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Equal social status increases the likelihood of conflict
On the topic of moral taboos, Paul Graham has written:
“I suspect the biggest source of moral taboos will turn out to be power struggles in which one side only barely has the upper hand. That's where you'll find a group powerful enough to enforce taboos, but weak enough to need them.”
This may be the case for status conflicts. An individual may challenge another’s attempt at dominance when they feel strong enough to take them on, but weak enough to need to. In other words, when who outranks whom is unclear.
This is the case for monkeys.
In his 2019 book Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society, Yale sociologist and physician Nicholas Christakis describes research led by evolutionary biologist Jessica Flack, who ran studies with 84 macaques at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center. Flack’s team identified the group leaders in this monkey community, removed the highest-ranking members, and observed the resulting interactions. Chaos ensued.
When high-ranking monkeys were “knocked out” (as the scientists called it), conflict and aggression soared. After the leaders were removed, the group had fewer grooming interactions and played less frequently. Social ties disintegrated. “This suggests that stable leadership promotes peaceful interactions not only between leaders and followers,” Christakis writes, “but also between followers and other followers.”
When the leaders were in place, they intervened between status-seekers and regulated social connections. Lower-ranking monkeys knew that if conflict arose, the higher-ranking monkeys would step in. The presence of leaders allowed lower-ranking monkeys to interact with one another without fear of attack. When the leaders were removed, the macaques began jockeying for power, which resulted in mayhem and violence.
What about for humans?
I recently read a book called Collision of Wills: How Ambiguity about Social Rank Breeds Conflict by the Yale sociologist, Roger V. Gould. The key idea of the book is that status ambiguity increases the likelihood of conflict. And when there is a clear and understood social hierarchy, conflict is less likely.
Gould examined data from U.S. cities as well as villages in India. He found that an individual is 4 to 8 times more likely to commit homicide against a person of equal social status compared to a person of higher or lower status. Conflict between peers was more likely to escalate into homicide.
Status symmetry giving rise to conflict even occurs within families. Gould cites research showing that brothers are more likely to kill brothers than sisters. And sisters are more likely to kill sisters than brothers (though, unsurprisingly, brothers do more killing overall). A son is far more likely to kill his father than his mother, while a daughter is more likely to kill her mother than her father. I haven’t seen data on this, but wouldn’t be surprised if fathers are more likely to kill sons than daughters, and mothers more likely to kill daughters than sons.
When there is ambiguity about who holds the upper hand, the likelihood of conflict increases. There are parallel findings from animal research, suggesting that when two animals of the same species are similarly-sized, conflict is more likely than when there is a large size disparity.
Interestingly, mathematical modeling suggests that an animal fighting an opponent of roughly equal size and strength could actually incur more damage than fighting a larger opponent. This is because when a smaller animal fights a larger animal, the smaller one is likely to submit faster and thus both parties will incur less damage. In contrast, fights between two similarly-sized animals tend to be more prolonged. This heightens the likelihood of severe injury.
Size might be a factor in dominance disputes between humans, too. In an amusing study from 2015, researchers observed people trying to pass in opposite directions on a narrow sidewalk. They found that when two people of the same sex walked in opposite directions, the shorter person yielded to the taller person 67% of the time. When they controlled for estimated age, the shorter person gave way to the taller person 75% of the time.
In Collision of Wills, Gould offers a simple example. Typically, in employer-employee relationships, the boss is the older one and the employee is the younger one.
Imagine a situation in which the boss is younger, and the subordinate is older. It is easy to understand why this situation might lead to more awkwardness and potential conflict than a situation where the boss is the older one. The older subordinate might feel disrespected, or feel he wasn’t given his due, or believe the boss is an upstart, or whatever. The younger boss might feel he needs to convey authority or feel that the older person isn’t taking him seriously. Both will be more sensitive to status injuries than if the employee were younger.
Gould says, “disputes are not about what they seem — disputes are about social relationships.” He observes that oftentimes violence erupts over small matters like a parking space, a trivial sum of money, or a casual insult. Gould cites data demonstrating that “altercations of relatively trivial origin” accounts for more than one-third of homicides in the U.S.
Arguments about a $5 bet can escalate into physical violence. Turning this into a fist fight might seem silly. But a rational person might be concerned with the long-term consequences of looking weak to others.
If he lets this $5 go without challenge, he will be viewed as more exploitable. So the fist fight is not about the five-spot, it’s about preventing future exploitation.
Sometimes disputes seem to be about one thing. But they're really about something else. A 2013 paper discussing revenge reports that:
“Victims retaliate more when an audience has witnessed the provocation...when 2 men have an argument on the street, the presence of a third person doubles the likelihood the encounter will escalate from a verbal altercation to one that involves violence.”
People who care about their reputation might respond to minor insults with violence. This is to avoid getting locked in to a lowly position. This is more likely when the insulter and the target are roughly equal in status. If the target accepts the insult without retaliation, then he risks losing relative status to his rival.
For a more concrete empirical case, consider this study on Formula One racers. Researchers found that pairs of drivers who were roughly equal in status were more likely to end up in collisions. They examined F1 Championship seasons from 1970 through 2014. They found that drivers who had similar competitive histories (i.e., won and lost to the same drivers) were especially prone to goading each other into fast and reckless driving, and subsequently crashing.
Gould extends this idea of status conflict to disagreements in general. Most interpersonal conflict stems from unwelcome dominance exerted in social interactions.
Suppose you regularly meet a peer for coffee, although the location varies. If, one day, your peer tells you where to meet without any gesture toward consideration of your preferences, you might feel peeved. “Meet me at X.” is different from “How about we meet at X?”
The issue about where to meet is not as important as the issue of your peer unilaterally making the decision. Where you meet isn't the issue, it's the fact that this person made the decision without consulting you. Some might say it’s the “principle” that concerns them. Gould would say “principle” is code for “dominance dispute.”
He writes, “If you are accustomed to an equal say in decisions, a unilateral action by a friend will offend you not only because you want an equal say now but because you want to preserve your equal status for the future.” In other words, what starts off as a small matter (where to meet for coffee) can escalate into a serious conflict. Disputes are not always what they seem.
I suspect this is why people can hold grudges against someone for years. And then one day realize they don’t know why they are so upset at the person. The memory of what actually happened fades. But the feeling from when a person attempted to exert unwelcome dominance remains.
Often, material stakes are less important than underlying status conflicts. Gould goes so far as to say “When people get into serious conflicts about material things such as money, land, and merchandise, it is not because these are the important things in life but because they are a very concrete, visible way in which people show each other who is in charge: they are, to distort a famous phrase, good to compete with.” When evaluating disputes, sometimes it is better to step back from the immediate picture and focus instead on the social relations people have with one another.
Likewise in his fascinating book Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate, the sociologist Diego Gambetta writes:
“Prisoners mentioned a material interest such as drugs, as being the motive of a fight only in a quarter of cases...By contrast, non-material interests (self-respect, honor, fairness, loyalty, personal safety and privacy) were important in every incident.”
Of course, sometimes disputes are about what people say they are about. One way to understand the difference between a substantive dispute and a status conflict is whether an apology would repair the relationship. A verbal apology might be enough to subdue a status dispute, but wouldn’t be enough to make amends for a substantive transgression. A simple apology for insulting someone might smooth things over, but a simple apology for burning their house down probably wouldn’t.
Returning to the main idea, hierarchical relationships are less likely to erupt into conflict. Examples include formal hierarchies: Militaries, organized tournaments in sports, and monarchical succession.
The military is a prime example of this. There is an explicit allocation of rank. Formal titles, uniforms, physical gestures (saluting), an indoctrination process that involves learning the rank structure. Cohesion is key for military organizations. The absence of within-group conflict is crucial.
If one military (or any group in competition with another) has no internal conflict and another one does, then, all things being equal, the one without internal conflict (the more cohesive group) will win.
Between individuals, when social cues for settling a status dispute are unavailable or ambiguous, the chances of conflict increase. Both parties are more likely to endure long disputes. This raises the probability that violence will arise. Again, this echoes the finding that two evenly-sized animals will persevere in a lengthy fight relative to two differently-sized animals.
The more clearly specified a relationship is (e.g., “the boss decides”, “defer to elders”, “ladies first”) the easier it is for people to agree on how decisions should be made. But when no such appeals are available, or when they are available but contradictory (as in the case of the younger boss and older subordinate), conflict may escalate. Equal claims to superior rank (or the absence of methods to determine rank) heightens the likelihood of conflict.
As the authors of a paper in the Journal of Experimental Psychology put it:
"Status hierarchies establish a mutually accepted agreement on the differential priority and access to contested resources, and thereby enable stable patterns of social exchange, prevent costly fights, and, in consequence, maximize individual fitness."
This might be what’s going on with college campuses. At least at elite universities, students hear that they are the future leaders, that they are brilliant, that the campus is "for them." Then when they have a dispute with a professor or a guest speaker, a dominance struggle ensues. There is no straightforward way to adjudicate status conflicts between undergrads and professors. In the past, it was easier for people to agree about who should prevail in these contests. Now, such conflicts are often protracted and sometimes escalate into violence.
Near the end of Collision of Wills, Gould comments on Tocqueville’s observations of the relative social equality in America. Gould then concludes:
“Americans, like anyone else, then and now, prefer equality to subordination, but many, perhaps most, would find a situation in which others were subordinate to them even more satisfactory. The idea of equality, of a society without rank, is much more a compromise solution—an insistence that, if I can’t be king, then no one else can either—than it is a fulfillment of a noble dream.”