Social Norms in Action

From a reader named Stephane:

Very recently I drove through a couple of small villages in the northwestern part of Belgium (near the border with France). A couple of road signs caught my attention. When you reach a village there's a sign (in Dutch) saying "here, X percent of the drivers stay within the speed limit." Then when you reach the next village there's the same sign except that the percentage is different. Usually it's around 90% (87% in one village, 91% in another, etc.).

I don't know how they collect the data or even if the numbers are real. I also wish I knew the trends, how often they change the signs, how many villages participate in this safety initiative, etc. Then I wondered: where does this idea come from? Have you heard of anything like this before? If yes, is this effective to slow cars down?

Why It's Better to be Beta than Alpha

"Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown."

That's from William Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 2. The point is that it's not easy being No. 1; constantly having to watch your back, stressing over who might be angling to knock you off, and steal your crown.

Four hundred years later, scientists are finally getting around to proving that axiom. A new study of baboons shows that being the alpha male in a group dynamic may not be worth the stress the position imposes. Here's the abstract:

In social hierarchies, dominant individuals experience reproductive and health benefits, but the costs of social dominance remain a topic of debate. Prevailing hypotheses predict that higher-ranking males experience higher testosterone and glucocorticoid (stress hormone) levels than lower-ranking males when hierarchies are unstable but not otherwise. In this long-term study of rank-related stress in a natural population of savannah baboons (Papio cynocephalus), high-ranking males had higher testosterone and lower glucocorticoid levels than other males, regardless of hierarchy stability. The singular exception was for the highest-ranking (alpha) males, who exhibited both high testosterone and high glucocorticoid levels. In particular, alpha males exhibited much higher stress hormone levels than second-ranking (beta) males, suggesting that being at the very top may be more costly than previously thought.