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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  • Buck Farmer

    A comfort for those uneasy with status-grubbing: Just because status-grubbing is a fantastically versatile and accurate model for predicting behavior doesn’t mean that’s why we do things.

    See Milton Friedman’s Essays on Positive Economics.

    Whether you believe the proximate or ultimate causes of your choices are more important is up for debate.

  • Gabe

    But most artists would say that the appreciation of the general public/ critics counts far less than the small group of respected peers. So it’s more like small scale recognition. Thus people openly talk about an ‘ambitious’ film or novel. That chapter in Brooks’ Bobos book is fairly true on this (Lorrie Moore has funny short story about a writer at a fundraiser which shows how little many artists care about the ‘general public’.

    • Most seek status within a fairly fixed in-group. Artists’ disdain toward the general public is used to raise their status within their in-group of other artists.

    • Buck Farmer

      Robert Frank studied this local group phenomenon for status seeking in the context of wage-compression in his book “Choosing the Right Pond”

      I’m not sure what the equilibrium implications are for individual membership in many small ponds with varying status within each one.

      This links in to the question of what are the implications of having multiple tournaments to compete in.

      On the other hand, there seems to be a vein of literature that suggests our ponds aren’t so small. There’s a shift in self-reported happiness across countries against GDP/capita. Earlier surveys produced little variation in happiness by GDP/capita. Later ones revealed it. One hypothesis being that globalization made it possible for impoverished peoples to compare themselves with first worlders.


    almost all of our desires are influenced in part by what we think others will think and feel about those desires. it is therefore true that almost all of them can be described from the Hansonian perspective as ”status-seeking’.

  • Nick

    Here’s how I understand the debate between Robin and Holden. Robin: non-profits are ineffective because they spend so much of their resources on wasteful signalling, rather than benefiting people. Holden: yep, that’s a pretty good explanation of lots of non-profit behavior. But some non-profits can be shown to have provide significant humantarian benefits. And this suggests that these non-profits are not as driven by signalling as Robin suggests. Robin: These organizations are still driven by signalling, but in more sophisticated ways. Even your organization is driven by signalling.

    I think the appropriate reply is this: perhaps so, but that doesn’t change the fact that some of these organizations provide significant humantarian benefits. Them, or even us, ultimately being driven by signalling is consistent with this.

    Is Robin’s suggestion that even this sophisticated kind of signalling will make effective humanitarian aid impossible or unlikely? It might could judgment and make aid somewhat less effective, but the dangers of vast signalling waste strike me as much smaller in the presence of GiveWell-like analysis.

    • Ben Merrill

      but the dangers of vast signalling waste strike me as much smaller in the presence of GiveWell-like analysis.

      The “GiveWell” and “organic” labels are strategies that charities and food producers and sellers use to market more effectively and so beat their competition in the marketplace. The “organic” label both makes organic food more marketable and non-organic food less marketable.

      True, the organic label might have a positive effect on nutrition in a population. But maybe it just changes the orders-of-rank of marketing tactics or signaling in the food industry. Most people will continue to make buying decisions based on marketing tactics that, at least individually, do not track metrics corresponding with what they would do if they were forced to think rationally about their food-buying decisions (WRT nutrition, ecology, etc.) for hours. I have met plenty of people who disdain the organic label yet consistently eat fresh vegetables, seafood, nutritional mushrooms, etc. (especially outside of the US). Often, an organic food is worse for the environment than non-organic food and has negligible health benefits.

      Maybe the GiveWell label just changes some factors in the orders-of-rank of the marketing tactics and signaling of charity.

      • Nick

        The “GiveWell” and “organic” labels are strategies that charities and food producers and sellers use to market more effectively and so beat their competition in the marketplace.

        Perhaps much of what you say about the “organic” label is true. I don’t find the comparison with GiveWell apt. Have you actually looked at their analysis? This was not a label made by non-profits to put on things and help them advertise.

      • Ben Merrill

        Perhaps much of what you say about the “organic” label is true. I don’t find the comparison with GiveWell apt. Have you actually looked at their analysis? This was not a label made by non-profits to put on things and help them advertise.

        On second thought, and after looking at the GiveWell website a bit longer, I do see the dissimilarity. I suppose that their level of success can actually be measured. I guess a more apt comparison would be an improved nutrition labeling program with an associated research program. It reminds me of quality reporting for medical practices – long-term effectiveness of treatment decisions are measured and successful institutions qualify for tax benefits.

  • anon

    “The honest, but ugly, approach is to admit we vigorously seek status, even via our charity, and will surely continue to do so.”

    A slightly less ugly approach is to argue that the impact of our charity, creative expression etc. on our associates may well be equitable compensation for the status benefits we are seeking: “Yes, I might be seeking fame and praise, but since my actions will make you better off, any status grubbing on my part is entirely fair”.

    Also, Scott Young misses one of the key motives for acquiring wealth: accumulate a savings cushion in order to relieve liquidity/credit constraints and compensate for negative shocks. Many middle-class people are not wealthy in ths sense.

  • stephen

    Sounds like GiveWell is to charity, what Pitchfork is to indie rock. Solutions to the “signaling problem” that utilize “transparency’ and “exposure” seem like they will only amplify the problem.

  • Bill

    How can you be worse off, as a society, if people follow the Givewell approach and give to charities that are effective? I think Holden prevails. Otherwise, this devolves into an argument that any charitable giving, even effective charitable giving, is explained only by status. Then, how do you explain the Anonymous donor, or the donation where your name is never identified to anyone other than some clerk in the charity’s office?

    No. Holden prevails as to Givewell.

    Now, status consumption is something else. What is interesting there is that people purchase to achieve status by assuming debt that will, when they have to pay in the future, reduce their status. That is interesting. How does it feel to be old and in debt? Evidently some people have problems translating the current you into the future you when it comes to status seeking.

    • stephen

      What percentage of the distribution is occupied by “anonymous” donors? Is there really such a thing? Wives, friends, potential mates, people at the country club with whom you discuss such matters, surely someone knows, right?

      If the efficacy of the average charity is “next to nothing” and the top ten on some list are slightly better than “next to nothing”, how much should we value that list? How much should that efficiency gain change our priors about charity and signaling?

      It seems that the most effective charities should be ones that are relatively transient. They form to solve a problem, solve the problem, then go away. Charities that exist in perpetuity, or dissolve because they run out of funding prior to completing their mission statement, should be considered relatively ineffective. If most charities fall into the latter category, should we look at alternative explanations for charity?

      • Bill

        Actually, most charities do not publish the lists of the their donors, for competitive reasons.

        Now, if you are talking about very large gifts, I would admit that there is status seeking or name recognition.

        But, I would dare you to give me the names of the donors to your local public tv or public radio station.

      • stephen

        My point on anonymity is that what a charity publishes is only a small part of the recognition a donor stands to recieves. If I donate to my local SPCA and then proceed to tell everyone in my social group and a bunch of chicks I am trying to sleep with, can I be considered an “anonymous” donor for the purposes of ruling out signaling as my motive?

        I can’t say for your local NPR affiliate, but mine makes a big point of anouncing every donors name in real time, with special attention to domors who pledge an additional amount if a certain goal is met in a certain period of time.

        One of my favorites was when Ira Glass from This American Life called up a bunch of long time public radio listeners, who had been outed by their friends and spouses for never having become “members”, to guilt them into donating. 100% of them pledged once the lights were on.

        Also notice how “member” sounds so much better, and more exclusive, then “customer”. They are the same thing.

    • Robert Koslover

      Some anonymous donors act as they do in order to increase their status not with man, but with God. And that’s fine, I think. But it also means that an atheist anonymous donor is (ironically) the holiest of all.

      • If it’s possible to compete for status in the eyes of what is for all intents and purposes an imaginary friend, it should also be possible to act to raise your own opinion of your status! Atheists who donate anonymously therefore do it to impress themselves.

      • Buck Farmer

        I believe there are experimental results showing people behave better in the presence of mirrors or if they have a conversation about ghosts before undertaking a task.

        It seems that these systems rely on parsimonious rules of thumb to decide when you’re being watched that can be pretty easily manipulated.

  • Jackson

    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.

    In my teens I was academically a failure and basically a ‘skinny runt’. Not only that, I had Christian based value system = inhibitions where peers would often not think twice. Curiously I discovered a powerful will to power through rock music – Led Zeppelin, if I could tap into fraction of what they had I could transcend a lot of my frustrations (status grubbing? Almost certainly).
    There was the complication of ‘sex & drugs’ and I imposed on myself a period of abstinence (granted, I was hardly having to force girls off me, and I was rather sensible anyway) and try and recruit nobler ideals to my passion (I think Salieri did much the same).

    Anyway, I’ve pretty much continued to fail, probably by the standards by which people judge Led Zeppelin anyway.

    We then realize that others may well notice the same patterns, which can triggers embarrassment at our status-grubbing.

    Oh yeah, regret and cringing with embarrassment, I have this on a regular basis, he he.

  • nathan

    I agree that most things are probably about signaling. However, it seems that this is an untestable claim, no matter what someone does, you could always rationalize it being a signaling gesture.

    Does anyone agree with this?

    Does it matter?

    • I think it matters (for efficiency purposes) and it’s potentially testable.
      A problem that anything that’s called “not a signal” can now be a nontransparent signal, which are often sorted as higher status behaviors and at the least can enhance rent-seeking for the signaller to the degree transparent signals are punished as an enforcement to reduce signalling waste.

    • Eric Johnson

      > Does anyone agree with this?

      > Does it matter?

      Yes and yes. There is a testability problem with evo psych. I have suggested there be separate journals for scientific (falsifiable) and non-scientific evo psych (which would be one of the humanities, basically). But there would probably have to be an intermediate/indeterminate category too.

      Econ often lands in the same parascientific zone, try making an experiment to prove or disprove keysianism, or decide once and for all whether tax rebates are as good a keynsian stimulus as anything else.

      Many evo psych ideas could be tested partly or completely by looking at pristine hunter-gatherers, which number few if any now but were common enough 30-40 years ago. But Razib Khan points out that most of these peoples live in deserts, so they are a biased sample of all hunter-gatherers and in particular may have a sparser population and less advanced social structure than most hunter-gatherer peoples had at the close of their heyday 3-10 thousand years ago. They were forced into deserts by agricultural peoples: grain growers, and in dry or very cold grasslands, pure herders with few or no domestic plants of their own.

  • Holden’s actual conclusion: “Valid observations that the sector is broken – or not designed around helping people – are no longer an excuse not to give.”

    Robin’s gloss on Holden’s conclusion: “now that I have a spreadsheet calculating charity value, you must admit that my charity desire has nothing to do with status.”

    Am I missing something?

  • Philo

    The discussion of “status-seeking” on this blog seems to miss its epistemic dimension. It is hard for the individual to judge the value of his attributes, activities, and possessions; an important clue to their true value is the attitude of those around him. Others often influence us to change our evaluations (if they did not provide us with the evaluative framework we use to judge for ourselves); one’s unaided judgment may be misguided, but “fifty million Frenchmen can’t be wrong” (or so we are inclined to think). So the individual tries to be, and do, and acquire what impresses others favorably; this gives him the best chance to be, do, and acquire what is truly valuable.

    For another reason the tone of disparagement with which Robin discusses status-seeking seems overdone. Each individual is heavily dependent on other people; their treatment of him is a powerful determinant of how well his life goes. It would not make sense for someone not to care about the attitudes of other people toward him.

    Of course, self-deception is bad: it is well to recognize one’s motives, including the desire for status, for what they are.

    • “It is hard for the individual to judge the value of his attributes, activities, and possessions; an important clue to their true value is the attitude of those around him.”

      True for sure. My response to people who have told me that i am delusion: “its to early to tell, I am still alive.”

    • Eric Johnson

      That is pretty well known in evo psych and has often been discussed re humans. In Matt Ridley’s truly excellent “Red Queen”, he discusses how female grouse and guppies pay attention to which males are selected by other females (these being in promiscuous species where a male contributes only sperm to the breeding effort, and so a female can select any one without fretting about getting his monogamous devotion).

    • Eric Johnson

      I’ll say this, when I was an artist, I was pretty clear on my main goal: to eclipse, to master, to CRUSH, to BURY my artist friends with something so beautiful they would never dare dream of making art again. And number two, to impress girls.

      That was my Nietzsche-loving aspect. But I was also aware of this passage from the taoist Chuang-tzu:

      Woodworker Ch’ing carved a piece of wood and made a bell stand, and when it was finished, everyone who saw it marveled, for it seemed to be the work of gods or spirits. When the marquis of Lu saw it, he asked, “What art is it you have?”

      Ch’ing replied, “I am only a craftsman – how would I have any art? There is one thing, however. When I am going to make a bell stand, I never let it wear out my energy. I always fast in order to still my mind. When I have fasted for three days, I no longer have any thought of congratulations or rewards, of titles or stipends. When I have fasted for five days, I no longer have any thought of praise or blame, of skill or clumsiness. And when I have fasted for seven days, I am so still that I forget I have four limbs and a form and body. By that time, the ruler and his court no longer exist for me. My skill is concentrated and all outside distractions fade away. After that, I go into the mountain forest and examine the Heavenly nature of the trees. If I find one of superlative form, and I can see a bell stand there, I put my hand to the job of carving; if not, I let it go. This way I am simply matching up `Heaven’ with `Heaven.’ That’s probably the reason that people wonder if the results were not made by spirits.”

      I suspect that kind of wu-wei always or usually must be known to someone, in some way, if they can make great art.

      I suspect the Chuang-tzu might interest you Robin if you havent already been there done that, a good deal of it is about dealing decorously with ambition and desire. Overall, it is a better read than Dao De Ching. Some of it recommends suppression of status signaling, probably for the good of society:

      The king of Wu, boating on the Yangtze, stopped to climb a mountain noted for its monkeys. When the pack of monkeys saw him, they dropped what they were doing in terror and scampered off to hide in the deep brush. But there was one monkey who, lounging about nonchalantly, picking at things, scratching, decided to display his skill to the king. When the king shot at him, he snatched hold of the flying arrows with the greatest nimbleness and speed. The king thereupon ordered his attendants to hurry forward and join in the shooting, and the monkey was soon captured and killed. The king turned to his friend Yen Pu-i and said, “This monkey, flouting its skill, trusting to its tricks, deliberately displayed its contempt for me – so it met with this end. Take warning from it! Ah – you must never let your expression show arrogance toward others! ”

      When Yen Pu-i returned, he put himself under the instruction of Tung Wu, learning to wipe the expression from his face, to discard delight, to excuse himself from renown – and at the end of three years everyone in the state was praising him.

      Tzu-ch’i of Nan-po sat leaning on his armrest, staring up at the sky and breathing. Yen Ch’eng-tzu entered and said, “Master, you surpass all other things! Can you really make the body like a withered tree and the mind like dead ashes?”

      • Buck Farmer

        Funny that Yen Pu-i’s reward is, “everyone in the state was praising him.”

        I’d argue that wu-wei (practically though not philosophically) has less to do with not pursuing status but more to do with not consciously pursuing status. The insight is that consciousness screws up our connection to the Dao and so we can’t do what’s right/needed.

        In the same way, being conscious of your status-grubbing or being conscious of your lies makes you worse at those two activities than genuinely believing you’re doing something for its own sake.

    • Vlad

      The rational component in conformity was not ignored on this blog. See here for example.

  • Bill

    I am interested in the EITHER / OR discussion of the issue of charitable giving::it is either for status/signalling, OR not.

    Humans are more complex. Maybe you give to the Cancer society because your mother died of breast cancer. Maybe you give because a co-worker coerced you (status or coercion). Maybe you give to your church–some churches publish the list of donors (status), others do not. The world is more complex, folks.

    Now, you COULD empirically prove the status/signalling debate all you economists out there.

    I do some voluteer work for a public radio station (signalling) (not really, the general counsel hires me as a lawyer)–what you might want to do is volunteer to your local public radio and tv station and run some controlled experiments to measure the responsiveness of giving to signalling–for example, some radio stations name the contributors randomly during a hour long solicitation period; other parts of the day they do not. If signalling is important, there should be a difference in responsiveness and amount given. Volunteer and run some experiments…and then come come back with your findings.

    Go for it.

    • Eric Johnson

      You dont really need your name on the radio if say your wife or girlfriend knows. Altruism is notably sought by women in long term lovers or husbands says G Miller. And at the same time, gifts also show off your weath, just the same as buying a Hummer. But it would be interesting to see who gives without anyone knowing, the way that Jesus guy propounded. But I would screen out regular christian churchgoers who might be obeying the Bible on that point rather than representing the raw human tendency..

      • Bill

        My wife is likely to object to my charitable giving, as I am hers. It is often a matter of divergent, not convergent, views in a marriage.

      • Bill

        If you are Tiger Woods, you can make the contribution to impress your wife and ALL your girlfriends.

        Actually, I doubt that there is much charitable contributions to impress girlfriends. How do you explain anonymous charitable contributions by single persons?

      • Eric Johnson

        Maybe its the thought that counts, the altruistic impulse. Anyway, in the times when we evolved our ways, your wife would stand down 95% of the time before any disagreement even started. The ancient greeks we adore kept their women in the home all the time in many times and places, the way muslims sometimes have. Not as in they worked in the home, though they did, but rather as in they were supposed to be at home about 98% of the time.

        Of course, as I recently discussed with TGGP at his place, I dont think such people were evil at all. They were constantly at war in a malthusian world economy, and their state economy was their war machine; their society had to be almost frictionless and as roaringly powerful as possible. They all tortured, they all enslaved, they genocided. Hence, no progressive movement until the end of the malthusian economy c 1800 — earlier in the USA, where there was little lack of land and food; the precocious American democratic idealism did not come only from the ultra-protestant spirit. When a people was conquered by nice peoples like the Romans (who would certainly still genocide you if you rebelled), or the Persians, they merely faced oppressive taxes. When they were conquered by hardliners like Mongols, Spartans, Aztecs, or most hunter-gatherers, they faced enslavement, genocide, and being taken into harems. Naturally, if your mother, wife, and daughter all face kidnapping and haremage, while you face getting whipped like a horse in the salt mines, you are in favor of slavery, torturing anyone who looks like they might need it, and genocide at least when necessary — all those things saved you from being conquered. Today, we can afford to be decent. Those who opposed progress when it meant freeing slaves and such wound up on the wrong side of history. Once the American Confederacy was out of peril, it too would have sprouted a growing anti-slavery movement before long. Of course, today I feel we have over-progressed a bit, thats my opinion.

  • DanLA

    The honest, but ugly, approach is to admit we vigorously seek status, even via our charity, and will surely continue to do so.

    You point to a different problem. We can be honest to ourselves about our status seeking tendencies but we cannot admit this attitude to others. It is ugly. It does not receive social approval. Do we have to deceive either ourselves or other people?

  • Eric Slusser

    So it is very hard to reform our actions away from status-seeking.

    Would it be more effective or easier to change how we bestow status on others, to bring status-seeking into harmony with whatever ethical ends? Would this best be done by adjusting our social mores? Or by implementing or reforming more formal institutions?

    I’m thinking of how capitalism harmonizes our desire to achieve status through wealth with productive enterprise (perhaps imperfectly).

  • Obviously for evol psych reasons, our other desires (creative expression, etc.) are, at least in part, adaptation to pursue status without nakedly displaying status.

    But that doesn’t mean that people don’t have drives for status and recognition that aren’t obfuscated by other drives. I can want fame and recognition directly, not just indirectly through signaling drives of creativity, expression, charity.

    Sorry if I ignored the evol. psych argument, but there is only so much I can touch on in a blog article.

    • Yes we can directly and consciously want status. I’m saying that is a small fraction of our overall status drive.

      • Philo

        Robin’s evo-psych thought is: human beings live in groups; the individual’s status within the group is important to his (reproductive) success; therefore natural selection supplies him with motivations to behave in ways that in fact will secure his group-status. Even if higher status is not his own conscious intent, we can rightly describe his behavior as “status-seeking.”

        This is like saying: the motivations implanted in the individual by natural selection ultimately subserve his reproductive success; therefore, whatever we do is *really* aimed at reproducing ourselves. (Not a very illuminating comment.)

  • Good point, Robin. By coincidence, in my post today at LitNow, I riff on Alex Tabarrok’s take on Design Within Reach’s furniture, to argue that we are much more likely to find something beautiful, if we know it’s expensive, because this means it’s highly valued by others – and thus, being associated with it, and ideally owning it, is a reliable marker of status.

  • RJMooreII

    Second, as we approach an ideal status-free desire

    Why is this ideal? I have not the slightest interest in denying my attempts to gain status, material wealth, sex or personal influence. Why would I? Perhaps the answer would be to realise that the moralistic signaling is asinine, not the motives that apparently contradict it. And this may be self-defeating status-seeking among some circles, but among none-idiots I find it works fairly well.
    It seems to me that emotionally insecure and stupid people have a whole set of problems that they bring on themselves, and which have little to know bearing on me.

    • Jackson

      but among none-idiots

      I am almost certainly an idiot by your reckoning… I think some of the blame lies with the state, without it I wouldn’t have either perished early or maybe turned out a real prick. I’m not sure what’s best.

  • Bill

    Actually, there is recent good social psych research on charitable giving that doesn’t rely on the premise of this post. It does point to self interest, but in a different way–that is, if you are primed to focus on money, you do not give.

    Here is the experiment. Game played on a computer for winnings. One group gets primed with a flash of school of fish on a screensaver; the other group gets primed with dollar signs floating on the screensaver.

    Each group earns money by playing the game.

    Each person leaves annonomously; on the way out the door there is a basket where you can contribute part or all of your earnings to charity.

    People flashed with the dollar sign do not contribute; those flashed with school of fish contribute more.

    If you are thinking about money, you do not give; if you are not thinking about money, you give more.

    Bottom line: if you are a fund raiser, and you, in your commercial say “We know times are bad, but we need your help”–You are likely to do poorly because you have primed the person to think about money and their own financial interests.

    Similarly, a politician who says: “Times are bad, and we need to help others” will not do as well as a politician who says “Times are bad, I feel your pain, and I’m here to help you.”

  • I’ll freely admit a large role for the kinds of motivations Robin attributes to us and our donors at the end of this post. There are also other motivations that I would call “genuinely altruistic” but not necessarily “pretty,” as described at this GiveWell blog post.

    The GiveWell approach doesn’t have to come from “pure” or “pretty” motivations to in fact lead to more effective giving.

    Agree with the comments by Nick and Richard.

    • Yes you claimed your charities are much more effective, and I’m not necessarily disagreeing with that. (Would take some time to review your evidence.) But you said that this implied that this meant folks no longer had an excuse not to give. However, I’m suggesting the main reason anyone needs such an excuse is because they are avoiding giving in order not to appear status grubbing. So if observers can see that giving your way is also status grubbing, the rationale of your excuse fades. The issue is how many people actually care about how effective are their charities, besides folks who fear their status seeking will be naked and visible without such effectiveness.

      • The “excuse” I was referring to is not “I won’t give because I don’t want to be status-grubbing,” but rather “I won’t give because the nonprofit sector is broken and thus charities can’t be expected to be accomplishing good.”

      • I’m suggesting the excuse you refer to is not honest about its motivations, that the real issue is avoiding the appearance of status-grubbing.

      • michael vassar

        It seems MUCH more credible that people are trying to not give because they don’t want to spend money and that they are looking for a way to do so without loosing status. They try to avoid loosing status by offering the best excuse that they can think of for why giving is uncool, namely that giving is crass status-grubbing and not actually effective. Holden removes that excuse by listing effective ways to give that meet high standards of scrutiny. They then need to find some different excuse. Saying that effective giving is still status-seeking isn’t going to effectively prevent them from loosing status by not giving, so maybe they can say that universal altruism is for suckers, a misfiring of adaptations aimed at helping near (and presumably related or capable of reciprocity) people due to modern communication causing distant people to be visible. This excuse would be more costly to give than “charity doesn’t work” however, because it would imply a kindness drive which could be overcome when it was misfiring and which is thus probably weak in general. A person with such a weak drive might be a poor ally regardless of their status. In fact, if they have high status they might be a danger to those near them.

        Status isn’t the only, or even the most important kind of signaling, though it’s up there. If you make it hard to give out all the right signals without engaging in the desired behavior you make the desired behavior more likely. Holden is doing this. Hopefully this will prove to be an adaptive example, rather than a misfiring, of his necessarily evolved psychology and he will find it rewarding, continue, and cause people to be better off.

      • Michael, I think our desire to show we care is pretty constant, so the issue is where we show that care. We might like to do it on big global issues as that makes us big and grandiose, but if those donations seem ineffective that takes away from the attraction, and makes those who donate anyway to that seem gullible or status grubbing.

  • Marc

    If you get to choose the game in which you compete for status then you can have some control. Don’t choose a zero sum game like a sporting contest – do something productive that adds value to the economy.

  • “I give via GiveWell to show I’m caring, but not like those gullible ignoramus airhead losers.”

    Ye that’s me. Easy to admit. You can make revealing your signalling intentions a countersignal you use if you really want to be both honest and high status.

    • Case in point:

      If I became a philosopher, if I have so keenly sought this fame for which I’m still waiting, it’s all been to seduce women basically. – Sartre

      Just be Great, then you can say anything.

  • Abhi Sivasailam

    If I give charitably to an organization anonymously, what is my motivation if not status-seeking?

    Am I merely trying to fulfill a specific, desired conception of myself? While that may be true sometimes, a functionalist answer seems much too simplistic to be valid all the time.

    • Jackson

      I think so much of it comes back to that thing about ‘teach a man to fish…’ or hand up not hand out. It’s outrageous to think that millions upon millions of people around the world aren’t realizing even basic life potential, let alone at least a lot more of them becoming great musicians and the like, because of genetics. And it’s to easy to blame their corrupt governments… trying to address this anonymously or otherwise is no mystery to me… so what about status? my status could hardly be lower in the eyes of many people.

  • For those who continue to bash status seeking/mating seeking behavior, I have a cautionary tale. See

    “After castration, probably due at least in part to the self-image thing, I have had and still sometime have, big problems with my drive and motivation. There are so many things that no longer matter to me – things that created the “appearance” of who I was – nice clothes, new car, you know, all the toys. Today I don’t feel the need for these things, because I simply don’t care what anyone else thinks when they see me. So why waste the effort and money to “show off” ??? And if you don’t need the extra money, then you don’t need to make as much money, which of course takes less effort. The problem was that I just could not find a REASON to have a drive. What was I working for? It took years for me to establish a new “life plan” … something to “chase”. And even now that I have one, I have to really fight with myself, to force myself to do what I need to do.”

  • anonymous

    Having spent time with people making in the neighborhood of a dollar a day, even someone as insensitive as myself can find plenty of motivations for effective charity that are much stronger than status-seeking.

    In fact, I see the status-seeking aspects of charity as mostly negative. When I’m in poor countries, I hate it when people suck up to me because I’m a potential meal ticket. This has the feel of being chatted up by someone of the wrong sexual orientation; you can tell the other person is very interested in the conversation, but personally it’s hard not to be bored. In rich countries, most of my friends haven’t traveled much to poor countries and don’t share my perspective. While I’d like to be able to influence their donations, I don’t want to come across as arrogant, and don’t want to belittle their charities, even if I find them ineffectual. e.g. if someone’s parent has died of cancer, I’d rather not explain to them why I prefer MSF to the American Cancer Society. Or if someone has credit card debt and doesn’t donate much, I don’t want to embarrass them about this.

    Ok, so my donations fit my self-image as a partially moral person, but c’mon: my jogging helps fit my self-image as a healthy person. My givewell-style charitable donations are one of the least status-seeking things I do.

  • Rob
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