Friday, November 25, 2011

Our involuntary fluency with hierarchy

Humans, as social primates, have evolved a psychological affinity for the subtleties of social dominance relationships.   But the kinds of power relationships that derive from the forced mechanical associations of civilization are quite different from those found in nature.  In fact, seen through the lens of our evolved sensitivities, the hierarchical systems imposed by the institutions of civilization are entirely arbitrary, and quite unnatural.  A person’s standing within a corporate system can have little or no relation to their physical, intellectual, or creative capacities.  Or if it does, the relation is in terms of the capacity to navigate the artificial corporate system itself.

A recent study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that we have a latent psychological preference for hierarchical social systems over more egalitarian situations because hierarchical relationships are easier for us to process cognitively.  The authors of this study suggest that this explains why we continue to participate in—and actively promote—steeply hierarchical institutions even while we claim that we want democracy, increased equality, etc.  

It is just a small step from this to the claim that we need hierarchy in our lives, and that we need to be embedded in oppressive systems of dominance and submission: we need the 1% in order to satisfy our natural psychological predilections.

But there is a much more reasonable interpretation of the results of this study.  Because we have more experience thinking about things that we are frequently exposed to, we have a tendency to prefer those over things that we come across less frequently.  This is why we like a song better the more times we hear it (the mere-exposure effect), and why we tend to develop deeper friendships with the people who inhabit our local environments (the propinquity effect).  Because hierarchy is so ubiquitous in our culture, we have become fluent at processing hierarchical relationships.  Add to that our culture’s fetish with efficiency and the resulting premium placed on speed and fluency.  When offered the choice between a hierarchical situation and an egalitarian one—within the artificial context of a psychology experiment—the preference for hierarchy is not surprising.  And it says nothing about our natural predilections other than that we have learned to prefer things that are easier to think about over things that we have to work at.  

Another study published earlier this spring in the journal, Psychological Assessment, looked at something called involuntary subordination.  Involuntary subordination is exactly what it sounds like.  It is a potentially adaptive process “in species that compete for resources as a mechanism to switch off fighting behaviors when loss is imminent (thus saving an organism from injury).”  As an adaptation, it is designed to be a temporary posture.  However, the arbitrary hierarchical institutions of civilization force us—involuntarily—into long-term subordinate relationships.  This study confirmed that the side-effects of long-term involuntary subordination include major depression, anxiety, lack of confidence, and (no surprise here) increased submissiveness.    

Psychologically speaking, hierarchical systems appear to be self-perpetuating.

Zitek, E. M., & Tiedens, L. Z. (2011). The fluency of social hierarchy: The ease with which hierarchical relationships are seen, remembered, learned, and liked. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, doi:10.1037/a0025345

Sturman, E. D. (2011). Involuntary subordination and its relation to personality, mood, and submissive behavior. Psychological Assessment, 23(1), 262-276. doi:10.1037/a0021499

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