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Concept: Social stratification


Studies of animal behavior consistently demonstrate that the social environment impacts cooperation, yet the effect of social dynamics has been largely excluded from studies of human cooperation. Here, we introduce a novel approach inspired by nonhuman primate research to address how social hierarchies impact human cooperation. Participants competed to earn hierarchy positions and then could cooperate with another individual in the hierarchy by investing in a common effort. Cooperation was achieved if the combined investments exceeded a threshold, and the higher ranked individual distributed the spoils unless control was contested by the partner. Compared to a condition lacking hierarchy, cooperation declined in the presence of a hierarchy due to a decrease in investment by lower ranked individuals. Furthermore, hierarchy was detrimental to cooperation regardless of whether it was earned or arbitrary. These findings mirror results from nonhuman primates and demonstrate that hierarchies are detrimental to cooperation. However, these results deviate from nonhuman primate findings by demonstrating that human behavior is responsive to changing hierarchical structures and suggests partnership dynamics that may improve cooperation. This work introduces a controlled way to investigate the social influences on human behavior, and demonstrates the evolutionary continuity of human behavior with other primate species.

Concepts: Human, Structure, Hierarchy, Primate, Demonstration, Evolutionary psychology, Social stratification, Bishop


Humans have a bias for turning to the right in a number of settings. Here we document a bias in head-turning to the right in adult humans, as tested in the act of kissing. We investigated head-turning bias in both kiss initiators and kiss recipients for lip kissing, and took into consideration differences due to sex and handedness, in 48 Bangladeshi heterosexual married couples. We report a significant male bias in the initiation of kissing and a significant bias in head-turning to the right in both kiss initiators and kiss recipients, with a tendency among kiss recipients to match their partners' head-turning direction. These interesting outcomes are explained by the influences of societal learning or cultural norms and the potential neurophysiological underpinnings which together offer novel insights about the mechanisms underlying behavioral laterality in humans.

Concepts: Marriage, Male, Female, Left-wing politics, Sociology, Lip, Social stratification, Kiss


Evidence for human sacrifice is found throughout the archaeological record of early civilizations, the ethnographic records of indigenous world cultures, and the texts of the most prolific contemporary religions. According to the social control hypothesis, human sacrifice legitimizes political authority and social class systems, functioning to stabilize such social stratification. Support for the social control hypothesis is largely limited to historical anecdotes of human sacrifice, where the causal claims have not been subject to rigorous quantitative cross-cultural tests. Here we test the social control hypothesis by applying Bayesian phylogenetic methods to a geographically and socially diverse sample of 93 traditional Austronesian cultures. We find strong support for models in which human sacrifice stabilizes social stratification once stratification has arisen, and promotes a shift to strictly inherited class systems. Whilst evolutionary theories of religion have focused on the functionality of prosocial and moral beliefs, our results reveal a darker link between religion and the evolution of modern hierarchical societies.

Concepts: Evolution, Sociology, Anthropology, Religion, Society, Civilization, Archaeology, Social stratification


The “cock-a-doodle-doo” crowing of roosters, which symbolizes the break of dawn in many cultures, is controlled by the circadian clock. When one rooster announces the break of dawn, others in the vicinity immediately follow. Chickens are highly social animals, and they develop a linear and fixed hierarchy in small groups. We found that when chickens were housed in small groups, the top-ranking rooster determined the timing of predawn crowing. Specifically, the top-ranking rooster always started to crow first, followed by its subordinates, in descending order of social rank. When the top-ranking rooster was physically removed from a group, the second-ranking rooster initiated crowing. The presence of a dominant rooster significantly reduced the number of predawn crows in subordinates. However, the number of crows induced by external stimuli was independent of social rank, confirming that subordinates have the ability to crow. Although the timing of subordinates' predawn crowing was strongly dependent on that of the top-ranking rooster, free-running periods of body temperature rhythms differed among individuals, and crowing rhythm did not entrain to a crowing sound stimulus. These results indicate that in a group situation, the top-ranking rooster has priority to announce the break of dawn, and that subordinate roosters are patient enough to wait for the top-ranking rooster’s first crow every morning and thus compromise their circadian clock for social reasons.

Concepts: Hypothalamus, Structure, Hierarchy, Sociology, Heterarchy, Social stratification, Rooster


Whether and how societal structures shape individual psychology is a foundational question of the social sciences. Combining insights from evolutionary biology, economy, and the political and psychological sciences, we identify a central psychological process that functions to sustain group-based hierarchies in human societies. In study 1, we demonstrate that macrolevel structural inequality, impaired population outcomes, socio-political instability, and the risk of violence are reflected in the endorsement of group hegemony at the aggregate population level across 27 countries (n = 41,824): The greater the national inequality, the greater is the endorsement of between-group hierarchy within the population. Using multilevel analyses in study 2, we demonstrate that these psychological group-dominance motives mediate the effects of macrolevel functioning on individual-level attitudes and behaviors. Specifically, across 30 US states (n = 4,613), macrolevel inequality and violence were associated with greater individual-level support of group hegemony. Crucially, this individual-level support, rather than cultural-societal norms, was in turn uniquely associated with greater racism, sexism, welfare opposition, and even willingness to enforce group hegemony violently by participating in ethnic persecution of subordinate out-groups. These findings suggest that societal inequality is reflected in people’s minds as dominance motives that underpin ideologies and actions that ultimately sustain group-based hierarchy.

Concepts: Psychology, Structure, Hierarchy, Sociology, Science, Anthropology, Social sciences, Social stratification


Knowledge about social hierarchies organizes human behavior, yet we understand little about the underlying computations. Here we show that a Bayesian inference scheme, which tracks the power of individuals, better captures behavioral and neural data compared with a reinforcement learning model inspired by rating systems used in games such as chess. We provide evidence that the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) selectively mediates the updating of knowledge about one’s own hierarchy, as opposed to that of another individual, a process that underpinned successful performance and involved functional interactions with the amygdala and hippocampus. In contrast, we observed domain-general coding of rank in the amygdala and hippocampus, even when the task did not require it. Our findings reveal the computations underlying a core aspect of social cognition and provide new evidence that self-relevant information may indeed be afforded a unique representational status in the brain.

Concepts: Psychology, Brain, Hierarchy, Sociology, Cerebrum, Limbic system, Premotor cortex, Social stratification


Complex auditory sequences known as music have often been described as hierarchically structured. This permits the existence of non-local dependencies, which relate elements of a sequence beyond their temporal sequential order. Previous studies in music have reported differential activity in the inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) when comparing regular and irregular chord-transitions based on theories in Western tonal harmony. However, it is unclear if the observed activity reflects the interpretation of hierarchical structure as the effects are confounded by local irregularity. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), we found that violations to non-local dependencies in nested sequences of three-tone musical motifs in musicians elicited increased activity in the right IFG. This is in contrast to similar studies in language which typically report the left IFG in processing grammatical syntax. Effects of increasing auditory working demands are moreover reflected by distributed activity in frontal and parietal regions. Our study therefore demonstrates the role of the right IFG in processing non-local dependencies in music, and suggests that hierarchical processing in different cognitive domains relies on similar mechanisms that are subserved by domain-selective neuronal subpopulations.

Concepts: Structure, Hierarchy, Greek loanwords, Magnetic resonance imaging, Music, Social stratification, Tonic, Tonality


Hierarchical organization is widespread in the societies of humans and other animals, both in social structure and in decision-making contexts. In the case of collective motion, the majority of case studies report that dominant individuals lead group movements, in agreement with the common conflation of the terms “dominance” and “leadership.” From a theoretical perspective, if social relationships influence interactions during collective motion, then social structure could also affect leadership in large, swarm-like groups, such as fish shoals and bird flocks. Here we use computer-vision-based methods and miniature GPS tracking to study, respectively, social dominance and in-flight leader-follower relations in pigeons. In both types of behavior we find hierarchically structured networks of directed interactions. However, instead of being conflated, dominance and leadership hierarchies are completely independent of each other. Although dominance is an important aspect of variation among pigeons, correlated with aggression and access to food, our results imply that the stable leadership hierarchies in the air must be based on a different set of individual competences. In addition to confirming the existence of independent and context-specific hierarchies in pigeons, we succeed in setting out a robust, scalable method for the automated analysis of dominance relationships, and thus of social structure, applicable to many species. Our results, as well as our methods, will help to incorporate the broader context of animal social organization into the study of collective behavior.

Concepts: Scientific method, Structure, Hierarchy, Sociology, Heterarchy, Government, Maslow's hierarchy of needs, Social stratification


Socioeconomic status (SES) is the single most potent determinant of health within human populations, from infancy through old age. Although the social stratification of health is nearly universal, there is persistent uncertainty regarding the dimensions of SES that effect such inequalities and thus little clarity about the principles of intervention by which inequalities might be abated. Guided by animal models of hierarchical organization and the health correlates of subordination, this prospective study examined the partitioning of children’s adaptive behavioral development by their positions within kindergarten classroom hierarchies. A sample of 338 5-y-old children was recruited from 29 Berkeley, California public school classrooms. A naturalistic observational measure of social position, parent-reported family SES, and child-reported classroom climate were used in estimating multilevel, random-effects models of children’s adaptive behavior at the end of the kindergarten year. Children occupying subordinate positions had significantly more maladaptive behavioral outcomes than their dominant peers. Further, interaction terms revealed that low family SES and female sex magnified, and teachers' child-centered pedagogical practices diminished, the adverse influences of social subordination. Taken together, results suggest that, even within early childhood groups, social stratification is associated with a partitioning of adaptive behavioral outcomes and that the character of larger societal and school structures in which such groups are nested can moderate rank-behavior associations.

Concepts: Socioeconomic status, Hierarchy, Sociology, Childhood, Adaptive Behavior, Kindergarten, Social stratification


One of the defining trends of the Holocene has been the emergence of complex societies. Two essential features of complex societies are intensive resource use and sociopolitical hierarchy. Although it is widely agreed that these two phenomena are associated cross-culturally and have both contributed to the rise of complex societies, the causality underlying their relationship has been the subject of longstanding debate. Materialist theories of cultural evolution tend to view resource intensification as driving the development of hierarchy, but the reverse order of causation has also been advocated, along with a range of intermediate views. Phylogenetic methods have the potential to test between these different causal models. Here we report the results of a phylogenetic study that modeled the coevolution of one type of resource intensification-the development of landesque capital intensive agriculture-with political complexity and social stratification in a sample of 155 Austronesian-speaking societies. We found support for the coevolution of landesque capital with both political complexity and social stratification, but the contingent and nondeterministic nature of both of these relationships was clear. There was no indication that intensification was the “prime mover” in either relationship. Instead, the relationship between intensification and social stratification was broadly reciprocal, whereas political complexity was more of a driver than a result of intensification. These results challenge the materialist view and emphasize the importance of both material and social factors in the evolution of complex societies, as well as the complex and multifactorial nature of cultural evolution.

Concepts: Agriculture, Causality, Sociology, Emergence, Political philosophy, Social stratification, Materialism, Karl Marx