Social Skills – Social Perception – Hierarchy

Friday, August 15th, 2008 at 8:00 am.
by pre.

Most social animal species organise themselves into dominance hierarchies. The Alpha Chimp gets the most respect, the king of the seals gets a harem, the top dog is leader of the pack and even chickens spontaneously order themselves into a pecking order.

Human beings, of course, are more complicated than chickens and our social structures are more convoluted and tied in knots than even those of dolphins and chimps. Human beings don’t have a simple pecking order, we have a multi-dimensional system of different interconnected hierarchies. The boss at work may not be the boss of his own family, the father-figure of a family may be the butt of the jokes in his English class, the towering matriarch can still be bottom of the list at her bridge club. Not only does every individual carry their own subjective hierarchy, but we each carry multiple hierarchies for different contexts, different topics, different scenes.

Calculating Hierarchies

Now when a group of monkeys are first thrown together, they do not need to fight it out in every combination possible to each know the ranks of themselves and others within the dominance hierarchy. Monkey A doesn’t have to fight each of Monkeys B through Z in order to figure out his position. He can assume that the dominance is more or less transative, that if some monkey who beat him in a fight loses to another monkey then that money would probably beat him in a fight too.

More than this, as each individual in the group begins to figure out their own position it effects their behaviour. Displays and signalling can avoid the need for a test-fight between individuals if one has already worked out he’s high and the other low.

A well trained zoologist can tell just by looking as two animals interact which of them is higher in the social hierarchy than the other. No doubt the animals can tell even more easily. Not just primates, not just mammals, every animal down to a fish can interpret the range of signals they see and combine the information to get a good idea of their relative positions in the social hierarchy in just a few moments.

Of course, the fish likely aren’t conscious of it in the way that the zoologist is. But then, people do the same thing, and they mostly aren’t conscious of it either. People can tell who’s important by who acts important but they’re not in general conscious of what behaviours they’re interpreting to come to that conclusion in the way a trained zoologist is when examining fish. They just get a sense of importance from this person. A feeling that they should defer or overrule.

All the tells we have discussed, people’s posture, clothing, manner, the way they hold eye contact and the firmness of their grip are the signals that we use to gain that sense off importance. These signals are produced and perceived almost entirely subconsciously. Reading that behaviour, knowing where someone believes themselves to be from their unconscious signalling, is the Social Perception skill of Hierarchy Determination. Becoming more conscious of these signals, and how you subconsciously interpret them, will improve your skill and thus make your ability to spot false signals (like when an actor puts on a white coat to sell you washing powder), the utility of which is obvious.

Improving Social Hierarchy Determination

As you listen to this month’s guided meditation file pick a situation in which you judged someone’s status, decided they were more or less important than either you or someone else. Try to pay particular attention to how you decided, what lead your subconscious to make you feel that way.