Thursday, April 19, 2012

Why Having Low Status Is Bad For You

Respect is like electricity.   It runs beneath the surface of our lives, powerful and essential yet easy to ignore.  The desire to be respected--to have our coworkers and families look up to us--is potent enough to make us buy Ferraris, the latest iPad, and expensive bags.  In some ways it even drives our lives.

Harvard students were made to choose between these two (hypothetical) alternatives.
  1. You can earn $50,000 a year and everyone else earns $25,000; or
  2. You can earn $100,000 a year and everyone else earns $200,000.
Over half the students chose the first option.  This means they preferred having half as much money as long as they got to have more money than their friends.  If that doesn't prove to you the eldrich power respect commands, I don't know what will.

And why shouldn't we want to be respected?  Higher-status people get better mates, better food, and better art.  They even have longer lives.

To figure out why higher status gives us better health, Jenny Tung and Yoav Gilad at the University of Chicago looked at rehsus macaque monkeys.  The social pecking order of these simians is easily fooled around with making them perfect experiment fodder.

If you ever want to mess with some rehsus macaques, here's how.  Get a new room for the monkeys.  The monkey who moves in first is at the top of the pack.  The monkey who moves in second comes next.  The monkey who moves in third comes third, and so on.

What Tung and Gilad found out was that the monkeys at the bottom of the monkey heap had higher activity in genes dealing with immune response which could make them less healthy.

It turns out that this is caused by a process called epigenetic change.  Epigenetic change is when genes get turned on or off by something else.  This means that having high status literally turns on the genetic switch that makes you be more healthy.

What's the upshot?  Next time you call in sick, blame your boss.

My source for this article was the article Misery Index in the Economist.

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