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The hormone of respect - Serotonin

“Respect yourself and others will respect you.” - Confucius

Thank you for joining me for blog 25 highlighting decision-making and the brain. This is my public exploration of what drives decision-making and how we can use that information to make better decisions, resulting in better outcomes.

Today's blog continues the series on reward chemicals or so called 'happy hormones' and will cover serotonin today. Understanding serotonin will help you understand why many people pursue activities that grant them power and attention.

What is Serotonin and what does it do?

Serotonin is a hormone that motivates you to get respect and social status. In all animals there is a social order. This order prevents daily conflict over resources. The order determines important aspects of a troop or pack like who eats first, who leads or follows and who gets first choice of mate. We have therefore evolved to enjoy social dominance and high social status, and we are rewarded by a release of serotonin. Social status and power is how we invest some of today’s energy into survival and reproduction. As soon as food needs are met, animals are rewarded by happy hormones to improve their social status.

Serotonin and social status

People who have higher social status are said to make dominant gestures and lower social status said to make submissive gestures. We see dominant and submissive acts in nature but also in human society. Bowing to a dignitary, or waiting until the guest of honour eats before we start is the way humans show submission.

Serotonin in nature

Serotonin is often used where food and mating is involved. Serotonin is the sensation that it is safe to go ahead and meet your needs or that you have security over what you need.

3 examples of serotonin or dominance in nature is:

1) An experiment was carried out on an alpha monkey (the monkey who commanded most deference). He was separated by a one-way mirror from his troop so that he could see them but they could not see him. The alpha monkey made dominant gestures typical of an alpha but the other monkeys (because they could not see him) did not respond with the submission gestures. The alpha got agitated and his serotonin levels dropped.

2) In cases where there are more piglets in a litter than teats on their mother, serotonin is the reward for a piglet that edges out another piglet and secures access to a teat. If it fails to get a teat, it suffers a fall in serotonin.

3) Dominant cows tend to go the centre of a herd to be least likely to get attacked by predators. Dominant bulls knowing this, tend to push towards the centre of a herd and mating with the alpha cows.

When do you experience serotonin

We see people spend enormous amount of effort jockeying for social status, whether through getting rich, taking leadership positions or donating money to schools and museums to name wings after you.

Serotonin highs are achieved when you receive the affection of someone you perceive as important or getting romantic attention from a high status person. It is also experienced generally when you receive respect. Serotonin is relative - a millionaire amongst billionaires will feel relatively low ranking when comparing wealth.

In today's world people are very willing to sell us a hit of serotonin by creating prestige products like VIP rooms, or first class and the digital economy is allowing us to feel it through getting attention on our social media posts (the irony that I am writing a blog is not lost on me). To try and take people down a peg or two, people use criticism and that apparently releases serotonin. Understanding that criticism is serotonin releasing for people who might feel bad, does help me understand more the phenomenon of internet trolls.

The impact of low serotonin

There is a link between low serotonin and depression. This is seen through anti-depressants which increases the effect of serotonin around. There is also relationship between serotonin and stress hormones, so when people feel low status they feel more stressed.

Recreational users of MDMA (the psychoactive component of Ecstasy) experience a huge release of serotonin and a subsequent decline. This come-down effect has a impacts on mood and sleep.

People also get used to high serotonin and chase that serotonin high. This could result in people overspending to project status or attention-seeking. There are many Hollywood stories of actors that are no longer popular finding it tough to get used to there new lack of prestige and attention.

When people hear of someone else doing well (and therefore making you feel like someone you saw as a peer is now higher social status that you), it sometimes prompts an awful feeling, which again might be a result of a decrease in serotonin.

Ways to get serotonin

Positive ways to get Serotonin

- Being a hero and rescuing someone

- Expressing pride in what you have influenced or achieved

- Become a respected expert in your field

Negative ways to get serotonin

- Seeking recognition from others puts yourself at their mercy. It also opens you up to being manipulated

- Trying to project yourself unrealistically such that it is stressful to keep up with your projection

Serotonin and decision-making

Seeking serotonin highs or having low serotonin can prompt people to make unwise (either too aggressive or short-term) decision-making.

Three take-aways:

1) Serotonin is the hormone of respect and social status and drives us to capture access to limited resources

2) Serotonin increases when you feel influential or high status and decreases when you are considered irrelevant or low status

3) There are positive and negative ways to experience serotonin, and it can lead to poor decision-making.

In three weeks' time my next post will be on Endorphins.


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