Saturday, July 23, 2011

Under Pressure

“Life at the Top: Rank and Stress in Wild Male Baboons,” published in the July 15 issue of the journal Science, found that in wild baboon populations, the highest-ranking, or alpha, males have higher stress-hormone levels than the highly ranked males below them, known as beta males — even during periods of stability. The study was led by a Princeton University professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, Jeanne Altmann.
The findings have implications in the study of social hierarchies and of the impact of social dominance on health and well-being, according to a statement released by Princeton.
Princeton researchers worked with researchers at Duke University, the University of Nairobi and the Institute of Primate Research in Kenya, Altmann said.
The stress, researchers suggested, was probably due to the demands of fighting off challengers and guarding access to fertile females. Beta males, who fought less and had considerably less mate-guarding to do, had much lower stress levels.
“We’ve known for decades that alpha males have an advantage in reproduction, but these results show that life at the top has a real downside, and that being an alpha male comes at a real cost,” said study co-author and Duke University biology professor Susan Alberts.
So how much application does this study have for humans? In my opinion, it all depends on the human and the situation. We know that NOT having control or NOT having the necessary resources for that “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” thing is very stressful. So being at the “bottom” has plenty of stress. Now we’re told that being at the top has more stress than being farther down the ladder. In general, that’s probably true. Being a “highly ranked” person just below the top is indeed sometimes the best place to be.

But is stress really all that bad? Again it depends. For those at the “top”, stress comes with a lot of perks. Power, status, control, money…it’s good to be the king. For those at the bottom, stress is literally about survival. Survival stress is really what the baboon’s stress is all about. The fact that the Beta baboons have less stress than the Alpha baboons may just be because the Betas are too stupid to realize that their survival is also at risk.

It comes down to this. The more you have to fight for survival the higher the stress. Stress is nature’s way of telling you to get off your ass and do something before a big and hungry Alpha-type has you for dinner. If you’re lucky enough to have one of those Alpha-types around for protection, go ahead and be a Beta. Perhaps the Betas, like the meek, shall one day inherit the earth. In the meantime, I’m betting that the stressed out Alphas will own the land and the mineral rights.

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