The Gift of Status Affiliation

Status affiliation is a common function of many of our activities – we like to make personal connections with high status folks, as that is commonly seen as raising our status.  Among their other functions, the personal contact in seeing a doctor, attending a lecture, hiring a sculptor, or meeting with a CEO, creates a status affiliation.

Relative to other possible gifts, giving the gift of a status affiliation has several advantages:

  1. It usually looks bad to try too hard or directly to affiliate yourself with high status folks.  It looks better if the effort is paid for and initiated by someone else, a gift giver.
  2. The act of giving affiliates the give giver, as well as the gift recipient, with the high status person.  They get two affiliations for the price of one.
  3. You reduce the strength of an affiliation if you examine too critically the quality of the product or service of the associated high status person.  Gift givers also have weak incentives to attend to private info about gift quality; common perceptions of quality matter more.  So both gifts and status affiliation avoid private quality info.
  4. Looking less critically at the other functions of the relation make it easier to hypocritically believe you care mainly about those functions, pretending that you don’t care much about the status affiliation.

This complementarity between gifts and status affiliations helps explain why our affiliations with high status folks, such as via medicine or education, are often treated as gifts.

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  • http://twitter.com/tdr_dmorgan Daniel M

    Please respond to my comment.

  • http://blog.greenideas.com botogol

    I don’t understand: when I go see my doctor who is the gift-giver?

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

    Daniel, if that is a comment, this is my response.

    botogol, most medicine is not bought directly by folks for themselves; it is given by family, employer, or nation.

    • http://twitter.com/tdr_dmorgan Daniel M

      Thanks for the affiliation, Robin. That made me look bad. Maybe next time someone else will pay for/initiate our interaction.

  • cournot

    So how do we empirically distinguish between affiliation that is about status vs. affiliation that is productive whether through signaling or actual network information?

    If I affiliate with high status scientists as a low status worker how do you tell when the affiliation is just your story and when is it subliminally calculated to give me just the right opportunity to network to get grants?

    Or to take another example, how do you tell when someone schmoozing a famous director like James Cameron is doing it for the sheer pleasure of star gazing and when is he using his meeting with Cameron just to increase marginally the probability that he’ll get a bump in his career?

    Surely Robin’s story is specific enough that Robin should be able to come up with a battery of predictions for enough situations to produce academically productive research.

  • Bill

    How do you explain anonymous gift giving?

    Or, quasi-anonymous gift giving: where you give to charity online, and no one knows you gave except a computer?

  • Patrick Roberts

    Robin, what are the best serious treatments of the concept of status affiliation? I know that you have covered this ground before, as in treatments of how medicine is not primarily about health, education not about knowledge, and politics not about policy…

  • Too complicated

    Meeting a CEO creates status? I am not so sure. If anything, I think you need status to meet the CEO…

  • RJB

    I think you need to add a clarifying sentence right up front to explain what types of gifts you are talking about. Is a ‘gift of status’ something like buying someone a ticket to see a famous person speak? Are you suggesting that a high-status person effectively bestows a gift upon low-status people they deign to meet with (as you did most graciously with Daniel, above)? I am not sure your response to botogol really helps me understand your point, as it seems like a stretch to use the term ‘gift’ to describe parental care of their children, employee benefits (like health care and vacation days) or government support (like Medicare and unemployment benefits).

  • Edward

    In the clarification in the comments, we see that Robin is alluding to the welfare state. But in welfare states, healthcare and education are treated as rights, not gifts. This makes no sense.

  • botogol

    Well them, I am not sure that the ‘gift’ model is helpful.

    In countries where health care is paid by the state
    – I don’t think the recipients see it as a ‘gift’. I think it is considered an ‘entitlement’ which is not the same at all
    – and the providers – the politicians – I don’t think they see it as a ‘gift’ either. I think they generally see it as an inescapable moral imperative. I don’t think that any system other than state provision is even fleetingly considered. It’s simply what proper governments do.

    Plus I am not sure about the status affiliation either. Where health care is an entitlement the places where the vast bulk of it is delivered – doctors surgeries and outpatients and A&E at local hospitals – don’t feel at all places where high status people work. They are more like airports, or train stations, or schools.

  • http://modeledbehavior.com Karl Smith

    The idea that simply seeing a doctor raises ones status seems a bridge too far. Its hard to imagine thinking better of someone simply because they went to the hospital.

    The lecture makes more sense but that is because people who want to attend lecture will tend to be geekier and increasingly geekiness is associated with wealth. So it makes sense that people will want to feign geekiness.

    However, I much more see the gift as a status raises because it is conspicuous consumption that does not generate suspicion. Only a wealthy person could seriously patronize a hospital or college and having given the money away insulates them from charges that the money was fraudulently obtained. Why would someone steal only to give away? Thus it is very likely that the gift giver is of high ability.

  • http://www.superbad.com John Sabotta

    The Bayesian superman, once again, demonstrates the basic dishonesty and hypocrisy of everybody else.

    It’s like a really scientific version of “Catcher in the Rye.” Phonies everywhere!

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