A Missing Status Move

People who have status can use it to raise or lower the status of others. But they aren’t supposed to do this arbitrarily. Instead, we have social norms about how status is supposed to change. And our main norm is that status is supposed to track merit. So if you see someone whose status deviates from their merit, you are supposed help correct that deviation, at least when doing so is consistent with other norms.

For example, if you edit an academic journal, you aren’t just supposed to publish the papers of high status academics and reject the papers of low status academics. And you aren’t just supposed to publish the papers of your allies and reject those of your rivals. You are supposed to instead evaluate the merit of submitted papers, and publish the high merit papers. It is ok to use use status as a heuristic to estimate where merit is likely to lie, such rejecting without review papers that look bad on the surface and come from low status people. But when you have a private signal of merit, as might come from actually reading a paper, you are supposed to act on that signal.

This isn’t to say you should rudely force your private evaluations of merit on audiences who haven’t asked for them. If an audience treats a speaker with  respect, maybe you shouldn’t interrupt that speech to express your low evaluation. But neither should you praise that speaker just to gain favor with the audience, if you’ve been directly asked for your independent evaluation.

If you act to change someone’s status, that person might have a higher or lower status than you, and your act might raise or lower their status. This gives four possible situations. And in three of them, you have pretty plausible selfish motives for your actions. For example, because status is in part relative, any act to lower the status of others can plausibly be seen as selfishly trying to lower others to make more status room to raise you and your allies. Also, a bid to raise the status of someone above you can be seen as an attempt to associate with them, and as flattery, i.e., a gift to them in the hope they will reciprocate and raise your status.

The fourth possibility is where you act to raise the status of someone lower than you. Such an act would plausibly be selfish if that other person were an ally or minion of yours, or a rising star with a plausibly high future status. But selfishness is less plausible if they have no existing relation to you, aren’t a good ally candidate, and are past their prime. Especially if you try to raise their status to be above you.

Since trying to raise the status of an unaffiliated person below you is the least selfish looking way to try to change the status of others, we might expect this to be the least common variation observed. But we might also expect some people to go out of their way to do it, and to call attention to their act, in order to signal their devotion to the merit principle of status – the idea that we should all work to help make status better track merit. But I hardly ever hear of this.

So why don’t more people do this? We seem eager enough to invoke this status-should-track-merit principle when we criticize others for flattery, playing favorites, and unfair criticism of rivals.  But it seems few are committed enough to the principle to pay a clear personal cost to demonstrate their commitment.

Added 29DecInstapundit cited this post.

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  • http://michaelkeenan.blogspot.com michaelkeenan

    Sometimes you see people defend their political enemies from attacks they see as unfair. Yvain did this in his two-part series Why I Defend Scoundrels (<a href="http://squid314.livejournal.com/335286.html&quot;)part two here), which was partly in response to Romney being attacked for the “binders full of women” thing.

    Though, that a prominent rationalist did this perhaps illustrates the point that it’s an unusual thing to do.

    (One might argue that Romney has high status so this isn’t an example, but in any case it does demonstrate commitment to the merit principle of status to defend enemy high-status people against status-lowering attacks. It’s hard to come up with famous examples of people raising the status of low-status people, because low-status people aren’t famous.)

  • IMASBA

    “But it seems few are committed enough to the principle to pay a clear personal cost to demonstrate their commitment.”

    Prohibiting a status raise of a (potential) ally results in a personal cost, though it may not be “clear” to all. Apart from this there are some rich people who say the world would be a better place if they paid more taxes to go to public education. Examples are rare because high status people are rare and this “fourth possibility” can indeed already be expected to be the least common among those with high status. Calling attention to it is very cynical but some advertising campaigns do exactly that (firms don’t have ethics the way people do, even a firm composed entirely of ethical people can do some pretty unethical things.)

  • Jeff Lonsdale

    Maybe I’m missing something here, but aren’t there many groups dedicated to raising the status of the perceived less fortunate (homeless, single mothers, the poor in general) to a level higher than themselves?

    It can be said that these groups have high status to begin with/are affiliated with groups helping them. But the high status of those groups is not widely acknowledged and the affiliation is nebulous so it is still a common status move. And it is a safer status move than trying to raise the status of someone truly low stats.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      Those generically trying to raise the status of single women are almost never trying to raise the status *above* them personally. And this is very different from trying to raise the status of a particular single woman.

      • IMASBA

        So now it has to be raising the status of a particular person, and above your own status, to “count”? Aren’t you moving the goalposts here?

      • Jeff Lonsdale

        My statement above missed that the people who raise the status of the disadvantaged are usually arguing directly against certain forms of the merit principle of status. It is their political adversaries who most clearly argue for the merit principle of status.

        They often point to entrepreneurs and others who are already successful to argue that these people should be celebrated/that their wealth is justified/etc. When arguing with outsiders they will stick to high status examples – and examples of people elevating those below them to levels above them to demonstrate their commitment to the merit status principle either won’t really work (it will raise both of their statuses) or won’t be spread widely precisely because the person making the status statement doesn’t have enough status to make the message widely known.

        The only time when they might be elevating someone to a status level higher than themselves is when they (or others) draw attention to a relatively unknown prodigy. But again this is a case where it is also about signaling their ability to spot and appreciate talent as opposed to purely promoting their devotion to the merit principle of status.

  • Mike Johnson

    >We seem eager enough to invoke this status-should-track-merit principle when we criticize others for flattery, playing favorites, and unfair criticism of rivals. But it seems few are committed enough to the principle to pay a clear personal cost to demonstrate their commitment.

    I think your question may presuppose more accuracy in distinguish between status and merit than our brains possess, on average. Status and merit have been, if not accurate proxies, *useful proxies* for each other for our whole evolutionary history, and I would guess their representation in the brain is hugely overlapping.

    Another guess: trying to uplift a low-status member of the tribe (or outsider) has tended to come across as threatening, and what you gain from signaling that you’re an good and fair judge of merit, you lose from upsetting your current alliances, so it’s not often done.

    You mention a ‘completely unselfish’ case where “they have no existing relation to you, aren’t a good ally candidate, and are past their prime.” This is fair, but consider that any act of uplifting someone’s status- *especially* one that doesn’t perfectly align with your alliances- is inherently a power play, likely to unsettle alliances and foes alike, since you’re effectively mucking around with your tribe’s algorithm for status.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      The other three variations could also be as threatening or unsettling.

    • IMASBA

      “I think your question may presuppose more accuracy in distinguishing between status and merit than our brains possess, on average. Status and merit have been, if not accurate proxies, *useful proxies* for each other for our whole evolutionary history, and I would guess their representation in the brain is hugely overlapping.”

      Yes, that is a hugely important point. We do many things because they feel “right”, not because we have a rational reason. Humans are vulnerable to dehumanization campaigns of groups of strangers, we’re much more thoughtful and idealistic when we get to know people. A republican politician can easily say all homosexuals should be tortured in psych wards one day and the next day become a supporter of gay rights when he finds out a family member is gay. Similarly we can view the unemployed as lazy welfare moochers but sympathize with an unemployed friend and try to raise his or her status.

      This makes me think of that piece by Robin a few months ago on why we think of children as more precious. Everyone, including myself went about thinking up reasons why that makes sense. But people don’t help children for economic reasons or to signal something to mates, they do it because emotions compel them. Yes there are evolutionary mechanics that caused humans to evolve with those emotions (though some traits are just side effects of other, evolutionary speaking, more useful traits, that’s always a possibility we shouldn’t forget about.) The point is that very often the human mind, even the subconscious mind, does not have a strategy behind behavior. Sometimes there is some strategy involved, like a member of a group being afraid to stand up for someone who’s bullied because they consciously fear exclusion by the group that they rely on for survival, this mechanism might explain partly why many people do not stand up for their ideals regarding people of lower status, but it’s dangerous to assume everything we do is calculated or even hypocritical.

  • BenGolden1

    Can you give a specific case of this behavior, even a fictional one. I’m not really sure what I should be looking for.

  • MM

    Completely missing from this discussion is the tactic of raising the status of someone equal to you. This is a very useful move, and can be achieved by praising them to others, making them look good, assisting them in a high-profile task, etc.

  • S H

    “So why don’t more people do this? We seem eager to invoke this status-should-track-merit principle…”

    Actually; the people I know who do talk this way tend to be libertarians. They get beat up by progressives and called things like right wing extremists, social Darwinists, racists, et cetera. To the progressive; ‘the system’ is unfair so appealing to merit is a code for evil intentions. True to this pattern; from my POV socialism is more about spreading poverty and misery around than pulling people up (which is destroying the planet btw with its conspicuous consumption, fueled by corporate marketing, furthering the western war machine… that together releases a lot of greenhouse gasses… btw). You know I’m not really kidding that much here… Just jamming some unfortunately common memes together to make the point…

  • Gregale

    “But it seems few are committed enough to the principle to pay a clear personal cost to demonstrate their commitment.”

    So the costs are personalized, but the benefits are either socialized, diffuse, or uncertain? Or am I missing something?

    • free_agent

      Yes… This seems to be yet another instance of someone being surprised that people aren’t actually dedicated to the principles that the loudly proclaim that they are following, but are rather careful in advancing their self-interest.

  • mnemonicmike

    Isn’t the greater good served usually by the best-case output of the work, rather than this worry about the effects of rewards to people who didn’t really earn them?

    • IMASBA

      Only for about the first minute of the world’s existence, after that it starts to matter more and more that rewards don’t line up with merit. It’s like paying people to not work.

  • docmerlin

    “So why don’t more people do this?”
    – Raising people’s status makes them a threat. This is the same reason that school boards and city councils work really hard to make sure that any dissent is quashed, they would much rather have a 9-0 vote than a 8-1 vote, and will go out of their way to punish/shun the dissenter.

    • IMASBA

      The more unanimous the vote is the more united and powerful the organization looks, In addition groupthink tends to push for more unanimous votes. All in all individual members being perceived as threats to the powers that be plays only a very minor role. Remember that the next time a politician tries to win your vote by referring to him/herself as an “outsider”.

  • Nate Whilk

    The person being advanced can also become a threat to advancer later, e.g., Obama and Alice Palmer.

  • gibarto

    In the place where raising other people’s status costs the least, you see this all the time: Bloggers like Instapundit highlight bloggers with interesting insights and smaller following. Tweeters with thousands of followers encourage you to follow someone nearing 200, 500 or 1000. Individuals recommend a mechanic who hasn’t been around long but did a good job on their car. However, large institutions seem to focus on the perpetuation of more of same. This suggests that relying on large governmental or civil institutions to reduce inequality or level the playing field is a flawed strategy. In this case, the most effective solution for those who would change things is to turn their energy and attention to newer, smaller institutions, rather than hoping to turn institutions whose missions have calcified into self-perpetuation into something they are not and won’t again become. If we wish for more equality and for more connection between merit and status, the solution is to abandon overgrown institutions. Their time for reform has passed.

  • free_agent

    This whole discussion seemed odd to me… I eventually figured out that what was bothering me is the concept of “our main norm is that status is supposed to track merit”. I believe that the areas in which status is supposed to track merit are rather narrow, mostly limited to academia, parts of the blogosphere, and other “intellectual” areas generally. Certainly we don’t expect politicians to gain status (power) by “merit”, generally we expect them to rise by more or less representing their constituents’ political attitudes, advancing their interests, and especially having superior political skills. Similar expectations hold in business management — once you get a step or two above foot soldier, advancement is due to acumen at corporate politics (though you have to keep the company making money while doing that). As for various versions of “possessing money” as a status activity, nobody assumes that is done by any means other than “being really good at obtaining money”. (Obtaining money is permitted because it is assumed that most ways of obtaining money have as a side-effect doing things that other people find useful.)

    I think this echoes comments someone made about the conference about designing long-voyage spacecraft: It’s a high-status activity among a narrow, geekly crowd. But for the larger society, it’s not viewed as a high status activity at all. Designing long-voyage spacecraft is a good example of merit — it’s really valuable to society to have someone around who can do it, but it’s not really valuable in the eyes of society to be the person who can do it.

    our
    main norm is that status is supposed to track merit – See more at:
    http://www.overcomingbias.com/2013/12/missing-status-moves.html#sthash.Z32nM4m4.dpuf
    our
    main norm is that status is supposed to track merit – See more at:
    http://www.overcomingbias.com/2013/12/missing-status-moves.html#sthash.Z32nM4m4.dpuf
    our
    main norm is that status is supposed to track merit – See more at:
    http://www.overcomingbias.com/2013/12/missing-status-moves.html#sthash.Z32nM4m4.dpuf

  • snoozer

    I tried to copy some text from the article and paste it into this comment. Instead of that happening, the page scrolled to the top, and I scrolled down here to find my selected text had not been pasted. Is anybody else seeing this? It’s incredibly annoying.

    [Edit] Oh for God’s sake, apparently the text I pasted *was* somehow included above what I just typed. I just deleted it.

  • snoozer

    Okay… if I paste the text into this comment field and immediately *reload the page* and scroll back down here, the text *then* appears, with a little self-promotional link appended. See below for an example.

    —-

    It
    is ok to use use status as a heuristic to estimate where merit is
    likely to lie, such rejecting without review papers that look bad on the
    surface and come from low status people. – See more at:
    http://www.overcomingbias.com/2013/12/missing-status-moves.html#sthash.31yYwNGI.dpuf

  • snoozer

    You say “we might also expect some people to …”. You then say “I hardly ever hear of this,” which I take to mean you do sometimes hear of it. So far so good; the thing “we might expect” does in fact happen.

    You go on to ask, “why don’t more people do this?” That’s a loaded question. Your language suggests that the number of people who “do this” is surprisingly low, without either

    (a) making an argument for what number should be expected or

    (b) citing an objective measurement of the actual number (“I hardly ever hear of this” does not count).

    Given that by your own argument “this” is the least selfish of the four options, you could also have asked “why don’t *fewer* people do this?” After all, people help lower-status people all the time. Every day, parents all over the world help their children mutate a little bit more from zero-status creatures to functioning adult members of society. Every day, bosses hand out raises, promotions, pats on the back. Every day, someone somewhere acknowledges a person of lower status with the words “credit where credit is due”, or words to that effect. Maybe you rarely hear of these things, but they happen, and I suspect you’re aware of them even if you don’t often hear them bragged about.

    I think it’s a little disingenuous to treat “why don’t more people do
    this” like a mystery for which no plausible explanation presents itself. It sounds to me like a needlessly rhetorical question. If you think more people should help the disadvantaged, why not just say so? But I am perfectly willing to backtrack if I’ve missed your point.

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  • http://bur.sk/en Viliam Búr

    An art criticist praising a beginning author — would this be an example of someone raising status of a person with lower status? Because I have seen that.

    It may be a special case that the art criticist is not competing directly with the author, and that recognizing good authors is kinda part of the job description. Maybe praising the beginning author is just an indirect way to attack the established authors.

    • IMASBA

      The fact that there is no competition between criticists and authors is important, as well as the fact that the criticist could care less about what authors think of him (he does not rely on them.) But I hardly think praising a beginning author is a deliberate attack on established authors, there doesn’t have to be some ubercynical explanation for everything.

  • http://www.loolagame.net/ Loola

    The liberty is not possible, the principles and what we need to hold, can bring all the elements for balance and stability.

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

    But selfishness is less plausible if they have no existing relation to you, aren’t a good ally candidate, and are past their prime.

    But if they are good ally candidates, you are still unlikely to be viewed as selfish for trying to raise their status. I think that’s the answer to your final conundrum. There’s little reason to waste unselfishness on those who aren’t allies when you get the same credit for promoting an ally (provided it isn’t an obvious crony and especially if the alliance is ideologically rationalized).

    This probably bears on the merit norm itself. You’re supposed to try to align status with merit—within your coalition.