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Psychosocial explanations for socioeconomic status (SES) differences in health draw on non-human primate research to demonstrate how position in the social hierarchy is related to stress, as measured by cortisol. In stable social systems, stress is elevated in subordinate positions; in less stable systems, higher positions may also be stressful. In addition to their SES position, young people are involved in multiple school-based social hierarchies, each of which may have different implications for stress.
To examine the relationship between morning cortisol and social position in school-based peer hierarchies compared with that of family SES in youth.
Cross-sectional survey of 2995 15-year-olds via questionnaire and interview, timed to collect two saliva samples for morning cortisol.
The west of Scotland (Glasgow area).
Family SES (represented by parental social class, material deprivation and family affluence); school hierarchies (derived from subjective placement on 7 “ladders” and factored into three dimensions, termed scholastic, peer and sports status); cortisol (logged to correct for skewness); biological confounds (time of awakening, time of cortisol measurement, day of the week).
OLS linear regression (univariate and multivariate) within a multi-level (school) context, all models adjusted for biological confounds.
Little or no variation in cortisol was observed for any SES measure. By contrast, each school hierarchy was independently associated with cortisol in different ways. For the scholastic hierarchy, an inverse linear relationship was found in both genders (p<0.01), cortisol increasing with lower position. For peer hierarchy, an opposite linear relationship was observed for males (p<0.001), cortisol increasing with higher position, while for females elevated cortisol was associated only with “top” position. For sports, elevated cortisol was only associated with “bottom” position among males, with all bar the “top” among females. Further adjustment for smoking did not alter these results.
These findings are interpretable against predictions about the stress correlates of hierarchical position in more and less stable social systems, the former represented by the scholastic hierarchy involving negative effects on those in lower positions, the latter by peer hierarchy having negative effects higher up. The particularly stressful “top” position for females is consistent with evidence from other studies. Overall, the results highlight the much greater importance of school-based peer groups for young peoples’ stress than family SES, the latter adding to the evidence-base that youth is characterised by much less SES variation in health than any other stage in the life-course.