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Pathways to higher social rank: Dominance, prestige...compassion?

Hubristic and authentic pride…moving up the social rank hierarchy via dominance or prestige…and where does compassion fit in? Check it out!



Last week I spoke about pride, and in particular, two types of pride: hubristic pride, which is characterised by feelings of hubris, arrogance or egotism with successes attributed to natural talent, and authentic pride, which is characterised by feelings of accomplishment and confidence stemming from success that is attributed to authentic effort.


As mentioned in last week's blog, Professor Jessica Tracey and her lab have found that different types of pride are associated with different pathways to gaining social rank in groups. Humans are very concerned with social rank, and various strategies can take an individual to the top! Evolutionary theory proposes the dual-strategies theory of social rank, two distinct pathways that are equally viable pathways to gaining status in human social hierarchies: dominance and prestige.



Dominance, found to be associated with hubristic pride, involves the use of force, intimidation, or coercion to gain higher social rank and influence others. Dominant individuals often behave in ways that prioritise their own self-interest and power above the interests of fellow group members. Having said that, dominant leaders are typically seen as strong and powerful, and able to coordinate and defend group members during times of uncertainty and threat.


Prestige-based strategies has been found to be associated with authentic pride, as it involves gaining higher social rank via earning respect and admiration through accomplishments, achievements and demonstrated skills and effectiveness. Typically, the prestigious person is also nice, agreeable, generous, and helpful. This strategy does not require force or compulsion and instead people choose to defer to the prestigious person and thus giving them influence in the group.


Although dominance is associated with the pursuit of power through controlling some valued resource and using that to force others to follow them, prestige-based strategies are associated with the pursuit of respect and admiration and a desire to be helpful to others.


Just think of these two styles playing out at work. The boss who has dominant style is likely to threaten workers that if they don’t perform they will be out. The workers don’t like or respect their boss, but they follow them because they feel they have no choice, there will be some punishment if they don’t. The manager who has prestige has earned the respect of workers who then choose to follow them and in return the manager guides, mentors and teaches the workers to help them develop and perform successfully.


Now, the interesting thing is that dual strategies theory would say that both dominance and prestige are effective strategies for reaching higher social rank. In evolutionary terms, it makes sense that our early ancestors who were big and strong might make their way to the top of the social hierarchy by dominating others.


Many of the Pharaohs, Emperors, Kings and Queens, and rulers throughout the ages used dominance to gain and maintain power, though it was often a risky business. We still see dominance strategies used in political and business leaders to gain power today…and it still looks a bit risky, I’d say!


But prestige works too! The skillful warrior or healer, or wise elder and so on were also able to find their way up the social ranks amongst the Ancients. Today, we have sports people, musicians, actors, scientists, inventors and so on who have earned the respect and admiration of others and therefore a degree of influence and power.


In fact, you will often see dominant leaders try to conjure up some prestige, playing saxophone on stage, riding a horse with their shirt off, but especially associating with others who have prestige…all in the hope of garnering respect and admiration along side their enforced power.


And the effectiveness of both dominance and prestige as strategies to obtain higher social rank has been supported in the lab! Dr Joey Cheng and colleagues have explored social hierarchies and the dual-strategies theory for several years.


Two papers you might be interested in are a 2013 paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology titled Two ways to the top: Evidence that dominance and prestige are distinct yet viable avenues to social rank and influence, and a 2021 paper in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin titled Two Ways to Stay at the Top: Prestige and Dominance Are Both Viable Strategies for Gaining and Maintaining Social Rank Over Time. I have included links to the abstracts of these two papers in the description.


And this is an important pair of findings. Earlier, dominance and prestige strategies were thought to help with gaining higher social rank initially, but prestige was thought to maintain social rank over time. This was because prestige-based approaches were thought to involve valuable traits like generosity, helpfulness, skilfulness and so on, while dominant approaches are associated with greater selfishness and this could be damaging to social rank. Now, as the data keeps coming in, it seems that both dominance and prestige strategies help people gain and maintain social rank over time.


But, perhaps there is still a difference when we distinguish social rank from social status. Dominance may help with social rank, but that rank doesn’t come along with respect and admiration from others, in fact sometimes quite the opposite. Social status can be an aspect of social rank, but doesn’t have to be.


I’m sure you can think of a lot of people who have high social rank and a lot of influence or power, but whom aren’t respected and the rank has been attained through force. Status relies on “freely conferred deference”, which just mean people freely give the person influence and power because they like and admire them.


Unfortunately for those who make their way up the social hierarchy through dominating others, the dominance strategy is often associated with narcissism, and so there can be a craving to be liked, loved, respected and admired. This can create a difficult rub there for people who, using dominant strategies, gain social rank without social status. The person may attempt to garner status through prestige-based efforts, or they may simply double down with dominance and even more forceful methods of overpowering others. Perhaps this is the important role sycophants play for dominant rulers - giving them the illusion of prestige. Anyway, that’s a bit of track…


Hang on a sec…where does compassion fit into all this?


We know that prestige-based social rank and status is related to generosity, helpfulness, and so on. I think it is a reasonable hypothesis that prestige may also arise from compassion. If you think of some of the most genuinely admired and respected people, and most influential and remembered across history, it is the compassionate ones. Religious figures, of course, spring to mind, despite how much generations of followers might re-shape or misshape the original teachings. But let’s look to some research.


A 2019 cross-sectional, correlational study by Jas Basran and her colleagues in the open access journal Frontiers in Psychology titled Styles of Leadership, Fears of Compassion, and Competing to Avoid Inferiority found that a coalition building leadership style, a tendency to pursue rank by forming cooperative relationships with others, consulting with them, eliciting their opinions, and trying to find compromise where differences emerge (perhaps prestige-based strategies), was significantly negatively correlated with narcissism, hypercompetitiveness, fears of compassion, and positively correlated with secure striving, social safeness and compassionate goals…among other findings.


So, perhaps compassion and compassionate action can garner prestige and help us move up the social hierarchy. But like all prestige-based strategies, the motivation isn’t so much to gain power and influence, but rather to do good work. Compassionate people lead by example…and by default.


But humans have tricky brains, and often, when our threat system is activated, especially in times of uncertainty, competition, danger and so on, the dominant leader will often step in, stoke the flames of division, and force people to follow them, promising them they will make them safe, no one else can do it, and deriding, demonising, and in one way or another removing those who might disagree.


This social aspect to our species, hierarchies, power and so on, is all very, very tricky. I have probably raised more questions than answers in this video! Let me know your thoughts. Dominance and prestige-based strategies for climbing the social hierarchy - both work, but in very different ways, and maybe prestige leads to higher social rank via higher social status, something that a more dominant strategy does not.


Thanks for reading. Please hit the like button if you enjoyed this blog, and I look forward to chatting in the comments section below!

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