Mental health symptoms appear to influence how people respond to being placed in dominant and subordinate positions, according to new research published in PLOS One. The study indicates that manic symptoms and depressive symptoms in particular are related to psychological and physiological responses to social dominance.
“A couple years ago, I worked with colleagues to review the literature on social dominance and psychopathology,” said study author Sheri Johnson, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley and the director of the CALM Program.
“I was amazed by the rich number of studies suggesting how important social dominance is to many different forms of psychopathology — anxiety, depression, mania, psychopathy, among others. Moreover, there was human and animal literature, and researchers had tested biological, social and psychological facets of the dominance system.”
“Still, though, the literature was fragmented because researchers were not using the same measures to study the various psychopathologies,” Johnson explained. “I wanted to fill that gap, and to do so using careful methods chosen from social psychology, where researchers had done so much work to think about how we can test reactivity to social dominance cues.”
The researchers conducted a laboratory experiment with 81 undergraduate students, who had previously completed psychological measures of depression, social anxiety, manic tendencies, and psychopathic traits.
Once arriving at the lab, the participants filled out a brief mood questionnaire before completing a “Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test,” which they were told would assess their ability to make personality judgments based on images of peoples’ eyes.
Each participant was then placed with another person, who was actually a research confederate. The duo was informed that one of them would be assigned as a “leader” and the other would be assigned as a “subordinate” based on their previous test scores. The assignment, however, was random.
The duo sat at a table, where they were instructed to review and discuss the results of the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test. The “leader” sat in a large office chair, while the “subordinate” sat in a small metal chair. After the interaction, participants again completed a brief mood questionnaire.
During the study, each participant was hooked up to an electrocardiogram that measured respiratory sinus arrhythmia — a physiological indicator of distress.
The responses to the mood questionnaire and the electrocardiogram recordings both provided evidence that “social dominance matters for understanding psychopathology,” Johnson told PsyPost.
“Perhaps most clearly, people who had a history of mild manic symptoms showed psychological and physiological discomfort when assigned to be in a subordinate role. People who had experienced depressive symptoms were uncomfortable when assigned to be in a leadership role.”
High levels of social anxiety and psychopathic traits, however, were unrelated to how people responded to the dominant and subordinate roles. Socially anxious participants tended to report greater discomfort regardless of their position.
“This work did not involve diagnoses of mental health conditions, and we likely didn’t find many people with extreme psychopathy in this undergraduate study,” Johnson noted.
“I hope clinical psychologists will study this more carefully as researchers,” she added. “For clinicians, we should consider how these issues may be shaping the social world of our clients, and how they feel about being in therapy that is more or less directive. Paul Gilbert has done terrific work on how we can think about social dominance in our clinical work.”
The study, “Social dominance and multiple dimensions of psychopathology: An experimental test of reactivity to leadership and subordinate roles“, was authored by Sheri L. Johnson, Benjamin Swerdlow, Jordan A. Tharp, Serena Chen, Jennifer Tackett, and Jamie Zeitzer.