If I ask you to list dessert items, you might say “ice cream, cookies, or cakes…” If you had to be more specific about the ice cream, you might say “vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry…” If you had to be even more specific about just the vanilla, you might say “cookies n’ cream, chocolate chip, or caramel swirl….” What you are doing is making a hierarchical list of desserts with each lower level getting more specific.

hierarchy-1Hierarchy refers to a ranking system where some things have a higher rank than others; categories are usually formed based on rank. You have probably created a hierarchy to help you organize your thoughts before making a speech or writing a paper. You have your main topics, and within each of those are subtopics with details within each of those. The details, while possibly interesting, are not able to convey the same amount of a message as the main topics. The power of the main topics is strengthened by the details.

The ranking system of a hierarchy might seem somewhat arbitrary but authority is clear, especially in human organizations. It doesn’t matter who fulfills each hierarchical role as long as everyone is aware of who they command and who they must follow. Our systems of human organization range from governments to businesses to schools. Local government must adhere to state and national laws, managers have managers too, and teachers listen to principals who listen to superintendents. The hierarchy allows the system to run smoother, dividing up tasks and assigning responsibility.

Hierarchy also comes into play when talking about how your brain works. Have you ever been so hungry that you “couldn’t think straight?” Some neural paths have higher priority than others, which means that your brain sees getting food as a much more pressing issue than thinking logically.

A hierarchy is helpful in many aspects, but it is important to remember that the hierarchy only exists within the system that developed it. Your boss is not your boss outside of work, they are a human like you. The same goes for public officials and other people of great power. This type of thinking takes some time but will inevitably improve your ability to empathize. People who are both above and below you in a hierarchy are still your equals among humans: the President of the United States and a homeless vagrant are both people with stories to tell and love to share. We are all humans and we made up the hierarchy, don’t let it define us.