Status and well-being

Sorry for the lack of stuff on here over the past week. I have been otherwise engaged.

This post from Chris Dillow caught my eye. Some new research by the Institute for the Study of Labor suggests that promotion at work does not necessarily lead to improved health and that, in the private sector, it can even lead to increased psychological strain and worsening health.

This seems to fly in the face of the research that suggests a relationship between social status and health in humans and animals. And as Chris says, rather than promotion leading to improved health, it could be that the cause and effect is the other way round; those who are healthier in the first place are more likely to get promoted.

The study’s authors concede that it is difficult to reconcile their findings with those that have found a cause and effect relationship between improved status and better health. They suggest that the effects of increased status may take time to yield positive results and that perhaps only major changes in status significantly reduce psychological strain. In other words, only those who are promoted rapidly and are at the top for a long time get the full psychological benefits of increased status.

That said, I still find Michael Marmot’s “Status Syndrome” a persuasive argument. His hypothesis is that social status doesn’t just bring better health because it leads to greater material wealth and comfort. It also improves your feeling of well being because you have more control over your life.

From my own observations during twenty years of watching people in organisations it seems not so much that promotions make people feel better, it’s that not being promoted makes people feel worse.

During the 1980s, some research into the behaviour of monkeys* found that increased social status led to higher levels of the feelgood chemical serotonin in the brain. A sudden loss of status led to a sharp drop in serotonin levels.

Even a reduction in the frequency of submissive behaviour by subordinate males led to a drop in serotonin levels among dominant males. The top monkeys’ feelgood chemicals only lasted as long as there was regular confirmation of their dominant status from the rest of the group.

Most interesting of all, if a dominant male was taken away from the group, the subordinate that rose up to replace him experienced increased serotonin levels. If the old dominant male was reintroduced, the serotonin levels of the monkey that had temporarily replaced him fell to a level below that which he had before his temporary promotion. the loss of his status therefore left him worse off than if he had never had the status in the first place.

In their 1998 article Shame, Status and Social Roles, Gilbert and McGuire concluded that, while it is risky to make jumps from one species to another, “there is increasing evidence that up and down rank social signals are biologically potent in humans”.

If serotonin levels in humans rise and fall in response to status in anything like the way they do in monkeys, that would explain the feelings of agony and ecstasy experienced in a corporate power games.

Perhaps rapid promotion increases your levels of serotonin. Being slapped down by the boss or ganged up on in a meeting reduces them. Certainly sudden losses of status have as traumatic an effect on humans as they did on the monkeys.

Even if there is no loss of pay and benefits, perceived reductions in status can be damaging. Restructures which leave people lower down in the hierarchy, subordinates being promoted over their bosses and even loss of office space are extremely distressing. Mergers and takeovers, too, usually leave some people with a reduced status.

A few years ago, I saw a partnership taken over by a much larger corporation. Partners and directors, who had enjoyed privileged status and deferential respect in the old firm, suddenly found that they were nothing more than middle managers in this huge corporation. Their remuneration and position relative to their subordinates remained unchanged but boy did they feel put out.

The debate on this will, no doubt, run and run but experience tells me that lack of status and certainly sudden drops in status do seem to be bad for many people’s health and well-being. A few people are immune to corporate status anxiety, either because they get their needs met outside work or they just don’t care, but for most of us, as Susan Greenfield says, a lot of our pleasure is derived from status.

The coming recession will see reductions in status for many people as their organisations are downsized or taken over and they find themselves lower down the pecking order or even kicked out of the organisation altogether. Expect a corresponding increase in depression and illness as a result.

* McGuire, Michael T., Michael J. Raleigh and Gary L. Brammer 1984  Adaptation, Selection, and Benefit-Cost Balances:   Implications of Behavioral-Physiological Studies of  Social Dominance in Male Vervet Monkeys. Ethology and   Sociobiology 5: 269-277 – As far as I know this isn’t available online.

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