Your Brain at Work

Using neuroscience to improve daily life

Status: A More Accurate Way of Understanding Self-Esteem.

We may have self-esteem all wrong...

Brain research is doing two things. In part it is explaining the underpinning functioning of things we already know, like the importance of mindfulness (see last week's post). However, some research also points to the need for a major overhaul in our thinking. This appears to be the case with self-esteem.

While there's no question that there's a deep human drive for a feeling of self-esteem or competence, this feeling of competence is almost never assessed on it's own: we are social beings at the core, and as such our sense of competence appears to be deeply connected to others around us. Self-esteem may not be an accurate way of understanding this feeling of 'okayness', when we actually measure this constantly against others. Instead of self-esteem, we need to start thinking about the more dynamic sense of 'status'.

Status means where are we positioned in relation to those around us: literally where we are in the ‘pecking order'. Your perception of status, and any changes in it, can be a driver of what's called primary reward or threat. A sense of increasing status can be more rewarding than money, and a sense of decreasing status can feel like your life is in danger. Here's an excerpt from Your Brain at Work on this whole issue.

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Maintaining the status quo
Status explains why people will queue for hours on a frosty morning to get a signed copy of a TV celebrity's new book, (a book they have no plan to read). Status explains why people feel good meeting someone worse off than themselves, the German concept of "Schadenfreude", with a study showing that reward circuits activate in this situation. Status even explains why people love to win arguments, even pointless ones. Status explains a tremendous number of strange occurances in life.

Status is relative, and a sense of reward from an increase in status can come anytime you feel "better than" another person. Your brain maintains complex maps for the "pecking order" of the people surrounding you. These maps have a similar structure to how you think about numbers. Studies show that you create a representation of your own and someone else's status in the brain when you communicate, which influences how you interact with others.

Changes in a pecking order brings about changes in how millions of neurons are connected. If you have ever been in a relationship in which one partner unexpectedly begins earning more money than the other, you would have felt these wide-scale changes in brain circuitry take place, and the related challenges. Organizations set up complex and well-defined hierarchies, and then try to motivate people with the promise of moving up within that hierarchy. One company won't let you face your desk toward the window until you move from a "band 30" to a "band 35" role, even though you might sit next to a "band 35". Marketing departments use two main levers to engage human emotions: fear, and the promise of increased status.

Despite attempts by corporations to make status about the size of your car or the cost of your watch, there's no universal scale for status. When you meet someone new and size up your relative importance, you might do so based on who is older, richer, stronger, smarter, or funnier. (Or if you live in some Pacific Islands, based on who weighs more.) Whatever framework you think is important, when your perceived sense of status goes up, or down, an intense emotional response results. As a result, people go to tremendous extremes to increase or protect their status. It operates at an individual and group level, and even at the level of countries. The desire to increase status is behind many of society's greatest achievements and some our darker hours of destruction.

On the way down
As with all emotional experiences, with status the threat response is stronger and more common than the reward response. Just speaking to someone you perceive to be of a higher status, such as your boss, can activate a strong threat response. A perceived threat to status feels like it could come with terrible consequences. The response is visceral, including a flood of cortisol to the blood and a rush of resources to the limbic system that inhibits clear thinking.

Naomi Eisenberger, a leading social neuroscience researcher at UCLA, wanted to understand what goes on in the brain when people feel rejected by others. She designed an experiment that used fMRI to scan the brains of participants as they played a computer game called "Cyberball." Cyberball harks back to the nastiness of the school playground. "People thought they were playing a ball tossing game over the Internet with two other people," Eisenberger explained during an interview down the road from her lab. "They could see an avatar that represented them, and avatars for two other people. Then, about half way through this game of toss between the three of them, they stop receiving the ball and the other players throw the ball only to each other." This experiment generates intense emotions for most people. Eisenberger says, "What we found is that when people were excluded, you see activity in the dorsal portion of the anterior cingulate cortex, which is the neural region that's also involved in the distressing component of pain, or what sometimes people call the "suffering component" of pain. Those people who felt the most rejected had the highest levels of activity in this region." Exclusion and rejection is physiologically painful. A feeling of being less than other people, activates the same brain regions as physical pain. Eisenberger's study showed five different physical-pain brain regions lighting up under this social-pain experiment. Social pain can be as painful as physical pain, as the two appear synonymous in the brain.

The real trouble with feedback
Think of the drop in your stomach when someone says to you, "Can I give you some feedback?" It's a similar feeling to walking alone at night and sensing that someone is about to attack you from behind: perhaps not as intense but it's the same fear response. This discovery about the brain explains why people sometimes react with the human equivalent of a dog baring its teeth and growling when you tell them they've done something wrong: their brain thinks someone is about to hit them. Because of the intensity of the status-drop experience, people go to great lengths to avoid situations that might risk their sense of status. This includes staying away from any activity they are not confident in, which, because of the brain's relationship to novelty, can mean avoid anything new, impacting quality of life.

The threat response from a perceived drop in status can take on a life of its own, lasting for years. People work hard to avoid being "wrong" in a situation, from a simple typesetting mistake, to an error of judgment about a major strategy. Think of some of the big corporate mergers that have gone bad, and the executives involved avoiding any responsibility. People don't like to be wrong because being wrong drops your status, in a way that feels dangerous and unnerving.

When you decide you are right, the other person must be wrong, which means you don't listen to what he or she says, and he or she experiences you as a threat too. A vicious cycle emerges. Being "right" is often more important to people than, well, than just about anything else, at the cost of not just money but relationships, health, and sometimes even life itself.

As well as sometimes taking on a life of its own, the other trouble with status threats is how easily they can occur, generating a strong threat even in minor situations. Say you are at a meeting with a colleague, and for the first time in your working relationship, he asks to follow up with you about a project. It's likely you will interpret his request as a threat to your status: Doesn't he trust you? Is he checking up on you? Your threat response could make you say something harmful to your career. Remember that the limbic system once aroused makes accidental connections and thinks pessimistically. Just speaking to your boss arouses a threat. If you manage someone, just asking how his or her day is going can carry more emotional weight than one might think. I propose that many of the arguments and conflicts at work, and in life, have status issues at their core. The more you can label status threats as they occur, in real time, the easier it will be to respond more appropriately.

On the way up
I interviewed an international ballet dancer who used to be a member of the London Royal Ballet. She told me how she was often bored and frustrated as one of many dancers, even though she was in a world-class troupe. That all changed when she moved to a smaller, less known, troupe in her home city, but now was the leading soloist. She explained, "Finally I am the highest paid dancer in the company. I am the one at the front of the room. The minute you're at the front of the room, there's no boredom at all. The focus is on you, the space is your space, you feel at the top."

Studies of primate communities show that higher status monkeys have reduced day-to-day cortisol levels, are healthier, and live longer. This isn't just monkey business (sorry for the pun.) There is an entire book, The Status Syndrome by Michael Marmot, illustrating that status is a significant determinant of human longevity, even controlling for education and income. High status doesn't just feel good. It brings along very real rewards, too.

Status is rewarding not just when you have achieved high status, but also anytime you feel like your status has increased, even in a small way. One study showed that saying to kids "good job" in a monotonous recorded voice activated the reward circuitry in kids as much as a financial windfall. Even little status increases, like beating someone at a card game, feel great. We're wired to feel rewarded by just about any incremental increase in status. Many of the world's great narratives (and some of our not so great television franchises) have status at their core, based on two recurring themes. These stories involve either ordinary people doing extraordinary things (giving you hope you could have higher status one day) or extraordinary people doing ordinary things (giving you hope that even though may be ordinary, you are basically the same as people with high status.) Even an increase in hope that your status might go up one day seems to pack a reward.

An increase in status is one of the world's greatest feelings. Dopamine and serotonin levels go up, linked to feeling happier, and cortisol levels go down, a marker of lower stress. Testosterone levels go up too. Testosterone helps people focus, feel strong and confident, and even improves sex drive. With more dopamine and other "happy" neurochemicals, an increase in status increases the number of new connections made per hour in the brain. This means that a feeling of high status helps you process more information, including more subtle ideas, with less effort. With the reduced threat response, you are more able to think on multiple levels at once.

People with higher status are better able to follow through with their intentions more-they have more control, more support, and more attention from others. Being in a high-status state helps you make the connections that your brain expects to make, which puts you in an upward spiral toward even more positive neurochemistry. This may well be the neurochemistry of "getting on a roll."

Getting and staying on a high
You can elevate your status by finding a way to feel smarter / funnier / healthier / richer / more righteous / more organized / fitter / stronger or by beating other people at just about anything at all. The key is to find a "niche" where you feel you are "above" others.

If you video recorded a standard weekly team meeting in most organizations, you might find that a large percentage of the words spoken every are intended to edge an individual's status higher, or edge other people's status lower. This bickering, the corporate equivalent of sibling rivalry, largely happens unconsciously and wastes the cognitive resources of billions of people.

The ongoing fight for status has other downsides. While competition can make people focus, there's will always be losers in a status war. It's a zero sum game. If everyone is fighting for high status, they are likely to feel competitive, to see the other person as a threat.

If you want to have a potentially threatening conversation with someone, try talking down your own performance to help put the other person at ease. Another strategy for managing status is to help someone else feel that his or her status has gone up. Giving people positive feedback, pointing out what they do well, gives others a sense of increasing status, especially when done publicly. The trouble is, giving others people positive feedback may feel like a threat, because of a sense of a relative change in status. This may explain why, despite employees universally asking for more positive feedback, employers seem to prefer the "deficit model", pointing out people's faults and performance gaps, over a strengths-based approach.

These two strategies—putting your status down and others' up-only help other people with their status, and may actually threaten yours. So where can you get a nice burst of confidence-inducing, intelligence-boosting, performance-raising status around here, without harming children, animals, work colleagues or yourself?

Getting a status-rush without harming others' status
There's only one good (non-pharmaceutical) answer that I can find so far. It involves the idea of "playing against yourself." Why does improving your golf handicap feel so good? Because you raise your status against someone else, someone you know well. That someone is your former self. "Your sense of self comes online around the same time in life when you have sense of others. They are two sides of same coin," Marco Iacoboni explains. Thinking about yourself and thinking about others use the same circuits. You can harness the power of the thrill of "beating the other guy" by making that other guy (or girl) you, without hurting anyone in the process. To play against yourself gives you the chance to feel ever-increasing status, without threatening others. I have a hunch that many successful people have worked all this out and play against themselves a lot.

In summary—I think it's time we rethink self-esteem. Status appears to be a more accurate way of thinking about what self esteem is really about. It's a highly dynamic issue. By rethinking self-esteem we can create more accurate ways of intervening with those struggling with low status, like changing one's environment, or finding domains of life where one can experience higher status, or learning to play against yourself.

PS - If you liked this piece, check out my new book Your Brain at Work.

PPS - am on Twitter daily posting new insights and research about the brain. Find me here.

David Rock is executive director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, and CEO of the NeuroLeadership Group, a global consulting firm.

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