hierarchies based on competence. The competent, skilled person gets respect and the benefits of higher status. The rest of us benefit from what they produce (e.g., more food) and from following and adopting their example. We take advantage of prestige hierarchies every day.

While the basic strategies are simple, gaining status can be complex. People can use both dominance and competence to get ahead. Technically competent people can also be bullies. And there are situations where people have high status not acquired through their dominance or prestige. Inherited political or economic power are examples. However, this type of status is often recognized for what it is. It tends to dissipate if not maintained through continued dominance or competence. Some people gain status through elections (e.g., politicians). But often they are being recognized for competence or dominance or both. Like our politicians or not, they were at least competent at something – getting elected.

These two basic approaches – dominance and competence are practical conceptually in choosing how to act on our innate desire for status.

Pride, Ambition, and Other Emotions Related to Status

Like other animals, humans have developed many skills and abilities for navigating, surviving, and benefitting from hierarchies. As with so many of our survival adaptations, many are innate and subconscious.  Moving within human hierarchies is complex. A few examples illustrate how human nature has given us tools for surviving hierarchies.

Pride is one emotion strongly linked to status. We express pride in visible ways – posture, for example. Pride is one way to show position in a hierarchy, and people easily detect pride in others. Most people want to feel pride and do what they can feel proud of. The person who wins the race, gets promoted, or achieves something worthwhile feels proud. We tell people to feel pride when they accomplish something, particularly when it is hard and done well. We will suffer to achieve things that we can be proud of. Pride is an emotional motivator for achievement which in turn increases status and advertises our status to others. 

Ambition is closely related to pride and motivates work hard, risk-taking, and accomplishment. Most people want to better their life position, even in small ways. Seeking financial and material benefits is common. But people aspire to a higher status in hierarchies other than economic. Ambition drives higher performance and higher status in professional, athletic, and artistic fields. You are unlikely to see people with high status in any hierarchy who lack ambition.

People vary in their level of ambition and we recognize readily recognizing ambition, and its absence, in others. The desire to achieve can produce outcomes that benefit everyone. Conversely, the drive for status can motivate us to act in wrong, destructive, or meaningless ways.

There is also a long-recognized basic human desire to be well-regarded by our fellow humans. We want to be worthy of respect and be valued. This translates into our position in a hierarchy. We want people to look up to us or, at least, not look down on us. The drive to fit in with our group is strong and causes much conforming behavior. People seek to conform simply to maintain their position in society. But many act so others view them more positively. The often-cited “virtue signaling” is an example. The actions taken to generate high regard by the community tend to maintain and improve our status.

Status Symbols and Clues

Humans are good at reading clues to determine positions in hierarchies. Facial expressions, posture, clothing, etc., are all used to reveal where people are within a group. The fact that we can quickly sort out where people are reinforces hierarchies’ importance.

The use of symbols and other clues to status is a practical necessity. It often takes too long to ascertain another person’s position based on facts and performance. For something as simple as economic status, we can’t easily learn the size of someone’s bank account. So instead, we look for signs of wealth, such as cars, houses, and clothes. Of course, people can deceive us. Some go far into debt to acquire status symbols. Others may eschew status symbols that would signal their actual status. But on the whole, symbols work reasonably well.  

Humans spend much effort acquiring the symbols of their actual or desired societal position. Marketers have long understood this about human nature. Marketing goods and services based on an appeal to status (rather than functional performance) is pervasive.

Similarly, social networks such as Facebook have exploited our desire for status symbols. Many are obsessed with the number of “likes” for their posts and the number of “friends” following them. Our passion for these measures of status drives behavior and screen time.

We look for more than just tangible symbols of status. For example, pride is a clue to status. People can appear proud. Pride is a good proxy for our position because we feel pride when we advance and accomplish something hard. “Stand up straight with your shoulders back” is good advice. That posture signifies pride which people interpret as indicating higher status. People conclude that if you feel proud you must have done something to deserve it. Our ability to read nonverbal signs of pride can be subtle. Research has shown that people can distinguish pride derived from dominance from pride associated with prestige.

There are many other subtle clues to status such as the deference shown to certain people, tone of voice, facial expressions, etc. Research has shown that people can quickly, sometimes in less than a minute,  determine a person’s status. It doesn’t take long for a group of strangers to figure out the basic hierarchy of the group.   

Thriving and Status

Learning to deal positively with hierarchies and the human desire for status is vital for living well. Many important life decisions involve status and our position within a hierarchy. Those decisions should be made wisely.

A good understanding of human hierarchies, their function in society, and how our natures have evolved to work within hierarchies help us make good decisions.  It is foolish to deny this part of human nature since it is at the core of how we evolved. Learning how the desire for status affects us and those around us is essential. We should understand where seeking status can be positive and where it can be destructive.                            

Then we should understand our individual status-related emotions and drives.  Individuals vary considerably in these traits such as ambition and competitiveness. Knowing ourselves is important information for making life decisions where hierarchies and status are factors.  

The following thoughts on guidelines may be helpful.

Ignore Status When It Is Not Important.

Hierarchies originated in the precarious environments of the distant past, where survival was often a day-to-day issue. We don’t live in that same world. Consequently, there is much status-seeking that is unnecessary. Most can meet basic needs regardless of their position in society. Much time and effort is wasted pursuing status that doesn’t improve our lives.

Consequently, one of the best responses to status pressures is to ignore them. We admire humble people who choose not to seek status for its own stake. They don’t acquire the trappings of status and tend to treat others equally regardless of their status. Learning not to care about status can reduce stress and free us to pursue more meaningful goals in life.

There is Stoic wisdom in taking this approach. The Stoics encourage us not to value too highly the opinion of others. We should do what we think is right and hold ourselves to our own high standards. When acting primarily to gain the approval of others – which is what much of seeking status is – we risk deviating from what is most important.

Seek Status Through Prestige rather than Dominance

The two primary paths for gaining higher status – dominance or prestige – give us a fundamental choice when we seek status for good reasons. Gaining a higher position through prestige is generally more helpful to society. Hierarchies based on competence are more likely to produce social benefits than hierarchies based on intimidation and dominance. Prestige is earned most often by people whose actions benefit others. If we want status, why not get it by being really good at something others view as valuable? Be good at something useful.

Seeking prestige gives us more options to improve out position. Society has many prestige-based hierarchies, giving us more opportunities to benefit from developing our natural talents and interests. In addition, prestige hierarchies are generally based on actions and character rather than on accidents of birth, such as family background. Competence is something we can control.

Of course, prestige doesn’t always lead in positive directions. People gain prestige in some parts of society by being good at bad things. Gangs act in this way. Also, we can seek prestige in fields that don’t matter to others and don’t benefit our community. People should avoid both.

Status through dominance, however, is not necessarily bad. The world is imperfect and often irrational. A dominance strategy is sometimes necessary to protect or advance one’s position. Sometimes bullies only understand power, and responding in kind is necessary. But most often, seeking advancement through competence, and having that competence recognized, is more likely to help us thrive.

Use Status to Motivate Positive Achievement.

It can be hard to get out of bed in the morning and take on the day’s tasks. Pride and ambition can help overcome inertia. They can provide the impetus and drive to do the hard things often necessary to build a successful and meaningful life.

Pride and ambition are character traits with mixed reputations. People can be praised or criticized for being proud or ambitious. But both are valuable and good in the right measure. As Aristotle argued, virtue is usually the middle ground between extremes. Pride is the middle ground between shame and arrogance. Likewise, ambition may fall between laziness (lack of ambition) and greed (excess of ambition).

We can nurture and cultivate ambition and pride and put them to good use. It is OK to be ambitious and proud if those drives are appropriately channeled and controlled. These emotions can push us to achieve wisely chosen goals benefitting ourselves and society.

Avoid Seeking Status Symbols

It is tempting to take the shortcut to higher status by acquiring status symbols rather than working hard to excel and achieve. There is constant pressure to obtain the cars, clothes, jewelry, homes, etc., that signal higher status.

It is a mistake to take the shortcut. Symbols are hollow without substance backing them up. They may produce momentary positive feelings. But they don’t create the well-being derived from meaningful accomplishment. Few feel proud when acquiring a status symbol signifying an unearned or undeserved status. They are distractions wasting time, effort, and resources we could use elsewhere.

Status symbols alone do not fool people for long. People are good at recognizing false signals, which often leave the opposite of the intended impression. We all know people who try to impress us with symbols as if the symbol is the accomplishment itself. We aren’t fooled. In most cases pursuing status through symbols alone is a waste of time.

But symbols communicating earned status are important because they are practical for navigating hierarchies. Used honestly, they can assist in achieving goals. Symbols that accurately reflect status can make interactions more productive. Using “Dr.” in front of a physician’s name is not merely signifying status; it is reassuring patients that the person has done the hard work of completing medical school. There is nothing wrong with using status symbols if they help achieve good ends.

And it is acceptable to enjoy things that provide pleasure and value in themselves but also symbolize status. The key is whether you seek the object for its practical value or for the position it signals. The bird watcher with the Swarovski binoculars may be signaling their level of disposable income. But if they are a serious birder, the primary reason to get those binoculars may be bird viewing pleasure.

Recognize Competence and Excellence When You Find It

Society generally benefits from hierarchies based on merit and excellence. Those who excel often produce superior products and services. They also create knowledge others can benefit from. We should encourage competence hierarchies that reward merit.

Caution in recognizing excellence is warranted. It is not uncommon for legitimate leaders in some fields to have deficiencies in other parts of their life. We should not let outstanding performance in one area blind us to failures in others. Conversely, we should not let a person’s failure in one area erase that good they have done elsewhere.

Sometimes excellence is hidden and not obvious. We should look for it. Socioeconomic status is easily recognized. But many other hierarchies are not. People making valuable contributions in those hierarchies may not get recognized and may not benefit from the position they deserve. We want them to benefit from their deserved status because we are better off due to their hard work and competence.

We should look for outstanding performance and recognize it privately and publically. Recognition, for the barista making your coffee, the plumber fixing your leak, or the neighbor sharing gardening expertise, makes the individual feel good and proud Sharing recognition broadly helps build the person’s prestige and status.

Our desire to do good should motivate our actions in an ideal world. But we should not pretend we are not status conscious by nature. We can acknowledge it and harness it to do good. At the same time, we can moderate our status-seeking, avoid the pressures to achieve meaningless status, and put our desires in the proper perspective.