You probably look at the CEO of your company or the President of your school and think that life would be much less stressful if you were in their position. You would have more money and more power to do what you want to do. However, do top dogs also have more stress?
Studies on the Relationship Between Status and Stress:
One interesting study tracked 125 adult male baboons across 5 social groups in Kenya. In each social group, baboons were ordered by rank and fecal glucocorticoid (stress hormone) samples were collected over time. Not surprisingly the researchers found that the higher the baboon’s social rank, the less stress it had. There was a striking exception though. The highest ranking baboon in the groups had the highest stress levels of them all. In the chart below the numbers on the x-axis are the baboons’ rank, with 1 being the alpha male.
The researchers noted that while alpha baboons had similar stress levels as low ranking baboons, the stress likely came from different sources.
A major energetic source of stress for alpha males seems to be high levels of agonistic and mating activities, as proposed for chimpanzees. In contrast, males in the lower part of the hierarchy are likely to experience energetic costs associated with limited access to resources (such as food), a commonly recognized phenomenon for low-ranking individuals.
The researchers also cautioned that human studies are likely to be obscured by “the common practice of pooling data across many ranks to categorize individuals as simply ‘high’ vs. ‘low’ ranking.” And that’s exactly what we see in human studies unfortunately. One study found that leaders have less stress than non-leaders and higher ranking leaders had less stress than lower ranking leaders. However, given that all of the participants were from an executive education program, it’s safe to say none were running their organization.
While the findings from the baboon study haven’t been replicated in humans yet, they at least make intuitive sense. There are, of course, many benefits of being the top dog. This study suggests that relaxation might not be one of those benefits though.
Gesquiere, Laurence R., et al. “Life at the top: rank and stress in wild male baboons.” Science 333.6040 (2011): 357-360.
Sherman, Gary D., et al. “Leadership is associated with lower levels of stress.”Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109.44 (2012): 17903-17907.