Cooperation with high status individuals may increase one's own status

Long-term study of Amazonian community shows the interconnectedness of cooperation and status hierarchy

August 07, 2019

While other animals tend to gain status through aggression, humans are typically averse to allowing such dominant individuals to achieve high status. Instead, those highest in social status are often those who demonstrate the most value to others. Researchers have now shown that cooperation between individuals can be driven by opportunities to acquire status over others and that decisions with whom to cooperate are often based on who has more or less status.

Seeking social status is a central human motivation. Whether it’s buying designer clothing, working the way up the job ladder, or making a conspicuous donation to charity, humans often seek and signal social status. Human cooperation and competition aren’t mutually exclusive, they are two sides of the same coin. Christopher von Rueden from the University of Richmond and Daniel Redhead from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology led a study to assess the relationship between men’s cooperation and status hierarchy, over a period of eight years, in a community of Tsimane Amerindians in Amazonian Bolivia.

Among the Tsimane, status is informal and evident in who has more verbal influence during community meetings. Influential men in this community also enjoy greater health and have more surviving children. At three points over the eight-year period, the researchers asked men to rank other men within their community on their status and to report other men with whom they regularly cooperate, in terms of food-sharing or joint hunting, fishing, or horticultural labour. The researchers show that high status men gain more cooperation partners over time, and that men gain status over time by cooperating with men of higher status than themselves. By cooperating with high status individuals, one may gain valuable information, resources, or coalitional support that increases one's own status. Alternatively, cooperation with high status individuals may increase one's status by more effectively broadcasting generosity or other desirable attributes to other community members.

"The finding that status depends on cooperation provides insight into why human societies, particularly small-scale societies like the Tsimane, are relatively egalitarian compared to other primates", says von Rueden, joint-lead author of the study. "Humans allocate status based on the benefits we can provide to others, often more than on the costs we can inflict. This is in part because humans evolved greater interdependence, relying on each other for learning skills, producing food, engaging in mutual defence, and raising offspring. Individuals who can offer unique services in these contexts gain status. However, the transfer of information and resources from higher to lower status individuals, as well as the potential reputational benefits to cooperating with higher status individuals, may constrain or even erode status differentials. Status inequality is constrained when by cooperating, status-dissimilar individuals influence each other’s statuses. This likely changed with the spread of agriculture ten thousand years ago, as human communities grew in size and began producing more private wealth. Widespread cooperation among community members becomes difficult as community size increases, and individuals with more wealth can lose incentive to cooperate with the non-wealthy outside of more market-based or coercive transactions. These processes limit upward mobility and fuel stratification by wealth class."

Daniel Redhead, joint-lead author of the study, adds: "This is one of the first longitudinal studies of social status. Our findings provide some of the first evidence that the relationship between cooperation and social status among humans is bidirectional. That is, humans – compared to other animals – give status to those who provide benefits to groups, and are thus more attracted to these individuals as cooperative partners. At the same time, individuals increase their own status by cooperating with such high-status. These findings provide empirical evidence that stresses the broader importance of social interdependence – be it food sharing, food production, friendship or advice – in shaping human behaviour, and that this interdependence makes the ways that we obtain social status quite distinct from other animals."

[CvR, DR/SJ]

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