The social influences on human behavior have evolutionary roots. As products of evolution, humans have to achieve two evolutionary macro-goals: Survival and Successful reproduction.
Evolution is not a nice and fluffy egalitarian process. Evolution, by its very nature, implies selection. In turn this implies that not all individuals get to send their genes into the next generation – successful reproduction. Some die before having offspring, others can’t find a mate with whom to have children, others find a mate, but of low quality and subsequently their offspring are of low quality too and in a couple of generations their offspring will not have children and so on.
The main social consequence of selectivity in evolution is that people, as well as other species, compete with each other. The area of competition is apparently broad, but in fact it can be reduced to a few dimensions.
First, we compete for attracting mates. Finding the best possible mate with whom to procreate is, from an evolutionary perspective, one of the top three most important goals in life. In order to ensure the perpetuation of your genes in the next generation, you need to find the best possible partner to have children with. Moreover, since humans need a lot of time and investment before becoming independent, the partner should be good at parenting and be able to invest effort and resources in bringing up a child.
Second, we compete in order to defer same sex rivals. It is not enough to impress a potential mate, rather apart from impressing the potential mate we have to make sure that no other same sex individual impresses our potential mate. The popular belief about competing for mates is that only males do it. This is true for species that have choosy females and males who would mate and have offspring with any female. These species are also characterized by uneven parental investment. In other words, the entire effort of raising the offspring is done by the female. When it comes to humans, however, things are a bit different. In the case of humans the parental effort is divided roughly equally between the two parents. This implies that men are also choosy and would not have children with any human female. As a consequence, women too, compete for attracting potential mates and deferring same sex rivals.
Third, we compete for parental investment. Even as children we have to compete for the limited resources of the parents. These include material resources such as food, attention, time and so on. In today’s western world it is not uncommon for families to have only one child, thus leading to a lack of need for competition. In the past, however, having only one child was extremely rare. Moreover, considering the infant and adult mortality rates it would also be ineffective, from an evolutionary perspective, to not have more children. We like to think that as parents we give equal attention and resources to our children, but the reality is slightly different. Even the smallest difference in parental investment given to children can make a huge difference in their later lives. I don’t want to develop this argument further since it is not the topic of the post, but the key idea is that sibling competition exists.
Everybody who has children or has seen families with children has witnessed a rather disturbing situation in which a child does something dangerous and somehow stupid saying: Look at me what I can do. This is an example of children competing for parental investment. By doing something dangerous, the child communicates that he or she has good physical abilities and thus deserves parental resources.
Fourth, we compete for friends and allies. As a social species we have friends and allies; we also have enemies. From an evolutionary perspective having more and better friends and allies constitutes a very high benefit. Having more and better friends leads to the possibility of acquiring more resources. Think for example of collective hunting. At the same time it offers better protection against threats such as predators and natural disasters.
Examples such as collective hunting and protection against predators are highly relevant for our distant ancestors’ lives and a lot less meaningful for modern life. However, the main principles are more or less the same even in the XXIst century. Having more and higher quality (social status) friends can help you get a good job (please read access to resources). Similarly, in case of a bar fight it is better to have more and stronger friends willing to help you.
The competition in social relationships comes from an inherent trait of humans, namely that we can have a limited number of meaningful social relationships. To make a long story short, a human can have meaningful relationships with at most one hundred and fifty people. Apart from the limited number of relationships that we can have, there is the issue of is it worth being friends with you. I don’t mean by this that friendships are based only on self-interest, but simply that having a social relationship with someone should be pleasant.
All these competitive relationships that humans have can be summed up into competition for one thing only, namely (social) STATUS.
Competition for status is deeply rooted in human nature. As you most likely have noticed, competition for status can have both positive and negative outcomes. For example, athletic competition has overall a positive outcome, whereas escalated consumerism has negative outcomes. This, however, is a more philosophical discussion.
Let’s see how competition for status works. First, we should understand what status is. By its very nature status implies that others appreciate you for something. Who others are is not necessarily clear, in the sense that others definitely does not represent the entire human species. Neither is it the entire society in which you live. For most people others represents their social group or a part of it. This includes friends, family, acquaintances, colleagues, potential mates etc.
Having broadly defined the others or in other words the audience, let’s take a look at what something is, namely for what is an individual appreciated by other individuals. There are many things that a person can be appreciated for. At the same time this broad array can be reduced to a few traits that have evolutionary meaning. Let me explain on this evolutionary perspective a bit more. Taking the evolutionary perspective (which I believe is the best to explain most aspects of human nature), things must make sense for accomplishing the two main evolutionary macro-goals: survival and successful reproduction. In other words, if in the XXIst century we appreciate someone for something, that something should be meaningful for our very distant ancestors too.
For example, people appreciate other people for being funny. From an evolutionary perspective, however, being friends or having children with someone that is funny has no benefit in order to survive or have high quality offspring. If, however, being funny is correlated with something more meaningful such as intelligence, then it makes sense to be friends or have children with someone funny. This is not because funniness gives an evolutionary benefit, but because more intelligent people are better at surviving (and protecting others) and intelligence is hereditary, thus your children will be more intelligent too.
Similarly, in the XXIst century people appreciate athletes for their performances. At the same time, being able to swim very fast or score many goals is not in itself meaningful from an evolutionary perspective. The underlying traits that allow athletes to be very good at sports, however, are evolutionary meaningful. Athletic performance can’t exist in the absence of physical fitness, good physical and mental health (lack of severe mental problems). All these traits are valuable when it comes to being friends and or having children with someone.
To conclude on what something is, what we appreciate is not necessarily relevant from an evolutionary perspective, but what we appreciate (the something) has to signal a trait relevant from an evolutionary perspective.
Evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller suggests that what we are appreciated for (and subsequently gain status on) are six personality traits which include Intelligence and the Big Five Personality traits (Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, Neuroticism). To this I would add physical fitness (physical health and quality). The main argument that Geoffrey Miller gives for this proposition is that these traits are relatively stable throughout life (though Conscientiousness increases with age) and are to a large degree hereditary. If you would like to learn more about Miller’s approach I strongly recommend reading his book Spent (later editions have the title “Must have”).
Having established who Others are and what something is, it is time to focus on the how of social competition. In other words, the next question that needs to be answered is how do people compete socially?
In order to answer this question, I suggest going a bit into the animal kingdom and taking a look at how animals compete for attracting mates, deferring same sex rivals, parental investment and in some cases for friends and allies. The competition for friends and allies is less pronounced in most non-primate species especially because many species are non-social.
Many animals have traits that offer no functional advantage and might be detrimental to survival, such as brightly colored feathers which can attract predators, or large tails that may impede an escape from a predator. The most common example is the peacock’s tail. It is large and brightly colored, but gives no real functional advantage. In order to grow and maintain such an ornament and for it to be beautiful, a peacock has to acquire a large quantity of metabolic resources (food) and to be healthy (not suffer from diseases or be infested with parasites). Moreover, in an environment where there are predators, a brightly colored and large tail is not exactly the best thing to have. The bright colors can attract the attention of predators, while the large size makes it difficult to flee from them. If evolution would rely only on survival of the fittest, then such useless and even detrimental to survival features would have been lost along the way. Since they exist, however, they must have some beneficial role. Charles Darwin’s explanation was that these traits must have been kept throughout evolution because they were attractive to the opposite sex.
In other words, these useless and even detrimental features communicate something about the individual who possesses them that is liked by the opposite sex. Just like in the example of the athlete (footballer) who scores many goals, it is not the feature itself that is important, but rather the trait that it communicates. In the case of the peacock, the big, bright colorful tail says that this individual is highly physically fit (good genes) since it can gather all the food needed and can escape predators even with this huge handicap; in addition it has a good immune system since parasites didn’t damage the tail. If you would be a peahen hard-wired by evolution to find the best possible mate to have offspring with, then a big, bright colorful tail is all you need to asses in order to say YES to mate with this peacock.
In scientific terms these useless and even detrimental features that are appreciated (liked) by others are called costly signals. A costly signal has four characteristics: They (1) have no apparent usefulness (or very low utilitarian value) or may even pose a threat to the owner; (2) Are costly in terms of resources needed to have such features; (3) Are visible or even conspicuous; (4) Are desirable themselves or signal a trait that is desirable by the opposite sex.
In the case of humans, there are two major particularities regarding costly signaling. First, the parental investment required to have and raise a human offspring that gets to have children of his / her own is very large (much larger than for most animals) and it is distributed between the two sexes. This implies that both males and females get to choose their mating partner and subsequently use costly signals in order to attract mates. This does not mean that men and women exhibit the same costly signaling behaviors, but rather that each sex tries to attract a suitable mate.
Second, human bodies do not have conspicuous features similar to the ones found in animals (e.g. large colored feathers etc.). This implies that most costly signals used by humans to attract mates, defer same sex rivals, compete for parental investment and attract friends and allies are behavioral and not anatomical. The two particularities described above lead to the conclusion that both sexes exhibit conspicuous behavior related to signaling their mating and social value. When saying behavioral features, I include possessing things such as jewelry, expensive electronics, fashion products etc.
Overall, (most of) the human social competition is done through behaviors and possessions. Consciously or not, we exhibit behaviors and buy stuff with the aim of communicating to others that we possess some desirable traits.
We communicate our traits through other means than the costly and useless (from a utilitarian perspective) behaviors and possessions. In other words, communicating one’s social and mating value is done through behaviors and possessions that are not necessarily costly and useless. For example, being a hard worker is (usually) not useless and it signals desirable traits such as a high level of conscientiousness and self-control. These behaviors and possessions that are used for communicating one’s traits and that are not costly signals are called, in scientific terms, fitness indicators.
Communicating one’s desirable traits (social and mating value) and subsequently entering a competition with other people is done through a mix of costly signals and fitness indicators. Competition among individuals aimed at gaining status is deeply rooted in human nature. Sure, some will say that it is good; some say that it is bad. They are both right. Sometimes it is useful to emphasize on competition. For example social competition is the driver of the luxury and mobile electronics business sectors and without emphasizing on keeping pace these markets would shrink considerably. Is this good? Depends who for, I guess.
Another example comes from Human Resources Management and concerns competition among co-workers. Competition exists whether you like it or not. The question is if you should encourage or discourage it. Think for example, of fashion competition among co-workers. If one colleague starts wearing only high-end designer clothes and she is appreciated (and envied) by her colleagues, sooner or later another person will start wearing only designer clothes, even more expensive this time. Before you know it, the office will become a real catwalk and the consequence will be frustration and significantly lower disposable incomes, probably followed by a general request for pay raises.
In the end I would like to reach a rather sensitive topic, namely social competition based on consumerism. Everyone needs status and buying stuff is a simple way of doing so. I have nothing against capitalism and consumption (after all I lived in a communist and post-communist society for half of my life). At the same time, when social competition escalates in the area of consumerism, I believe that in the end we are all worse off. Indeed firms sell more, but what happens is that we end up with a lot of stuff that we don’t use and with a lot of money spent on things that don’t make us happy. Social competition is natural and in fact very useful for society, but my belief is that consumerism is not the only field of battle. Instead of buying the latest smartphone when the (one year) old one works perfectly fine, wouldn’t it be better to use the 400-500 Euros to go on a nice weekend somewhere new? You can communicate your Openness to experience either way. Instead of showing how smart we are by purchasing complicated to use devices that we show of in front of our social group, wouldn’t it be better to gather the group and play cards or scrabble which would also show how smart we are?
Greengross, G., & Miller, G. F. (2011). “Humor ability reveals intelligence, predicts mating success, and is higher in males.” Intelligence, 39, 188-192.
Miller, G. F. (2009). “Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior”, New York, NY: Viking.
Miller, G. F. (2000). “The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature”. New York, NY: Doubleday.