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The Emergence of Status Hierarchies

Status differences are universal in all known human societies, and they partially determine patterns of resource allocation, conflict, mating, and group coordination. However, there’s little systematic research into questions of why and how hierarchies emerge. Drawing on a distinction between prestige and dominance—two distinct forms of social status observed across industrialized as well as hunter-gatherer societies—this line of research, led by Joey Cheng, includes investigations of: (a) the effects of peer-perceived prestige and dominance on perceived status, influence, and decision-making power; (b) the group-level benefits and outcomes resulting from prestige- vs. dominance-based leadership, and their effects on follower psychology (e.g., emotions, motivation); and (c) the psychological processes—in particular, the emotional mechanisms (i.e., pride, humility) and personality traits and attributes—that allow individuals to acquire dominance and prestige. Collectively, these lines of inquiry address the evolutionary roots of human status inequalities.  Findings from this line of work thus far include evidence that the two forms of status are underpinned by the two facets of pride, suggesting that each facet (i.e., authentic and hubristic pride) may have evolved separately to promote the attainment of each form of status (Cheng, Tracy, & Henrich, 2010); that perceivers automatically direct their gaze toward high status individuals more than low status individuals, suggesting that we tend to automatically attend to the most influential group members (Foulsham, Cheng, Tracy, Henrich, & Kingstone, 2011); and that both dominance and prestige are effective routes to attaining higher social rank (Cheng, Tracy, Foulsham, Kingstone, & Henrich, in press).