We are different from the rest of the animal kingdom in key ways, one of them being our tactics for dominance. Lions, deer, jackals, field crickets, lobsters, salmon, rats, lizards, and even ragworms attack each other to establish authority and power, a natural phenomenon called intraspecific aggression. In these species, aggression can be beneficial to creating an ordered society.
In humans, on the other hand, being aggressive in order to increase social status may have adverse effects on the heart health of the aggressor, according to research from the University of Utah. Conversely, the studies found that attaining high social status through a good reputation and freely given respect can actually protect and benefit health.
The studies discovered that competitive striving for social dominance may shorten life as it makes people more vulnerable to cardiovascular disease. The lead author Timothy Smith, PhD, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Utah, presented these findings at the annual meeting of the American Psychosomatic Society in Savannah, Georgia, in March 2015.
Dr. Smith and his team conducted four studies to compare the health effects of hostile-dominant personality styles to warm-dominant styles.
In the first study, they surveyed 500 undergraduate student volunteers and found that those who were hostile-dominant had greater hostility and more stress around people. Those with warm-dominant styles ranked themselves higher in social status, but both had higher personal perceptions of power among their peers.
The second study monitored the blood pressure of 180 undergraduate volunteers when they were placed in stressful conversations with others scripted to act dominant or deferential. The researchers found that hostile-dominant personalities had high increases in blood pressure when interacting with dominant partners, but no increase when communicating with deferential people. These results are particularly interesting because previous studies have found that increased blood pressure in reaction to stress can increase the risk for cardiovascular disease.
The third study observed 94 young, married couples and had each participant wear a blood pressure monitor throughout the day. The results showed that hostile-dominance in men was linked to high blood pressure, but not in women. Warm-dominance brought lower blood pressure in women, but not in men.
In the fourth study, the psychologists monitored 154 older married couples with an average age of 63. They found that warm-dominant styles had less marital conflict and more marital support, whereas hostile-dominant styles had more conflict and less support within the marriage.
Men and women who employed hostile-dominant tactics in their marriage also had more severe atherosclerosis, which is a buildup of fat, cholesterol, and other substances in the artery walls. Atherosclerosis can lead to serious heart problems including heart attack, stroke, and even death, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
“It’s not a style that wears well with other people,” says Dr. Smith. But, those with hostile-dominant personalities can still change. “Something usually has to fall apart first before they are willing to entertain that option. But there is some evidence that it is possible to teach old dogs new tricks, and if you do, it can reduce coronary risk.”