The Echoes of the Mind – Status


“Social status motivates much of human behavior.” ~ American anthropologist Christopher von Rueden & Swiss anthropologist Adrian Jaeggi

The quest for social status begins as a neonate, vying to suckle mother’s teat. Into childhood, siblings add to the score, as do schoolmates. In adulthood, status is even more serious.

The fundamental concept in social science is power, in the same sense in which energy is the fundamental concept in physics. ~ Bertrand Russell

Humans cannot help being status conscious. It happens at every encounter, beginning with judging another by how they look – instantaneously, without reflection. Human sociality is an endless exercise of comparisons on personal scales of status.

“Power and dominance hierarchies exist in every human culture and in other primate groups as well.” ~ American communication scholar Peter Anderson

“In any interpersonal interaction, people overestimate their own agency and underestimate the agency of those they influence. Powerholders especially view themselves as causal, even if their control is illusory. The more powerful managers work harder to influence subordinates, derogate their motivation, devalue their work, keep their distance, and view them as easily manipulated objects. Powerful people appear relentlessly self-oriented.” ~ Susan Fiske

“Power is always a relational construct. There can be no powerful people without powerless people.” ~ Peter Anderson

The animalistic nature of human dominance display is regularly demonstrated. Though physical prowess has scant significance in modern society, height and size continue to command respect.

Upward movements indicate power and triumph. At sports events, cheerleaders and fans alike both make upward motions to signify power. Higher vertical positions are always viewed as more powerful, whether objects or animals.

“Standing tall is in itself a good way of achieving dominance.” ~ American psychologist Nancy Henley

In a confrontation, standing over another or otherwise looking down conveys dominance. In contrast, a slumped or curled-up position signifies submission, as it creates a smaller appearance.

Males losing arguments, but not willing to cede status, may resort to nonverbal dominance displays: an implicit ad hominem attack that tries to shift focus away from substance. Belittling behaviors are often involved.

“In a superior/subordinate interaction at work, the superior may use spatial intrusions, such as moving close, staring, talking loudly, pointing, or touching, to communicate dominance over the subordinate.” ~ American communication scholar Martin Remland

Physical size is significant in the business world. Tall men are more likely to be hired, obtain prominent positions, and draw larger salaries than shorter men.

Short men who are intensely ambitious are notorious for the savagery of their “assertiveness” when they have struggled to the top, indicating the need to compensate for their small stature. Where a tall man at the top can afford to relax, the short tyrant must remain tense, forever reestablishing his position. ~ English zoologist and ethologist Desmond Morris

Beards and long hair make the head appear larger, thereby increasing dominance. In Western societies, this hairstyle fashion has periodically appeared among men at various times in history, sometimes with social significance.

The US counterculture movement that began in the late 1960s was of young men with long hair and beards: a younger generation striving, at least symbolically, to seize power from the short-haired conservative corporatists that ran the country. (Short hair among the dominant generation at the time was a holdover from military service during the 2nd World War.)

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There is a halo effect that succors status: a person with one good quality is typically assumed to possess others. Physical attractiveness conveys power, especially for women. People have higher expectations for attractive females, and to a lesser degree males.

Beyond appearance, there are physical positions, interpersonal spacing, movements, gestures, facial expressions, vocalics, and eye contact behaviors that project power or signal submissiveness. Subordinates who increase their nonverbal status displays also augment their perceived satisfaction with their superiors and the organization.

In organizations, assigned power does not necessarily equal actual power. Competent secretaries commonly possess plentiful power despite their subordinate position.

Subordinates often have far more power than they realize, especially when they cooperate and coordinate among themselves. This partly accounts for the fear that corporate management historically has had for unions: the potential creation of an effective, and sometimes subversive, organization within.

 Voting Tough

Voters often prefer tough guys over those with experience and competence, as illustrated by the elections of former professional wrestler Jesse Ventura to governor of Minnesota and Austrian-born bodybuilder and movie actor Arnold Schwarzenegger as California “Governator” (in reference to his cyborg role in The Terminator movies).

An impressive example of this in American politics was the pseudo-election of George W. Bush in 2000 as President; especially as he was running against the more experienced Vice President Al Gore, who was also taller and physically more powerful, and who clearly demonstrated superior acumen in the televised debates during the campaign.

The US economy had performed remarkably well under the Clinton administration, with Gore an active participant (unlike a lot of vice presidents historically); hence, scant reason to switch horses. But Bush ran a campaign of macho bluster, while Gore, in stark contrast, appeared cerebral.

The most astonishing example of voting for tough over competent, or even sane, came in the 2016 pseudo-election of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. (Both Bush and Trump came to power only owing to corrupt American electoral practices. See Spokes 7: The Pathos of Politics.) Like Gore, Clinton was as experienced and competent as a candidate could be.

“I play to people’s fantasies.” ~ Donald Trump

Trump, on the other hand, was nothing but bravado and lies; yet just enough voters were taken in by Trump’s macho bluster.

“I’m also honored to have the greatest temperament that anybody has.” ~ Donald Trump


“Social structure sets the context for what we do, feel, and think, and ultimately, then, for the kind of people we become.” ~ James Henslin

Brought up with an inculcated sense of limited resources, and regularly facing competitive situations, desire for dominance is practically bred into humans. This owes in large part to the historical failure of large-scale cooperation in equitable allocation of resources.

Family units regularly share. But instances where this has been accomplished at even the group level are rare. In modern times, the Israeli kibbutz movement, began in 1909, is the best-known example of attempting an egalitarian social structure.

“The desire for high status is never stronger than in situations where “ordinary” life fails to answer a median need for dignity and comfort.” ~ Swiss-English writer Alain de Botton

Vying for dominance – control over others’ behaviors, and hence some reaping of the fruit of others’ efforts – is the sociological equivalent of capitalism. Social and economic power are not kissing cousins: they are Siamese twins.

Woman Power

While the Machiavellian path to power works well for men, women tend to be checked by their social network. For one, women are more apt to be punished for dominant behavior than men are.

In 2008, American psychologist Dacher Keltner studied social hierarchy at a college sorority. He found that members gossiped more about sisters who exerted dominance. Less-powerful women used the rumor mill as a corrective mechanism for regulating power within their group. The women with the most influence were those with the most adroit social skills, and tried to look out for the good of the entire sorority.


“The skills most important to obtaining power and leading effectively are the very skills that deteriorate once we have power.” ~ Dacher Keltner

Power is paradoxical in the sense that the less power an individual exhibits the more power that person actually has. Superiors who practice empathy earn respect and loyalty. Being considerate enhances effectiveness in exercising power when needed.

“The day the power of love overrules the love of power, the world will know peace.” ~ Indian political leader Mahatma Gandhi