Two Routes to Social Status
Dominance isn't the only path to social status
Posted Aug 06, 2010
In every human society, people differ from one another in status. Those with higher status have greater power, money, and access to interested mates. Due to the fitness-enhancing benefits of having higher-status, the drive for high status, and the emotions, traits, and behaviors that facilitated that drive, run deep in our blood.
Joe Henrich and Gil-White  reviewed findings from ethnography, ethology, sociology, and sociolinguistics and makes a convincing case that each route to social status - dominance and prestige - arose in evolutionary history at different times and for different purposes.
Various lines of research support the notion that dominance and prestige represent two different paths to status. For one, self-report measures of dominance and prestige are differentially associated to basal testosterone levels, aggression, agreeableness, conscientiousness, openness to experience, and machiavellianism [2, 3]. In another line of research, among the Tsimane', (a small-scale Amazonian society), peer-ranked dominance is positively related to physical size, and peer-ranked prestige is positively associated with hunting ability, generosity, and number of allies [4, 5].
What drives social status?
It would have been too costly though for our ancestors to have to consciously have to figure out in every situation which social satus strategy to employ; such a process would be inefficient, error-prone, and could easily give rise to self-doubt (how often has your meta-cognitive awareness caused a drop in your ability to smoothly accomplish a task?).
Evolution would have built in psychological mechanisms that would automatically calculate the relative costs and benefits of employing a given strategy and would only give us the result of this complex calculation in the form of powerful emotions.
One of the most powerful emotions tied to social status is pride.
The bulk of the evidence suggests that pride evolved to motivate people to increase social status and to display the traits and behaviors associated with high social status. Just as there are multiple routes to social status, pride also takes multiple forms, and each form may have evolved along different paths .
Authentic pride is also associated with genuine self-esteem, which is high self-esteem controlling for narcissism. Authentic pride, and its associated subjective feelings of confidence and accomplishment may facilitate behaviors that are associated with attaining prestige. People who are confident, agreeable, hard-working, energetic, kind, empathic, non-dogmatic, and high in genuine self-esteem would draw inspiration from others and would want to be emulated by others .
In a recent set of studies on undergraduates and varsity-level athletes, Joey T. Cheng and colleagues at the University of British Columbia  explicity tested the notion that the two facets of pride evolved to promote distinct forms of status.
Self-reported dominance was associated with lower levels of genuine self-esteem, social acceptance, and agreeableness, and higher levels of self-aggrandizing narcissism, aggression, extraversion, agency, and conscientiousness. Those with higher levels of self-reported dominance were rated by their peers as higher in athleticism and leadership and lower in altruism, cooperativeness, helpfulness, ethicality, and morality.
Self-reported prestige was associated with lower levels of aggression and neuroticism, and higher levels of genuine self-esteem, social acceptance, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, openness to experience, GPA, and was weakly related to self-aggrandizing narcissism. Those with higher levels of self-reported prestige were rated by their peers as being more capable advisor and leaders as well as being more intellectual, athletic, socially skilled, altruistic, cooperative, helpful, ethical, and moral.
Recognizing that there are different routes to social status is important for a number of reasons. One reason is methodological. In an earlier study , researchers found that agreeableness is negatively associated to dominance but positively related to prestige. From these results they concluded that "being nice, warm, and kind" does not lead to higher status. The results of the Cheng and colleagues  study suggests, however, that if you want to find the effects of traits on status, you have to look at both dominance-based and prestige-based contexts.
Distinguishing between two routes to social status might also resolve longstanding debates about the link between narcissism and self-esteem in attaining high status. Some studies show that narcissists tend to attain higher levels of leadership while other studies show that narcissists tend to have bad leadership skills and are disliked by their peers .
The results of the Cheng and colleagues  study suggests that the particular type of pride associated with narcissism- hubristic pride- facilitates status through the dominance route, a route which does not require respect or social acceptance. Genuine self-esteem, which is associated with authentic pride, tends to be associated with lower displays of anti-social and aggressive behaviors typical of dominant leaders [10, 11]. But as noted by Cheng and colleagues , leaders come in a number of different flavors (e.g., Gandhi vs. Churchill).
This may seem to go against the "girls like jerks" stereotype, but I think it adds some more nuance to that stereotype. Girls don't like "jerks", per se but men who are strong and confident. In the study just mentioned, dominant men who showed their displays of dominance within a context of competition were indeed considered attractive, but flat-out jerks who signaled that they might use aggression and dominance toward peers in situations where it's important to work together, were considered unattractive.
In a lot of ways, a prestigious man really is a girl's dream. While there is some overlap between dominant and prestigious men-- prestigious men, like dominant men, are confident, achievement-oriented, and extraverted-- prestigious men are also self-assured, caring, and helpful people who are genuinely high in self-esteem. This should offer some assurance that the nice, smart kid who dreams of doing good in the world someday while he or she is being used as the basketball in gym class, can grow up to reach high levels of social status and all the goodies that come with it.
© 2010 by Scott Barry Kaufman
 Henrich, J., & Gil-White, F. J. (2001). The evolution of prestige: Freely conferred deference as a mechanism for enhancing the benefits of cultural transmission. Evolution and Human Behavior, 22, 165−196.
 Buttermore, N. (2006). Distinguishing dominance and prestige: Validation of a self-report scale. Poster presented at the Human Behavior and Evolution Society's 18th Annual Meeting. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
 Johnson, R. T., Burk, J. A., & Kirkpatrick, L. A. (2007). Dominance and prestige as differential predictors of aggression and testosterone levels in men. Evolution and Human Behavior, 28, 345−351.
 Reyes-Garcia, V., Molina, J. L., Broesch, J., Calvet, L., Huanca, T., Saus, J., et al. (2008). Do the aged and knowledgeable men enjoy more prestige? A test of predictions from the prestige-bias model of cultural transmission. Evolution and Human Behavior, 29, 275−281.
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 Cheng, J.T., Tracy, J.L., & Henrich, J. (in press). Pride, personality, and the evolutionary foundations of human social status. Evolution and Human Behavior.
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