Despite all our rage

During my first semester of grad school, I sat in on a presentation at UT’s psychology department. It was a “job talk,” a part of the academic hiring process where an applicant gives a public presentation. Imagine a job interview, but with 40 people in the room, and no guiding questions. Just “show us you.”

In that presentation, Columbia professor and FiveThirtyEight author James Curley shared his work on the social dynamics of mice. Traditionally, people measure social behavior in mice by looking at how two mice interact: They introduce two unrelated mice to each other, then watch the patterns of social and aggressive interaction between them. This is called a “single dyadic exchange.” That’s great, but not enough. Mice don’t exist in “single dyadic exchanges” in the wild, so such observations give us limited insight into murine social behavior.

So Curley and his team built a whole mouse playground, a system of tunnels, ramps, ladders and spaces; then they dumped 15 mice in to see what would happen. They attached an RFID chip to each mouse and set up tiny antennae to track their movements. Then, they  researchers watched the mice interact with each other, classifying every behavior as either dominant or submissive. Here are a handful of the things they observed that surprised me:

  • Almost immediately, the mice established a clear, sustained, top-to-bottom social hierarchy. Of all the interactions among the mice, there was only one paper-rock-scissors triad of mice where dominance wasn’t clear.
  • Mice paid careful attention to other mice’s interactions to gather signals about the hierarchy being formed around them.
  • Social grooming didn’t seem to correlate negatively to fighting. This is strange: Butt–sniffing and other such activities are usually viewed as positively social, but even those may be related to dominance.
  • There wasn’t a correlation between which mice engaged early on and those that developed dominance. Even the ones that fought more early on weren’t necessarily the ones that eventually dominated the hierarchy.
  • The hierarchy emerged from the group did not seem to be tied to any physical characteristics of the mice, either–it seemed to emerge randomly. This implies that if you could erase the mice’s memories and start from scratch, a completely different hierarchy–but similarly fixed and linear–would emerge.
  • If you take a dominant (alpha) mouse out of the group cage for 1 hour and then put him back in, he’ll maintain his alpha status. If you take him out for 24 hours, his position is lost and he goes to the bottom of the heap.

Like any good researcher, Curley was careful not to extrapolate from mice to other species. But I couldn’t help but wonder about the application of Curley’s questions to another animal–namely, the political one:

  • It feels natural to look to physical or behavioral characteristics to explain which humans win or lose. “He just doesn’t look presidential.” “She’s a clear strategic thinker.” “He knows how to delegate.” “She’s focused and determined.” But how much of who wins and loses is simply random, the product of tiny,  uncountable, unidentifiable displays of dominance and submission over time?
  • Curley’s mice were all male, all young, and all virgins. “A practical consideration,” he said, smiling, “we didn’t want there to be pups in the group.” What affects would gender and sex have on social groupings in mice and (wo)men?
  • The mice in Curley’s experiment were all playing a single “game.” But humans play multiple games: A politician, for example, has to balance competition for donors, votes, respect from her colleagues, and position in her party–all at once. Her behavior in one of these “games” affects both her and others’ approaches and positions in other games.
  • Mice don’t seem to group together to establish dominance against other groups. Humans certainly do; how do these dynamics play out on the battlefield and the legislative floor?
  • Mice are unable to reflect upon their strategies, or feign dominance and submission. Humans can; what role do deception and reflection play in humans’ dominance strategies?
  • In his book Consciousness, Christof Koch suggests that animals behave randomly because it gives them a better shot at survival. How strong is the human tendency toward random behavior, and how does it affect political strategy? When is total unpredictability a successful strategy?
  • To what extent are humans’ dominance behaviors designed not to establish dominance between two actors, but to display that dominance to third parties? To wit:

What am I missing? What am I wrong about? What should I learn next?

Further reading: 

Chase, Ivan D. “Dynamics of hierarchy formation: the sequential development of dominance relationships.” Behaviour 80.3 (1982): 218-239.

Newman, Sarah Winans. “The medial extended amygdala in male reproductive behavior a node in the mammalian social behavior network.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 877.1 (1999): 242-257.

O’Connell, Lauren A., and Hans A. Hofmann. “Evolution of a vertebrate social decision-making network.” Science 336.6085 (2012): 1154-1157.

Schweiger, David M., William R. Sandberg, and Paula L. Rechner. “Experiential effects of dialectical inquiry, devil’s advocacy and consensus approaches to strategic decision making.” Academy of Management journal 32.4 (1989): 745-772.

So, Nina, et al. “A social network approach reveals associations between mouse social dominance and brain gene expression.” PloS one 10.7 (2015): e0134509.

Williamson, Cait M., Becca Franks, and James P. Curley. “Mouse Social Network Dynamics and Community Structure are Associated with Plasticity-Related Brain Gene Expression.” Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience 10 (2016).

Williamson, Cait M., Won Lee, and James P. Curley. “Temporal dynamics of social hierarchy formation and maintenance in male mice.” Animal Behaviour 115 (2016): 259-272.

Image: The Johnson Treatment, via the LBJ Library)


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