No matter how enlightened you are, you probably still care about how others see you. We all care – even if just a tiny bit – about how we rank among our peers in intelligence, good-looks, and charisma.
Animals do too, in a much more explicit sense. Some animals make themselves look bigger or more vibrant and colorful during mating season, when they need to convince the opposite sex to mate with them. Many of these natural responses are actually caused by chemicals like cortisol, a stress hormone that humans are also prone to.
While it would be nice to live in a society free of status, evolution has made that dream more or less impossible. We’re driven to select high-status mates, to be attracted to people that we feel have a similar or higher status than we do. So our genes can be passed down to our offspring, giving them a better chance for survival.
Status can be very fluid. What one person considers a high status, such as being a manager of a fast-food restaurant, can be regarded as a low status by someone like a neurosurgeon. When we feel that our status is higher than others, that we are getting a lot of attention for our status, or that we are attractive to a high-status partner, our feel-good chemicals flow freely.
When we feel ignored or unattractive because of our status, or see others who we believe are doing better than us, feel-bad chemicals like cortisol appear in abundance. Those feel-bad chemicals actually help us avoid getting into ill-advised fights with those who are above us, who could easily overtake us physically, mentally, or socially. In this case, cortisol and its counterparts actually help us ensure a smoother social life and more cooperation in the community.
Breuning, Loretta Graziano (2012-02-14). Meet Your Happy Chemicals: Dopamine, Endorphin, Oxytocin, Serotonin. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.