The Jack-in-the-Box Theory: A Musing on Throwing Stones, Hierarchies, and the Stanford Prison Study

This is an interlude from my Everyday Evil posts. I'm going to spin out a little theory relating to the Stanford Prison Study. The post is intended to be brain candy.

Descriptively, we know what went on during the Stanford Prison Study. The guards became sadistic. That they did so is beyond dispute. But the question I'd like to mull over is WHY they became sadistic. I'm going to call this the Jack-in-the-Box theory.

Beginnings: The Alpha Drive
Humans share about 96% of their DNA with chimpanzees. Combining fossil evidence with genetic data it is estimated that chimpanzees and humans shared a common ancestor about six million years ago. One of the things we know about chimpanzees is that they live in dominance hierarchies with both alpha males and females. Thus, a constant social tension in chimpanzee life is the shifting nature of the dominance relations within the band. Alliances form and fall apart. Alpha males are overthrown. And sometimes they return to power. It is all very dramatic and exciting. And violent. For more, see Jane Goodall's In the Shadow of Man and Frans de Waal's Chimpanzee Politics. Two very good books.

The point here is that there is good evidence to suggest that humans shared a common psychology with chimpanzees a long time ago. Specifically, a psychology that is driven to survive and thrive in dominance hierarchies. A status instinct. Let's call this the alpha drive.

Egalitarianism and Throwing Stones
But interestingly, in contrast to chimpanzees and, presumably, our shared ancestor, virtually every hunting-gathering society that has been studied has been egalitarian, rather than hierarchical, in power structure. How can that be? If the alpha drive was a part of our past and we still see it manifested today, where did it go during primitive human society? Why weren't our hunting-gathering forebears living in power hierarchies like the chimpanzee? Were these people saints? What was going on?

Well, Paul Bingham has suggested that the cognitive and anatomical adaptations in early Homo allowed for "remote killing." Basically, we could throw stones at each other. Bingham asks us to imagine how the emergence of this simple capability would have radically altered the dominance hierarchies humans emerged from. With the onset of stone throwing, very low ranking males could effectively and fatally attack higher ranking males. Physical strength would no longer be a decisive factor. In effect, "remote killing"--first stone throwing and later slings, arrows, or spears--flattened the hierarchies of our chimpanzee-like ancestors.

Thus, the egalitarianism of in hunting-gathering cultures is not sainthood, but a collectively enforced leveling of the hierarchy. It's distributed communal policing. If anyone got too powerful in these cultures, there were effective means of removing you. The alpha drive was still there, it was just being culturally suppressed.

(BTW, Bingham is not the first or only scholar to be intrigued by the notion that throwing was a brain evolution catalyst. For example, see William Calvin's The Throwing Madonna.)

The Jack-in-the-Box Theory
Here is the heart of my theory. The alpha drive is genetic and innate. And it has not gone away. It is still there. Stone throwing only suppressed it. In short, cultural forces, like a Jack-in-the-Box, push down on the alpha drive and shuts the lid on it. But underneath the lid is a coiled spring, ready to force Jack back out into the world.

From Stones to Social Contracts
Eventually, over time, egalitarian bands gave way to larger and more complex social organizations. As bands grew into tribes and tribes into chiefdoms and chiefdoms into states, hierarchies began to reemerge, with higher status persons ruling the lower status. But these hierarchies were not the simplistic and linear dominance arrangements of chimpanzee troops. Even psychopathic dictators rely on webs of support and reciprocity to stay afloat. In short, over time we begin to see the emergence, with many faltering steps along the way, of the social contract: those agreements, expectations, checks, and balances that keep hierarchies accountable.

Thus, the alpha impulse--the need to aggressively assert domiance--tends to be managed at the ends of the continuum. On the one end we have Stones. That is, the alpha impulse is managed when the power is distributed equally among members of the group. In these situations we don't see Stanford Prison Study behavior. At the other end, we see Social Contracts. Social Contracts are permitted hierarchies. They are permitted because they are benificial to the group and they are accountable if abuses of power emerge. Governments and businesses and other social organizations are examples of Social Contracts.

Pop Goes the Weasel
But there is a soft spot between Stones and Social Contracts. In this soft spot, simplistic and unregulated hierarchies emerge. Stones don't work as one group wields a power the other does not have. Further, the group in power is not bound by an enforceable social contract, internally or externally. And in this soft spot between Stones and Social Contract the old chimpanzee dominance hierarchy reemerges and an ancient itch starts begging to be scratched. The alpha drive shows back up.

What I am suggesting is that humans possess an innate tendency to dominate that will only manifest itself in certain social configurations. Specifically, I'm suggesting that unregulated hierarchies are morally dangerous. The reason for this, according to my argument, is that unregulated hierarchies mirror the ancient dominance hierarchy the brain grew up in. Something in the brain "recognizes" this configuration and an old instinct comes to life. Not all social configures hit the brain in the same way. Some hit the brain in a spot spot, a weak spot. I think, given the evolutionary evidence, unregulated hierarchies interact with the human mind in a predictable way. A dominance urge emerges.

Finally, I'm not suggesting that any of this determines human behavior. This argument is simply painting the machinery behind a moral vulnerability. In an illustration I've used before, we all have a sweet tooth. But we can say no to another donut. And we can say no to dominance impulses within us.

But just like passing on the donuts, saying no is often very hard to do.

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3 thoughts on “The Jack-in-the-Box Theory: A Musing on Throwing Stones, Hierarchies, and the Stanford Prison Study”

  1. One Christmas, when the book first came out, my wife gave me a volume by Carl Sagan: Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. Upon reading it, I realized that it explained so much of what I have experienced in life in the church, corporate, and university worlds. I for one rank very low in desire to control others. I had been blind to the machinations of others who in violation of cold, detached reason (or my opinion) pursued their, to me, inscrutable and obviously wrong agenda. And often expending needless energy to get their way and for no good reason. Let's face it, the desire to control others for fame, power, and sex is part of our hardwiring. We moved away from the chimpanzee way of expressing it but it is still with us to some degree. That is why we like to rank things into top ten lists, have contests, and win. It is why the babes like rock stars, sport stars, rich guys, etc. It is a mystery as to how we moved away from the primate pack to monogamy. I don't buy the rock throwing explanation if it is meant literally but figuratively maybe there is some truth to it. I read once where, with regard to primates, the more alpha-male based, the larger that the males are versus females. In the illustration, gorilla males are 2 times the size of females and for chimpanzees they are 1.4 times larger than females. (I think it was mentioned by Alex Shoumatoff in The Mountain of Names.) Some monogamous monkey species was named where they are identical in size. What about humans? Men are 1.2 times taller than women, according to my source if memory serves me right.

  2. i am not sure where is the link betwen the stanford experiment and jack in the box...i dont think you have offered a real explanation as to why the stanford guys were cruelly bad...

  3. Hi Steve,
    Great point about the sexual dimorphism data (the body size differential between the sexes of a species) as it relates to mating patterns. I ought to post about that data point and the polygamy in the OT!

    You're probably right. But as I said, I'm offering brain candy! Stuff to think about.

    That said, I think the theory is plausible. And, like Steve noted, it really isn't original to me (despite my cute name for it). Here are all the data points I was trying to weave together:

    1. Humans appear to have evolved in dominance hierarchies.

    2. But primitive human societies were almost universally egalitarian. Given #1, this is curious.

    3. Even more curious, given #2, modern human societies are very hierarchal.

    4. Generally, these hierarchies work well but often fail catastrophically (e.g., the Stanford Prison Study or college hazing). So...

    Can we pose a parsimonious theory that explains all these conflicting data points? I think my post makes a legitimate stab at that problem.

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