The Myth of Monkey Boss Stress

Photograph by Lise Gagne/Getty Images

In 1958, Scientific American published research indicating that bosses suffer more stress than their underlings. Titled “Ulcers in ‘Executive’ Monkeys,” the study subjected pairs of rhesus macaques to electric shocks every 20 seconds over periods of six hours. By pressing a lever, the “executive” monkey could protect both from being shocked. And while both monkeys endured equal amounts of torture, those in control fared much worse, developing more ulcers. Some executive monkeys even dropped dead.

Never mind that monkey bosses aren’t human bosses, this research—which was done by behavioral scientist and Army colonel Joseph Vincent Brady, known for psychologically preparing simians for space travel—led to the concept of “executive stress syndrome.” To this day, there’s a notion that increased power comes with a bigger load of crushing demands. Oh, the 24/7 pressures of responsibility and decision-making!

A new Scientific American article says executive stress is a myth. “There are hundreds of studies on the relationship between stress, health, and power. And they virtually all show the opposite of the executive monkeys,” writes Keith Payne, who goes on to cite several examples, featuring both humans and simians.

In one recent study (PDF), researchers looked at military officers, government officials, nonprofit administrators, and business leaders who were taking classes at Harvard Business School. Those identified as leaders—meaning they worked at a job requiring them to manage others—were found to have lower levels of anxiety and the stress hormone cortisol. In a follow-up study, the researchers also found: “Not only are leaders less stressed than non-leaders, but more powerful, higher-ranking leaders are less stressed than less powerful, lower-ranking leaders.”

Payne also points to a study of British government officials that has been going on since the 1960s: “Physician Michael Marmot has found that each rung down the ladder is associated with more stress-related health problems including the biggest health problem of all, death.”

All this isn’t to say that executives don’t suffer. There have been a number of tragic, high-profile meltdowns and suicides. Work-life balance is hard to come by. But when it comes down to the line, leaders have more control—and control is key. Even perceived control has been found to boost performance and lower stress.

As for the 1958 executive monkey study, it was later debunked because it turned out that the monkeys put in charge hadn’t been randomly selected: They’d been “promoted” for learning to use the shock-preventing levers more quickly, likely because they already had a more intense stress response to being shocked.