“Flat hierarchies make for a happier, better work environment and foster innovation.” We know quotes like this very well and yet, there are many voices, which say there is a certain inevitability for hierarchy in human societies. Adding to this point is the absolutely fascinating research from Stanford University biologist, Dr. Robert Sapolski.

Baboons: Social structures like humans, but less civilized

Sapolski spent his life researching baboons, the monkeys you probably remember from the zoo because of their red butts (yes, those.) Now, baboons have large brains to master societal structures just like humans and live in a very hierarchically-organized society, also just like us. Luckily unlike like us, being high in the hierarchy of a tribe comes with the right to randomly slap juveniles, basically abuse females, and have priority access to food.

Who is high in the hierarchy? The most aggressive and strong baboons. And every baboon knows that. They know who they can torture, who the tortured can torture, and who they can be tortured by. Sapolski proved the lower in the hierarchy a baboon is, the more stress they face and in turn the lower their health. Reflecting on this, Sapolski says “Actually, I don’t really like baboons after all those decades of research”.

When aggression is punished and being nice is rewarded, society changes

Over 20 years ago, something remarkable happened to one of the tribes Sapolski researched. All of a sudden, half of the tribe died because they got their food from a dumpster near a tourist camp that was infected with tuberculosis. Sapolski was angry and mad at the tourists, but realized a stunning change in the behavior of the baboons. The survivors were friendly and socialized all of a sudden. Only the aggressive baboons high in the hierarchy died from the disease because they were the only ones who got their hands on the limited food supply. Half of the survivors were female, and the few surviving males were, as he puts it, “just good guys” who groomed the others and socialized a lot. Stress levels decreased to an insignificant measure and all the typical baboon issues, such as immune system deficiencies due to stress, didn’t exist anymore.

Can we manage to change our mentality sustainably?

The eye-opening fact: All adolescent baboons joining the tribe from outside would be re-educated towards this highly social mentality of grooming and caring. They adopted the behavior and to this day, 20 years later, this baboon tribe shows no prevalence of aggression.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about this research on baboons. And during my commute, I wonder:

  • If baboons can change their society from a culture of receiving to a culture of giving, which makes people happier, what holds us as humans back?
  • If less hierarchy means less stress on the psyche, this must significantly increase creativity and innovation in our working life – what is holding us back?

Lots to think about, but surely Sapolski showed we can learn from our primate relatives.

If you’d like to see a 9-minute documentary on this story, you can watch it here.

Photo Credits: Animalsadda.com