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Out of line

An insubordinate general. A soccer mutiny. Why hierarchy matters, even in an egalitarian world.

By Drake Bennett
June 27, 2010

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It’s been a bad week for the chain of command. First, international soccer fans witnessed the petulant meltdown of the French World Cup team: Star player Nicolas Anelka was kicked off the team for profanely insulting the head coach in the locker room midgame, and his teammates protested his dismissal by staging a mutiny — refusing to practice last Sunday, taking the team bus back to their hotel, and leaving the abandoned coaching staff to find their own ride. The fractiously underperforming team, full of top-flight talent, didn’t make it out of the tournament’s first round.

Then, on Tuesday, General Stanley McChrystal, commander of the US-led NATO security mission in Afghanistan, was summoned to Washington to answer for derisive and arguably insubordinate comments he and his aides made to a Rolling Stone reporter about several of the senior members of the White House national security team — and about President Obama himself, the man who, the Constitution specifies, was McChrystal’s ultimate boss. Upon his arrival in Washington, McChrystal was relieved of command.

The two events were not, of course, equal in global import. One was a drama on a sports team, the other may alter the course of a war. But both caught the attention of the world as they unfolded. And for all the distinctive political and cultural strands that each separately touched on, they both triggered an immediate and visceral sense that certain widely understood rules of appropriate behavior had been violated. Notably, in all of the commentary that swirled up around the two scandals, it was virtually impossible to find voices rooting for the rebellious underdogs, for the “runaway general” or the soccer players who turned on their coach.

What was at stake in each was a very basic idea: deference to the social hierarchy. Where people stand on the social ladder is a fact that governs all sorts of daily interactions, as well as how we build organizations, police one another’s behavior, and understand our own identity. It’s also something that social scientists are taking an increasing interest in. Talk of hierarchy or social rank may sound antiquated, especially in countries like America and France that each had its own revolution two centuries ago to overthrow an aristocratic political and social order. If all men are created equal, then thinking and talking about rank seems pernicious, a recipe for inflated egos on the one hand or crippled self-esteem on the other.

But psychologists who study status and power in social settings — and a growing number are — have found that human beings, in surprising ways, actually seem to thrive on a sense of social hierarchy, and rely on it. In certain settings, having a clear hierarchy makes us more comfortable, more productive, and happier, even when our own place in it is an inferior one. In one intriguing finding, NBA basketball teams on which large salary differentials separate the stars from the utility players actually play better and more selflessly than their more egalitarian rivals.

“Status is such an important regulating force on people’s behavior, hierarchy solves so many problems of conflict and coordination in groups,” says Adam Galinsky, a psychologist at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management who did the research on social hierarchies on basketball teams. “In order to perform effectively, you often need to have some pattern of deference.”

None of this means that unquestioned obedience and institutionally mandated inequality are the building blocks of the ideal society. But research into social hierarchy does suggest that a taste for rank is a key part of the bundle of traits that make human beings such a successfully social species. Even the most equable among us have this inborn human understanding, psychologists say, and a sense of when its codes have been broken. That applies not only in situations with strictly delineated chains of command like the military or a pro sports team, but in any social situation. Knowing what’s right and wrong is often just a matter of knowing who’s the boss.

The French soccer rebellion and the loose words of McChrystal have both been harshly judged in the court of public opinion. In France, a nation where everyone from firefighters to doctors routinely goes on strike, the World Cup walkout was roundly condemned, with the nation’s newspapers, its former soccer stars, its minister of sport, its finance minister, and even President Nicolas Sarkozy expressing outrage. Here in the United States, McChrystal, a hugely accomplished soldier in a country ferociously proud of its military, was criticized across the political spectrum for his words and the way he allowed them to become public.

In announcing that he had accepted McChrystal’s resignation, Obama said his decision had been a necessary one, brought on by the fact that McChrystal’s conduct “undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic system.” Civilian control of the military is spelled out in the country’s Constitution to prevent the military from taking over — or even unduly influencing — the elected government. But in reasserting his authority, Obama was also addressing a more basic human need to know who is in charge.

Human beings are social animals, a fact that is central to how we as a species see the world. And like other social animals, whether wolves or chickens or chimpanzees, we sort ourselves into rankings. These rankings aren’t static, they can change over time, but they impose order on social interaction: In the wild, they create a framework for dividing up vital tasks among a group, and because they clearly codify differences in power or strength or ability, they prevent every interaction from disintegrating into an outright fight over mates or resources — someone’s rank tells you how likely she is to beat you in a fight, and you’re less likely to bother her if you already know.

To the extent that explicit social hierarchies are still with us, in the popularity pecking order of high school or the restrictive membership policies of certain country clubs, they’re seen as the unfortunate vestiges of an earlier era, or the ugly outgrowth of social insecurity. Yet psychologists are finding that our tendency toward social hierarchy is at once a more deep-seated and complex impulse than we thought.

For one thing, it turns out that people are ruthlessly clear-eyed judges of their own place in the social hierarchy. This is notable because they tend to be poor judges of just about everything else about themselves. Study after study has shown that people are incorrigible self-inflaters, wildly overestimating their own intelligence, sexual attractiveness, driving skills, income rank, and the like. But not social status, that they turn out to be coldly impartial about.

For example, a team of social psychologists led by Cameron Anderson of the University of California, Berkeley ran a study in which strangers were put into groups that met once a week, and were tasked with solving various collaborative problems. After each meeting, the participants rated their own status in the group and that of their teammates. By and large, people’s self-evaluations matched up with how their peers rated them.

The explanation for this, the researchers argue, is that the costs of error are so high: Those few people who thought they ranked higher than they actually did were strongly disliked by their teammates. Overestimating one’s own intelligence or sex appeal may be simply annoying, but overestimating one’s social position can be a ticket to ostracism, and up until relatively recently in the timescale of human evolution, ostracism could have serious consequences, even death.

Other research has shown the unexpected dividends that having a clearly delineated hierarchy can pay even if it enshrines great status disparities. Studies show a host of physiological benefits to having high status, whether you’re a senior partner at a bank or the alpha male in a baboon troop. But while that may come as no surprise, there are also findings that suggest people derive psychic benefits from being low-status, as long as there’s no question about where they stand.

In a 2003 study by Larissa Tiedens and Alison Fragale, both then at Stanford University, subjects who displayed submissive body language were found to feel more comfortable around others who displayed dominant body language than around those who also displayed submissive body language — and to like those with more dominant posture better, as well. People, it seems, prefer having their evaluation of social hierarchy confirmed, even when they see themselves at the bottom of it.

These two linked findings — that people derive comfort from an established hierarchy and that they react particularly strongly to those who buck it — may help explain why McChrystal’s insubordinate comments and the French soccer mutiny were so compelling as public dramas: They were conflicts over who is in charge, and over what punishment the loser would suffer.

Perhaps the strongest, if the most surprising, evidence for the importance of clearly delineated social hierarchies is work that suggests that more inequality can make for better teams. While Celtics fans in particular have grown used to extolling the virtues of teams without superstars, where any player can be the hero on any given night, there’s some evidence that more rigid talent caste systems can actually create more teamwork. Galinsky and his fellow researchers found that NBA teams with greater pay disparities not only won more, but ranked higher in categories like assists and rebounding, suggesting a higher degree of cooperation. The clearer the status imbalance, the researchers argued, the less question there is about where one stands.

Good teamwork, in other words, requires a general acceptance of disparity. Everyone knows his job and he does it even if he’d rather have someone else’s job. This is what the military is built on, and successful teams of all kinds. And that seems to be what General McChrystal and Les Bleus forgot.

Drake Bennett is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail drbennett@globe.com.