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Ruling Class Shows No Effects of Physiological Stress

Stress ballThis is my This is my favorite scientific study of the year so far, even if it falls under the category of “scientific studies we didn’t need.” It turns out that the myth of high-stress positions of power is unfounded. Our lords of industry, our masters of the universe get along just fine. And if you had the benefits of a golden parachute to fall back on with none of the threats of accountability for your performance, you would too.

A new study reveals that those who sit atop the nation’s political, military, business and nonprofit organizations are actually pretty chill. Compared with people of similar age, gender and ethnicity who haven’t made it to the top, leaders pronounced themselves less stressed and anxious. And their levels of cortisol, a hormone that circulates at high levels in the chronically stressed, told the same story.

The source of the leaders’ relative serenity was pretty simple: control.

Compared with workers who toil in lower echelons of the American economy, the leaders studied by a group of Harvard University researchers enjoyed control over their schedules, their daily living circumstances, their financial security, their enterprises and their lives.

“Leaders possess a particular psychological resource — a sense of control — that may buffer against stress,” the research team reported Monday in Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences.

The study doesn’t totally elaborate on how this control plays out in terms of their capacity for failure. That concept only causes stress among those who may actually pay a price for failure. The “leaders” in this study can commit crimes, blow up their organizations, damage the credibility of their institutions as a whole – but they will feel no pain. Why wouldn’t you be happy?

The study relates this to the world of other primates. The leaders in groups of baboons and monkeys display less anxiety, too, because “their status is not under constant challenge.” So too in the society we’ve set up, that walls off the powerful behind a concrete pouring of privilege.

The hilarious sidelight here is how Harvard was able to access these scions of privilege for the study:

To gather leaders for study, the Harvard team took advantage of the university’s array of programs for mid-career and senior professionals. Such students — some at Harvard for just a week, others for as long as a year or two — are generally rising stars being groomed for promotion within their organizations. Members of Harvard’s Decision Science Laboratory invited them to take part in their studies.

The key meritocratic institution had unusual access to key meritocrats! Go figure.

This has all sorts of applications for society. To use just one example, those on the lower rungs of the ladder display worse health attributes accompanying the stress. A safety net – the knowledge that they won’t have to fear failure to the same degree – would demonstrably improve public health and save money on health costs.

But really, the study comes down to this: it’s good to be the king.

Photo by bottled_void under creative commons license

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David Dayen

David Dayen