Making the omega

It’s interesting to see how social scientists are stumbling, slowly, toward recognizing the socio-sexual hierarchy:

There is also a dark side to the social world of middle school, as anyone who has been through it will remember. Sixth graders who do not have friends are at risk of anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. About 12 percent of the 6,000 sixth graders in Juvonen’s study were not named as a friend by anyone else. They had no one to sit with at lunch and no one to stick up for them when bullied. Of that group, boys outnumbered girls nearly two to one, and African American and Latino students were more likely to be friendless than white kids.

Inspired by the University of Chicago social psychologists John Cacioppo and Louise Hawkley’s work on perceived social isolation and the sense of threat that comes with it, Juvonen and her student Leah Lessard investigated whether perceptions of social threat could explain the mental-health difficulties that beset friendless middle schoolers. Their hypothesis was that not having friends in sixth grade triggered a greater sense of threat in seventh grade, which led to increased internalizing difficulties, such as depression and anxiety, by eighth grade. Their research confirmed that theory: It wasn’t friendlessness alone that created problems, it was the resulting sense of threat.

Then there is bullying, which Juvonen has studied extensively. “Friendships take place in this larger context where there’s a status hierarchy,” she told me. “Kids know very well which kinds of kids are friends with one another and where they stand in that overall status hierarchy.” Most of the time, bullying is a very strategic effort to gain and maintain status, she said.

Omegas are those who retreat from the hierarchy or are rejected by it. Gammas are those who manage to stay inside the hierarchy by strategic alliances with “friends” who are not actually friends. That is the primary dividing line between the two.