Status Audit

Breathing is very important to us.  Even so, it is hard to say that we do much of what we do just to breathe.  Instead, we adjust what we do to make sure we can breathe.  We do this mostly unconsciously, but we do it.

Similarly, status is very important to us.  But it looks bad to do things to directly for status; that seems too desperate.  So usually we have other conscious motivations, and unconsciously adjust our behavior to manage status. This lets us avoid showing or seeing how much status matters to us.

With this in mind, I thought I’d try a quick status audit of my blogging behavior, using this fascinating list of status moves.  I’ve listed the 41 of them that plausibly apply below.  Considering my usual blogging style, I’ve tried to code as red moves where what I tend to do or not do typically raises my status or lower others’, and as blue moves that typically lower my status or raise others’.  Black moves were harder to code.

A. High-status behaviors

  1. Having no visible reaction to what the other person said.
  2. Speaking in complete sentences.
  3. Talking matter-of-factly about things that the other person finds displeasing or offensive.
  4. Speaking authoritatively, with certainty.
  5. Giving or withholding permission.
  6. Evaluating other people’s work.
  7. Speaking cryptically.
  8. Being surrounded by an entourage.

B. Low-status behaviors

  1. Speaking in halting, incomplete sentences.
  2. Dancing around your words when talking about something that will displease the other person.
  3. Shouting as an attempt to intimidate the other person.
  4. Adjusting the way you say something to help the other person understand.

C. Raising another person’s status

  1. Be laughed at by them. … laughing with them at someone else.
  2. Ask their opinion about something.
  3. Ask them for advice or help.
  4. Express gratitude for something they did.
  5. Apologize to them for something you did.
  6. Agree that they are right and you were wrong.
  7. Defer to their judgement without requiring proof.
  8. Address them with a fancy title or honorific.
  9. Downplay your own achievement or attribute in comparison to theirs.
  10. Do something incompetent in front of them and then apologize.
  11. Mention a failure or shortcoming of your own.
  12. Compliment them in a way that suggests appreciation, not judgement.
  13. Obey them unquestioningly.
  14. Wait for them.

D. Lowering another person’s status

  1. Laugh at them. (Not with them.)
  2. Criticize something they did.
  3. Contradict them. Tell them they are wrong. Prove it with facts and logic.
  4. Correct them.
  5. Insult them.
  6. Give them unsolicited advice.
  7. Approve or disapprove of something they did or some attribute of theirs.
  8. Shout at them.
  9. Ignore what they said and talk about something else.
  10. One-up them. E.g. have a worse problem … a greater past achievement.
  11. Announce something good about yourself or something you did.
  12. Disregard their opinion.
  13. Talk sarcastically to them.
  14. Make them wait for you.
  15. Taunt them. Tease them.

I count 20 red, 13 blue, and 8 black.  So I gotta admit I overall do more things that raise my status and lower others’ than the other way around.  I’d like to think I don’t that much care about my status, and so I should be willing to adjust my behavior from red to blue, at least where time/effort costs are low.  But looking over this list, I’m not sure I see any easy wins.

I’m proud of a few blue items where I’d consider myself insufferably arrogant to do otherwise – I’m reluctant to taunt, laugh, or insult folks here.   But seeing how many other things I do that raise my status and lower others’, I wonder if that is just self-righteous prudery.  Should I let loose my taunting, laughing, insulting self?   Suggestions?

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  • http://www.cmp.uea.ac.uk/~jrk Richard Kennaway

    I think you misunderstand improv. The signals listed there are tools for use on the stage, to inform the audience of the relations between the characters. Those relationships are fictional: they are, by definition, exactly what the authors (in improv, the actors) signal that they are.

    This is not so effective in real life, for reality cannot be conjured into existence by symbolic acts. It is useful to know the language, but using it without regard to the truth of what is said misses the point.

    >Should I let loose my taunting, laughing, insulting self?

    What do you want?

    What will achieve that?

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

      You really think observers only interpret these as status moves for fictional characters, not real people? Any evidence for that?

      • http://www.cmp.uea.ac.uk/~jrk Richard Kennaway

        Of course they interpret them. The difference between the fictional setting and reality is the direction of causation. In fiction, signals create status, because the status doesn’t exist beyond the signals by which the actors assert it. In reality, true signals indicate pre-existing status, while false signals run the danger of being unmasked. I’m sure we all know a few phoneys, who purport themselves to be more important than they really are.

        Nobody gets a Nobel for claiming to have one.

      • lemmy caution

        Richard is correct. If it was easy or risk free to act in a high status manner then everyone would do it. It isn’t. People are constantly monitoring other people’s status signals. You don’t really want to piss off your boss.

        You should definitely read the book impro:

        http://www.amazon.com/Impro-Improvisation-Theatre-Keith-Johnstone/dp/0878301178

        On interesting point he makes is that there is no neutral status signals and friends just alternate high and low status signals.

    • michael vassar

      I mostly agree. Translation from physical to blogging isn’t fruitful. Especially because some moves require emotional self control in real time but not in a blog. “Having no visible reaction to what the other person said.” refers to not having body language, for instance. Also, some of the above list are simply not applicable in most physical situations, for instance “Adjusting the way you say something to help the other person understand”. Not being understood is surely low status, adjusting behavior is also low status, but once you aren’t understood the failure has already happened and loss is guaranteed, either from the correction of from not correcting.

    • tim

      reality cannot be conjured into existence by symbolic acts.

      Of course it can! A great deal of human interaction only exists as rough mental models of other people’s behaviour. We know a great deal about ourselves but only a little bit about other people. Therefore, we are all free to influence the appearance of reality through “symbolic acts” like status raising and lowering.

      Status exchanges are much easier to observe off-line, of course. Consider a homeless guy who begs change from a wealthy businessman. The businessman can raise his status by ignoring him, or by giving him change. Conversely, the homeless guy could potentially raise his own status by intimidating the businessman. Or he could lower his own status in exchange for money by behaving obsequiously. What this all comes down to in the end is choice, though – the homeless guy and the businessman can both choose to behave in status raising or lowering ways, regardless of who they “actually” are.

      Mating behaviour is another obvious proof of this; the same man may act low-status to a beautiful woman and high-status to a less attractive one, the only difference lying in his level of confidence. Given a bit more confidence (or a few more drinks), he might act high-status to the beautiful woman – which would still be a purely symbolic act that has little relation to his fitness as a mate.

    • Jarno Virtanen

      I think you misunderstand improv. The signals listed there are tools for use on the stage, to inform the audience of the relations between the characters. Those relationships are fictional: they are, by definition, exactly what the authors (in improv, the actors) signal that they are.

      The problem that the improv teacher and author Keith Johnstone started with was that actors were unable to act simple scenes realistically. The actors were unable to make most simplest scenes seem real. Johnstone attributed this to the lack of understanding of status. When the actors were made aware of status, the scenes suddenly became alive.

      So, in Johnstone’s argument, explicit status manipulation is a tool for actors for making their acting seem more realistic. In real life we make status moves mostly unconsciously and we don’t pay much conscious attention to them.

  • http://aretae.blogspot.com aretae

    Robin,

    I think you are basically correct, and Mr. Kennaway is partly mistaken.

    Where Mr. Kennaway is correct is that status varies by in-person vs. written communication. You as the proprietor of the site have certain status from your proprietorship that isn’t shown. Also, the written word has somewhat different status rules than in-person interactions.

    That said, the question becomes what is your goal. Your mid-low status learning/questing self is fabulous for learning, and getting more knowledge. It is less powerful for pushing your ideas. So…what is your goal? Learn more, engage more? Or become guru-istic, and have your ideas impact more of the world based on your personal status?

    • http:/www.jackchristopher.com Jack Christopher

      You as the proprietor of the site have certain status from your proprietorship that isn’t shown. Also, the written word has somewhat different status rules than in-person interactions.

      I agree. Just being a blogger is status raising. It’s like walking on stage to speak. You’re on the soapbox; I’m not. Being a commenter is lower status. So on some level everyone knows to play those roles. It’s built into the medium. If someone violates the dynamic they’re ignored.

  • Robert Speirs

    There is no more effective way to lower your status (Paul Fussell would say “class”) than to display uncertainty or concern about your status.

    • Jeffrey Soreff

      Paul Fussell also emphasized autonomy (more of it is higher class), which is consistent with the class settings for asking and granting permission in that list.

      The role of shouting is interesting…
      It is both on the “B” low status marking list, and on the “D”,
      lowering the shouted-at person’s status list. If the intimidation
      fails, and the target of the shouting laughs rather than cowering,
      the status of the shouter falls…. Not that this is relevant to a blog,
      of course…

  • dzot

    “Should I let loose my taunting, laughing, insulting self?”

    You mean you want to intentionally lower your status so you don’t seem to be so status conscious, which will in turn raise your status since status seeking makes you seem desperate, which lowers your status…

    Wasn’t this how they defeated some androids in a Star Trek episode?

  • Marc

    I think you’ve incorrectly labelled some behaviours. The lowering and raising of another persons status (C & D) are *not* vs you.

    Note that behaviors that raise another person’s status are not necessarily low-status behaviors, and behaviors that lower another person’s status are not necessarily high-status behaviors. People at any status level raise and lower each other all the time. They can do so in ways that convey high or low status.

    For example, shouting at someone lowers their status but is itself a low-status behavior.

    I think you’d find that taunting lowers both your status and that of the person you are taunting. In a complex environment the status of any small subgroup of people isn’t necessarily zero sum. This recasts your desire not to taunt as another status seeking behaviour.

    • michael vassar

      Yes. Important point!

  • Millian

    No, don’t change. It’s not nice to taunt, shout, or insult. Your blogging style is polite.

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

    I grant that writings may have different status markers, but until I find a list of those, I have to use what I have as best I can.

    dzot, so smoke coming from anyone’s ears yet?

  • http://www.takeonit.com Ben Albahari

    Robin, let loose. I want insight and entertainment. I also want to see a genuine personality. Sometimes that might mean being a dick. The key thing is that the egotism is naturally woven into a legitimate juicy insight. Incidental status moves – the ones that you’d actually have to go out of your way to avoid, in order to get your point across or to get the job done – are the best. Think Simon Cowell. He’s simply trying to tell people the truth.

    I think the reason that you “see no easy wins” is because you also see that your status moves are legitimate – to avoid them would reduce your raison detre, your ability to overcome bias. But why avoid status moves? The situation is already a win-win between the author and the readers: the author gets status, and the readers get insight and entertainment.

    • Robert Koslover

      Robin, I respectfully disagree with Ben. I think if you were more forceful or sarcastic in your views, you would simply drive people away. (Note: please do as I say, not as I do, in this regard.)

      • http://www.takeonit.com Ben Albahari

        In honor of the scientific method, I think Robin should at least experiment with unleashing his “taunting, laughing, and insulting self”. Robin, I invite you to rip into my opinion sans self-righteous prudery.

        P.S. Robert – I suggest you don’t watch 😉

  • Joe

    You can’t win, Robin. 🙂

    Signalling not caring about status, even signalling a desire to correct biases arising from status-seeking, is a high-status move. Or at least, a lowering-the-status-of-others move. It’s moving the board instead of the pieces.

    I know this because it’s been my preferred unconscious status-seeking strategy most of my life: belittle, dismiss, or distance one’s self from the goals or pursuits others engage in for status, unless it’s something one is good at. Your version is even more evolved: diminish and cast doubt on others’ status-enhancing achievements precisely *because* they are status-signalling.

    Presumably the problem, from a cognitive biases point of view, is not that you might seek status but that you might seek status unconsciously, and that this will lead you away from some kinds of truth or utility. Wouldn’t it be easier to just self-identify as a status-seeker (privately, if doing so publicly is too low-status), to *assume* that just about all of your observable behavior, even your identity, is wrapped up in status games? Perhaps once you make this *assumption* honestly, these unconscious biases will become much more conscious?

    • Alrenous

      Also, successfully signal low status and you’ll start getting written off, regardless of the merits of the surrounding content.

      Signalling neutral status is impossible.

      Instead, shift behaviours from red to blue when it concerns belief itself – certain beliefs are high status, which produces non-evidence pressure to believe them.

      (Speaking authoritatively, with certainty.)

      Also, I don’t believe those numbers are in fact statistically significant – you might want to check it yourself.

      (Contradict them. Tell them they are wrong. Prove it with facts and logic.)

      (Tell them what to do.)

      I happen to agree, but I’m running on general impressions, not the math.

      (Evaluating other people’s work.)

      This list is very amusing.

      (In context, the above is: Mention a failure or shortcoming of your own.)

      (Compliment them in a way that suggests appreciation, not judgement./Tip your hat to them.)

  • rob

    I’m confused by where one draws the line between high-status behavior and mere arrogance. Is there a difference?

    • rob

      I’ll answer my own question: I think it is the difference between pride and vanity, where displays of pride are high status but vanity less so.

      As Nietzsche says: “Our vanity is hardest to wound precisely when our pride has been wounded.”

  • http://timtyler.org/ Tim Tyler

    My attempt at a D3! I am not sure Robin coloured these right:

    A4, B4, C6, C7, D2, D7, D12.

    Robin may have a case for D12. Also, plausibly add A8 to the list – if a virtual entourage counts!

  • http://www.athousandnations.com Mike Gibson

    Perhaps we need a moral criterion first. Being modest may have been in your self-interest in the ancestral environment, perhaps it even improved the common good, so there’s some hard-wired bias…but why should we assume that this bias to modesty is good in the blogosphere?

    Why is being (as opposed to playing) high-status bad, especially if you are high status? The optimal social consequence may involve you being high-status. Just roll with it.

    Does status competition on this blog lead to socially undesirable results? I think the opposite. Does winning this status competition lead to socially undesirable results? Not if you believe your stated goal.

    Modesty is often an attempt to gain high-status by way of self-sacrifice.

  • Philo

    How much of your motive for (for example) speaking in complete sentences is status-seeking? If you succeed in communicating important truths to your audience they are likely to recognize this, which will raise your status with them. But that would probably be only a tiny component of your goal, the main part being disinterestedly to spread enlightenment. In general, I think you exaggerate the importance of status-seeking as a motive. (Admittedly, many people unduly diminish it.)

    “Should I let loose my taunting, laughing, insulting self?” No, I think that with much of your audience that would *lower* your status.

  • Jeff

    I’m not sure what it says about my feelings about your status, but I asked myself which things you could change to blue that would cause me to enjoy your blog more. My answer is these three:

    B2: Dancing around your words when talking about something that will displease the other person.
    B4: Adjusting the way you say something to help the other person understand.
    C6: Agree that they are right and you were wrong.

    The first two are primarily about disclaimers: more disclaimers about issues that you think will anger people, which will better help people understand what you mean; and saying what you mean more times in more ways so as to reduce confusion

    The third is about looking back at what you’ve written in the past and identifying places where you were right and wrong. You do often link to yourself when you find followup evidence of issues where you were right about, but you, like most people, usually ignore issues where you were wrong. Interestingly, I don’t think this is deliberate: I trust your intentions enough to believe that if you were to go back through and evaluate, you would be willing to recognize where you were wrong.

  • http://www.weidai.com Wei Dai

    I find that blogging on Less Wrong with its voting system for comments really helps with A1: Having no visible reaction to what the other person said. When a comment disagrees with you and gets voted up, it becomes a lot harder to ignore than when it just disagrees with you.

    • gwern

      The notifications of replies isn’t discountable either. I suspect most conversations on OB end simply because someone stops bothering to check back for replies.

  • Unnamed

    Countersignaling?

  • botogol

    being subject to an audit = status lowering
    auditing yourself = status raising.

  • Jackson

    But it looks bad to do things to directly for status; that seems too desperate. So usually we have other conscious motivations, and unconsciously adjust our behavior to manage status. This lets us avoid showing or seeing how much status matters to us.

    Oh man, I want to live where you live. So many people I’ve known are unashamedly status oriented. What they do tend to avoid showing, very adroitly, is unfair play… So much for ‘may the best man/woman win’.

    If I can gain status on my terms, I will hardly be ashamed of it but I aren’t one to ‘flaunt it’ either, mainly because I don’t want to arouse potentially negative, even dangerous, attention.
    I would certainly flaunt status i.e. a Ferrari (sp?) for the sake of picking up women… but then I’d subject them to some rather intensive Theodore Dalrymple style exploration of the moral conscience. What makes you so special? If you, through sexual attraction, could displace the prospects of a girl who’d worked very hard but wasn’t sexually attractive, would you?

    A bet you do it everyday and I’ll prove it. And so on.

  • Jackson

    Do you think that would attract negative attention?

  • BillD

    An interesting WSJ article on signaling & status.

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB20001424052748704055104574652222802277420.html

    Favorite quote:
    “In life you don’t know what’s behind the surface and why a person behaves a certain way, so you have to be forgiving.”

    You don’t, but maybe you should.

  • Jarno Virtanen

    Since you can’t avoid making status moves, I think the best is to just be cognizant of it. Not that you should monitor every single piece of communication, but that you become aware of the underlying motivations when argumentation becomes heated.

    Say you become annoyed by a comment and consider replying to the comment. If you are still annoyed when you are writing the comment, you probably will try to lower the commenter’s status. It could perhaps be useful in these situations to take a step back and try to analyze why one got annoyed in the first place and to notice one’s own motivations in the said situations.

  • Constant

    I’m proud of a few blue items

    Isn’t pride about status? (am I belaboring the obvious? – I don’t know)

    If status-seeking is as inescapable as breathing, then why not simply embrace it as a natural part of us? The poor repute of status-seeking – which seems to be an undercurrent of much discussion about it – was explained, I believe on this blog, as nothing other than itself a product of status-seeking. That is, if you are known to be seeking status, then that betrays your own status insecurity and therefore lowers your status. So the problem with status-seeking is that it’s low-status. So the negative assessment of status-seeking is itself a product of status-seeking.

    I’d like to think I don’t that much care about my status

    Naturally, since it is high-status not to care. The securely high-status can dispense altogether with status-seeking, since there is no danger of losing status, and this lack of concern in turn demonstrates (and helps to secure) high status.

    It’s interesting, though, that the very existence of the “status moves” mentioned demonstrate that the actual situation is more complex than that everyone is seeking (higher) status. On the contrary, it demonstrates that people are continually signaling both lower status and higher status. So it simplifies matters to suppose that everyone is constantly seeking to raise his status. In fact, if the conversational status signals are to be interpreted as signs of intent, then as often as not people seek to place themselves at a lower status than those around them.

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