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Hierarchy vs egalitarianism

Datum:05 april 2016
Auteur:Roxana Bucur

Hierarchies are ubiquitous. Social hierarchies have been observed in social human groups, in task oriented groups, such as legislative juries, and in organizational work teams(1). They even tend to develop in groups that strive to be egalitarian(1; 2). Social hierarchies are so pervasive that researchers generally consider them a central feature of social relations(3).

Van Berkel, Crandall, Eidelman and Blanchar (4) try to answer a pervasive question in organizational research: why hierarchies persist in any social setting. I will focus mainly on their work in this post, with the intent to disentangle the reason behind hierarchy having an advantage over equality in social groups. The researchers suggest that there is a general tendency in humans to endorse hierarchy: it is easier, quicker and easier to process compared to egalitarianism. The authors make a differentiation between the two types of human reasoning: automatic and controlled. The automatic system uses shortcuts and associative links to process information quickly, and the controlled system uses slow, deliberate processing (5; 6). Because social hierarchy is early highly rehearsed since early childhood, the value of hierarchy enjoys relative ease over competing egalitarian values. The authors find support for this statement in six studies using diverse manipulations of deliberate thought and measures of hierarchy and quality endorsement. Their outcomes suggest that hierarchy may persist in every social setting in part because it has a psychological advantage.

It is believed that people are born with the biological equipment to understand hierarchy and behave accordingly, while egalitarianism does not develop until late childhood. Understanding egalitarianism is contingent on the development of complex and social processes that develop around late childhood. Both hierarchical values and egalitarian values are socially valued. The authors suggest that when deliberate reasoning is interrupted individuals rely on cognitive structures that are easier to use and highly rehearsed, such as hierarchical structures. Because egalitarian values are complementary to hierarchy values, the disruption of deliberate thought should reduce egalitarian values. Across different manipulations, the outcomes of the six studies show that participants indeed devalued equality and valued hierarchy when they were unable to use their full mental resources.

The work of Van Berkel et al. disconfirms the long argued anthropological perspective according to which egalitarianism is “a natural state” of the society (7). They concur with Flanagan’s belief (8) that “truly egalitarian societies do not exist, nor they have ever. “ Van Berkel et al. underline the advantage that hierarchy has over egalitarian structures; hierarchical structures are valued quickly, easy to process, while egalitarian structures require greater cognitive effort to be mentally processed and practiced in group interactions. This may suggest that also in organizations, egalitarian teams do not actually exits because, even if people start from initial equal positions in the team, they immediately endorse hierarchical structures to guide their interactions. When team members are under high cognitive load, they will access the structures that are easier available to them, namely hierarchical structures.

Even if harder to process, egalitarian team structures should not be avoided in organizations; on the contrary, they can be beneficial for team interaction. Because egalitarian structures are harder to process cognitively by individuals, a team with members on equal formal positions will try to use cognitive structures easier accessible to them, namely hierarchical structures. In this way, social interaction in the team will determine an alternative informal hierarchical structure that will replace the initial egalitarian formal structure. This informal hierarchical structure can be more effective than a formally determined hierarchical structure because it is based on the inferences that team members make on each other skills and competencies and not on a pre-determined organizational non-personalized structure.

(1) Leavitt, H. (2005). Hierarchies, authority, and leadership. Wiley Subscription Services, Inc., A Wiley Company.
37: 55–61.
(2) Diefenbach, T., & Sillince, J. A. A. 2011. Formal and informal hierarchy in different types of organization. Organization Studies, 32, 1515-1537.
(3) Magee, J. C., & Galinsky, A. D. 2008. Social hierarchy: The self-reinforcing nature of power and status. Academy of Management Annals, 2, 351-398.
(4) Van Berkel, L. Crandall, Eidelman and Blanchar (2015). Hierarchy, Dominance, and Deliberation: Egalitarian Values Require Mental Effort. Personality and Social Psychological Bulletin. 41(9): 1207-22.
(5) Bargh, J. A., & Ferguson, M. J. (2000). Beyond behaviorism: On the automaticity of higher mental processes. Psychological Bulletin, 126, 925-945.
(6) Smith, E. R., & DeCoster, J. (2000). Dual-process models in social and cognitive psychology: Conceptual integration and links to underlying memory systems. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 4, 108-131.
(7) Fried, M. (1967). The evolution of political society. New York, NY: Random House
(8) Flanagan, J. G., & Rayner, S. (Eds.) (1988). Rules, decisions, and inequality in egalitarian societies. London, England: Gower


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