Being top dog may drive you barking mad

Posted on July 17, 2011

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Last night I went out for a drink with a colleague (Karate Kid)  who has quite a senior position within the newsroom. He has to out-put edit the programme on a regular basis, which is no mean feat at national level. And he openly confessed that it can be a stressful job. Working to deadlines can cause bouts of anxiety but I can’t begin to imagine how much more pressure there is when the responsibility falls on you for ideas and guests to include in a high-calibre daily news programme.

Now scientists are warning that perhaps being at the top of the ladder in a social hierarchy is not all it’s cracked up to be. Those in this lofty position can expect to pay a hefty price for the effort required to maintain it, which could see your stress levels rocket.

Being an Alpha male may not be all it's cracked up to be

A study, by Princeton University, published in the journal Science, looked at baboons in East Africa. We have quite a lot in common with these monkeys. They are highly social; have few predators and so after feeding for several hours they devote the rest of the day to thinking up ways of making each other miserable with psychological stress.

In this latest study it found Alpha males (the highest ranking) were constantly forced to defend their position in the group and protect their access to females. Whereas Beta males (or No.2’s)  in contrast, had lower levels of stress, as low as those that have traditionally been associated with high social status, likely because they fought less and had less to lose than the higher-ranking males.

Lead author, professor Laurence Gesquiere had expected to find advantages of being at the top — better access to food and fertile females — should create a less fraught existence. She said: “I was very surprised to see high levels of stress.

“An important insight from our study is that the top position in some animal – and possibly human – societies has unique costs and benefits associated with it, ones that may persist both when social orders experience some major perturbations as well as when they are stable.”

The researchers studied 125 male baboons living in five social groups over a nine-year period in Amboseli, Kenya. The scientists measured stress hormone levels by analysing 4,500 fecal samples from the animals. (Female baboons were not studied because of the difficulty in analysing stress hormone levels during pregnancy and nursing.) They found that alpha males had very high stress hormone levels, just as high as those of the lowest ranking males (lower ranking males tend to be stressed out because they are always picked on).

fighting to keep the top position

Professor Susan Alberts, who also took part in this study added: “We’ve known for decades that alpha males have an advantage in reproduction, but these results show that life at the top has a real downside, and that being an alpha male comes at a real cost.”

In both humans and baboons, previous research has shown that chronic elevation of stress hormones caused by living on the bottom rungs of society is bad. It increases the risk for heart attack, stroke, diabetes and other diseases. This is also seen in baboons, not just humans, and the excess risk is not associated with healthcare or lifestyle choices like overeating, smoking or drinking.

Robert Sapolsky, professor of biology at Stanford University and a pioneer in research on stress, status and health, who was not associated with the study said: “It’s a very cool [finding] and in a lot of ways unexpected.

“Baboons are poster children for psycho-social stress, living in troops with bruising and shifting dominance hierarchies among males and high rates of male aggression.”

The new study did not find a connection between instability in the social hierarchy and stress levels among the higher-ranked baboons. Instability was linked to higher stress levels overall, but it wasn’t related to specific ranks.

Sapolsky added: “The definition in their study is, ‘Is there an actual change?’ Mine is more, ‘Is there the threat of change?’ I think the threat of change is pretty potent.

“In humans, blood pressure doesn’t go up when people get laid off: it goes up when they first hear rumours that lay-offs are coming at the end of the month.”

Human social groups are definitely more complex than baboons because we pick and chose among many hierarchies in our lives. So for example you might be a low-ranking employee but a pro tennis player at your club.

While the new study does not have a direct implication to human health or social structure, Primatologists say it certainly raises questions about possible unstudied costs of being at the top. And on that note just remember with great power could come one almighty headache – enjoy work tomorrow!

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Posted in: My brain hurts!