Serotonin and Social Status

Serotonin: one important molecule

In his book Genome, Matt Ridley sheds some light on one compound— serotonin— whose levels change in the body based on society:

Serotonin levels are not innate and inflexible. They are themselves the product of social status. The higher your self-esteem and social rank relative to those around you, the higher your serotonin level is. Experiments with monkeys reveals that it is the social behavior that comes first. Serotonin is richly present in dominant monkeys and much more dilute in the brains of subordinates. Cause or effect? Almost everybody assumed that the chemical was at least partly the cause: it just stands to reason that the dominant behavior results from the chemical, not vice versa. It turns out to be the reverse: serotonin levels respond to the monkey’s perception of its own position in the hierarchy, not vice versa.

A vervet mother & child

“Contrary to what most people think, high rank means lower aggressiveness, even in vervet monkeys. The high-ranking individuals are not especially large, fierce or violent. They are good at things like reconciliation and recruiting allies. They are notable for their calm demeanor. They are less impulsive, less likely to misinterpret play-fighting as aggression. Monkeys are not people, of course, but as Michael McGuire of the University of California, Los Angeles, has discovered, any group of people, even children, can immediately spot which of the monkeys in his captive group is the dominant one. Its demeanor in behavior — what Shelley called the ‘sneer of cold command’ — are instantly familiar in an anthropomorphic way. There is little doubt that the monkeys mood is set by its high serotonin levels. If you artificially reverse the pecking order so the monkey is now a subordinate, not only does its serotonin drop, but its behavior changes, too. Moreover, much the same seems to happen in human beings. In university fraternities, the leading figures are blessed with rich serotonin concentrations which fall if they are deposed. Telling people they have low or high serotonin levels could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“This is an intriguing reversal of the cartoon picture of biology most people have. The whole serotonin system is about biological determinism. Your chances of becoming a criminal are affected by your brain chemistry. But that does not mean, as it usually assumed to mean, that your behavior is socially immutable. Quite the reverse: your brain chemistry is determined by the social signals to which you are exposed. Biology determines behavior yet is determined by society.”

This passage is fantastic and revealing. Ridley is brilliant and insightful… I suspect even he would find fault with the very last word of this excerpt. Is it ‘society’ that is altering one’s brain chemistry, or is it oneself?  If my social status changed, and ‘society’ knew it on Monday but I didn’t find out until Wednesday, would my serotonin levels change on Monday or Wednesday?

In the above example, it is self-regard that alters brain chemistry; that the self-regard is based on the witnessing others diminished regard for you is true, yet does not change the fact that it is self-regard. This is not meant as a statement of absolutism, there are always exceptions. Ridley’s word choice of ‘society’ is not an acknowledgment of exceptions, but rather a fairly obvious logical fallacy. This distinction is not a quibble— pointing the finger away from ourselves to other so-called causes is a bad habit that we all engage in, so much so that we willfully forgive Matt’s logical error. The notion that ‘society’ is the problem (or for that matter anything other than ‘me’) keeps us happily distracted, so we may once again dodge the discomfort that comes with personal responsibility. My question to Matt: are there mindfulness strategies that might moderate against ‘societal’ influence on serotonin? Meditation? Yoga? Is there such a thing as self-confidence that does not peg its worth to external factors, and might that help? Such strategies would put me at greater command of my serotonin levels, rather than being solely at the mercy of others regard for me.

A 2023 NH Literary Awards Finalist for Outstanding Work of Young Adult Fiction, you can pick up Dan Pouliot’s debut novel, Super Human, hardcover edition for just $17.95 for a limited time. Learn more…