Maintaining a lofty position in the social hierarchy causes your stress levels to rocket.
Researchers found that while alpha males get the pick of the girls, the money and the power they pay a heavy price for their dominance.
Maintaining a lofty position in the social hierarchy causes your stress levels to rocket, it was discovered. Researchers believe that its so tough at the top because of the effort required to stay there and not the weight of responsibility.
The study, by Princeton University and published in the journal Science, looked at baboons but the team believes that the insights could also reflect on human societies.
The heightened stress levels remained even when the animals appeared to be calm. Professor Laurence Gesquiere said: “Baboons are not only genetically closely related to humans, but like humans they live in highly complex societies.
“An important insight from our study is that the top position in some animal – and possibly human – societies has unique costs and benefits associated with it, ones that may persist both when social orders experience some major perturbations as well as when they are stable.”
The study involved 125 male baboons from five different social groups in Kenya. Levels of the stress hormones – glucocorticoid and testosterone – were collected from them over a nine year period in the largest experiment to date.
This was done by testing their droppings. They found that the alpha males were more stressed at all times.
Stress is a major factor in living a healthy life. It has been connected to heart disease, cancer and lower lifespans.
Professor Susan Alberts said: “We’ve known for decades that alpha males have an advantage in reproduction, but these results show that life at the top has a real downside, and that being an alpha male comes at a real cost.”
The authors say that the stress is likely to be down to the energy needed to maintain their lofty social position rather than psychological factors, with alpha males more likely to fight than beta males.
Professor Jeanne Altmann, who runs the laboratory in Princeton, said: “Baboons are likely to be good models to provide insights for identifying the ideal position in a complex society under different conditions.
“Humans also live in stratified societies, and social status is well known to be associated with some but not all health outcomes in humans.
“It has been difficult to identify many of the mechanisms behind these associations.
“Our results point to the need for research that will identify and evaluate the specific costs and benefits of various status positions, in various species, types of organisations and groups, and under different ecological conditions.”