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The Pecking Order

By Ernest Pecci, M.D.
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Some form of pecking order has been noted in most social structures. Which includes birds, fish, and even insects in addition to mammals.  The pecking order  does not mean that the dominant male assumes any particular leadership responsibility within the hierarchy.  Dominance behavior is sometimes evidenced as antisocial behavior, probably prompted by the instinct of self-preservation, in over-crowded, competitive environments.  Overcrowding leads to many social abnormalities in animals [the “Zoo Factor”].

Well-defined and modulated hierarchal systems may be a stabilizing factor to the social order.  However, all too often the social desire for personal dominance results in aggressive behavior to establish a higher position in an ever-shifting pecking order.  In nature, aggressive behavior usually diminishes rapidly when it does not meet resistance, such as “playing dead.”  In humans, however, learned aggressive behavior is self-reinforcing, quickly becoming a habitual form of tension release.  This may eventuate into an addiction to violence.  The dominance hierarchy in social animals, such as baboons, wolves, and birds, is relatively stable from day to day.  Conflicts are rare, because an animal will usually step aside to one of higher rank.... When one’s dominance is clearly and comfortably established within a given social structure, there is very little stress associated with holding the dominant position.  However, trying to maintain this position in an unstable hierarchy is highly stressful.  The mistake which most ruling classes appear to have made historically, which resulted in the crumbling of the entire structure around them, was to ignore their responsibility to the lower strata.  When these are put down with force, rather than by addressing the problems, they simmer beneath the surface, until they gain the power for a full-blown revolution....

In all humans there is an innate will to power coupled with an innate will to serve.  The will to power is motivated by the desire to control, gain, own, overcome obstacles and to achieve praise thorough recognition, status, and power.  The will to serve is the desire to admire, emulate, and to follow a strong leader and to gain praise through obedience.  We cannot overestimate the urge within the majority of any large population to seek a strong leader with whom to identity and to follow.  A devotional bond to a person, a family, a cause, or a country brings a sense of fulfillment through service.   The search of significance can lead to bonding to a political movement, a cult, or a cause...

There is a world of difference between unconditional obedience based upon mutual respect and trust (i.e., devotional obedience) and subservient obedience attained through the destruction of one’s identity and/or will.  The first attains willing and enthusiastic compliance motivated by the expectation of praise.  The latter attain mechanical servitude behaviors motivated by the fear of reprimand or physical harm.  Parents [and animal trainers], instead of reinforcing the will to serve, often enforce subservient behavior thorough threats or physical abuse.  This results in power struggles, which evolve around the issue of control.  They result from a lack of a clear-cut delineation of roles, or a lack of respect for the designated authority figure.  

Authority figures expect their wishes to be carried out either through willing compliance or else by enforced control.  Willing compliance is only attainable in an atmosphere of mutual respect and trust between an authority figure and a subordinate.  Parents are notorious for inflicting their wills upon their children in a controlling manner which arouses anger and resistance.  Anger is the natural biological response to enforced helplessness, fear, humiliation, or a felt attack upon self-concept.  As children grow older, shaming and guilt are common means of controlling unwanted behavior. 

Children have an innate need to please and to gain acceptance.  Any behavior that brings a response of praise or an expression of love will be compulsively repeated over and over again.  And we too, like children, also get a sense of personal power and self satisfaction which is dependent upon our ability to please or to impress others.  Every parent has all of the advantages over their child that they could possibly need to guarantee blind obedience, namely awe, respect, dependency, and a need for love and a desire for praise.  When a parent is impossible to please, the child feels powerless, and may give up trying to earn love.  Once a child feels unloved and that his own personal needs are not a high priority, his willingness to obey the wishes of a parent markedly diminishes.  This only reinforces the parents’ attempts to control by breaking the will, seeking subservient behavior rather than willing behavior.  Reprimand and punishment [which differs from discipline] only alienates the child from the parents.  It instills a negative self-concept that is no longer capable of earning love.  Control of behavior through coercion and guilt arouses inner rebellion and defiance.  Each time the will-to-power is suppressed by force, there is a simultaneous depression in the will-to-serve!

By acknowledging the feelings of the child, the parent conveys the sense of significance the child is seeking, and this quickly dissipates the motivation for defiance.  An environment that is properly structured to encourage compliant behavior, whether it be the home, a classroom, an office, or a prison setting must provide positive answers to the three basic survival questions in order to minimize power struggles: Who am I?  Am I safe?  Can I cope?  No person or group can function optimally in any setting until these questions are appropriately resolved. 

The pattern of power struggles learned in the home is carried over into the greater community.  Thus, the integrity of the family unit becomes the core strength of any great society.  A true leader has the respect, trust, and devotion of followers.  Most dictators maintain control thorough fear, intimidation, punishment, and oppression.  The weak leader, or the insecure parent, uses catering to be accepted and liked and bribery to buy cooperation, which becomes an expectation and then soon becomes a demand, and the price keeps getting higher.  No one is more disliked than a leader who is afraid of his responsibility.  A strong leader may not be liked, but might still be respected and his orders followed without question, provided they serve a common good.  The need for excessive physical force or violence to maintain civil control always signals the beginning of the end of the regime in power.  Anarchy, a state total social upheaval, only occurs in the absence of a respected leader or loss of faith in the political system. 

Everyone has a need for a special place or role in the social order: A place to rule: a place where they have a sense of personal power.  A place to serve: an area in which they can make a personal contribution. 

By Ernest Pecci, M.D., from the book, ‘Dog and human Behavior, Amazing Parallels and Similarities.’
Beyond the Pecking Order, Pt. 2