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.

Just looking at grade school, it's easy to think that dominance is the only route to social status. It seems as though bullies who use intimidation, coercision, and fear inducing tactics are the ones who rise in the status hierarchy. Those who get good grades in school really only receive a personal reward; a ticket to further education and job opportunities.



Beyond school though, on the stage of life, the knowledge one learns can have more of a societal impact, and people with high prestige tend to be recognized for their skills, success, and knowledge.

Joe Henrich and Gil-White [1] 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?

The usefulness of employing a dominant or prestigious strategy depends on a person's set of mental and physical dispositions as well as the situation the person is in. People who possess the ability to intimidate others or enforce threats, and live in cultures that promotes the use of coercive techniques (e.g., prison), may be more oriented toward dominance. People who have the mental skills to acquire culturally valued information and skills and find themselves in social situations that don't form dominance hierarchies may be oriented toward prestige.

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 [6].

Hubristic pride is fueled by arrogance and conceit, and is associated with anti-social behaviors, rocky relationships, low levels of conscientiousness and high levels of disagreableness, neuroticism, narcissism, and poor mental health outcomes [7]. Hubristic pride, and its associated subjective feelings of superiority and arrogance, may facilitate dominance by motivating behaviors such as aggression, hostility, and manipulation.


Authentic pride, on the other hand, is fuled by the emotional rush of accomplishment, confidence, and success, and is associated with prosocial and achievement-oriented behaviors, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, satisfying interpersonal relationships, and positive mental health.

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 [6].

In a recent set of studies on undergraduates and varsity-level athletes, Joey T. Cheng and colleagues at the University of British Columbia [6] 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.

Two Routes

The results of the Cheng and colleagues [6] study supports the notion that dominance and prestige, and the distinct sets of emotions and traits associated with each, represent two different paths to attaining and maintaning social status. 

Recognizing that there are different routes to social status is important for a number of reasons. One reason is methodological. In an earlier study [8], 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 [6] 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 [9].

The results of the Cheng and colleagues [6] 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 [6], leaders come in a number of different flavors (e.g., Gandhi vs. Churchill).

Finally, it's important for adolescence who are bullied on a regular basis to recognize that there is hope that they too, can one day attain social status and the benefits that come with it. Recent research shows that if given the choice between a dominant man or a prestigious man, women tend to prefer the prestigious man, particularly for long-term relationships [12]. While researchers found that male dominance was attractive to females in the context of male-male competition (athletics) in both a short-term and long-term romantic partner, women did not find men attractive who used dominance (force or threat of force) while competing for leadership in informal decision making among peers. According to the researchers, this suggests that women are very attune to cues that suggest that the male will direct his aggression toward her, with dominance toward competitors considered more attractive than dominance toward friends/coalition members. 

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


[1] 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.

[2] 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

[3] 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.

[4] 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.

[5] von Rueden, C., Gurven, M., & Kaplan, H. (2008). Multiple dimensions of male social statuses in an Amazonian society.Evolution and Human Behavior, 29, 402−415.

[6] Cheng, J.T., Tracy, J.L., & Henrich, J. (in press). Pride, personality, and the evolutionary foundations of human social status. Evolution and Human Behavior. 

[7] Tracy, J. L., Cheng, J. T., Robins, R. W., & Trzesniewski, K. (2009). Authentic and hubristic pride: The affective core of self-esteem and narcissism. Self and Identity, 8, 196−213

[8] Anderson, C., & Berdahl, J. L. (2002). The experience of power: Examining the effects of power on approach and inhibition tendencies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 1362−1377.

[9] Harms, P. D., Wood, D., & Roberts, B. W. (2009). The role of self enhancement in leadershipappraisals, performance outcomes, and groupcohesiveness. Under review.

[10] Donnellan, M., Trzesniewski, K., Robins, R., Moffitt, T., & Caspi, A. (2005). Low self-esteem is related to aggression, antisocial behavior, and delinquency. Psychological Science, 16, 328−335.

[11] Paulhus, D. L., Robins, R. W., Trzesniewski, K. H., & Tracy, J. L. (2004). Two replicable suppressor situations in personality research. Multivariate Behavioral Research, 39, 303−328.

[12] Snyder, J. K., Kirkpatrick, L. A., & Barrett, H. C. (2008). The dominance dilemma: Do women really prefer dominant mates? Personal Relationships, 15, 425−444.

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