The Systems Thinker - Center for Family Consultation's blog

The Emotional Side of Socioeconomic Status: A review of the CFC Summer Conference with Dr. Laurie Lassiter

Authored by Stephanie Ferrera, M.S.W.

“The Emotional Side of Socioeconomic Status” was the title of Dr. Laurie Lassiter’s presentation at the Center for Family Consultation’s annual summer conference on July 14.  It is also the title of an article by Lassiter published in a recent issue of the journal, Family Systems.  Dr. Lassiter has reviewed a wide range of research to help us understand how social status impacts our health, relationships, and quality of life.  As a scholar of Bowen theory, she brings knowledge of emotional systems and differentiation of self to her study of social status.  Drawing from both her conference presentation and her article, I have chosen the following highlights.

To begin, a premier study on the connection between stress, health, and social rank was headed by Michael Marmot over a period of ten years, beginning in 1967.  Named the Whitehall Studies after a neighborhood in London, and based on a large number of employees in the rigidly stratified British Civil Service system, the original study found that the mortality rate of men in the lowest grade (messengers, groundskeepers, etc.) was three times higher than that of men in the highest grade (administrators); later studies that included women also found a broad range of illnesses associated with rank. Marmot called the correlation between health and the social gradient, “the status syndrome.”

This raises the question:  how does social position affect biological pathways to cause disease?  One would expect that the conditions of poverty, lack of adequate nutrition, clean water and basic necessities would be the main answer.  Surprisingly, the Whitehall studies showed that the social gradient in health existed in lower rank employees even though they were not materially impoverished and had access to medical care.  The search for answers brings us to look at our primate roots.

Frans de Waal notes that humans are a hierarchical species, and that this is not something we invented, but is derived from tendencies from other primates.  His work with chimpanzees and Robert Sapolsky’s work with baboons brought to light the daunting social stresses of life in primate societies.   Sapolsky spent many summers in his youth camping near a baboon colony in East Africa.  By darting males with tranquilizers and then measuring the stress hormones in their blood following an aggressive encounter, he was able to see that when an animal attacked another animal, his level of stress was reduced, and the animal attacked had an increase in measurable stress.  The conclusion from the data is that the stress of maintaining a social position significantly exceeds the stress of finding food, water, and safety from predators.  The social environment is a greater challenge than the physical environment.  Sapolsky later observed that humans have created socioeconomic systems and levels of poverty that far exceed “the scarring impact on minds and bodies” than anything seen in the history of animals.

Dr. Lassiter introduces a host of studies of recent years that have expanded our understanding of the interplay of stress/health/social rank.  Jenny Tung and associates studied rhesus macaques and found that the genetic expression of genes changed when the animal’s social status changed.  The genes that changed the most were involved with inflammation, which is a key factor in many illnesses.  Steve Cole and associates have found that the immune system is activated when the nervous system senses social stress such as a personal insult or a real or imagined threat of rejection.  Based on this, Lassiter suggests that the innate immune system knows there is a threat, but doesn’t know what kind of threat it is.

Another important concept comes from Bruce McEwen: subjective social status. A person’s relative standing in the social hierarchy and sense of value as a social being is a key determinant of individual stress levels.  Or in the words of Sapolsky: “Subjective SES predicts health at least as accurately as objective SES, meaning that it’s not about being poor.  It’s about feeling poor.” (Sapolsky, 2017, 441)

For students of Bowen theory, all of this science stirs thinking about the relationship of the stress/rank/health research to Bowen’s concepts of the family emotional system and differentiation of self.  Lassiter writes: “One’s level of differentiation of self and one’s socioeconomic status are separate attributes that may contribute to health and well-being.”  She describes a higher level of emotional functioning: “Those with higher levels of differentiation may not have as many opportunities as some others, but they are more likely to take advantage of the opportunities they do have.  Less regulated by social pressures, less threatened by the possibility of rejection, and less vulnerable to stress from an anxious group, they steer a course more productively. (Lassiter, 2022, 24).  A clearer or more succinct summary of the key steps on the path to observing and managing our social stresses would be hard to find.

Adding to the insights of Dr. Lassiter, I suggest that there is a humorous side along with the emotional side of socioeconomic status.  Chimpanzee-like postures of pompous superiority or obsequious inferiority have provided a rich supply of comedic material for humorists, from Shakespeare to Monty Python and beyond.  Especially popular are the scenarios of the mighty being outwitted and brought down by clever underdogs.  One of the better ways of dealing with the impact of social status on our lives might be to take it a little less seriously.


Lassiter, L.  2022. “The Emotional Side of Socioeconomic Status.”  Family Systems (17)1: 9-19

Sapolsky, R. 2017.  Behave:  The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. New York: Penguin Press

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