“All problems are interpersonal relationship problems.” – Alfred Alder
How do you rank?
Is your boss better than you? What about the CEO of the company where you work? What about the mayor of your city? The president of your country? Joe Biden? Elon Musk? Arianna Grande? That influencer you follow on Instagram? Your father? The best athlete in the sport you love?
On the flip side,
Are you better than your underlings? Or than people in lower positions in your company? Are you superior to your children? To the cashier at the supermarket? To the garbage man? To the lady you pay to clean your house? To the homeless guy you sometimes see on the street? To the drug addict in the crack house? To the schizophrenic in the mental asylum?
If you answered ‘yes’ or ‘maybe yes’ to the above, it does not mean you are a bad person.
It means you have what are now normal social relationships.
But that does not mean these are healthy, or ideal.
Normal now are vertical relationships.
Vertical relationships are hierarchical
As the name suggests, they imply that people are ranked on a vertical dimension. They imply an imaginary social ladder. Everyone is on a certain rung. Some people are below you, some people are above you.
It’s like an infinite ladder. Everyone in the world gets a rung.
The only way to advance in the world is to climb to rungs above you. This happens if you improve your perceived status. Or if the status of the people above decreases.
It’s simple and logical. It’s awful and depressing.
This hierarchical view of the world puts you in competition with everyone else. Your colleagues, your friends, even you family, are opponents in the zero-sum game of life.
If you see the world through this lens, then you see other people as either superior or inferior to you. For you to get ahead, you must ‘move up’ and become superior or other people must move down. This changes the fabric of all human interactions into one of conflict:
A friend has a promotion or another positive event. Instead of being happy for them, you will be envious and angry because it means they move up in the world. This move automatically moves you down, because it’s all a strict hierarchy.
Most conversations cannot be honest exchanges of viewpoints. They become debates where you strive to prove you are correct, and thus demonstrate your high status.
You cannot have truly caring relationships because the other person will always remain a competitor.
You cannot trust other people fully because in your viewpoint it is in their interest to decrease your status.
What’s the alternative to this sad perspective?
This perspective assumes people are not superior or inferior to each other. Rather we are all as worthy, but different.
Do not confuse this with the Communist ideology that everyone is the same. A horizontal relationship perspective does not imply that your neighbor or your colleague is the same as you. Humans are not interchangeable cogs. And this perspective does not mean equal distribution of resources or a centralized decider.
We are not equally good at different activities and competencies. John is better at tennis, Arnold is better at basketball. Mary is more charming, Andrea is more caring. Rudy knows more about human behaviour, Larry understands investing better.
The competency bestows authority. You trust an accountant to know about your taxes more than a painter. You heed the recommendations of a mountain guide when hiking.
This authority does not come only from the profession. It comes from the perception of expertise which can come in different ways. Friends trust me when in the mountains because I spend a lot of time there and have proven competency. I trust my friend Andrew when it comes to gadgets because I know he is more interested in them and proved knowledge in the past.
Horizontal relationships mean you don’t feel superior or inferior to other people. You are better or worse at different things, but it does not imply an absolute value judgement.
We evolved horizontal, not vertical
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors were famously egalitarian. Most of our history was without chiefs, bosses, kings, lords, presidents, mayors, rulers. It was in egalitarian bands where decisions were truly democratic.
We can see this at existing hunter-gatherer societies.
The !Kung in the Kalahari Desert in Africa are one of the few remaining hunter-gatherer societies. They have had contact with modern humans, but mostly maintain their own lifestyle.
The !Kung have customs in place to discourage thoughts of hierarchy and high status among their best hunters. “Among the !Kung bushmen of the Kalahari in Africa, a successful hunter who may be inclined to swagger is kept in check by his compatriots through a ritualized game called ‘insulting the meat. You asked us here to help you carry that pitiful carcass? What is it, some kind of rabbit?”. Source
The Hadza are another hunter gatherer society. They also use gossip and mockery to discourage aspiring bosses and kings. “Among the Hadza...when a would -be ‘chief’ tried to persuade other Hadza to work for him, people openly made it clear his efforts amused them.” Boehm - Hierarchy in the Forest
The Batek are an indigenous nomadic hunter gatherer people (numbering about 1,519 in 2000) who live in the rainforest of peninsular Malaysia. Sharing food is an absolute obligation to the Batek. As one Batek hunter says: ‘If I didn’t take the meat back to camp, everyone would be angry at me’. Anyone with excess food is expected to share it. If it is not done others do not hesitate to ask for some. If someone were hoarding food, it would not be considered ‘stealing’ for others to help themselves to it… Their attitude seems to be that it is more immoral to withhold food from those who need it than to take it without permission. Source
In eastern Paraguay live the Ache hunter-gatherers. They expect healthy adults with no dependent offspring to donate up to 70-90% of food they obtain to the members in need. At the same time, when these providers fall ill or grow old, they in turn receive from others. Source
Food is almost the only property of hunter-gatherers. Land is not even considered property, it is for everyone by default. The only personal goods are personal items, such as tools, weapons, clothing and trinkets.
Food is always shared fairly among them. Some are better at the critical work of obtaining food. But it does not give them higher status. To do so would upset the egalitarian nature of their society and put them all in danger.
But if we have had horizontal relationships for so long, why do these hunter-gatherer societies need rituals and behaviours to impose equal status?
For the same reason we devolved into vertical relationships ever since the Agricultural Revolution made it a viable social structure.
We want to be hierarchical
Egalitarian dynamics are the result of higher survival fitness, not of the angels of our nature. Modern hunter gatherers demonstrate that tyrannical tendencies appear naturally. It takes concentrated effort to suppress them.
It was advantageous for an individual to be greedy, and it was advantageous for groups for individuals to share. The groups which managed to impose egalitarianism fared better than those who succumbed to bosses.
Our tendency towards vertical relationships probably predates our evolution into Homo Sapiens. Looking at our primate cousins we see mostly vertical relationships. Chimps, gorillas and baboons are aggressively hierarchical.
Our unconscious shares this vertical view deep down. It is also a useful simplification. Giving everyone a status, like an overall grade, that determines the type of social interaction with that person is low cognitive effort. By contrast, horizontal relationships are more demanding on the brain. You have to create a much more complex representation of each person, one that includes qualitative and quantitative evaluation on multiple dimensions. Then you have to engage in egalitarian interactions which are more complex than boss-underling dynamics.
What to do
See the world as horizontal rather than vertical of course.
I wish there was a simple ‘hack’ or technique to achieve this. But there is none as far as I know. And it would be hard to believe one could be devised.
Rather this change in perception is a process. One that might be quite long and slow, but with immense payoffs. The rewards are not in riches or fame, although it will make success more likely. But rather they are in making life something full with joy rather than envy.
What do you do to see the world more horizontal?
Think of other people are different, but of the same value. This means ‘upgrading’ people whom you see as inferior and ‘demoting’ people you see as superior.
We tend to see people with less money and less reputation as inferior. Cleaning people. Service industry workers. Homeless. Mentally ill. Disabled. But they are not inferior. Read about the achievements of such ‘inferior’ people. Stephen Hawking was severely disabled and he is arguably smarter than you or anybody you know. The founder of KFC had menial jobs all his life until creating a business empire in his late years. Maybe the busboy at the restaurant serving you will be the next Steve Jobs. And if he does not, it does not make him less.
No money or fame or power makes somebody else inferior. And it cannot make anybody else superior.
Your boss is not better than you. Nor is the CEO of your company regardless of his yacht, five homes and opulent lifestyle. He might be better at you at certain activities as you are than him at others.
Nor is any celebrity or influencer. Having thousands of likes tricks our monkey brain into assigning worth, but it’s not a measure of real value.
All humans are as valuable. Treating others as equally valuable is the cornerstone of society. Without this ability, we would not be better than baboons in the savannah. They have an easy life with abundant food and few predators. Yet they live their lives in more stress and anxiety than most other creatures. Why? Because they are obsessed with status and constantly hurt and harm each other to grow in status, or relieve the stress of status seeking.
Don’t be a baboon.
The Courage to be Disliked - Ichiro Kishimi, Fumitake Koga
Ego is the Enemy - Ryan Holiday
The Status Game - Will Storr
Humankind, a Hopeful History - Rutger Bregman