How Cooperation Helps You Climb the Social Ladder

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When we think of getting ahead, most of our models rely on crushing your opponent — or at least, creating one winner and a bunch of not-winners. While this kind of approach might work well in tournaments, there's strong evidence that humans evolved to take another path. It may not be competition that vaults you to the top ranks, but cooperation.

That's what anthropologists are suggesting in a new paper on how people transfer status to each other. In short, high-status individuals can bestow high status on those who cooperate with them. For example, a well-respected employee in an office might confer status on a new colleague by praising the work they did together to others.

Your lived experience probably supports this finding, if you look around. Scientists have found that prosocial behavior sets off the brain's reward center in women; other studies make connections between a person's selfishness (or lack thereof) and their salary. When a store offers you a free gift, you develop a bond with that brand, in some ways elevating it. Even the inverse of the cooperative status transfer (mean girls, duh) proves the point: Queen bee syndrome isn't even real.

As co-lead author Daniel Redhead puts it, "Humans, compared to other animals, give status to those who provide benefits to groups [rather than themselves alone], and are thus more attracted to these individuals as cooperative partners." It's all the more reason to cultivate kindness at work. When everyone supports each other, the risks we can take pay off in big ways.