Pecking Order and Flight Leadership

It was recently pointed out to me that humans are weird, compared to other social animals, in that we conflate the pecking order with the group decision-making process.

The pecking order, for instance in birds, is literally the ranking of who gets to eat first when food is scarce.

We can also call it a “dominance hierarchy”, but the words “dominance” and “hierarchy” call up associations with human governance systems like aristocracy and monarchy, where the king or chief is both the decisionmaker for the group and the person entitled to the most abundant resources.

In birds, it’s not like that. Being top chicken doesn’t come with the job of “leading” the other chickens anywhere; it just entitles you to eat better (or have better access to other desirable resources).  In fact, group decisionmaking (like deciding when and where to migrate) does occur in birds, but not necessarily according to the “pecking order”.  Leadership (setting the direction of the group) and dominance (being high in the pecking order) are completely independent in pigeons, for instance.  Pigeons have stable, transitive hierarchies of flight leadership, and they have stable pecking order hierarchies, and these hierarchies do not correlate.

Logically, it isn’t necessary for the individual who decides what others shall do to also be the individual who gets the most goodies.  They can be related — one of the things you can do with the power to give instructions is to instruct others to give you more goodies. But you can, at least with nonhuman animals, separate pecking-order hierarchies from decision-making hierarchies.

You can even set this up as a 2×2:

High rank in pecking order, high decision-making power: Liege

High rank in pecking order, low decision-making power: Eloi

Low rank in pecking order, high decision-making power: Morlock

Low rank in pecking order, low decision-making power: Vassal

“Eloi” and “Morlocks” are, of course, borrowed from H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, which depicted a human species divided between the privileged, childlike Eloi, and the monstrous underground Morlocks, who farm them for food.  Eloi enjoy but don’t decide; Morlocks decide but don’t enjoy.

The other archetypal example of someone with low rank in the pecking order but high decision-making power is the prophet. Biblical prophets told people what to do — they could even give instructions to the king — but they did not enjoy positions of privilege, palaces, many wives, hereditary lands, or anything like that.  They did sometimes have the power to threaten or punish, which is a sort of “executive” power, but not the power to personally enjoy more resources than others.

In American common parlance, “leadership” or “dominance” generally means both being at the top of a pecking order and being a decision-maker for the group.  My intuition and experience says that if somebody wants to be the decision-maker for the group but doesn’t seem to be conspicuously seeking & enjoying goodies in zero-sum contexts — in other words, if somebody behaves like a Morlock or prophet — they will read as not behaving like a “leader”, and will fail to get a certain kind of emotional trust and buy-in and active participation from others.

My previous post on hierarchy conflated pecking-order hierarchies with decision-making hierarchies. I said that people-telling-others-what-to-do (decision-making hierarchy) “usually goes along with” special privileges or luxuries for the superiors (pecking-order hierarchy.)  But, in fact, they are different things, and the distinction matters.

Most of the practical advantages of hierarchy in organizations come from decision-making hierarchy.  A tree structure, or chain of command, helps get decisions made more efficiently than many-to-many deliberative assemblies.  Many of the inefficiencies of hierarchy in organizations (expensive displays of deference, poor communication across power distance) are more about pecking-order hierarchy.  “So just have decision-making hierarchy without pecking-order hierarchy!” But that’s rule-by-prophets, and in practice people seem to HATE prophets.

The other model for leadership is the “good king”, of the kind that Siderea writes about in this series of posts on Watership Down.  The good king is not just sitting on top of the pecking order enjoying luxury at the expense of his people. He listens to his people and empowers them to do their best; he shares their privations; he is genuinely committed to the common good. But he’s still a king, not a prophet. (In Watership Down, there actually is a prophet — Fiver — and Hazel, the king, is notable for listening to Fiver, while bad leaders ignore their prophets.)

My guess is that the “good king” does sit on top of a pecking-order hierarchy, but a very mild and public-spirited one.  He’s generous, as opposed to greedy; but generosity implies that he could be greedy if he wanted to. He shares credit with others who do good work, instead of hogging all the credit for himself; but being the one to give credit itself makes him seem central and powerful.

A “good king” seems more emotionally sustainable for humans than just having a “prophet”, but it could be that there’s a way to implement pigeon-like parallel hierarchies for resource-enjoyment and decision-making, or other structures I haven’t thought of yet.


16 thoughts on “Pecking Order and Flight Leadership

  1. Good post. Some quick comments — yes, all of this is stuff I’ve said elsewhere, including the comment I left on your earlier post on hierarchy, but some of them can be stated more succinctly with this terminology you’ve introduced. 🙂

    1. Repeating a comment I made on my last post: Decision-making hierarchies are ordinarily at least nominally tree-structured. But a tree structure is a partial order, while a pecking order is a total (pre)order. The result of this conflation is that pecking order, while it notionally matches the tree structure, in fact interferes with it.

    2. Indeed pecking order interferes with tree structure in other ways. The way a decision-making hierarchy is supposed to work is that being higher up means you’re responsible for more — shit flows uphill, the captain goes down with the ship, etc. But once again pecking order interferes; since those higher up on the tree are *also* higher up on the pecking order, they can avoid blame, again interfering with the tree-structure’s proper operation.

    (These sorts of effects are why I keep saying, the problem isn’t hierarchy in the abstract, it’s how humans keep screwing it up wrong. 😛 )

    3. Obviously, if the tree structure goes along with the pecking order, people who want to climb the pecking order find themselves climbing the tree structure as well. Ideally this would mean demonstrating good decision-making in order to climb the tree and thereby the pecking order, but it often seems to go as demonstrating charm or dominance (in short, politicking) in order to climb the pecking order directly and thereby the tree. They (let’s name them — they’re the “Suits”) then find themselves having to make decisions they’re not any good at, and often make obviously destructive decisions just to demonstrate that they are making decisions and deserve their spot. Perhaps ideally you could pay off such people with just the thing they want, a spot in the pecking order, so they wouldn’t go around destroying things like this, but — just as you mention that people won’t tolerate Morlocks — they won’t tolerate paying off Eloi either. And of course if you set up a system to prevent such things, the people it’s meant to catch will be the best at slipping past it and turning it against others. It’s a hard problem. So far it seems the only thing that seems to work is increasing the extent to which people are required to make unfakeable demonstrations of value produced, but that’s often not tenable; I suppose unfakeable demonstrations of skill can often help substitute. But hopefully there is some better solution.

    • Actually, hold on — point 2 in my comment actually doesn’t quite make sense if we interpret “pecking order” just being about material resources/rewards. Like that just doesn’t follow. I think the thing to note here is that in addition to the two things you highlight — position in tree structure, resources attained — there’s also a third thing. And it’s this third thing that I think is most psychologically primitive, that people expect the other two to both correlated with. But this third thing is purely social; it has no external meaning at all. I don’t know what to call it other than “status”, although that’s kind of a bad, overloaded term. But with it comes this idea that, hey, this person is good, credible, etc — this person is just better. Not for any reason, just, like, inherently. And that’s why #2 above happens; material resources don’t let you deflect blame, but being higher on the pecking order as I described it does because conflated two things in “pecking order” there.

      (Also worth noting that to a large extent people are after this third thing directly, not the material resources that comes with it — this makes it even harder to buy them off to prevent them from doing destructive things. And #1 and much of what I described in #3 are really effects of this third thing, too, my mistake is just less obvious there.)

      I guess basically — I’m OK with tree structures, if you can keep these other things from interfering with it; they’re quite useful. I’m OK with more material resources going to those with larger areas of responsibility — so long as you can keep this total preorder from interfering from the tree’s partial order, and so long as you can keep this third thing from interfering with it, so that those higher up also have correspondingly more risk instead of less. What I’m really not OK with is the influence of this third thing, status. Because that’s the thing that screws everything up.

  2. Temple cults are another important method for separating expertise from dominance: in order to ensure some material support for and deference to the priesthood, priests will orient their stories around a large dominant animal (usually depicted via statuary ambiguously identified with the body of the god) which demands to be fed large amounts of food, and obeyed. A large amount of food for a huge statue may be just the right amount to feed the priests and their families, and worship/submission is not directed at the priests themselves, so they preserve their access to information.

  3. But that’s rule-by-prophets, and in practice people seem to HATE prophets.

    This doesn’t seem to be generically the case. The film Network suggests that even a pretty ineffective prophet is appealing to a lot of people in principle, and that rings true.

    People who identify with kings against competing interests often (but not always) hate prophets. But they often like the idea of prophets enough to retain false prophets. My former corporate employer in the mortgage finance field had lots of Econ PhD forecasters even though decisions weren’t being made based on technical expertise, to be able to claim that experts had been consulted & farsighted decisions were being made. We did have at least one true prophet too.

    Then of course, people who don’t identify with power often sympathize quite a lot with outsiders who correct power, even if they aren’t always free to say so.

    • I don’t think people oppose the *existence* of prophets/advisors, just that they also need “kings” to hold the space of “person taking responsibility & making them feel secure” and a prophet who *only* identifies the correct direction to go is not enough.

  4. Another side effect of the conflation of wealth accumulation with decision making power is that people distrust those who accumulate wealth on the ground that they must want to use it to get power. Thus all the fretting about how billionaires are supposedly subverting democracy, when in fact most of them just want to enjoy their billions in peace.

  5. Historically quite a few kings / rulers have used the direction hierarchy without taking advantage of pecking order style hierarchy. From the western tradition the emperor Marcus Aurelius is famed for this. From the Islamic tradition Saladin, a sultan and one of the most successful military leaders against the crusades, lived a live of asceticism and would have been viewed as a saint by western standards. I’m not sure people universally hating prophets or non greedy kings is a thing.

    • by my criterion, Marcus Aurelius would be a “good king” not a prophet. he’s not greedy & doesn’t abuse his power, but he’s the center of gravity. a prophet is *just* an advice-giver and reads as “not actually even an authority/executive”

  6. This reminds me of the work environment at the tech/startup company a friend of mine works at. Certain engineers and product managers get paid significantly more than people more senior in the decision making hierarchies there, which I found very counter intuitive at the time.

  7. I’m reminded of a bit (from memory) from The Peter Principle, a book about people being promoted to the level of their incompetence– a claim that American managers are uncomfortable with subordinates being paid more than the manager, so the only way to reward the people doing the best technical work is to make them managers so they can get higher salaries.

  8. It isn’t surprising that in a country where the United States which is so dominated by one kind of business, and where government tends to take cues for leadership from business, that dominance and leadership hierarchy are often the same thing. It’s my impression the distinction is more present in other countries where there is less overlap between the political and wealthiest classes.

  9. Maybe you want a wise leader who is generously compensated, but not because the wise leader asked for that compensation, rather because it is ceremonial for the wise leader to receive some fixed but generous compensation.

  10. Hmm… This is a really good question.

    I think the leadership/pecking order merger comes from the human tendency to fight over disagreements. That is, instead of taking each other’s views into account until we agree like the Aumann agreement theorem says we should, we double down and try to make sure our beliefs prevail, often to the point of treating it like a zero-sum allocation conflict. At which point it’s no surprise the pecking order determines the resolution.

    Why do we do that? I think the best short answer that it’s because humans face such varied and complex questions that we’re always alert to the possibility of a conflict of interest.

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