In his 2019 book Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society, Yale sociologist and physician Nicholas Christakis describes research led by evolutionary biologist Jessica Flack, who ran studies with 84 macaques at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center. Flack’s team identified the group leaders in this monkey community, removed the highest-ranking members, and observed the resulting interactions. Chaos ensued. When high-ranking monkeys were “knocked out” (as the scientists called it), conflict and aggression soared. After the leaders were removed, the group had fewer grooming interactions and played less frequently. Social ties disintegrated. “This suggests that stable leadership promotes peaceful interactions not only between leaders and followers,” Christakis writes, “but also between followers and other followers.”
When the leaders were in place, they intervened between status-seekers and regulated social connections. Lower-ranking monkeys knew that if conflict arose, the higher-ranking monkeys would step in. The presence of leaders allowed lower-ranking monkeys to interact with one another without fear of attack. When the leaders were removed, the macaques began jockeying for power, which resulted in mayhem and violence.
Such findings echo a theory outlined by the late Yale sociologist, Roger V. Gould, that status ambiguity increases the likelihood of conflict. When a clear and understood social hierarchy is in place, conflict is less likely. Gould, examining data from U.S. cities as well as villages in India, found that an individual is four to eight times more likely to commit homicide against a person of equal social status compared with a person of higher or lower status. Conflict between peers was more likely to escalate into violence. Status symmetry giving rise to conflict even occurs within families. Gould cites research showing that brothers are more likely to kill brothers than sisters. And sisters are more likely to kill sisters than brothers. A son is far more likely to kill his father than his mother, while a daughter is more likely to kill her mother than her father.
In hierarchical relationships—between employer and employee, parent and child, or teacher and student—social rank is understood and bolstered by social norms. In contrast, symmetric relations—between friends, neighbors, classmates, or coworkers— are equitable. One party can’t claim dominance over the other. But when ambiguity persists about who holds the upper hand, the likelihood of conflict increases. Animal research yields parallel findings, suggesting that when two animals of the same species are similarly sized, conflict is more likely than when there is a size disparity.
Mathematical modeling suggests that animals of roughly equal size and strength fighting one another can incur more damage than when fighting a larger opponent, because when a smaller animal fights a larger animal, the smaller one is likely to submit faster. Thus, both parties will incur less damage than when two similarly sized animals fight. Contests between physical equals are prolonged, heightening the likelihood of severe injury. Size might be a factor in dominance disputes between humans, too. Researchers observed people trying to pass in opposite directions on a narrow sidewalk. They found that when two people of the same sex walked in opposite directions, the shorter person yielded to the taller person 67 percent of the time. When they controlled for estimated age, the shorter person gave way to the taller person 75 percent of the time.
In his book Collision of Wills, Gould offers a simple example. Typically, in employer-employee relationships, the boss is the older one and the employee is the younger one. But imagine a situation in which the boss is younger and the subordinate is older. It is easy to understand why this situation might lead to more awkwardness and potential conflict than a situation where the boss is the older one. The older subordinate might feel that he isn’t being treated with proper respect, or he might see the boss as an upstart. The younger boss might believe that he needs to convey authority or feel that the older person isn’t taking him seriously. Both will be more sensitive to status injuries than if the employee were younger. The ambiguity increases the likelihood of conflict. As Gould says, “disputes are not about what they seem—disputes are about social relationships.” He observes that violence often erupts over small matters like a parking space, a trivial sum of money, or a casual insult. He describes research showing that “altercations of relatively trivial origin” account for more than one-third of homicides in the U.S.
Researchers studying Formula One racers found that pairs of drivers roughly equal in status were more likely to end up in collisions. They examined F1 Championship seasons from 1970 through 2014, finding that drivers with similar competitive histories (i.e., they won and lost to the same drivers) were especially prone to goading each other into fast and reckless driving, and subsequently crashing.
By contrast, hierarchical relationships are less likely to erupt into conflict. Examples include formal hierarchies: militaries, organized tournaments in sports, and monarchical succession. Indeed, militaries offer a prime example, with their explicit allocation of rank, formal titles, uniforms, physical gestures (saluting), and an indoctrination process that involves learning the rank structure. Cohesion is key for military organizations, and absence of within-group conflict is crucial. If one military (or any group in competition with another) has no internal conflict and another one does, then, all things being equal, the one without internal conflict (the more cohesive group) will win.
When social cues for settling a status dispute are unavailable or ambiguous, the chances of conflict increase. Both parties are more likely to endure long disputes because no clear way exists to settle the matter. This raises the probability that violence will break out. The more clearly that rules specify status—“ladies first,” “respect your elders”—the easier it is for people to agree about how decisions should be made. But when no such appeals are available, or when they are available but contradictory (as in the case of the younger boss and older subordinate), disagreements become more likely. Equal claims to superior rank (or the absence of methods to determine rank) heighten the likelihood of conflict.
This appears to be what has happened on college campuses, and especially at elite universities, where students are indoctrinated in the cult of status and told that they are future leaders, that they are brilliant, and that the campus is designed for their comfort and needs. When they have a dispute with a professor or a guest speaker, a dominance struggle ensues. There is no straightforward way to adjudicate status conflicts between undergraduates and professors. In the past, it was easier for people to agree about who should prevail in these contests. Now, such disputes are often protracted and sometimes escalate into violence, as was the case in 2017 when left-wing activists at Middlebury College attempted to assault Charles Murray, and succeeded in their physical attack on Allison Stanger, the Middlebury College professor interviewing him.
A similar phenomenon may be happening with demonstrations against the police. Anarchists have called into question the collective understanding that police, as representatives of the state, hold a monopoly on violence. Many political activists do not view the status of police as legitimate, and status ambiguity has been introduced into the relations between civilians and the police, making the possibility of violence more likely.
It’s possible that conflict will intensify not only between citizens and police, but also between fellow citizens. If no intervening force exists to prevent violence between us, then such violence will likely increase; the rise in murder rates across the country may reflect this development. The decline in trust in our institutions has unsettled the landscape of relative status. We may be witnessing a primal struggle for dominance playing out on a national scale.
Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images