Monday, July 20, 2020

Hierarchy and Stress

“The important issue is not how much inequality there is but how much opportunity there is for individuals to get out of the bottom classes and into the top….If you have opportunity, there is a greater tolerance for inequality.”
-- Economist Milton Friedman


Friedman’s perspective is the American popular stance on the exchange of the egalitarian model for social mobility and the potential gains it represents.  Americans more or less constantly imagine ourselves as upwardly mobile—hence the current focus on the “fact” that we are the first generation fated to do less well than our parents.  Ambition causes us to ignore the many insults to our status at the lower end as we work our fortunes up the progress ladder.

This upward identification also explains the popularity of luxury brands in designer clothing, accessories, beauty, and housewares for a large and growing middle class—the 90% of Americans who identify this way.  That is quite a range of occupation, income, and education (the way the US government defines social categories) that all consider themselves middle of the curve.  As Americans, that’s just our start point.  Almost every decision we make is in the service of moving our status upward, or at least holding it steady against slipping downward.  That includes the career we hope to build, the money we hope to make, and the school and working experience we bring to the first two.


Humans are the most hierarchical of the primates.  We live in the most complex universe of ways to be ranked by competence, esteem, resources, relationships, and power.   This is the reason that everything we engage in involves some range of unequal opportunities and rewards (Cecilia Ridgeway describes this world as a “struggle for precedence.” (2013, American Sociological Review)

Fear and aggression are not just consequences of living in difficult times or environments, but natural outcomes of the anxiety humans experience because of our hierarchies; the way we need to think about, and interact with, others. This state is based on our higher or lower relationship with them. This is why we spend most of our time in “social thinking,” trying to determine our standing, our potential standing, and the intentions of others by navigating our way through social situations, real, contingent, and imaginary.  Its extreme form is Social Anxiety Disorder, a distraught condition in which these thoughts are highly anxiety-producing.

Stress anxiety

The psychic outcome is social anxiety resulting in negative effects on GI functioning, sleep, sex drive, and blood pressure acted on by adrenaline and cortisol.  Our large social brains are always subconsciously addressing complex social situations and transactions.  The resulting stress correlates well with our relative place in the social pecking order. What keeps this stress loop going is the difficulty of predicting what constitutes either a social threat or promise, and to what extent we can determine these are either real, likely, or projected by our own fears, doubts, and uncertainty.
For example, social media leads to insecurity because everyone is posing and posting their own lives as better than others.  Poverty is connected with a lower level of neuronal connectivity in the frontal cortex (inhibition control and restraint, focus, decision-making ability).  Chronic and generalized stress leading to hypertension and depression is an expression of feeling subordinate or less powerful.  Our feelings of self-efficacy—how competent and confident we are—are tied to the way we perceive our social rank. 
Social rank and dominance are directly linked to feelings of confidence, self-possession, optimism about the future, relatedness to others, and ability to navigate the social landscape.  The American values of mobility and choice are tied into a lack of connection and obligation to others—but only the positive side of that ethic, that of being free to make autonomous choices, to make up and then change our minds, and choose our associates as we see fit without loss of stability and support.
Neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky comments in an interview on stress in primates that “Up until 15 years ago, the most striking thing we found was that, if you're a baboon, you don't want to be low ranking, because your health is going to be lousy. But what has become far clearer, and probably took a decade's worth of data, is the recognition that protection from stress-related disease is most powerfully grounded in social connectedness, and that's far more important than rank."  (3.7.07, Stanford News)

Analog:  Alpha-companies versus Beta-consumers

Is there an operational analogy between being one-down on the social hierarchy ladder and being a consumer?  Why do consumers feel so contentious and adversarial about systems they have bought into that are pledged to “work with you” to resolve problems? Our current research with a consumer rights agency has inspired some digging into the company-consumer relationship, which has become more and more complex and difficult to navigate.
A major clue can be found within the legalese of contract language.  This is the elite code that requires a lifetime of education and experience--just to read through. Outside the legal profession, almost no one is able to accurately and with facility read the most basic contract – for example, an insurance policy for home appliances, the home warranty agreement.  These contracts specify long lists of conditions under which the policy holder is NOT covered and the policy not in force, making only the most basic statements about when coverage will be granted for repairs and replacements.  This is the start-point for policy-holders feeling incompetent, outranked, and swindled.
This is also how consumers learn about what they are entitled to.  It isn’t by careful preparation for the worst situations—those are too abstract and uncertain, and also too numerous, to imagine in detail or even guess at.  The way we do learn is by failing.  We make an unsuccessful claim, ending in denial of payment.  At that point our frontal brains get busy at focusing on the small print, trying to work out what happened, why and how, and what we can do about it now.
The real problem is this: The company holds all the cards—it is their contract, and so they will read it to their own advantage, not ours. They are the alpha party as the arbiters of what gets covered and what ends up out-of-pocket.  The consumer is quickly one-down on the social ladder and stressed by the self-esteem loss. This is why customer service is more accurately termed “customer management.”  The goal is to control and contain customer demands, not to meet them. Consumer advocates are always having to assure clients that their problems are not unique and they are not alone.
Consumer advocates are hired expert guns.  They take over the job to define the problem, negotiate between the parties (often from two to ten involved), and understand how to work toward a solution that defends the rights of the beta, the consumer, and still plays within the alpha rules. In this role, the advocate acts as a counter-balancing social connection, an equalizer. Its role is that of the third party coming to the table with the authority of expertise and the standing to negotiate between adversaries. This role in itself mitigates the disparity between unequals. This process acts to form a bonding alliance with the consumer-client that reduces the normal hierarchical stress symptoms while improving self-efficacy by actually enhancing the beta’s status.