Denying Dominance

Participants expecting to have a conversation with an obese student were much quicker to indicate that words like “powerful”, “strong” and “dominant” matched their self-concept than were participants expecting to have a conversation with a normal-weight student. …  Moreover, participants expecting to chat to an overweight student reported feeling more socially powerful as revealed by their agreement with statements like “I could make the interaction more enjoyable for my partner” and “I expect that my partner will like me more than I like him”. Finally, participants waiting to talk to an overweight partner also tended to rate their partner more negatively, and were more likely to say that obesity is due to lack of willpower.

More here.  Humans clearly attend closely to status, an important part of status is dominance, and a key way we show dominance is to tell others what to do.  Whoever gets to tell someone else what to do is dominating, and affirming their own status.  But we are also clearly built to not notice most of our status moves, and so we attribute them to other motives.  And as long as we are making up motives, we might as well make up the most admired of motives, altruism.

So we tend to think we tell others what to do in order to help them, and not to dominate them.  In particular we tend to think we tell fat folks what to do, and control their behavior, because this will help those fat folks.  For example, many support taxing soda or fast food in order to help fat folks.

Yet it is completely crazy to imagine that fat folks have not yet heard that fat might be unhealthy or unattractive.  Believe me, they’ve heard!  If they are choosing to be fat, they are doing so reasonably informed of the consequences.  Our constant anti-fat “public health” messages are not at all kind – such messages just serve to put fat folks down, and lift the rest of us up.  If anyone is so clueless as to need constant reminders, it is those who can’t see their own over-bearing domination, such as putting down fat folks to lift themselves up.

Hat tip to Stefano Bertolo and Tyler Cowen.

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  • Dan1

    Thanks for the link. The famous improv teacher Keith Johnstone also observed the importance of status in daily interactions and, as a consequence, he incorporated status play in his teaching.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      I blogged that in August.

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  • jonathan

    One problem with attacking status is that many social constructs are built as mechanisms to convey status. Take a church. The message is often “I’m saved … and you aren’t.” We don’t actually know if a person is “saved” because we’re unable to see past death, but one function of religion is to make an “us” which has some superior aspects to whatever “them” exists.

    Again, take an ancient society like Rome. We have numerous examples of people labeled with low-status nicknames achieving quite a lot. In this society, a fat person can certainly achieve but in Rome that person might have been known generally as “Fatty.” I’m not trying to push this too far, but which is healthier: pretending he isn’t fat or calling him Fatty? I tend to think the latter because the former is a pretense which, as you note, no one believes; Fatty knows he’s fat.

  • Unnamed

    Yet it is completely crazy to imagine that fat folks have not yet heard that fat might be unhealthy or unattractive.

    The soda tax isn’t about persuading fat folks that fat is bad, it’s about having millions of people face a price for soda that’s slightly higher than it otherwise would be, so that some of them buy less soda and become marginally healthier and less heavy (it’s also about raising some revenue for the government). It seems like you’re mixing together different levels of analysis here – the reason to tax soda is that drinking soda is unhealthy, but once it’s taxed no one ever needs to think about that for it to be effective.

    So is there a way to test your hypothesis that support for public health measures like a soda tax is about dominance? You might predict that soda tax supporters would hold more negative attitudes of fat folks and that they’d see obesity as more due to a lack of willpower, but I’d guess that the opposite is true. I’d also guess that that supporters of public health measures to fight obesity are more likely to support other public health measures, like more nutritious foods for thin folks, adding safety features to cars, reducing exposure to lead, carcinogens, and other pollutants, and so on. Maybe you could try to explain these in terms of dominance over other groups, but it seems more parsimonious to tie them together as measures that improve public health.

  • Yvain

    Yet it is completely crazy to imagine that fat folks have not yet heard that fat might be unhealthy or unattractive. Believe me, they’ve heard! If they are choosing to be fat, they are doing so reasonably informed of the consequences. Our constant anti-fat “public health” messages are not at all kind – such messages just serve to put fat folks down, and lift the rest of us up. If anyone is so clueless as to need constant reminders, it is those who can’t see their own over-bearing domination, such as putting down fat folks to lift themselves up.

    There’s some decent evidence that things like anti-smoking campaigns have positive effects, and people really should be just as aware of harmful effects from smoking as they are of harmful effects from fatty food.

    I continue to disapprove of the new “cite one tangentially related fact, then jump to the conclusion that everyone who supports an altruistic policy is secretly a bad person trying to hurt others” policy on this blog lately.

    I mean, I feel a bit higher status when I’m talking to an ignorant or irrational person, but I wouldn’t dream of using that fact to say everyone who writes blogs on overcoming bias is secretly trying to enforce dominance by making everyone else feel bad about how stupid they are.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      Yes social pressure can discourage smoking or eating; that doesn’t mean it was a good idea. Blog posts are by their nature short, and simply cannot offer complete detailed analyses. The larger set of blog posts can approximate that, but not each post.

    • Tyrrell McAllister

      I continue to disapprove of the new “cite one tangentially related fact, then jump to the conclusion that everyone who supports an altruistic policy is secretly a bad person trying to hurt others” policy on this blog lately.

      Robin goes too far in saying that we are “making up” the motive of altruism. That motive is probably really there in many people. But he’s right to point out that the motive to dominate is there, albeit along side the altruistic motive. Moreover, we can deceive ourselves into believing that the contribution to our actions coming from the urge to dominate is altruistic in origin. That is, we can imagine that our actions are entirely motivated by altruism, which is false.

    • kevin

      The conclusion that most altruistic acts are actually about signaling dominance/status is hardly a new feature of this blog. Or did you really fail to notice it before?

      • Tyrrell McAllister

        I think it’s the alleged “cite one tangentially related fact” part that Yvain disapproves of.

    • JOHNLEEDS

      The major point I think you’re missing is that fat people endure the social costs of their fatness much more than smokers do. Smoking is sexy and cool. It is frowned upon, but smokers are not the constant butt of jokes like fat people. People have contempt for fat people, and see them as lazy, stupid, and gluttonous.

  • Bill

    Do you think it would be a soda tax or a tax on sweeteners? There is a difference. You might be nudging people in the direction of non-sweetened soda or water. At a small price.

    • Psychohistorian

      As I’ve heard it, soda taxes are aimed at caloric sodas. Diet sodas are not affected. Sweetening isn’t the issue, it’s calories, at least in theory.

  • Steven Schreiber

    I think Robin is right and those people disagreeing are more than likely low-status fatties. 😛

    Public health campaigns very often veer from the simply advisory to the acerbic. Over time, they tend to make their status pretensions quite explicit. Hence the continuous use of low-status imagery in anti-drug messages–people are warned about becoming junkies or homeless or a host of other ills that are completely status linked.

    • Tyrrell McAllister

      people are warned about becoming junkies or homeless or a host of other ills that are completely status linked.

      A relevant Onion video: http://www.theonion.com/content/video/new_anti_smoking_ads_warn_teens

    • Psychohistorian

      “warned about becoming junkies or homeless or a host of other ills that are completely status linked.”

      I am fairly sure that being homeless or a junkie comes with a very large heap of negative consequences that are almost completely divorced from status. Beds are comfortable, food is tasty, it’s nice to have a shower and a TV and so forth, and it would be virtually irrespective of the status value of these goods.

  • Freddie O’Connell

    I live with a third-year medical student, and I have learned far more from being exposed to her medical training and pre-med cancer research than I ever knew beforehand about both smoking and obesity and the astonishing morbidities associated with each.

    I’m not going to take issue with the specific public policy example of nudging taxation proposals, but I think it’s unreasonable to expect that all overweight, obese, and morbidly obese people have complete understandings of the health risks they face, just as my personal experience with smokers in various demographic groups suggests they’re not aware of the extraordinary variety of health risks they face by choosing to continue smoking.

    Regardless of whether either smokers or a population of overweight, obese, and morbidly obese would make different choices with additional information, I’d be concerned that your position could be perceived as a tacit attack on preventive medicine, which seems to have motives apart from altruism.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      The issue isn’t complete understanding, but getting the overall magnitude roughly right. It is fine to offer fat folks “prevention” opportunities, but repeated preaching for or taxing those who don’t take them is another matter.

  • John Goes

    If anyone is so clueless as to need constant reminders, it is those who can’t see their own over-bearing domination, such as putting down fat folks to lift themselves up.

    This seems like shallow analysis.

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  • Mike

    Do we play the same game in other ways?

    There’s lots of public advice to stay in school too — to study hard, etc. Yet everyone has to understand the value of education. I suspect those individuals who drop out or do not work hard at their education do so because they learned long ago that this strategy isn’t working for them (because they were simply born with inferior brains, though they might tell themselves a very different story).

    By presenting scholastic success as a matter of hard work and dedication, we affirm these values in those who succeed academically, and thus justify their elevated status (and higher pay) in society. Likewise we downplay the role of genetics and environment.

    • Doug S.

      The value of diplomas is obvious. The value of education is less so.

      Let’s try a thought experiment.

      John recently graduated from Harvard University with honors, having majored in English literature. His counterpart in a parallel universe, John-prime, spent the last four years working as a waiter instead of attending college. Thanks to a meddling philosopher with godlike powers, the two of them find themselves in each other’s universe. John has the knowledge gained from a Harvard education, but, as far as everyone else is concerned, he never attended Harvard. John-prime, on the other hand, has a Harvard diploma, but none of the education. Who is going to have a better career: John, or John-prime?

      • salacious

        The perceived value of diplomas is linked to the perceived value of education. In a world where these John/John-prime switches happened routinely, the value would diplomas would drop.

        Which isn’t to say there isn’t plenty of other status-nonsense going on with the credentialing process.

      • http://www.abs-usa.com Floccina

        The value of diplomas is obvious. The value of education is less so.

        I would rater say: The value of diplomas is obvious. The value of schooling is less so.

        IMO education is very valuable but schools test/grade humans/signaling far more than they educatate. IMO If schools focuased on delivering useful knowledge and skills, they would be very different than they are.

      • Ak Mike

        John will have a better career. John prime will have an easier time getting that first job, but he won’t do so well after that. He doesn’t have good reading or writing skills, doesn’t have connections with people who are going places, doesn’t have work habits associated with success such as self-discipline, doesn’t have the experience of spending a lot of time around very smart people, thinking hard, responding to difficult questions.

        Education matters. Diplomas have some value, but much less than education.

      • Diana

        John will. John-prime will drop out after getting fired from three jobs. I speak from personal experience, as a Harvard grad who’s watched legacies and non-legacies fare post-Harvard.

        The Harvard degree gets you in the door. But after Harvard, there are jobs to do. The legacies eventually wind up living off their trustfund money. The rest, no matter what their other problems, all do turn out to be good at something. It may take them a while to find it, but eventually they do.

        You get more from an education than a credential.

        Personally I am also convinced that if by some mechanism you made the poor and the rich swap places, within ten years a lot of both would be right back where they were before the switch. Not all, by any means, but a lot.

    • Psychohistorian

      “I suspect those individuals who drop out or do not work hard at their education do so because they learned long ago that this strategy isn’t working for them (because they were simply born with inferior brains, though they might tell themselves a very different story).”

      This is an oddly simplistic and… bizarrely comforting way of looking at the world. I am not the least bit surprised that this sentence starts with, “I suspect” and not, “From what I’ve observed.” This is doubtlessly true of some people; if I don’t get algebra, and I don’t want to get algebra, and I don’t think there’s a point to getting algebra, then not taking math class seriously makes a certain amount of sense. But, in the real world, people drop out of school or cease pursuing an education for many different reasons. Of the people I’ve known who have dropped out of school or failed to pursue further education, there are many cases where capability has not been a significant factor. This is doubly true considering that once you actually get in to a lot of schools, as long as you can breathe, you can get a diploma.

      Indeed, I’d think most people who are limited by their own abilities simply stop school at a convenient stopping point, i.e. once they get a diploma. People who actually drop out mid-stream likely do so because something unexpected happens. In some cases, that “unexpected” is “I can’t handle this any more,” but I’d doubt that’s a majority. Of course, this whole paragraph is purely speculative, and I cheerfully admit such.

    • Mike

      In response to the first comment, I said “education” but you might as well replace it with “diploma.” That is, I consider the value of the diploma to be self evident, and suggest those who fail to obtain a diploma largely due so for not so simple reasons as “laziness” or “misplaced priorities.”

      In response to the second post, I agree I was being overly simplistic. I was attempting to draw a critical eye toward the notion that whether or not one achieves academics success has to do with one’s priorities and work ethic. Of course, people who achieve academic success work hard for it. And surely many people who don’t are lazy or have misplaced priorities. But I suspect we overemphasize these aspects of the situation, so as to elevate the status of the academically successful. I did not mean to pigeon-hole all the reasons why one might not succeed academically. I meant only to suggest that it often has more to do with other things than laziness or poor values.

  • scott clark

    And remember your orwell. It’s not just enough to tell you what to do. Because if they tell you to do something that you would have done on you own, how would they do they had power? How would they know you were listening to them and not your own conscience? How would they know they had power and that you were displaying the proper amount of loyalty and compliance and obedience? No, just telling you what to do is not enough to establish dominance. They have to make you suffer. They have to make you behave in ways that are adverse to your own best interests. They have to cause you pain and discomfort and have you go along with it to validate their position at the top of the heap.

    • scott clark

      PS: then after that we can all invent our various pretenses to explain our behaviors.

  • http://roissy.wordpress.com roissy

    Yet it is completely crazy to imagine that fat folks have not yet heard that fat might be unhealthy or unattractive. Believe me, they’ve heard!

    NAAFA would disagree.

    ps tormenting fatties isn’t necessarily about signaling dominance. some of us are environmental activists.

  • dilys

    I recently lost 50 lbs-and-counting, at the age of 64-65, after trying for maybe 40 years not to be fat, so I do see at least one version of both sides of this. Two points:

    In social transactions, it certainly seemed that when you’re fat, you’ve pretty much used up the margin available for concessions. If you contradict received wisdom or are unattractive in any other way, you’re pretty firmly marginalized. It is also clear that you’re not a high-status person to associate with, the last kid chosen for the team (though people will gladly put you to work on a solitary basis with little reward). “Making your own fun” is imperative, and some of that may involve food.

    Secondly, apart from the dominance issue (and on the receiving end, it registers in large part as “I know what you should do; why the heck don’t you do it and stop bothering me with looking at all that flesh”): None of these provisions make a bit of difference for most well-motivated fat people, and may be counterproductive. I didn’t have dessert more than once a month for decades. I didn’t have sugared sodas. Meals out were grilled fish. I cut back the fat to almost zero for years.

    Nada.

    What worked was (no drugs, no tormenting starvation)
    — a serious relationship with a kind gastroenterologist who knew what he was talking about, and combined Western medical knowledge with [more significant impact] other traditions;
    — a gradual, gentle mental shift to minuscule portions — smaller than most normal eaters — and a self-education as to what worked experientially;
    — using every trick I could find to postpone hunger and stretch food, including many from Seth Roberts’ ShangriLa diet;
    — a gradual shift, via small portions, to enjoying and anticipating nourishing, flavorful, well-seasoned food, quite high in non-processed fat, tracking very approximately the Paleolithic diet. This is usually available in good restaurants. Fast food I found impossible, but planning ahead and carrying good food is not difficult.

    Condescending programmatic attitudes from anyone who has his own, non-fat, excesses or failings; and irrelevant coercive measures involving soda, vending machines, fatty foods, forcing questionable information, etc., simply alienate the struggling, which I have to think is part of the us/them purpose, partly to alleviate the fear.

    I suspect that some of the “medical statistics about obesity” are overblown, conflated with other factors, or otherwise misleading for this same reason. Fat seems to serve as a disgusting archetypal horror for many people, especially in this culture, and that confuses the issue of the real health and social needs of those who would like to be more normal in this way. On the other hand, if you’re dealing with those who lack the necessary interest in salvaging their own well-being, well, there’s where identifying one’s own biases is an indispensable first step in knowing what, if anything, to do about it.

  • gwern

    Wait, I don’t get this. Economics tells us that if we want to discourage some behavior (like being fat), make it more expensive; taxing non-nutritive but high calorie foodstuffs seems like a great way to do that. But now Robin is telling us that actually it’s just a contorted dominance ploy?

    I wonder at what point social signaling becomes as useful as psychoanalysis or Marxism in explaining things…

  • http://smartdogs.wordpress.com SmartDogs

    “Whoever gets to tell someone else what to do is dominating, and affirming their own status. But we are also clearly built to not notice most of our status moves, and so we attribute them to other motives. And as long as we are making up motives, we might as well make up the most admired of motives, altruism.”

    In three sentences you brilliantly summarized my problem with those who vehemently advance the idea of “purely positive” dog training. They deny that dominance exists and then, in the name of altruism, demand that everyone adopt their chosen ideas and methods.