Hardwired for hierarchy

Harold Jarche pointed me to this: Human Brain Appears “Hard-Wired” for Hierarchy

I must get round to writing a caveat about my and others’ casual use of this word “hardwired” to describe the organic operations of the brain. It’s very easy to get into linear cause-and-effect filtering in pursuit of a good story. For now, please imagine appropriate boilerplate.

It seems we respond similarly to shifts in status as to changes in monetary rewards. (My first ad agency constantly exploited this, creating all manner of new job titles to confer pseudopromotions without any increase in pay. The lower ranks suggested they create a fruit machine to jumble up words like “associate” “senior” “assistant” on reel 1, “account” “creative” “planning” etc on reel 2 and “director” “manager” “executive” “controller” on reel 3. That’s how they could keep up the supply of hollow status games. My offer to be called teaboy but get a decent pay rise fell on deaf ears.)

It seems that high status also drives the bit of us that’s into action planning. That’s a neat bit of science to back up my longstanding sense that many people who talk about the need for action in meetings are playing a high status game.

Then there’s this:

The more positive the mood experienced by participants while at the top of an unstable hierarchy, the stronger was activity in this emotional pain circuitry when they viewed an outcome that threatened to move them down in status. In other words, people who felt more joy when they won also felt more pain when they lost.

You can see how this can lead hierarchies to increasing pivot to greater inequality, until they become quite unstable.


2 thoughts on “Hardwired for hierarchy

  1. Johnnie Moore

    “that many people who talk about the need for action in meetings are playing a high status game.”

    Absolutely. I’ve seen some real chest-beating displays about who can propose the most macho thing, whether it is going to meet the stated goals of the organisation. You see it happen, especially in groups on their way ‘down’ (I like your final observations). [And, in my experience, once someone has proposed a seriously ‘radical’ course of action then they don’t often feel the need to do the work of implementation!)d

    This is an element of groupthink, isn’t it – that there’s no space to the “less than” side of the acknowledged leader, so people who want to get noticed have to go FURTHER than the leader to find status-space.



    Good point. It’s easy for groups to trigger a poker round of demands for action and therefore status. I’ll meet your call for action, and raise you a demand for an immediate decision tree. Eventually, the call for action starts to veer towards panic.


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