Why oh why can’t Jonah Lehrer be more of a Marxist?

July 20, 2010

I have offbeat criteria for evaluating the science I read about these days. At age 31, I’ve entered my Marxist phase. I want positive social change, and I don’t understand why all discourse doesn’t bend in service to that change.

Consider Jonah Lehrer’s piece about stress in Wired, which I mentioned a few posts ago. Jonah describes something called the Whitehall study, which has tracked 28,000 British civil servants since 1967. Every subject is “a cog in the vast governmental bureaucracy,” he writes.

They all have access to the same health care system, don’t have to worry about getting laid off, and spend most of their workdays shuffling papers.

The British civil service comes with one other feature that makes it ideal for studying the health effects of stress: It’s hierarchi-cal, with a precise classification scheme for ranking employees (in other words, it’s the human equivalent of a baboon troop).

Jonah tells us that “between the ages of 40 and 64, workers at the bottom of the hierarchy had a mortality rate four times higher than that of people at the top” (his emphasis) and still had nearly double the mortality rate after controlling for smoking, drinking and other factors.

According to Jonah, the lead researcher attributes the effect to psychosocial stress, specifically to workers’ lack of control over the demands of the job. A radical might take this as a point in favor of an economic order that valued collective decision making by workers over management. But Jonah’s narrative never breaks out of the capitalist frame.

In setting up his bottom line for the Whitehall study, Jonah notes that “we’re so sensitive to the effects of status that getting promoted from the lowest level in the British civil service reduced the probability of heart disease by up to 13 percentage points.” Hence, “Climbing the social ladder makes us live longer.” Emphasis mine.

Try to feel me on this: Is it asking too much that “the social ladder” not be presented as a fact of life? Jonah is a legitimate wunderkind. Surely he could have dug up any number of studies bearing on the question of how alternative institutions might affect workers’ feelings of control over their jobs. I immediately thought of this study, about hotel workers who lost weight and lowered their blood pressure after they were told that their jobs cleaning rooms counted as exercise.

Anyway, back on board the USS Indignation, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Jonah’s story goes on to describe his main scientist character’s desire to create a genetic “vaccine” that would counteract the damaging effects of stress hormones called glucocorticoids. If we’re looking at everything in terms of existing structures, then of course the answer to systemic injustice must lie in some speculative, far-off pharmaceutical intervention.

I mean, that’s what we look to science for, right? Nice ideas that will probably never fly?

Blerg. Back to my social theory tome.


4 Responses to “Why oh why can’t Jonah Lehrer be more of a Marxist?”

  1. Hi JR,

    It sounds like you might be looking for research comparing the health of people who preceive themselves as being successful at achieving status, and people whose circumstances do not require competitive or comparative interactions for success.

    I don’t have any offhand, but personally, I think we would get mixed results in this because I think whether an individual thrives in a competitive environment is a dimension of individual difference.

    That said:

    1) I suspect that one of the assumptions of the “capitalist frame” is true, that human groups do more often than not perform better when they have competition either as individuals or between groups.

    2) Not everyone thrives in a very competitive environment, but many people do, and the negative aspects of competition on individuals can often be mitigated by playing groups off against each other rather than individuals.

    3) It is often possible to construct environments where both collaboration and cooperation are leveraged effectively and where everyone has the perception of raising their status at least much of the time.

    Think of a simple example. The people who thrive in elite military training for example are those who are effective and successful at competing, yet the result is not a strict hierarchy but team building because while drills are always competitive they are also always cooperative. Teams compete with each other and people constantly switch between winning and losing teams. Not everyone can thrive in this environment, but those who can all have a status boost, not just the ones who win consistently.

    So beyond the Marxist/Capitalist ideological divide, I think it is possible to acknolwedge the basic biology of status seeking, and make use of it to good effect, yet not have people being simply trampled on by others. It is the perception of status, not the physical or economic domination of another person that is almost certainly the key factor in the benefits of higher status. Unless that belief is locked into the individual or encouraged in the circumstances.

    kind regards,


  2. JR Minkel Says:

    Hi Todd,

    Thanks for your comment. My critique is definitely in the spirit of a mole poking its nose above the ground for a second, taking a sniff, and then stealing back underground, so I appreciate your taking a measured approach. I think you’re right when you say I’m looking for data on “people whose circumstances do not require competitive or comparative interactions for success.” I think Capitalism as an ideology thrives on this notion that pure competition a) exists and b) is salutary, neither of which is the case.

    More to your point, it might be interesting to see a study of, say, basketball teams. where there is both competition and cooperation, and where the style of coaching might influence how a team perceives its rank at the end of a season. Like you say, it might be too mixed to conclude much of anything.

    I’m not sure I agree there is a biology of status seeking exactly. There is a biology of response to e.g. status challenges, but whether one is “seeking” status or not strikes me as much more of a culturally mediated thing.

    Anyway, what I wanted from Jonah was some acknowledgment that there’s a class of people who “lose” in our society, but I think what you’re saying is, they only “lose” in terms of a crude winners’ ideology, which I shouldn’t be using as my frame anyway. Correct?

    I do stand by one aspect of my critique: Jonah has a lot of clout, and I’d like to see him use it to ruffle a few feathers. I guess if I want something done right…

  3. In general terms, there’s a social reality of winners and losers, and then there are abstract explanations and rationalizations for it. I think we’re both saying that the ethic of competition has often been abused to justify the existence and persistence of an underclass of losers.

    I think we do have a strong tendency to compare our self-perception with our perception of others, and this is a central aspect of human motivation (though certainly there are others). Sure, some are emphasized over others to different degrees in different cultures.

    In any case, the social comparison tendency doesn’t have to manifest itself in unfairness or winner take all competitions. People’s abilities can be encouraged and applied and their accomplishments recognized without creating a distinct class of losers.

    I don’t think this is as much a matter of political and social philosophy (although it does raise the issues it doesn’t really solve them), except where totalitarian extremes or other kinds of extremes sap our resources.

    In particular I don’t see either socialist or capitalist social theories resolving this to the exclusion of the other. I think it is more a matter of intelligent construction of local rules in particular situations that resolves the dilemma of healthy mixtures of competition and cooperation. Just my own perception.

  4. […] Why oh why can’t Jonah Lehrer be more of a Marxist? […]

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