One’s Place in the Distribution

One of the strange things about the knee-jerk denunciations of evolutionary psychology (which, for the record, is full of terrible research that it makes sense to critique) is the idea that dominance hierarchies are an obscure phantasm that have no place in discussions of humans or our close primate or mammalian relatives. For example, Freddie Deboer:

The term “alpha male” — a cross-species analogy based on thoroughly discredited science — implies one, one at the pinnacle, and a world full of varying levels of loser beneath them.

I’m fairly skeptical of much of the way “alpha” and “beta” is applied by the Game crowd to mating patterns, but, um, no. Forget about wolf packs and whether early researchers were right or wrong about them. Most primates have extremely defined dominance hierarchies, and they are perhaps most well-defined (for both males and females) in our closest relatives, chimpanzees. For example, here is Jane Goodall herself in a 1977 paper:

The recent rise of a high-ranking adult male chimpanzee to the alpha male position of the Gombe National Park’s Kasakela chimpanzee community is reported. The male Figan is the fourth individual to assume this status in the wild chimpanzees’ social hierarchy during Good all’s 16 year study in Tanzania. The paper describes the overthrow of the previous top-ranking male, and the manner in which Figan has maintained his new position after the take-over. Emphasis is placed upon his relationship with his elder male sibling, Faben, and the second highest-ranking male in the community, Evered.

Or here is Franz de Waal, whose book Chimpanzee Politics is focused almost entirely on the struggles among captive chimps to reach the top spot:

A dominance hierarchy is one giant system of social inhibitions, which is no doubt what paved the way for human morality, which is also such a system. Impulse control is key to avoid ‘troublesome results’. In macaques and other primates low-ranking males vary their behavior dependent on the presence or absence of the alpha male. As soon as alpha turns his back, other males approach females. Putting this principle to the test, low-ranking males refused to approach females so long as the dominant looked on from inside a transparent box, yet as soon as this male was removed, the same males freely copulated with females. These males also took the occasion to perform the typical bouncing displays of high-status males. After such episodes, however, they were excessively nervous upon reunion with the alpha male, greeting him with such wide submissive teeth-baring that the experimenters interpreted their behavior as an implicit recognition that they had violated a social code (Coe & Rosenblum, 1984)

Note that de Waal is the very person whose studies of bonobos (“the Venus chimp”) were so eagerly hailed by (liberal) critics as providing an escape hatch from the brutal and violent picture of human nature that comparisons with East African chimps suggested. He seems to think dominance hierarchies- and the concept of the alpha- are pretty important for explaining how humans act.

All of which is to say that whatever our explanation of culture and its importance is, we should expect people to be extraordinarily sensitive to their place in status hierarchies and, given the relative ease with which modern people can move among social groups and choose communities, to seek out social groups in which they are not particularly disadvantaged for status.

This comes up a lot in studies of education. American high schools are full of subgroups– “Jocks and Burnouts,” band kids and theater dweebs, computer nerds and goth punks and “the hip-hop crowd.” One explanation for this is simply the need for tribe- the formation of common identity and support out of the threads of commonality. But some of the origins of micro-cultures must be the need to avoid an overall dominance hierarchy that puts one or another of us near the bottom of an endless pile.

For example, John Ogbu and Signithia Fordham in ethnographic studies and then later the economist Roland Fryer using a large nationally representative data-set found that opposition to “acting white” was an important obstacle to academic achievement among black students.

Using a newly available data set, which allows one to construct a novel measure of a student’s social status, we demonstrate that there are potentially important racial differences in the relationship between social status and academic achievement. The effect is intensified among students with a grade point average (GPA) of 3.5 or higher and those in schools with more interracial contact. Earlier studies showing a positive relationship between popularity and academic achievement for blacks are sensitive to the inclusion of more continuous achievement measures. We argue that the data are most consistent with a model of ‘acting white’ in which investments in education are taken as a signal of one’s opportunity costs of peer-group loyalty, though imprecise estimates make definitive conclusions difficult.

My own observations as a teacher was that systematic underachievement relative to ability was largely absent from the black girls I taught and present in a large majority of black boys, as aggregate statistics would suggest. But put that aside. Why did the sociologist Angel Harris find that “acting white” was not a factor in black underachievement at all, in contrast to Fryer and Ogbu and Fordham’s findings? My guess is that it was because he did his studies using data from Maryland counties in which students were in majority black schools (When I heard him speak about his group’s direct data collection, in addition to the state-wide dataset, he mentioned it was from Prince George’s County- the highest income majority black county in the country, but I’ll admit I’m having trouble finding an online source for this.) For those students in that school, black identity was not tied to academic underachievement, since blacks were present at the top and at the bottom of the distribution. Relatedly, black students tend to do best either either in high-intensity, academically-focused but segregated environments or in very-low poverty schools with a large majority of white students, where the subgroup they identify with most closely is not concentrated at the bottom of the academic distribution. On the other hand, the places with the greatest black underachievement tend to be liberal college towns like Berkeley or Madison, where the gaps between the mean black student and white student achievement are the largest, and black students therefore reject an academic identity most forcefully.


That is, regression to the mean of one’s group isn’t merely a passive process of luck and innate ability but an active process of identification and development- our vine grabs onto the closest drainpipe on which to hang onto, spiral around, and grow up. 

This is why the theory of mismatch seems to apply much more to law schools and undergraduate science and engineering majors than it does to less competitive disciplines: not only is there less academic sorting of any kind happening in sociology than in mechanical engineering, but social status within the group is less tied to academic achievement in any case. I’m not immune to this: once I realized I wasn’t going to be the best physics student at my small college, I switched to biology, not because I was so much better at it (I was almost certainly worse) but because it seemed like a discipline where being the best wasn’t all that important.  Researchers find similarly, that one’s relative BMI compared to a social group is influential in who develops obesity; again, you can just call this regression to a local mean, or you can see it as an active but not necessarily conscious process of identification and anchoring.

Among the many crazy things we’ve done in education is not only to push individuals into academic settings where they cannot compete and in which they are almost forced to reject the premises of the institution in order to retain a sense of dignity, but at the K-12 level, to demand that all kids enter into the same rat race, even when there is no chance of them keeping up.   Combined with a culture that has, over many years, rejected the acceptance of a lower place in a hierarchy as inherently undignified and dehumanizing, we have made it harder and harder to accept the terms on which education– and many other aspects of our society– are offered.

Attention to our place in the distribution of ability and the hierarchy of status cannot be excised from our culture or our self; all we can offer is the freedom of choice, to enter into one community or another which suits us more, and the offer of dignity and respect to those who are not on top.

6 thoughts on “One’s Place in the Distribution

    1. Even if a law school doesn’t embrace “Paper Chase”-style competition anymore, I think the nature of the curriculum probably magnifies initial differences in ability and makes them more socially salient, more even than most undergraduate and graduate programs. I don’t think it’s implausible that mismatch is a big problem in some fields like law and not such a big problem in others.


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