It Is Lonely (and Stressful) At The Top

Dov Michaeli

First posted 8/11/11 on The Doctor Weighs In

The other day we watched President Obama on TV and were struck by how quickly all recent presidents turn gray-haired during their tenure in the White House. If there is a convincing proof of the toll this horrendous stress takes on the body –this must be it.

So what does science tell us about stress at the top?

Can alpha male baboons teach us about their human cousins?

In a paper published in Science (15 July, 2011) Gesquiere and his colleagues describe a remarkable experiment: They collected the feces of baboons in a population living in a national park in Kenya, and analyzed each individual’s fecal cortisol concentration. If this doesn’t impress you, here is more. They studied five troops of baboons for 9 years, with an average of ∼40 individuals per rank, and more than 4500 samples for hormone analysis. In some cases there were even longitudinal data from the same individual before and after a shift between the alpha and beta ranks. I find this diligence in data collection amazing. And think about the baboons, observing their poop being scooped up by two legged creatures day in and day out. They must have concluded that this strange species is feeding on it.

Otherwise, why would any sane animal collect the same thing over and over again? After all, they and any other creature they had ever encountered were collecting only one thing –food. Stranger yet, they have never actually witnessed those bipedals actually eating their food…

Putting this aside, the study is truly an important contribution to understanding the physiological effects of stress on the elite.  They showed that fecal cortisol, the stress hormone, was much higher in the alpha males than in the rank below them, the betas. But here is the surprise: alpha males and beta males were challenged by lower- rank males to abut the same degree, and were groomed by females about equally. So why were the alphas more stressed. The authors suggest that the alphas got into fights to maintain their position much more frequently, and occupied themselves during their non-aggressive free time having sex, fulfilling their Darwinian commandment of ” be fruitful and multiply”. That left little time for feeding, which in turn increased the stress level. Maybe. But it does put a new light on my father’s admonition when I became a young buck looking for girls and trouble:”nothing, not even a girl, is worth getting into a brawl for”. And my mother’s insistence on “first finish your dinner, then you can ‘go out’ (wink  wink)” sounds like it came straight out of this research.

Robert Sapolsky of Stanford, a well known primate researcher, made a great observation in his commentary on the paper. He point out that “other studies have shown that occasionally the higher hierarchical order becomes unstable in baboon society, and that high-ranking males, in the center of the maelstrom, show marked physiological indices of stress. By contrast, Gesquiere et al. report no endocrine effects of hierarchical instability. A critical difference may involve what counts as unstable—Gesquiere et al.define it as frequent changes in rank, whereas prior work defined instability as frequent challenges to rank, regardless of whether rank changes as a result. Thus, perhaps the stressfulness of social instability for a high-ranking male is not so much about losing status as the threat of losing it”. Which I think is of profound importance. It brings to mind the known fact that the threat of force is more effective that exercising it. Any interrogator worth his salt would tell you  that a suspect is psychologically most vulnerable when the threat of physical force is implied, not when it is actually carried out.

Now this latter observation has important implication to our political life. Our system is designed to be unstable. Our representatives knows from day one in office that they are going to be challenged within a short few months. Is it any wonder they are the most aggressive, non-compromising primate species inhabiting Washington D.C.? Senators and the President have at least four years, and can afford behaving more “statesman-like” until, of course their time comes to be challenged. Congressmen can at least resort to gerrymandering to protect themselves from “instability” –in other words, from being voted out. But what about the poor President? He has no such defenses, hence the grey hair. Why don’t we give the poor guy a break and make it the law that he can serve only one term of, say six years? I suspect that the party occupying the White House at the time would vehemently object. So here is another proposal: tie the president’s term to his fecal cortisol concentration. Who wants stressed presidents, anyway? Didn’t we love golfing Ike and napping Reagan? Compare that to high-strung and insomniac Nixon.

A less radical proposal is implied in Sapolsky’s article:

“Few historians are familiar with the encounter groups of the American robber barons in the 1880s. Captains of industry—John Astor, John Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and the like—suffered greatly from the burdens of spending enormous wealth, crushing unions, flouting laws, and buying politicians. And so these masters of the universe would regularly meet in the woods, share their problems, play drums in their tie-dye shirts, and finish with group hugs. Pity the poor alpha male”.

Brilliant! Send Congress and the President to a love fest in the jungle with the other baboons. Don’t worry about us deltas; we’ll manage .

Dov Michaeli MD PhD is a basic researcher, writing at The Doctor Weighs In. At the moment, he is hiking with his wife, Pat Salber, through the Carpathian Mountains in Roumania.

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