Humans Aren’t The Only Animals Stuck on Status

Humans Aren’t The Only Animals Stuck on Status


May 23, 2014 7:32 p.m. ET

As a species, we crave status, endlessly keeping track of who’s more important. This is challenging, given that we participate in so many realms of comparison simultaneously. Who’s richest, smartest, best-looking? Who’s got the newer car, house or spouse? Who can drink everyone under the table, who’s the most pious at church?

Much of our gossip revolves around status relations. It’s a way to reach consensus about rankings and to decide which of them counts more: “Man, she couldn’t litigate a traffic ticket, but she’s the most awesome foosball player I’ve ever seen.”

Our brains are stupendously skilled at determining status relations. High social status looks the same across cultures: direct gaze, lowered eyebrows, open posture (for example, leaning back with arms behind the head). Averted gaze and arms sheltering the torso signal low status. Flash up a picture of someone for 40/1000th of a second (as in one experiment), and we are able to detect whether the individual looked high- or low-status.

Brain scans have shown that when people understand and accept status relations, the most cerebral parts of the frontal cortex are activated. But if those relations flip-flop, the amygdala, a brain region tied to anxiety, also gets busy. We’re unsettled when we’re unsure who in our social world gets ulcers and who gives them. As Vladimir Nabokov once said, “I hate arriving in a new town. I have no idea who I tip my hat to and who I can kick into the gutter.”

And throughout runs the same whispered question: Where do I fit in all of this? It’s a recurrent concern in many social species that have dominance hierarchies. If you’re a male baboon, for example, the single most important fact in your life is your rank.

What makes us special, it has long seemed, is our fascination with status relations that are more abstract. Logically, that male baboon divides the world into males who rank higher than he does and those who rank lower. If he’s a lowly No. 10, the tension between Nos. 3 and 4 is irrelevant, let alone any power struggles going on with the hippos at the water hole. But status relations of every kind fascinate humans. Even though it won’t affect our own status in the slightest once history decides whether Secretariat or Man o’ War was the greatest racehorse of all time, we still care about it.

It turns out, however, that this concern with abstract standing may not be uniquely human. Take a troop of baboons and methodically record the various vocalizations of individuals. Now do some splicing of the tape to invent social scenarios. Stick a speaker in a bush and play a recording of No. 3 giving a dominance call and No. 20 responding with a subordination call, and no one notices. But if you broadcast an exchange reversing who grovels to whom, all the baboons stop to pay attention: Whoa, Bill Gates just panhandled that homeless guy. (Note that implicit in these findings is the fact that baboons can recognize individual voices.)

A new study takes this even further. Writing in Nature Communications, Thomas Bugnyar of the University of Vienna and Simone Pika of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology did the playback experiment with ravens, which are outrageously smart birds. And they found the same thing: Calls showing dominance reversals commanded attention, while calls affirming the status quo didn’t. Remarkably, the ravens also paid more attention when they heard dominance reversals between birds in another flock. Ravens not only can figure out dominance relations just by listening—they’re even interested enough to keep track of a different group.

This isn’t the first time that we turn out not to be as unique a species as we thought. Still, I don’t think any other animals would spend so much time discussing whether Donald Sterling or Vladimir Putin would be voted off the island first.


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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