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Reflections on a Presentation by James P. Curley, PhD: Power Differentials in Social Hierarchies, Why and How They Emerge and Their Consequences for Behavior and Health

Authored by Rosalyn Chrenka, Ph.D

This report on the keynote address given at the Midwest Symposium on May 7 2021 was prepared by Dr. Rosalyn Chrenka, a student of the CFC Post-graduate Training program

I took notes and have commented below on some things that struck me as interesting in relation to theory.

Social Hierarchies (James P. Curley, PhD)

  • Biting is rewarding, it releases oxytocin in the nucleus accumbens core (NAccc)
    • Before Curley said this, I was thinking that the search for dominance among animals must be regulated or at least informed by a network involving the nucleus accumbens, which is a central brain structure that regulates reward-seeking and addictive behaviors. Contrasting the role of oxytocin (“love hormone”) in maternal-child bonding with rewarding biting behavior (social dominance in groups) informs my thinking about Bowen theory in this way:  Emotional intensity, as physiologically undergirded by oxytocin, is a tie that binds, regardless of whether the demonstrated behavior is interpreted as “negative” (biting/fighting) or “positive” as in mother-child bonding.  In my thinking,familial and social emotional process have a hormonal substrate involving oxytocin in myriad ways which science has begun to delineate.
  • While the individual may possess attributes that predict ascendance and dominance, when social conditions change, the group reconfigures with a next dominant individual and a host of subordinates. Aspects influencing which animal becomes dominant include
    • Individual attributes including: fighting ability, energy reserves, strength
    • Factors that cue dominance: Armament size, e.g. antlers, distinctive/intense color, tail length.
    • Winner-Loser effects: While I did not grasp the experimental data completely, my thinking turned again to brain/behavior, as “winning” is something that can become “addictive”, as in having once won, the animal is more likely to win the next time vs. the animal who loses in the first challenge.
  • There are triangles (sort of) or dyad +1 or more interaction patterns:
    • Leveraging behavior–When a more dominant engages a less dominant animal to attack a third
    • Stable, hierarchical behaviors in a one-way triangular form: A always dominant to B always dominant to C, which repeats stably over time.
    • One way to establish power is dominance, another is to bring in a third party to leverage.
  • In Curley’s matrices documenting social behavior among the rats, I was interested in the fact that a couple of the groupings had the despotic dominant male, who dominated each and every other one in the group.
    • I rapidly leapt to thinking about the societal emotional response to the former president, who publicly asserted his dominance 24/7 for the better part of five years.
    • I enjoyed thinking about how the subordinates watch the dominant one closely, especially the subdominant one (VP), who tracked every pronouncement and in 99% of cases backed up the dominant one.
    • This dominant player used leverage to “elevate” his base (Republican/rural voters) and to minimize the ascendance of others not siding with him. This fueled a conflict of high emotional intensity among subordinate groups.  My thinking about triangling among groups in societal emotional process was significantly informed as I considered the scientific data.
  • Dominance is nice, and is desired if it becomes available, but has a considerable energy burden, especially when chronic conflict/anxiety emerges from having to protect dominant status.
  • Subordinate status expends resources as well; e.g., male subordinates watch the dominant male closely for signalling about his status, and expend energy to stay out of interactions with the dominant male and other subordinates.
  • I think that one take-away from Curley’s presentation was that male dominance, and subordinate status more potently, causes physiological stress, and has been correlated with secretion of pro-inflammatory substances which affect health and functioning.
  • Hierarchy can contribute to social stability. When one thinks about the Galvin family in Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Life of an American Family, by Robert Kolker, one finds a lack of parental leadership and a closely-aged offspring cohort of males in competition for dominance (?).  One ironic aspect of this family’s portrayal process was that the father was absorbed in his the ultimate hierarchy, the U.S. military, but not emotionally present and accounted for as leader of their mostly male platoon of offspring.


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2 Comments on "Reflections on a Presentation by James P. Curley, PhD: Power Differentials in Social Hierarchies, Why and How They Emerge and Their Consequences for Behavior and Health"

  • Stephanie Ferrera says

    I have been studying the phenomenon of the social hierarchy in nafure and human life for a long time, so was very interested in Dr. Curley’s research and learned new things from it. I learned even more from your summary and the your observations of behavior by politicians that is so much like mice or primates, biting included. “Energy burden” is a good term to describe both the effort required to gain and hold a dominant position, and to survive in a subordinate position. Your ideas on the hormones and physiology involved are also useful in bringing out the complexity of the systems involved.

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