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Another Way to the Top: Hierarchies in Humans and Animals

Animal and human hierarchies might have more in common than we thought.

Key points

  • Humans can become high in social status by being physically intimidating or by being skillful and competent.
  • Research on social learning and social hierarchies in animals suggests that some species might also have these two paths to high status.
  • Studying the evolutionary roots of both paths to status will help us understand how and when young humans begin to reason about social status.

Any nature documentary worth its salt contains the classic scene of two males facing off, battling to establish who is the alpha. These battles are important: Across many different species, position in the status hierarchy determines the kinds of resources and opportunities an individual has. However, in human societies, especially modern-day societies, physical intimidation and aggression are generally frowned upon. But humans have established another path to the top of the status hierarchy, where lower-ranking individuals don’t need to be intimidated into submission but instead willingly submit to the higher-ranking individual.

In the absence of actual or threatened harm, why would a lower-ranking individual maintain a hierarchy in which they remain lower-status, especially when the benefits of high status are so clear? In their influential paper, Henrich and Gil-White (2001) propose that in a prestige-based hierarchy, individuals perceived to be skillful or competent are given privileged, high-status positions in society, and lower-status individuals willingly defer to maintain the opportunity to learn from these competent, high-status actors. Their model helps explain situations in which traditional, physicality-based cues to status contradict one’s high status. For example, while a university professor might be of high status in the classroom (where their knowledge grants them prestige), they are unlikely to come out on top in a bar fight (at least most of the professors I’ve come across).

Are Prestige-Based Hierarchies Unique to Humans?

Allan Hopkins/flickr
Photograph of a Black-striped capuchin monkey using a stone to crack a nut.
Source: Allan Hopkins/flickr

Social and evolutionary psychologists speculate that prestige-based hierarchies are unique to humans, arising to address the extensive cultural learning needed in human society. As support for the idea that prestige-based status is human-specific, researchers rely upon two primary assumptions: (1) that social learning is far more important in humans than in animals and (2) that status hierarchies in animals are predominantly determined by actual or threatened aggression. But these assumptions may not be completely accurate. In my research, I found evidence across animals both for sophisticated social learning and for status hierarchies that don’t seem to rely solely on aggression.

First, as many comparative psychologists note, social learning is not unique to humans. From quails to rats to chimpanzees, there is ample evidence that animals readily learn from others, including what to eat, how to forage, and with whom to mate. For example, capuchin monkeys in Brazil learn how to use rocks to crack open nuts while vervet monkeys in South Africa learn to give one type of alarm call when they see a leopard and a different type of alarm call when they see a snake.

CyclicalCore/Deviant Art
Photograph of a wise old owl.
Source: CyclicalCore/Deviant Art

Second, dominance hierarchies across species are remarkably complex and varied, and hierarchies are not always based on the outcomes of actual or threatened physical aggression. For example, in some animals, high status is achieved by waiting in line. In certain monkey species, lower-status males rise up the ranks when a higher-ranking male dies or leaves the group. In this case, status is better correlated with age and time spent in that social group than with markers of physical prowess, such as body size. In humans, age is commonly perceived to be correlated with knowledge, and, thus, we are taught to respect—and give high status to—our elders. If age = knowledge in humans, why shouldn’t age act as a cue of knowledge in animals, especially in species with a tradition of cultural transmission?

How Can We Study Whether Animals Have Prestige-Based Hierarchies?

Studying the existence of prestige-based hierarchies in animals is tough. Our typical definition of prestige requires knowing what the low-status actor is thinking to infer the motivation behind their deferral. When it comes to studying animals, this poses a serious problem, as we are forced to infer thought from behavior. Does the lower-ranking individual defer (a behavior) because they think the high-ranking individual will harm them (a dominance-related thought) or because they think the high-ranking individual can teach them something (a prestige-related thought)?

Because we cannot ask our animal subjects to simply tell us why they deferred, we have to think about what behaviors might differentiate an individual who is deferring out of intimidation from one who is deferring willingly. As Henrich and Gil-White (2001) propose, in a prestige-based hierarchy, we should expect the low-status actor to initiate contact with, seek proximity to, and maintain attention toward the high-status actor. All of these behaviors increase the chance that the low-status actor will be in a position to be able to learn from the high-status actor. In contrast, in a dominance-based hierarchy, the low-status actor should avoid contact with, maintain distance from, and be vigilant (i.e., furtively glancing) toward the high-status actor. All of these behaviors minimize the chance that the low-status actor will receive aggression (or the threat of aggression) from the high-status actor, but these behaviors also minimize the opportunities for learning.

Photograph of a young monkey learning from an older monkey.
Source: becchy/pixabay

In addition to these suggestions for sussing out animal motives, I would advocate for researchers to adopt an approach taken by those who study “teaching” in animals. In classic work by Caro and Hauser (1992), they define “teaching” by focusing not just on the types of behaviors on display but also on the actual outcomes. For instance, one of their criteria is that a learner should pick up a skill more quickly when in the presence of a teacher than when that learner is on their own.

Similarly, in a prestige-based hierarchy, we would expect the low-status actor to not only display behaviors that increase the potential to learn but also to acquire actual skills or knowledge more quickly than they would in the absence of the high-status actor. By assessing both behavioral displays (e.g., types of glances, whether proximity is sought or avoided) and outcomes (e.g., whether or not learning has occurred), we can more confidently conclude whether we do, or do not, see evidence for a prestige-based hierarchy in a particular species.

What Do We Learn by Studying Whether Animals Have Prestige-Based Hierarchies?

Social status is so important in human societies. Our social status can shape our outcomes and well-being. Social status also shapes how we treat others, and how we justify (or reject) inequality (e.g., maintaining or disrupting the status quo), tendencies that emerge early in human childhood. Studies on the development and expression of prejudice and inequality often focus on culturally specific social identities (e.g., race, ethnicity, religion) and their related “isms.” However, some researchers theorize that it is our universal tendency to “rank” individuals and social groups along a status hierarchy that underlies prejudice and discrimination toward people and groups stereotyped as lower status.

Although research on animals might feel far removed from these very human issues of inequity and prejudice, studying animals can help us identify how infants and children attempt to understand aspects of status. For instance, if animals, especially our closest primate relatives, reason about prestige- and dominance-based hierarchies as qualitatively different types of hierarchies, we can predict that this ability is an evolved capacity that will emerge in infancy or childhood in humans. Thus, efforts that help us better understand the evolutionary roots of our bias to organize groups and individuals hierarchically will get us one step closer to figuring out how to disrupt cycles of inequity.


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Caro, T.M., & Hauser, M.D. (1992). Is there teaching in nonhuman animals? Quarterly Review of Biology, 67(2),151-74.

Fragaszy, D.M., Eshchar, Y., Visalberghi, E., Resende, B., Laity, K., & Izar, P. (2017). Synchronized practice helps bearded capuchin monkeys learn to extend attention while learning a tradition. Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences, 114 (30), 7798-7805.

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(3), 165–196.

Penn, D. C., & Povinelli, D. J. (2007). On the lack of evidence that non-human animals possess anything remotely resembling a 'theory of mind'. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences, 362(1480), 731–744.

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