Social experience is as important to our wellbeing as physical environment. Research suggests that our innate neurological threat-reward systems are activated not only in response to basic physical stimuli such as food/hunger, pain/pleasure, etc. but in response to five basic social qualities:
“As humans we are constantly assessing how social encounters either enhance or diminish our status. Research published by Hidehiko Takahashi et. al in 2009 shows that when people realise that they might compare unfavourably to someone else, the threat response kicks in, releasing cortisol and other stress-related hormones” (‘Managing with the brain in mind’, Strategy Business magazine issue 59, Autumn 2009).
Social status is something that we are all implicitly aware of at all times. Studies have shown that we use the same areas of the brain for evaluating social pecking-order or seniority as for mathematical calculation (Chaio, 2003) and that this area is activated whenever we are interacting with other people, constantly reassessing our position (Zink, 2008). This isn’t merely a superficial self-aggrandising reaction, it really matters to our health and wellbeing. Our perceptions of relative social standing have been shown to correlate with our life-expectancy and health, even when controlling for factors such as education and income (Marmott, 2004). It has even been shown that experiencing social rejection causes the same brain activity as physical pain (Eisenberger et al., 2003)
This mental reaction is our evolutionary reward for developing behaviours that promote our superiority in our ‘pack’ and thereby achieve a level of safety and security in our lives. Increase in status can be incredibly rewarding. In fact one study showed that an improvement in social standing prompted the same reactions as a financial windfall (Izuma et. al, 2008).
So what lessons can we draw from this for teaching and learning, school leadership and education policy?
Teaching and Learning
Children are acutely aware of status as they establish their identity and position in the world, and teachers are masters of using status in the classroom. We have traditionally used status-based rewards when we use competitive behaviour in our lessons, and the mere thought of status-raising associated with sport and games make them particularly appealing. The downside of this is that we have sometimes reinforced feelings of failure and anxiety in students – a problem that has led to over-compensation in the form of ‘all must have prizes’.
However, the lessons from this research is that while we can’t (and shouldn’t) shield students from ‘real-world’ status-related issues, we can encourage a culture where we value improvement, effort and resilience. This will mean that, wherever possible, status in our classroom is gained through effort and not ingrained ‘talent’. We need to encourage classrooms where success is celebrated in a number of different forms. An obsession with publicising levels, for example, might reinforce status anxiety.
Given that most classroom teachers are on a relatively level status playing field, school leaders should realise that status anxiety can easily become heightened among staff. The mere thought of inspection judgements, classroom outcome data analysis, or student surveys about teachers can send staff in to a fearful state that results in anger, defensiveness, and closed-mindedness. The simple act of a colleague saying ‘may I give you some feedback about that?’ will probably be at least partly interpreted as ‘I know more than you, I am superior’. The much vaunted 360-degree review will have little beneficial effect when the recipient is sat anxiously expecting a wave of status-lowering criticism from their colleagues.
Of course, it would be ludicrous to conclude that you have to avoid all comparisons or any of the aforementioned quality-assurance methods. However a wise leader will ensure that all staff feel fully valued for their strengths and improvements, and that they begin appraisals, where possible, with self-evaluation.
League tables, inspections and exam systems vigorously reinforce the notion of status in education. Generally speaking successful political leaders, journalists and business-people will have been the recipient of the upside of these systems – if you succeeded in staying at the top of the success ladder at school then you will view competition as being very beneficial as it provided you with a huge amount of positive reinforcement.
On the flip-side, a system with a very narrow view of educational success/status will simply create anxiety and, eventually, disengagement, as only a small proportion of schools and students can ever be top of any specific pile. Of course, policy makers need to strive for success and would be in danger of a lack of focus if they attempted to consider too many metrics at once, but they should avoid denigrating the teaching profession or groups of schools as failures. This will simply make it more likely that staff in those schools spend more time in ‘fight-or-flight’ brain mode – exactly the wrong state to be in when attempting to improve teaching skill or find creative solutions to help difficult students.
- Value a range of skills and talents. A narrow definition will encourage anxiety and ‘gaming’ in order to achieve status-based rewards.
- Feedback should be handled carefully. When presented in a threatening way it could be worse than no feedback at all.
- Status doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. It is possible to raise status through praise and positive feedback, or by providing an alternative field in which to excel.
This is the first post in a series of five on lessons for education from SCARF.
- Managing with the brain in mind, Strategy Business magazine issue 59, Autumn 2009.
- SCARF360 white paper, David Rock, NeuroLeadership journal, issue one, 2008
- Michael Marmot, The Status Syndrome: How Social Standing Affects Our Health and Longevity, Times Books 2004
- Eisenberger, N. i., Lieberman, M. D., & Williams, K. D. (2003). Does rejection hurt? An fMRi study of social exclusion. science, 302, 290-292
- Chiao, J. Y., Bordeaux, A. R., Ambady, N. (2003). Mental representations of social status. Cognition, 93, 49-57.
- Izuma, K., saito, D., sadato, N. (2008). Processing of social and Monetary Rewards in the Human striatum. Neuron, 58(2), 284-294
- Zink, C. F., Tong, Y., Chen, Q., Bassett, D. s., stein, J. L., & MeyerLindenberg A. (2008). Know Your Place: Neural Processing of social Hierarchy in Humans. Neuron, 58, 273-283.