Peer Group Hierarchies
Work on primates has suggested that stresses associated with social hierarchy may have negative effects on human health, most obviously on those at the bottom of a hierarchy (e.g. victims of bullying) but also throughout the hierarchy. Very little work has been conducted on the effects of social hierarchies on stress in young people, though North American work suggests that a pupil's position in school (as measured by a ladder) is more strongly related to depression than is their family's socio-economic status.
The PaLS study was set up to investigate possible links between school and peer group hierarchies and levels of pupil stress, and the extent to which stress mediates relationships with mental health and health behaviours such as smoking. It was interested in the position individuals and groups (e.g. ‘nerds' or ‘party people') occupy in different hierarchies (e.g. academic, sporting or peer-orientated), associated attributions of popularity, power and prestige, and the consequences for stress levels and health.
Unlike previous studies of young people, in which subjective school-based social status was measured as a single dimension, participants in PaLS rated their own status, compared to others in their year group in seven different areas. Analyses suggested these represented three different dimensions: firstly, 'peer status' (including self-rated 'popular', 'powerful', 'respected', 'attractive or stylish' and 'trouble-maker'); secondly, 'scholastic status' (self-rated 'doing well at school' and not a 'trouble-maker'); and thirdly, 'sports status'. Each of these dimensions showed unique relationships with other more objective and/or self-report measures of behaviour.
Each dimension was also independently associated with cortisol (a biological measure of stress), but in different ways. Cortisol was highest among those with highest 'peer status'. For boys, there was a gradual, step-wise increase. In girls, only the top position was associated with higher cortisol. Levels of cortisol increased as 'scholastic status' decreased, so the highest levels were found among those with the lowest 'scholastic status'. This was true of both sexes, but stronger for girls than boys. Finally, in respect of 'sports status', higher cortisol was associated only with the lowest position among boys, while among girls all but those with the very highest 'sports status' had higher cortisol. These results are difficult to interpret. The association between higher cortisol and lower 'scholastic', and, for boys, 'sports status', is consistent with predictions from studies of social hierarchies in animals and adult humans. These suggest that it is stressful to be at the bottom of a social hierarchy. High cortisol levels among those with greatest 'peer status' might reflect instability in this status system, and the fact that maintaining one's position at the top of the pecking order is stressful.
Cortisol is a hormone that is involved in the response to stress; it increases blood pressure and blood sugar levels and suppresses the immune system. Changes in serum cortisol levels have been observed in connection with clinical depression, psychological distress, and such physiological stressors as hypoglycaemia, illness, fever and physical exertion.