Actors See Status

Impro, a classic book on theatre improvisation, convincingly shows that people are better actors when they notice how status moves infuse most human interactions.  Apparently we are designed to be very good at status moves, but to be unconscious of them.  So to be more self-aware of how you really treat those around you, learn to see your status moves. Some quotes:

When I began teaching at the Royal Court Theatre Studio (1963), I noticed that the actors couldn’t reproduce `ordinary’ conversation.  They said `Talky scenes are dull’, but the conversations they acted out were nothing like those I overheard in life. …

I was preoccupied with this problem when I saw the Moscow Art’s production of The Cherry Orchard.  Everyone on stage seemed to have chosen the strongest possible motives for each action. … The effect was ‘theatrical’ but not like life as I knew it.  I asked myself for the first time what were the weakest possible motives, the motives that the characters I was watching might really have had.  When I returned to the studio I set the first of my status exercises.

‘Try to get your status just a little above or below your partner’s,’ I said, and I insisted that the gap should be minimal.  The actors seemed to know exactly what  I meant and the work was transformed.  The scenes became `authentic’, and actors seemed marvelously observant.  Suddenly we understood that every inflection and movement implies a status, and that no action is due to chance, or really ‘motiveless’.  It was hysterically funny, but at the same time very alarming.  All our secret maneuverings were exposed.  If someone asked a question we didn’t bother to answer it, we concentrated on why it had been asked.  No one could make an ‘innocuous’ remark without everyone instantly grasping what lay behind it.  Normally we are ‘forbidden’ to see status transactions except when there’s a conflict.  In reality status transactions continue all the time. …

Status is a confusing term, unless it’s understood as something one does. You may be low in status, but play high, and vice versa. … We always like it when a tramp is mistaken for the boss, or the boss for a tramp. … I should really talk about dominance and submission, but I’d create a resistance.  Students who will agree readily to raising or lowering their status may object if asked to `dominate’ or `submit’. …

A further discovery is that there’s no way to be neutral.  You can see people trying to be neutral in group photographs. They pose with arms folded or close to their sides as if to say `Look, I’m not claiming any more space than I’m entitled to’, and they hold themselves very straight as if saying `But I’m not submissive either.’ …

Many people will maintain that we don’t play status transactions with our friends, and yet every movement, every inflection of the voice implies a status. My answer is that acquaintances become friends when they agree to play status games together.  … If I take a cup of tea to a friend then I may say `Get up, you old cow’ or `Your Highness’s tea’, pretending to raise or lower status.  Once students understand that they already play status games with their friends, then they realize that they already know most of that status games I’m trying to teach them.

We soon discovered the `see-saw’ principle: ‘I go up and you go down.’ … The exception to the see-saw principle comes when you identify with the person raised or lowered. … When you claim status because you know some famous person, then you’ll feel raised when they are.  …

Social animals have inbuilt rules which prevent them killing each other for food, mates, and so on.  Such animals confront each other, and often fight, until a hierarchy is established, after which there is no fighting unless an attempt is made to change the ‘pecking order’.  This system is found in animals as diverse as humans, chickens, and woodlice.  I’ve known about this ever since I was given a book about social dominance in kittiwake colonies, yet I hadn’t immediately thought of applying this information to actor training. This is because normal people are inhibited from seeing that no action, sound, or movement is innocent of purpose.  …

In animals the pattern of eye contacts often establishes dominance.  A stare is often interpreted as an aggressive act.  … Visitors to zoos feel dominant when they can outstare the animals.  I suggest you try the opposite with zoo animals: break eye contact and then glance back for a moment.  Polar bears may suddenly see you as food.  Owls cheer up perceptibly.  …

My belief (at this moment) is that people have a preferred status; that they like to be low,o or high, and that they try to manoeuvre themselves into the preferred positions. A person who plays high status is saying `Don’t come near me, I bite.’  Someone who plays low status is saying `Don’t bite me, I’m not worth the trouble.’  In either case the status played is a defence, and it’ll usually work.  It’s very likely that you will increasingly be conditioned into playing the status that you’ve found an effective defense.  You become a status specialist, very good at playing one status but not very happy or competent at playing the other. …

I’d suggest that a good play is one that ingeniously displays are reverses the status between characters.

Read the whole thing for far more detail.  A huge thanks to Kevin Simler for sending me the book, out of the blue.

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  • Zack S

    This is truly fascinating. Upon reflection, I find I measure my interactions on a daily basis in regards to relevant status between myself and the other person. While I never qualified it before, as Johnstone says now that I understand this, I imagine I will be more conscious of the interactions I have. I’m sure what qualifies as “status” varies from person to person and situation to situation – money, career, intellect – though I would assume that most people have a default setting that they automatically revert to. To be honest, I think I generally gauge status on an intellectual level.

  • Mike

    You should develop a “theory of friendship” akin to the previous “theory of identity.”

    A few months ago I would have said we have an instinct to develop friendships so as to develop a social security network. I don’t deny that that might play a role, but there are problems with this idea.

    The main problem, I see, is seen by looking at one’s history in what type of people one has been interested in befriending. If I were interested in building a security network, I would look for the most generous people, who were most able to give, including having few other friends. I wouldn’t care about how they looked or acted (except with regard to generosity). This doesn’t seem to fit my historical interest in friends.

    In high school, I wanted to be friends with “popular” people — even though these people already had many other friends and thus would be less likely to be able to help me much in a time of need. Indeed, I would have guessed they would drop me if I ever asked too much of them. Why did I want to be friends with them? I knew many people who I would have guessed would be very generous, but I didn’t want to befriend them. Why not?

    On a “conscious” level I want to befriend people who I find “interesting.” But what makes a person interesting to me? At first glance it seems I find people interesting if they reflect some quality I consider myself to have — or maybe want myself to have — which dovetails with the development of identity. So it seems a significant reason I develop friendships is to signal. I’m not proud of it, but I find I’m more likely to want to befriend a woman if she is physically attractive — the more attractive the more interesting — and while it seems I also want to befriend attractive men — I sense if a man is *too* attractive, I’m turned off. I should say I am a man. Also a person’s appearance seems to dictate more initial interest — certain personality qualities I reject regardless of how attractive the holder is.

    As I think was suggested in a previous post, I also take interest in my friends’ “status.” I want to have “important” friends, friends with who have many other friends or who cultivate high regard.

    It could be that what interests us in friendship changes with age. I was very shy as a child, but looking at others it seems they befriend based on convenience — it seems a child will befriend any other child at the same position and time, in particular if that child has something to offer, like a toy. As a teen I was preoccupied with befriending “popular” people, and as a young adult I seek people who reflect qualities about myself (or at least what I think / want those qualities to be). Perhaps as I grow older, my interest in friends will change again.

  • InfoRetrieval

    Great find, Kevin/Robin. Pretty interesting stuff.

    I will say, that personally, I am only happy with “neutral” friendships, and that they’re pretty hard to come by. I don’t enjoy being dominant over friends, and so will distance myself from friends that want me to be so, and of course will cut off anyone who attempts to be dominant over me. I’ve found that precious few people in the real world are content with these “neutral” relationships; most make a move in one direction, and early on. But it does happen – I do have long term “neutral” friends. But it appears extremely rare.

  • InfoRetrieval

    I should add that my comment is in response to the author’s claim that ALL actions are about status. Perhaps I took him to literally, but I am attempting to suggest that such is not necessarily the case, and that perhaps interactions as equals are in fact possible.

    Of course, all I have to offer is my own opinion, but then, that’s all that the author has as well.

  • jonathan

    Status is a nice word to covey the well-known idea that each participant plays a role in a conversation. As observed in children on up. The artificiality came from each actor choosing a role that didn’t interact with the others. Funny that actors playing roles don’t understand the context of their roles without direction.

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  • William Newman

    _Impro_ does sound like strong evidence that typical relationships between normal people are full of status gaming, and that people tend to be blind to it. But maybe you and Tyler Cowen should get together and think about abnormal people.

    I have spent a fair amount of time in groups doing engineering or mathematical or gaming things, where technical outcomes can be seen directly. Maybe I’m fooling myself, but my impression is that in those groups a fair proportion of people opt out of the games that the _Impro_ quote describes. They can still be very interested in status, but based on things more closely related to technical outcomes. To the extent that they care about the ordinary social dance of status, they often seem to be countersignalling by demonstrating that they can’t be bothered to dance.

    Lots of people know about the existence of such groups, and call them (e.g.) Asperger-y. As far as I know, few people train to do improv about them…

    Incidentally, the groups I am familiar with tend to contain the folks that people tend to accuse of psychological deviance, but I suspect what’s going on is not merely that the participants are psychologically odd. Normal status games can encounter friction in situations where it’s easy to measure performance. You try to establish the pecking order by the usual rituals … and lo, glaring contradictions with performance order. I wonder what happens in serious sports teams, or performance-paid sales teams.

  • Cyan

    I’d suggest that a good play is one that ingeniously displays are [sic] reverses the status between characters.

    I was instantly reminded of the vignette that opens this commentary on Bayes vs. frequentism by Larry Wasserman.

  • Bill Shoe

    The early 80′s movie “Dinner with Andre” is a perfect example of the writer’s suggestion that a good play (movie) is one that ingeniously displays a reverse in status between characters.

    –Semi-spoiler here. If you like this general concept then watch the movie instead of reading this, it’s a good movie.–

    Dinner with Andre consists of a long (~1.5 hour) conversation between two people over dinner. The movie starts slow and there is a natural tendency to closely follow what is said in the conversation. Then about halfway through you have an exquisite Aha!! moment when you realize it’s not really about the details of what they’re discussing, it’s about the status of the characters that slowly switches during the conversation.

    • Timothy

      For those interested in SF/Fantasy, the short SF novel by Stephen Donaldson, The Real Story, first part of The Gapseries, where Donaldson plays on the villain/victim/rescuer trope of adventure novels, with Angus (villain) Morn (victim) and Nick (rescuer) rotate in their roles to Victim/Rescuer/Villain respectively. It is also intensely about the changes in status of Angus, whose status goes from low (as petty bully victimising Morn) to exceedingly low (after Morn is rescued by Nick and Angus is arrested), while the beautiful Morn and dashing Nick are high status. Angus accepts neither his original low status as a marginally legal smuggler nor his later, lower status as a prisoner, and reacts with classic signs of denial (petty criminality, opportunistic brutality, then denial, disbelief, refusal to cooperate even when imprisoned) and gradually has his status raised (and that of Nick lowered) as the novel, and the later books, progress.

      • Eliezer Yudkowsky

        Donaldson described this first novel as an ideal drama in which a Victim, a Victimizer, and a Rescuer all change places. He noted that the difference between drama and melodrama is that in melodrama, the people all keep the same roles. I think it might have been an older saying, but that is where I encountered it.

  • Grant


    I think its just a matter of talent: we play the status games we are good at. Socialites are good at games more distant from physical outcomes. Engineers (perhaps we need a broader term for this sort of person?) are good at games which have direct physical feedback. The later sort of person would seem to be more often involved in honest signaling.

    Many social status games are cheap (e.g., boasting), so many people play them. Nearly any sort of game is cheap when compared to violence.

  • Person

    Reminds me of the time I stared straight in eyes of a silver back ape at the zoo. He stared back with such intensity, I literally felt scared and wanted to run away.

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  • William Newman

    Grant, I think even Bill Clinton or George Bush or Barack Obama might be more inhibited, not from any irrational shyness but from a fairly rational assessment of the situation’s payoff matrix. The presence of clear respected achievement independent of promotion-by-popularity makes for a situation a little like some peculiar corporate event where most of the participants don’t (yet) know the official power hierarchy. Anything close to one-upmanship could be risky when you might be trying it on someone who turns out to be your boss’s boss. Somewhat similarly (not for fear of payback, but for fear of embarrassing face-palming situations which harm status) when you might be trying it on a nice distracted chess player who turns out to be an International Master.

    When everyone already knows everyone, the relevant social rules get more complicated, but quite generally it seems to me that standard status maneuvers encounter additional friction when one or more people in the audience are known to have a solid independent status that everyone respects.

    Incidentally, perhaps this has something to do with the depth of antipathy for markets under a clear rule of law (and for some kinds of geekery, and for hereditary nobility back when it had a lot of power and street cred): *so* vexingly unfair when a significant number of self-made businessmen (or chessmasters, or students who get prized credentials based on strictly blind tests, or Barons) carry social trump cards (or at least social get-out-of-jail-free cards) which are substantially independent of the main silverback “don’t you know who I am?!?” dance.

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