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Reaction And Relative Social Rank

 November, 12 2008

We are creatures who are evolved to live in a pack. Except for the last few millennia, hominids lived in hunting packs for a few million years, and troops of apes and gibbons for twenty million years before that. One of the defining features of pack society is that it is hierarchical. There is a pecking order, and what you get out of life is directly affected by your place in that pecking order. There is an old saying, ďRank has its privileges.Ē You may argue that it is unfair, but arguing and complaining wonít do anything to improve the condition of your existence. Your efforts will be much better employed in improving your rank.


In a pack of apes the hierarchy is clearly defined. The strongest, toughest, smartest males get the most and the best food, and have sex with whatever female they want, whenever they want. The strongest, smartest, toughest females get the best food for themselves and their babies, and the most attention (sex) from the best males. There are few actual fights to establish this pecking order as everyone has known each other all their lives and understands their own and everyone elseís place in the order. It may seem unfair, but it insures that the surviving offspring carry the genes of the strongest, smartest, toughest adults from their pack and are thereby the ones most likely to survive in a tough world.

In a pack of prehistoric humans, the general rules of the ape pack still applied, but they became more complex and sophisticated because human food gathering technique was more complex and sophisticated. No longer did the entire pack stay in a group small enough for them all to keep visual contact with each other, travel until they found a spot with a usable amount of food, stopped while they ate everything there that was edible, and moved on.

Humans specialized to improve their food gathering ability; the men went hunting for large game animals, while the women and children foraged for edible plants, firewood, and other usable materials, which were brought back to a central location and shared with the group.

This work was done most efficiently in small sub groups. Breaking the pack up into smaller groups meant that the hierarchy was always in flux. In one group there would be one hierarchy and you would have to assume your place within it, yet in another group, there would be a different hierarchy and you would have a different rank.

There needed to be a signaling system to determine relative rank. Fights, or other physical contests wasted time and energy better used for gathering food, could injure group members, and did damage to the group cohesiveness needed to work most effectively. And physical strength was no longer the only arbiter of leadership. An old man who was an expert on game animals and how to track and kill them was much better suited to be the leader of a hunting party than the largest strongest young man. Knowledge, experience, and leadership skills had become more useful for survival than physical strength, and were now a major factor in rank. Young men who bucked the system and physically challenged the leader would have their behavior corrected by the other men.

We also needed a rank signaling system for when members of one human pack encountered those from another. If you encountered a strange human, and you would need to adjust your actions based upon that personís rank. Treating a low ranking member of another pack like a leader would be a waste of effort, and treating a leader like a low rank could lead to a fight or worse a needless conflict between your two groups.

So, how do humans determine each otherís relative ranks? It is actually quite simple, by how we react to each other. We subconsciously read each otherís rank signals, in body language, facial expression, and eye contact, and solve the question of relative rank without even thinking about it.

The primary rule of rank is; he who reacts more has lower rank. Think of all the Clint Eastwood movies where he plays highly dominant males. Yes, they are fiction, but fiction only works when it is grounded in real human behavior. Clint just stands there, staring, not reacting when he encounters the bad guys. This signals that he is unafraid, that he is the tougher, higher ranked person. His characters, the Man With No Name, Josey Wales, Inspector Callahan, and others are believable because his behavior is a textbook example of a dominant male. Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone and Al Pacino as his son Michael, in The Godfather, are also excellent examples. They have a calm, unflinching, unflappable strength. They have their reactions under control.

What is being communicated is a lack of fear. The most basic tool of enforcing oneís rank in the ape pack is the ability to instill fear in subordinates, not only fear of violence, but fear of disapproval or loss of social status. Those who are fearful are reactive. If you react to another, it means you are afraid of them and therefore lower rank. If you do not react, they have to wonder about your rank and may act fearful themselves. Note that no threat of or actual violence need take place. In fact, violence real or threatened is a reaction and lowers the rank of person who engages in it. The pecking order is settled by social action and reaction. The violence has to remain potential and unstated to maximize rank. Relative fear is communicated via reaction, facial expression, and body language.

Understanding this gives you an opportunity to game the system and improve your rank. Modern society is such that we are often in situations where we have no history. In the prehistoric Human pack, you had limited chance to upgrade your rank as an adult, as it already had been determined by the time you were a teen, and would be very hard to change as an adult other than by means of heroic deeds. Luckily for us moderns, we move about and find ourselves interacting with people who just met us all the time.

When you start over with new people, you have an opportunity to display higher rank behaviors and settle into a new higher rank. You can also improve your rank within an existing social order, but it is much harder, as people tend to lock you into your current rank, and it is hard to improve on that, so much so that displaying higher rank behavior than they think you rate could be viewed as anti social.

You have to train yourself not to react, but you will never achieve that. Your daily goal should be to react less. No one is totally unreactive, that actually can be creepy. If you saw the movie No Country For Old Men, the villain Anton Chigurh, played by Javier Bardem, simply does not show reaction to any situation. It makes him seem extraordinarily powerful and dangerous. This is an example of taking it to the point where it becomes creepy. But I doubt most people can get that unreactive. Chigurh was a fictional character played by a skilled actor. With that exception, you need to strive for constantly lower levels of reaction if you want to raise your perceived social rank.

This doesnít mean not interact with people, but you have to train yourself not only to tone down your reactions to others, but also to stop worrying about how people react to you, and stop seeking reactions or approval. People read your reactions and your need for their reactions to be positive towards you at a primal level. They are likely unaware that they are reading your rank signals any more than you are aware that you are sending them out, but they use it to estimate your social rank. Who you are and the type of rank signals you send out will affect how people treat you and what they will be willing to do for you or allow you to get away with.

Here is how it works. If you are a weak, low rank person, you need and seek good reactions from others. With each thing you do or say, you look to the highest rank person around, waiting to see if they approve. Of course they donít react or more correctly react less than you wish, you try harder (react more), and verify your low rank to everyone else.

On the other hand, if you are a strong high rank person, you could care less how the lesser ranks react towards you. You donít seek their reactions or approval, nor do you care, which is shown by not checking or waiting to see their reactions to your actions. You simply act. You go about your business, focused on your goals and assume everyone else will assist you or at least get out of your way.

This takes practice. You have to examine each interaction with others and see where you reacted and how you could reduce it and make yourself seem stronger. You canít skip the honest self examination and criticism. Without spotting your mistakes and weaknesses, you will never improve. You also have to spot your successes, and discern what it was that made a given interaction successful. Do, analyze, learn, do again; this should be the unending cycle of your life.

If you are improving your rank in an existing social setting, it is going to be slow going as you will be fighting the inertia of everyoneís set notion of your current rank. You will likely find strangers reacting to you better than your peers. Take that as a sign you are on the correct path. Eventually you may need a new social set. Your relationship with your current social set was built upon your old rank; change that and you may change the relationship to the point where it is no longer is functional.

It isnít easy; you will face real fear. Fear that you will be called out, discovered as the imposter that you feel you are. You will have to work on improving yourself in small steps, so the unreactiveness is natural, and does not seem forced or practiced, but rather it comes naturally to you, which it would if you had been high rank all your life.

Much of your reaction and signaling comes from the need for reaction from others. Low ranks are always seeking approval and checking to see others reaction to them. The way to stop this is to really not care how people react to you. As you first try this, you will notice the change in how others react and it will seem cool, and you will want more, but the very act of wanting it and seeking it lowers your rank. You will get far better results if you donít care how they react and act accordingly.

And, you have to do it all politely. Not the servile politeness of an underling, afraid to rile a superior. The guy who hands you the bag of food at FastBurger may thank you profusely for the patronage, but you both know it means nothing. Donít be that guy. Also avoid ostentatiously polite, as in look at me, Iím more polite than you. That is irritating approval seeking. Donít be that guy either. You want to be the smiling strong man, polite because it pleases you, polite because that is the way a high rank individual, secure in his strength, treats those who serve him. You donít care if they appreciate or reciprocate; it is just the way you are.

If you work on this, you will find your life gets easier after a while. As I said in the beginning, rank has its privileges. It is good to have people let you get your own way and be glad to do it, while they seek your approval. It is not easy to get there, but it is worth the effort.

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