On Human Social Dominance Hierarchies

I think about power dynamics in human relationships often.  I’m not sure if I was so obsessed with this before I started studying apes so much, but I think on some level I always have been.  I read about this fascinating research about a year ago in Franz de Waal’s book, Our Inner Ape:

Scientists used to consider the frequency band of 500 hertz and below in the human voice as meaningless noise, because when a voice is filtered, removing all higher frequencies, one hears nothing but a low-pitched hum. All words are lost. But then it was found that this low hum is an unconscious social instrument. It is different for each person, but in the course of a conversation people tend to converge. They settle on a single hum, and it is always the lower status person who does the adjusting. This was first demonstrated in an analysis of the Larry King Live television show. The host, Larry King, would adjust his timbre to that of high-ranking guests, like Mike Wallace or Elizabeth Taylor. Low-ranking guests, on the other hand, would adjust their timbre to that of King. The clearest adjustment to King’s voice, indicating lack of confidence, came from former Vice President Dan Quayle.

The same spectral analysis has been applied to televised debates between U.S. presidential candidates. In all eight elections between 1960 and 2000 the popular vote matched the voice analysis: the majority of people voted for the candidate who held his own timbre rather than the one who adjusted.

(The one candidate who did not adjust the timbre of his voice during the debate who did not go on to become president was Al Gore, who won the popular vote by a wider margin than Kennedy in 1960.  Also, I like to say that we have scientifically determined who is more or less important than Larry King.  Larry King is apparently the measuring-stick of cultural relevance.)

I was fascinated but not at all surprised by these findings.  De Waal brings up this study to illustrate how similar human patterns of social power dynamics are to those of apes (chimps in particular—bonobos are famously lovey-dovey, although, as recent observations indicate, not so benign with each other as to be above the occasional infanticide and subsequent cannibalism (that’s a link to an article about the cannibalism incident that rocked the bonobo world a few months back, by Vanessa Woods, who is the hottest bonobo expert in the world (it’s a testament to my geekiness that I actually have a “celebrity crush” on a primatologist))).  Anyway, I felt a little vindicated when I read that; this is from my book:

I looked up at their faces. I thought I could detect that Norm was visibly irritated that the man had introduced himself to Lydia—and then introduced his wife to me, the chimp—without first acknowledging him, and even further irritated that he had done so in front of the Important Man. The Important Man seemed to consider himself above such things—the battlefield of gestures, words, manners—the whole delicate metalangauge of human social posturing. What apes do with thumping on their chests, throwing clumps of grass, banging on logs—human beings do in subtler ways. There’s very little difference, otherwise.

But what made me think of this today was the film I watched last night, The Big Kahuna.  Based on a play by Roger Rueff, The Big Kahuna is exactly the kind of thing I love: a small, smart, sad, vicious film mostly set in one room, with three characters, none of them women, being unrelentingly nasty to each other in very witty ways.  It’s like the cinematic equivalent of a glass of neat Scotch.  Like Glengarry Glen Ross, The Big Kahuna is about desperate salesmen, and most of the action has to do with social power dynamics.  There is a particularly amazing scene early in the movie: Peter Facinelli (who I’ve never seen in anything else) is a fresh-faced, naïve company rookie straight out of school, and Danny DeVito is a gruff, chain-smoking oldtimer who’s been doing this shit for years; they’re sitting in a chintzy suite in a convention hotel, preparing for a nametag-and-open-bar-type party; the young guy clearly deflects power to Danny DeVito’s character; as they’re talking, it cuts back-and-forth with short scenes of Kevin Spacey walking into the hotel, checking in and riding the elevator up to the suite; the moment Kevin Spacey walks into the room, the power dynamic immediately shifts.  His mere presence poisons the well.  You can watch Danny DeVito’s social potency instantly wither.  What had been a friendly enough atmosphere, after the addition of a third point in the social triangle (the chest-beating alpha male), suddenly becomes a social warzone.  I’ve seen this happen countless times, especially in all-male company: everyone belittles and humiliates each other until a clear dominance hierarchy is established.  It’s a process extremely similar to displaying behavior in chimps.  It makes me wonder if chimps are as unconscious of it as we are.

And with that I give you the most surreal Larry King interview I’ve ever seen.  This is his bizarre interview with Marlon Brando in 1994 (Brando granted him an interview, but insisted they film it at his house).  I strongly suggest you watch all six parts on YouTube.  Marlon Brando barely answers his questions, takes off his shoes, sings and kisses Larry King on the lips.  And I’m sure he does not adjust his vocal timbre.

1 Comment

Filed under Anger, Apes, Film, Frans de Waal, Literature, Nerds, Power

One response to “On Human Social Dominance Hierarchies

  1. Jake

    Love this article

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