Forged By Status

To encourage people to associate with us, we want to seem principled, with a stable permanent nature. We want this nature to seem attractive and to fit with our community’s social norms, we want it to be associated with high status, and we want it to fit our personal situation and preferences. However, community norms and status rankings often change, and we often participate in overlapping communities with different norms. So we need to be able to change our nature and norms, to adapt to changing conditions. Yet we also want such changes to feel authentic, and not consciously or overtly done just to accommodate neighbors. How can we accomplish all these goals at once?

One simple strategy is to have a stable personality, but to sometimes let impressive high status people move us to change that personality. When we hear someone express an opinion, directly or indirectly, we evaluate that person and their expression for impressiveness and status. The higher our evaluation, the more receptive we let ourselves be to the emotions they express, and the more plastic we become at that moment to changing our “permanent” nature in response.

In this way we can limit our changes, yet still track changing norms and status. We become like metal that is forged by heat; we usually have a solid reliable shape, but we let ourselves be reshaped by the rare heat of great impressiveness. Some recent evidence suggests that we in fact do this:

In one experiment, … psychologists … randomly assigned participants to one of two groups: one whose members read .. [a] short story centered on marital infidelity, and another whose members read a “nonfictionalized” version of the story, written in the form of a report from a divorce court. The nonfiction text was the same length and offered the same ease of reading. … It contained the same information, including some of the same dialogue. (Notably, though readers of this text deemed it less artistic … they found it just as interesting.)

Before they started reading, each participant took a standard test of the so-called big five personality traits. …. Then, after … were again given the personality test. … The personality scores of those who read the nonfiction text remained much the same. But the personality scores of those who read the … story fluctuated. The changes were not large but they were statistically significant, and they were correlated with the intensity of emotions people experienced as they read the story. …

Another experiment … asked participants to read one of eight short stories or one of eight essays. Essays … average length, ease of reading and interest to readers were the same as those of the stories. … We had expected that people who read a piece of fiction would experience the greatest fluctuation in their personality scores, but we didn’t find this. The genre of the text — fiction or nonfiction — didn’t matter much; what mattered was the degree of perceived artistry. Those who read a story or essay that they judged to be artistic changed their personality scores significantly more than did those who judged what they read to be less artistic. (more)

Fluctuations in personality comparable to those that occurred in reading artistic literature have been found when people listened to music (Djikic, 2011) and looked at pieces of visual art (Djikic, Oatley, & Peterson, 2012). These results support the hypothesis that literature shares with other arts an effect of introducing a perturbation to personality, which can sometimes be a precursor to a more permanent personality change. (more)

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  • Stephen Diamond

    One simple strategy is to have a stable personality, but to sometimes let impressive high status people persuade us to change that personality.

    One would need to look at how these terms are used, but one study claims that it isn’t a process of persuasion.

    “and that the changes occur in readers’ own ways, being based not on persuasion but on indirect communication.” ( )

    The study isn’t accessible without subscription, but it seems that the change wasn’t suggested by the readings, which merely encouraged a general reassessment of oneself. It caused fluctuation rather than any specific change. This is unlike an ordinary identification with a high-status object.

    • RobinHanson

      By “persuasion” I just mean to cause to change one’s opinion. I don’t mean to specify the kind of cause.

  • John_Maxwell_IV

    I’m confused. Your stated thesis is “high status people change peoples’ personalities”, but all your evidence supports the thesis “art changes peoples’ personalities”, which doesn’t seem like the same thesis.

    • RobinHanson

      When people evaluate the “artistic quality” of writing or music, they are evaluating how impressive it is, and thus how impressive was the artist.

      • IMASBA

        So is artistry the pinnacle of status in writing or just some default to fall back on when the societal status of the author is unknown to the reader? Or is it not so much artistry we look for but certain forms of artistry that we think correlate to the style of art made by authors with high societal status?

      • RobinHanson

        Impressiveness is always and everywhere an important component of status. It isn’t the only factor, but it is the main factor.

  • D

    I haven’t read the studies, but it seem like a bit of a goofy methodology. If you give somebody a personality test, then having them do something, then give them the exact same test again, you are asking for demand characteristics. Participants are aware that they are supposed to answer differently based on the manipulation performed, and may change their answers to please the experimenter. I see that this methodology was used across conditions, so it’s probably not a complete explanation for the effects, but still, it’s a weird way of going about things.

    I don’t think the idea that you can change a person’s response to a personality questionairre by changing their emotions is new or interesting. Perhaps the artistic pieces changed participants’ emotions more than the unartistic pieces? Maybe you could find effects by sneaking up on a participant and scaring them, then having them fill out a personality questionairre. These studies don’t seem obviously connected to status nor “permanent” personality change. Like lots of effects found in psychology labs, it’s not clear why you would expect these to be lasting.

    And of course you should be skeptical of small effects found in cutesy psychology studies. Apparently the effects were small but statistically significant, which often means “not really there.”

    • RobinHanson

      You are missing the point that they had controls where no personality changes were seen.

  • JQuinton

    There are some other examples of personality changes when people read stories. The general case seems to be that people adopt the moral stance of the people they read in fiction.

    One experiment had people read a bio of either Superman or the Joker. The people who read the Joker’s bio became more aggressive.

  • stevesailer

    I read a history of television once (the title of which I can’t recall, unfortunately), which made clear that much of the purpose of television in roughly 1965-1980 was to socially validate television executives trading in their first wives for younger (and often shiksa) second wives.

  • Zvi Mowshowitz

    If your goal is to say that listening to things can cause permanent changes, doing a test right after exposure won’t work. Even if we accept that at that moment, changes had occurred, the default has to be that this is a temporary effect. We’ve seen a huge array of temporary reaction/personality changes that you can make. Changing how clean the room is changes your personality now; next week, that effect is almost entirely gone. So I don’t see how this is strong evidence.

    • RobinHanson

      Yes of course that better studies would look at longer timescale effects. I report on the studies I see.

  • chrismarklee

    We need to focus on accepting all people. We need to appreciate different cultures too. Sociology was a great glass to understand this. The other factor is we need to focus on telling the truth more in our culture.

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  • DontTaseMeBro

    I agree with the point of this think-tank essay for the most part