Humans strive for social status above all else. Why?

Human beings value social status over anything else. Why? It’s good for your health.

Achiev­ing and main­tain­ing social sta­tus is the dri­ving force of human behav­ior, hard-wired into the struc­ture of our brain and endocrine sys­tems, and honed by mil­lions of years of evo­lu­tion­ary fine-tun­ing.

Social sta­tus doesn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly refer to the dri­ve to become the top banana —  it basi­cal­ly means a sense of con­fi­dence and safe­ty in one’s place in the social hier­ar­chy and the expec­ta­tion of social sup­port that goes along with that place.

The impor­tance of social stand­ing is an essen­tial part of being human. Above all else, we can only thrive with­in a com­mu­ni­ty. Sheer sur­vival depends on a vil­lage – very few peo­ple would last more than a few days alone in the wild.   We are utter­ly depen­dent on oth­ers. And because of that, our emo­tion­al and neu­ro­log­i­cal wiring ensures that we place a high val­ue on social inter­ac­tion.
This makes evo­lu­tion­ary sense. Once a group of pri­mates began coop­er­at­ing in hunt­ing, food gath­er­ing, food shar­ing, con­trol over ter­ri­to­ry, groom­ing, alert­ness to preda­tors, and oth­er mat­ters, that group eas­i­ly out-com­pet­ed oth­er groups or solo indi­vid­u­als. Thus, once pro-social behav­ior emerged, evo­lu­tion­ary forces inevitably led to greater and greater lev­els of coop­er­a­tion. Humans are a supreme exam­ple of this ten­den­cy.

Here are some oth­er indi­ca­tions of the sig­nif­i­cance we place on social sup­port:

  • Pris­on­ers in soli­tary con­fine­ment expe­ri­ence emo­tion­al and cog­ni­tive prob­lems – soli­tary con­fine­ment lit­er­al­ly dri­ves them crazy.
  • When sci­en­tists cre­ate rodent mod­els of men­tal ill­ness or chron­ic depres­sion, a test­ed method is to raise a baby mouse in social iso­la­tion.
  • Infant mon­keys will bond to a sur­ro­gate moth­er that pro­vides cozi­ness (a ter­ry cloth-wrapped wire frame) more than to a sur­ro­gate moth­er pro­vid­ing calo­ries.
  • Our visu­al sys­tem devotes a lot of brain real estate to rec­og­niz­ing the emo­tion­al sig­nif­i­cance of sub­tle shifts in facial expres­sion; our audi­to­ry sys­tem, like­wise, pays exquis­ite atten­tion to the aspects of speech (pitch, inflec­tion, phras­ing) that con­vey the emo­tion­al and social con­tent of the mes­sage.
  • Baboons are keen­ly aware of social struc­tures. For instance, baboons will pay more atten­tion to vocal­iza­tions being emit­ted from a neigh­bor­ing troop of baboons when those vocal­iza­tions com­mu­ni­cate a switch in the social sta­tus with­in the neigh­bor­ing group, even though this very fas­ci­nat­ing switch in social sta­tus has no bear­ing on the social hier­ar­chy estab­lished in the baboons’ local troop.

The expe­ri­ence of stress and its inverse — social sup­port – plays a huge role in health. Inte­gral to a stress response is a hor­mon­al shift that caus­es inter­nal behav­iors to focus on mobi­liz­ing body ener­gy for vig­i­lance and action, de-empha­siz­ing diges­tion, absorp­tion, recu­per­a­tion and tis­sue rebuild­ing. Those who expe­ri­ence an unremit­ting stress response lit­er­al­ly wear their body out faster.

Here’s a chart derived from data in the UK about the rela­tion­ship of socioe­co­nom­ic sta­tus to health and longevi­ty.

This chart com­pares dif­fer­ent neigh­bor­hoods in Great Britain. In a neigh­bor­hood with res­i­dents on the low­er end of the socioe­co­nom­ic scale (a 5th per­centile neigh­bor­hood), res­i­dents can expect an aver­age of 55 years of dis­abil­i­ty-free liv­ing (and a total life expectan­cy of about 74 years.)

As you can see, both dis­abil­i­ty-free life and total life expectan­cy rise con­sis­tent­ly as a neighborhood’s socioe­co­nom­ic sta­tus ris­es. And there’s an even big­ger spread in the social toll of low sta­tus between high- and low-sta­tus indi­vid­u­als as com­pared to the aggre­gate effects in neigh­bor­hoods as a whole.

About 40–60% of the health gap in poor neigh­bor­hoods can be blamed on low qual­i­ty nutri­tion, expo­sure to more pol­lu­tants, and lack of access to med­ical care. But an equal frac­tion is due direct­ly to low­er socioe­co­nom­ic sta­tus, and the high­er stress and lack of social sup­port that goes along with it.

Social sup­port plays a sig­nif­i­cant role in health care. That’s why in my prac­tice I’m guid­ed by these three goals:

  • To answer your phone calls and e-mails per­son­al­ly. Because you’re impor­tant.
  • To see my patients prompt­ly at the time the appoint­ment is sched­uled. Because your time is impor­tant.
  • To use a heavy dose of touch in my treat­ment, apply­ing it with sen­si­tiv­i­ty. Because car­ing touch is one of the strongest com­mu­ni­ca­tors of social sup­port.

These ele­ments of health care are not mere periph­er­al add-ons to the pro­vi­sion of the “sub­stan­tive,” i.e. “tech­no­log­i­cal” health care pro­ce­dure. Basic human car­ing and sup­port is the cen­tral and most effec­tive aspect of health care.


Deepen Your Body of Knowledge

The biopsy­choso­cial mod­el of health

Lat­est research on touch and health

How to use peer pres­sure for your ben­e­fit


About Ronald Lavine, D.C.

Dr. Lavine has more than thirty years' experience helping patients alleviate pain and restore health using diverse, scientifically-based manual therapy and therapeutic exercise and alignment methods. His website,, provides more information about his approach. Please contact him at or at 212-400-9663.
This entry was posted in Anxiety, Depression and Stress, Politics of Healthcare and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.