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Baboons "R" Us

When observing baboons, Robert Sapolsky, a renowned Standford University biologist and neurologist, noticed that these primates spend three hours per day quietly feeding themselves and the rest of the time making each other miserable. Based on this observation, he determined that baboons were close enough to humans to warrant research about a common biological response, namely stress.


In principle, stress is a savior. The rush of hormones it unleashes helps mobilize all available resources to escape danger. If the animal thwarts the threat, its biological system returns to normal.


The problem with humans living in a society, like baboons, is that they cannot switch off due to their non-stop interaction with and interference from others. The taxi driver who stopped right in the middle of a busy NYC street during a recent family weekend instead of pulling off summed up human dynamics when he said: ‘Everybody is crazy, so you just have to act like them.’ Craziness-induced stress continuously sucks resources away from regular activity, including growth, reproduction, and tissue repair. In the case of humans, stress does not save. Instead, it is debilitating.


Interestingly, in the case of baboons, Mr. Sapolsky established, based on physiological tests, that stress is correlated with hierarchy. Because they are badly treated by higher-hierarchy baboons, low-hierarchy baboons display more stress to the detriment of their health.


As in Animal Farm(1945), all animals are equal, except that some are more equal than others. Pigs successfully positioned themselves as superior and demonstrated that absolute power corrupts absolutely. The mixture of intelligence and socialness seems to be a potent recipe for cruelty in the animal kingdom, from baboons to humans via dolphins.


Mr. Sapolsky links his findings about baboons to a series of ‘Whitehall’ studies, which started in 1968, related to civil servants in Great Britain. They showed a steep inverse association between social class, as assessed by hierarchy, and mortality due to a different level of exposure to workplace stress. The study has been an important contributor to the debate on health inequalities.


According to Mr. Sapolsky, there are four ways to reduce stress: the discharge of stress energy through exercising or aggressive behavior; the obtainment of social support; the learned ability to anticipate stress; and the achievement of control over one’s life.


There is a further alternative: embracing stress. In How to make stress your friend(2013), Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist, cites research indicating that stress may only be bad for those who believe that to be the case: study participants who learned to view the stress response as helpful to mobilize energy to rise to a challenge were less stressed out.


Humans do have at least one advantage over baboons: they can intellectualize their plight and strive to behave in a socially acceptable manner while building resilience. From an organizational perspective, there is value in fostering a baboon-free culture. As Daniel Coyle, a corporate advisor, reminded readers in The Culture Code(2018), just one ‘bad apple’ (or baboon) can bring an entire team’s productivity down.

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