Involuntary subordination

Conspecifics can threaten and harm each other. Hence, animals need to be wary of those who can inflict harm and coordinate their behaviour accordingly (not acting above their station). Animals that do not follow these social rules are at risk of injury and death (Higley et al., 1996). Hence, subordination can also be a situation where it is important for an animal to have an internal, inhibitory, regulating process that limits acquisition and 'seeking' behaviour (Gilbert, 1984). Sapolsky (1989) notes that subordinate baboons are vulnerable to stress-induced hypercortisolism, in part from the harassment and threat signals issued by more dominant animals, and because they have less control over adversities. Sapolsky (1994) also found that blood pressure in subordinate baboons remained higher for much longer after a conflict than it did in dominant animals. In both monkey (Spalosky, 1989,1994) and human studies (Wilkinson, 1996), subordinate individuals can be at increased risk of a variety of disorders. Interestingly, social signals themselves may have direct regulatory effects on these strategies. Raleigh et al. (1984) found that threat displays of a dominant are capable of suppressing the 5-HT of subordinates, while subordinate signals (such as retreating, fear grin, and crouch) have powerful (enhancing) effects on the 5-HT of the dominant (Gilbert & McGuire, 1998). Indeed, there is increasing research in monkeys showing that threats from dominants have powerful effects on stress hormones and many neurotransmitter systems, including dopamine (Gilbert, 2001b). Dopamine is a potent regulator of reward sensitivity and PA (Willner, 1985). There is also some evidence that drugs that affect dopamine and 5-HT systems have different effects according to whether the animal they are given to is dominant or subordinate (Gilbert, 2001b).

A different piece of evidence that social ranks are important for understanding depression comes from the medical sociologist Richard Wilkinson (1996). He has explored differences in rates of certain types of disorder, including depression, between countries and groups. He argues that there are higher rates of depression in societies with large disparities in social wealth, social power, and social comparisons (and where people may have to compete vigorously for their jobs and some are at risk of being placed in harassed, subordinate positions).

Evidence that some kind of internal regulator or mental mechanism(s) for subordination is operative in depression is offered by findings that depression is associated with seeing oneself as inferior, subordinate, or subordinated; with increased inclination to behave submissively, and to withdraw from conflicts with more powerful others (Allan & Gilbert, 1997); and with failed efforts to be assertive (Arrindell et al., 1990). Vulnerability to depression has long been linked with low self-esteem (e.g., Brown & Harris, 1978), but self-esteem is itself rooted in social rank (social comparison) judgements (Price, 2000). Whether self-esteem is trait-like or state-like, low self-esteem seems to operate like a subordinate defensive strategy in that it is associated with damage-limitation strategies (trying to stop bad things from happening) rather than a PA-enhancement strategy (Baumeister et al., 1989). In line with the idea that damage-limitation (subordinate) strategies are important in some depressions, Forrest and Hokanson (1975) found that, in a conflict situation, depressed people showed more autonomic arousal reduction if they could give a submissive and self-punitive response (rather than an assertive response), whereas, for non-depressed people, an assertive response had more effect. Arrindell et al. (1990) have shown that the degree of distress and NA in assertiveness is central to poor assertiveness and is associated with depression. Interestingly, there is some evidence that non-depressed people have positive biases (or a warm glow) in their information processing about the self. Based on the idea that subordinates are less 'free' to take social risks and could not afford positive biases, Gilbert et al. (1996) hypothesised that it was perceptions of social rank rather than mood that would be associated with positive biases. In a study of students, we found that, as predicted, measures of social comparison (feeling inferior to others) and submissive behaviour were better predictors of confidence estimates than a measure of depression. One can lose the 'warm glow' in contexts where one feels inferior to others. All these different studies, then, point to the role of subordinate, damage-limitation strategies in depression.

However, for humans, low rank is not always a position of anxiety or threat sensitivity, especially if one sees the higher ranks as benevolent and helpful. Moreover, submissiveness is made up of a complex set of behaviours, not all of which may be associated with stress or depression (Gilbert, 2000a). Hence, we can make a distinction between voluntary and involuntary submission (Gilbert, 1992, 2000a). Voluntary submissiveness would be behaviours such as willingly following the requests and demands of a leader or significant other (and from which one benefits), whereas involuntary submission is having to do things one does not wish to, when not to do so will result in conflicts and losses (for example, having to comply to a bullying other, or someone one is dependent on). As Sloman (2000a) makes clear, in the involuntary submissive situation there is submissiveness but with continual arousal of fight and flight. In this context, although submissive behaviour may reduce the chances of injury, it is ineffective in its function to reduce stress arousal because the person is still trapped in the aversive situation and may be still orienttaed to resist, fight, or escape. And, of course, in situations where the dominant is shaming, undermining, or abusive, the stress will be the greater. Thus, involuntary submissive behaviour may protect from threats to a degree but not do much to lift one's PA.

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