Testing An Evo Psych Theory Outside Of The Lab: Prestige And Dominance-Based Social Hierarchies Emerge Even Amongst Cornish Choirs And Chess Clubs

GettyImages-176917918.jpgBy Matthew Warren

Psychologists have noticed that aspiring leaders generally pursue one of two different approaches for getting to the top of the social food-chain. Some people exert influence by building up skills or knowledge that command respect and deference from their peers – known as the prestige strategy. Others prefer to rule by fear instead, forcing others to fall into line – the dominance strategy. This dichotomy has even been suggested to account for the vastly different leadership styles of Barack Obama and Donald Trump. 

But many of the studies that have looked at the dynamics of prestige and dominance have done so in artificial social situations, examining groups of strangers brought together for a short time in the lab. So in a new study published open-access in Royal Society Open Science, Charlotte Brand and Alex Mesoudi went out into the world and looked at how hierarchies based on prestige and dominance affected the behaviour of real social groups. 

The researchers recruited 30 community groups from Cornwall, each made up of 5 individuals and ranging from choirs to chess clubs (my favourites include a band known as Falmouth Fish Sea Shanty Collective, and a group of board game creators called Pirates of Penryn).

Each participant completed a 40-item quiz covering topics like art and geography, first individually and then together with their group. The groups were told they had to come to an agreement on each answer, and the group that scored the highest overall would win £500. Finally, each individual cast an anonymous vote for the group member they wanted to represent them in a set of bonus quiz questions which could win them even more money.

Participants also rated each member of their group on prestige (e.g. “Members of your group respect and admire them”), dominance (e.g. “They are willing to use aggressive tactics to get their way”), their likability, and how much influence they had during the quiz and in the group generally. Thankfully for the enduring survival of the groups, these ratings were all anonymous.

Within groups, individuals who had more influence were more likely to be rated as highly prestigious or highly dominant, consistent with previous research suggesting that both strategies can be used to gain status in social groups. Dominance and prestige ratings were not related to each other, again in-line with findings that the two strategies are quite distinct.

But intriguingly, neither dominance nor prestige ratings determined whether someone would be elected to take the bonus quiz – even though prestige in particular is thought to be closely tied to having superior knowledge. Instead, elected representatives tended to be those who had scored highly during the individual quiz, suggesting that the other group members had picked upon their expertise in this specific context, and made a pragmatic decision based on this, rather than being swayed by people’s status in the group more broadly.

These findings contrast with previous studies that suggested prestige has a greater influence over group behaviour. They perhaps illustrate the pitfalls of performing social psychology studies solely in the lab: in natural groups, where individuals have had the chance to interact and establish hierarchies over long periods of time, group dynamics may be quite different to those among strangers who have just met. Of course, a selection of community groups from Cornwall is still not necessarily representative of the wider population, and it would be interesting to explore the dynamics of prestige and dominance in more diverse groups.

Nevertheless, when it comes to groups in the real world, the authors say, “prestige and dominance may be more domain-specific, or more fixed, than we had anticipated”. For example, group members may have gained their prestige because of a specific skillset – perhaps they were particularly good at singing or making board games – which was less useful for the general knowledge quiz. 

Prestige and dominance-based hierarchies exist in naturally occurring human groups, but are unrelated to task-specific knowledge

Image: Members of a Cornish male voice choir entertain the crowds near the harbour on August 19, 2013 in Padstow, England (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images).

Matthew Warren (@MattbWarren) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

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