Status Honesty

Scott Young ponders how honest to be about status:

People tend to ignore the status benefits of wealth. Most obviously because seeking status is a low-status behavior. Anyone seen grubbing for fame or new toys to impress their friends becomes less impressive.  As a result, I believe many people delude themselves that they want material possessions for intrinsic reasons. This is an unconscious effort to seek material wealth for purely status-related motives, and at the same time, not appear interested in grubbing for status. …

Some people would argue that the solution is to wipe yourself free of the need to obtain status. …  Another solution is to accept that people want status, and to pursue it zealously. … Of course, you could lie about these motives when asked, but still pursue them secretly. … One other solution seems to be the one most people pursue: search for status doggedly, but carefully delude yourself that every action you take for status, is actually pursued for other, nobler reasons. … None of these choices seem very appealing …

Perhaps the resolution to the conflict lies in accepting our need for status like all our other needs, hunger, sex or affection. … We should balance our strategy of life so that our pursuit of status mostly coincides with our other, nobler needs.  An artist might accept that recognition drives him. But he can also choose strategies that balance this drive with his need for creative expression, mastery or public impact.

No, no.  Scott, you are thinking you are built with separate desires for status and creative expression (etc.), which you must consciously trade against one another.  But we rarely need to consciously try to achieve status; usually the details of our desire for creative expression (etc.) are already designed to achieve status.

For example, if you have a great opportunity to express yourself creativity, you may start to pursue it. But if you then learn that no one else will ever hear of your expression, you may find you simply lose interest in that expression.  Similarly if you learn that this expression will be considered out of fashion.

It is when we stand back (or grow old) and look at broad patterns of our behavior that we most see that we have been seeking status.  We then realize that others may well notice the same patterns, which can triggers embarrassment at our status-grubbing.

This embarrassment often triggers a resolve to convert one’s desire to a purer kind of creative expression (etc.) desire, one which will not so easily produce apparent status-grubbing behavior.  For example, Holden Karnofsky:

I must say that, in fact, much of the nonprofit sector fits incredibly better into Prof. Hanson’s view of charity as “wasteful signaling” than into the traditional view of charity as helping. … Perhaps ironically, if you want a good response to Prof. Hanson’s view, I can’t think of a better place to turn than GiveWell’s top-rated charities. We have done the legwork to identify charities that can convincingly demonstrate positive impact. … Valid observations that the sector is broken – or not designed around helping people – are no longer an excuse not to give.

“Ha ha,” Holden says, “now you can’t prove I’m seeking status.  Sure the vast majority of humans mainly seek status, all the while believing they have higher motives.  I may have done that before in charity, and may do it now in most other areas of my life.  And sure we understand why evolution would have give humans such delusions.  But now that I have a spreadsheet calculating charity value, you must admit that my charity desire has nothing to do with status.  Yes that is not the sort of thing we expect evolution to have created, so it must have come pure from angels on high.”  Well played, Holden, well played.  🙂

The deeper problem is two-fold.  First, our desires have a lot of details, and it is no easy task to expunge them of all trace of status seeking.   A few changes might fool a casual, but not a careful, observer.  Second, as we approach an ideal status-free desire, we may well find that it just doesn’t seem very, well, desirable.  Why try that hard to avoid the appearance of extremely subtle clues of status seeking that hardly anyone would notice?  The honest, but ugly, approach is to admit we vigorously seek status, even via our charity, and will surely continue to do so.  “I give via GiveWell to show I’m caring, but not like those gullible ignoramus airhead losers.”

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