Stress in Intergroup Contexts

Feeling subordinate can be psychologically stressful, but how does the view from the bottom affect our health and well-being? As Sapolsky (2004) explains, studying the influence of dominance hierarchies on stress responding and health in the wild has helped us understand how rank and/or status influences us humans. In non-human primates, low rank can lead to higher resting glucocorticoid levels, as everyday basal circumstances are increasingly stressful. In addition this lower glucocorticoid response when faced with a stressor, ultimately leads to maladaptive and delayed recovery. However, social subordinance does not always lead to chronic stress and increased risk of stress-related disease. In certain species, as well as in humans, sometimes it is actually beneficial to not fill the dominant rank. Additionally, changing stability of these hierarchical rankings can also contribute to stress, or lack thereof, due to reduced feelings of control and predictability (you aren’t sure where who you answer to and who answers to you). Thus, in both humans and other species, chronic stress is not simply elicited due to being at the bottom of the totem pole, more factors are at play. For example, the instance of stress-related disease is dependent upon the type of society an animal lives in, their personal experiences in that society, coping skills, personality (or ability to stay positive in the face of adversity) and availability of social support. This tells us a lot about the importance of the animal-environment interaction. As we previously discussed here, person-environment interactions are important in our appraisals of stress, and thus may play also an important mediating role in how rank in society contributes to health risks.

One way to examine “rank” in humans is through socioeconomic status. Poverty and low SES are consistently related to increased risk of stress-related disease, but like animal models, this relationship is nuanced and filled with moderators. For instance, if you live in an environment with high income inequality, low social cohesion and social capital and a high rate of crime this will increasingly predict poor disease outcome, more so than a low-ranking SES alone. Therefore, it is not simply a linear relationship between low rank and increased risk of stress-related disease, but rather, for humans and animals it is dependent upon the rank and how this rank interacts with environmental factors to determine our outcomes.

Another way to define the rank of an individual is whether they belong to a socially advantaged or disadvantaged group. These groups can be defined by factors such as racial identity, sexual orientation, or weight, among others. Those individuals who belong to socially disadvantaged groups have higher risk for health problems, even at higher levels of SES than their socially advantaged counterparts. Race is one such category through which social hierarchy status or disadvantage develops in the United States. However, interestingly, although racial minorities are typically at higher risk for race-related daily (acute) and chronic stressors, interracial interactions can elicit stress in both racial minority and majority groups. This heightened stress can be driven by anxious expectations of social rejection due to previous experiences of discrimination due to race. In a set of experiments, Page-Gould and colleagues (2014) demonstrated that race-based rejection sensitivity accentuated the perceived demands of an interracial interaction and elicited negative responses, such as heightened psychosomatic symptoms, in those individuals with fewer cross-race friendships. The opposite pattern was true for those individuals with a greater number of cross-race friendships, ultimately serving as a protective factor for those who were sensitive to being rejected in some way due on their race. As such, perhaps previous positive experiences in interracial interactions (due to these friendships) can increase and individual’s belief that they have the resources to cope with situational demands of this interaction. Furthermore, gaining a new cross-race friendship (due to study manipulation) had causal effect on individual’s self-efficacy for such interracial interactions and subsequently reduced stress-related symptoms in those individuals with high race-based rejection sensitivity.

Positive experiences with individuals of differing races can reduce feelings of perceived stress that might arise in anticipation of or during such challenging encounters. This type of positive interaction could potentially be beneficial for those individuals who have a fear of appearing prejudice and subsequently elicit an increased stress-response, marked by heightened cortisol levels, during interracial encounters (Trawalter et al. (2012). As Major, Mendes and Dovidio (2013) outline, future research should apply social psychological theories aimed at understanding intergroup interactions when assessing the effects of social hierarchies on health disparities. Taking this type of approach might help us to better understand the various factors at play in terms of how intergroup, interpersonal and intrapersonal processes affect stress-related health outcomes.


Lucas, T., Pierce, J., Lumley, M.A., Granger, D.A., Lin, J., & Epel, E.S. (2017). Telomere length and procedural justice predict stress reactivity responses to unfair outcomes in African Americans. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 86, 104-109.

Major, B., Mendes, W.B., & Dovidio, J.F. (2013). Intergroup relations and health disparities: A social psychological perspective. Health Psychology, 32(5), 514-524.

Sapolsky, R.M. (2004) Why zebras don’t get ulcers: A guide to stress, stress related diseases, and coping. New York: W.H. Freeman.

Trawalter, S., Adam, E.K., Chase-Lansdale, L.P., & Richeson, J.A. (2012). Concerns about appearing prejudiced get under the skin: Stress responses to interracial contact int he moment and across time. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48, 682-693.

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2 Responses to Stress in Intergroup Contexts

  1. This is a very well-constructed post, Julie! I enjoyed reading your summary of Sapolsky’s work in non-human primates, and considering how this work might be able to help us humans sort through our issues with stress-associated disease. In some monkey colonies, it seems that altering the context or environment can alter the stability and structure of social hierarchies (e.g. reduced aggression toward submissive monkeys during a drought). Do you think there might be a way to alter how humans perceive or value certain commodities in order to ameliorate stress-induced health problems? For example, if we considered social capital a commodity, would this reduce income inequality and help reduce the prevalence of stress-induced diseases? Or, if we made basic commodities readily available to everyone, would this increase the overall wellness of American citizens?

  2. Profile photo of Heather Urry Heather Urry says:

    Nice call on the way you linked Sapolsky’s treatment of rank (poverty and SES) with rank based on the extent to which one’s identities are linked to advantage (race).

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