Rejection Via Advice

We get status in part from the status of our associates, which is a credible signal of how others see us. Because of this, we prefer to associate with high status folks. But it looks bad to be overt about this. So we try to hide this motive, and to pretend that other motives dominate our choices of associates.

This would be easier to do if status were very stable. Then we could take our time setting up plausible excuses for wanting to associate with particular high status folks, and for rejecting association bids by particular low status folks. But in fact status fluctuates, which can force us to act quickly. We want to quickly associate more with folks who rise in status, and to quickly associate less with those who fall in status. But the coincidence in time between their status change and our association change may make our status motives obvious.

Since association seems a good thing in general, trying to associate with anyone seems a “nice” act, requiring fewer excuses. In contrast, weakening an existing association seems less nice. So we mainly need good excuses for pushing away those whose status has recently fallen. Such opportunistic rejection, just when our associates most need us, seems especially wrong and mean. So how do we manage it?

One robust strategy is to offer random specific advice. You acknowledge their problems, express sympathy, and then take extra time to “help” them by offering random specific advice about how to prevent or reverse their status fall. Especially advice that will sound good if quoted to others, but is hard for them to actually follow, and is unlikely to be the same as what other associates advise.

If different associates offer different advice, then this person with fallen status simply must fail to follow most of that advice. Which then gives all those folks whose advice was not followed an excuse to distance themselves from this failure. And those whose advice was followed, well at least they get the status mark of power – a credibly claim that they have influence over others. Either way, the falling status person loses even more status.

Unless of course the advice followed is actually useful. But what are the chances of that?

Added 27Dec: A similar strategy would be useful if your status were to rise, and you wanted to drop associates in order make room for more higher status associates.

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  • Gabriel

    Hi Robin,

    The “never settle is a brag” link is broken, you missed the last l for “html”.

  • Sam Rosen

    Something that sucks is when the advice you should give someone depends on what their status is.

    I remember giving dating advice to a polyamorous person about the fact that he didn’t want his girlfriend dating people in their group of friends. Now, if he was high status, merely asking the friends to not date her would be sufficient and would be wise counsel for me to give.

    But because he was low status in the group, him asking them not date her had a high probability of them saying no. And because they now have to openly flout his request, it would strain the friendships and further lower his status all while not achieving the goal of getting people in his friendgroup to not date his girlfriend.

    • So, giving around advice that works if and only if the person has high status, is the best way to keep association with high-status people and break association with low-status one, and to be perfectly self-consistent while doing so.

      That kind of advice should be extremely popular, because it can be used repeatedly and universally, which makes it even more socially acceptable. There should be a whole self-help genre built around it.

      • Advice like “never settle” or “never quit believing in yourself” fits this.

      • I wanted to nominate “just be yourself”, but all of these are serious candidates.

        The common pattern is: keep doing what you were doing. High-status people, remain high-status; low-status people, remain low-status; everyone preserve the pecking order.

    • Brent Dill

      Out of curiosity, what would it have taken to raise his status in the group?

      • Trimegistus

        Probably not having his wife wanting to sleep around with his friends would help a lot.

      • Brent Dill

        That’s still a goal, not a tactic. What would it have taken to have his wife not want to sleep around with his friends? (note: the most hilarious and correct answer is, of course, “raise his status in the group”, but that just serves to show the futility rather than cut through it. Please don’t do that.)

  • John Moore

    I’m thinking about Twitter while I read this. One reason for Twitter’s success is that everyone can see at a glance how many followers you have. The best thing in the world is when someone with lots of followers retweets you!

    Everything seems simpler on Twitter as opposed to in real life. I can unfollow someone without explanation, and it probably doesn’t matter. In real life, they’d be miffed.

    As a social media consultant, I usually end up giving “random specific advice” that will “sound good if quoted to others.” That’s a great summary of the whole racket.

  • Grognor
  • David

    Hi. There is a missing “is” in the last paragraph.

  • MFawful

    I feel like I would understand this post better if you gave a specific example of this happening.


    This whole piece sounds a bit soddy, there are no real world examples and even the theory isn’t 100% solid, take for example the following claim:

    “And those whose advice was followed, well at least they get the status mark of power – a credibly claim that they have influence over others.”

    Why would we award status to someone who gives advice that when followed didn’t help (unless we really only care about the intimidation factor)? If we a) believe following non-professional advice is effective then we would have an excuse to dump people who don’t follow our advice but we would also lower the status of people who give out advice that does not seem to be effective. If we b) believe success and failure are caused mostly by other things than following or not following non-professional then people not following our advice does not give us an excuse to dump people. In reality our believes about the causes of success and failure are mostly wrong (we almost completely disregard the large role of luck), a) is closest to our beliefs and there is no immediate logic behind that in our modern world (the human penchant for pattern-seeking in everything is a leftover from prehistoric times when that made more sense.)

    All in all the whole hypothesis behind the piece isn’t that obvious so there’s a relatively high probability something else is going in reality.

  • Philon

    The people we deal with have various features that determine
    how well dealing with them is likely to serve our purposes; status is just one such feature. But most of our ways of exploiting the other important features are not well described as “associating”;
    for example, *hiring* someone to perform a service for us is dealing with that person in a way that often would not be considered *associating*. Associating is just being, and therefore being seen to be, in the company of the other person, where this is on both sides voluntary and non-commercial.
    The main feature other than status that might lead one to associate with a person (in a purely social relationship) would be his agreeable or otherwise beneficient personality. In our decisions with whom to associate what are the relative roles played by *inherent personality* and by *status*? Robin Hanson seems to suggest, though he does not actually say, that for most people considerations of status predominate. Two questions: (1) How is this to be measured? (2) Is there good evidence for the thesis of predomination?

  • Basil

    Hi Professor Hanson —

    I have a comment unrelated to this post, but instead on your “Economic Growth Given Machine Intelligence” paper.

    I’ve been playing around with the simplest version of the model, and it seems like most of the work in the model is done by the *assumption of a steady state*. Specifically, the assumption of a steady state means that interest rates are eventually constant. This causes wages to go to zero as time goes to infinity.

    But perhaps there is no steady state for interest rates. Perhaps they increase forever, as for example wages do under the Solow model with exogenous technological growth. This makes intuitive sense as well: if the price of computer capital is falling faster than general technology level is rising, forever, (as is the case in the model), then it would make sense that the value of computers – the interest rate – will rise forever.

    Then the result of the model would be that, instead of wages falling to zero as time goes to infinity, interest rates would go to infinity as time goes to infinity and wages would just be way lower – but not go to zero.

    I hope that was clear. Do you have any thoughts on this? Thanks!

  • There are reasons behind the thinking that it is reasonable for the rejection.