The Next Status Game

Urban North Americans live in what is probably the most status-conscious culture on earth. The reason we don’t recognize it as such is because most of us are stuck in a model derived from the old aristo/bourgeois/prole hierarchy, where status is linear and vertical, a ladder on which one may (or may not) be able to move either up or down.

That model of status is pretty much obsolete. Over the course of the 20th century, the dominant North American leisure class underwent three distinct changes, each marked by shifts in the relevant status symbols, rules for display, and advancement strategies. The first change was from the quasi-aristocratic conspicuous leisure of the late 19th-century time to the bourgeois conspicuous consumption that marked the growing affluence of the first half of the 20th century, a pattern of status competition that is commonly referred to as “keeping up with the Joneses.”

The next change was from bourgeois consumerism to a stance of cultivated non-conformity that is variously known as “cool,” “hip,” or “alternative.” This form of status-seeking emerged out of the critique of mass society as it was picked up by the ’60s counterculture, and as it became the dominant status system of urban life we saw the emergence of what we can call “rebel” or “hip” consumerism. The rebel consumer goes to great lengths to show that he is not a dupe of advertising, that he does not follow the crowd, expressing his politics and his individuality through the consumption of products that have a rebellious or out-of-the-mainstream image—underground bands, hip-hop fashions, skateboarding shoes, and so on.

But by the turn of the millennium cool had ceased to be credible as a political stance, and we have since seen yet another shift, from conspicuous non-conformity to what we can call “conspicuous authenticity.” The trick now is to subtly demonstrate that while you may have a job, a family, and a house full of stuff, you are not spiritually connected to any of it. What matters now is not just buying things, it is taking time for you, to create a life focused on your unique needs and that reflects your particular taste and sensibility. (more)

Let’s see, conspicuous leisure, then conspicuous consumption, then conspicuous non-conformity, then conspicuous authenticity. What’s next?

Maybe no one you know will read the above, and you can safely ignore it. But if you start to learn that many people you know are starting to see conspicuous authenticity as just another way that posers vie for status, then of course your community will come to not accept that as giving real status. No, you’ll start to see some new kinds of behavior as the sort of thing that people do who don’t care about status, but are just being “real”.

Then you’ll start to become aware that other people that you know agree with this new attitude of yours. You’ll get more comfortable with saying that you approve of these sorts of behavior in others, with hearing others say the same thing, and you’ll notice that you feel good when other people credit you with such behavior. You and your associates will all feel good about themselves, knowing they are all good people who deserve respect because they do these things, things that they all know are not about status seeking.

At which point these new behaviors will have become your new status game. You see, status-seeking behavior must be a respected behavior that isn’t seen as overtly status seeking. Because we all agree that we don’t respect behavior that is done mainly to gain status. Even though we do, we do, we very much do.

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  • stobiepole

    I don’t think you have a very deep understanding of how class works. I think that your experience of class really does depend on where you fit in. If you’re on the right side of things it’s largely invisible, but from the other side it’s an impassable barrier. The way the wall is maintained is by changing to fit the economic circumstances: when clothing becomes cheap status becomes focussed on healthy bodies, when calories become cheap the rich become thin. It’s always a reaction to what the poor can achieve or get access to. Authenticity is just a reaction against the easy availability of mass experiences and good-quality but uniform goods.

    • I agree that the relative cost of behaviors for elite vs. masses contributes to what is seen as statusful. Not sure what I wrote that you thought disagreed with that.

    • oldoddjobs

      Whoa, you’re so deep

  • J

    Very status conscious, but the *most* status conscious? Whenever I learn about Asian cultures I’m blown away by how deep and subtle the status game and social signals are. In a bunch of the languages there isn’t even a word for “you” — first you have to figure out your relative status so that you know whether to call them older/younger sibling, aunt/uncle, etc.

    A friend told us a story about her Chinese grandfather hosting a social gathering, and giving everyone a glass of water per the custom. But to one person he gave cold water instead of room temperature, because he hated them. Talk about a subtle status signal!

    • tlwest

      I find the story amusing, but please, you have to explain the social dynamic at work there for the clueless among us.

      • J

        Hm, I can’t find any sources to back it up, but I believe cold water was considered a way to signal disapproval for someone.

    • stevesailer

      Right, I suspect modern America is among the least status conscious places in history, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still pretty statusy.

  • Conspicuous commentary on status games (to the point of stating absurd exaggerations with a straight face as per J’s comment).

  • jhertzli

    The obvious next step is to make open pursuit of status high status. That way, anybody denying that they’re status seeking will look not only low status but also clueless.

    • Um, that seems the obvious never step, the thing people won’t ever want to do.

  • AsGiants Astros

    So what? A society that prides itself on accepting the values and interests of others is, in my opinion, much better than any pretentious ‘Keeping Up With the Joneses” admiration of the latest and greatest ‘stuff’. Have body, have ego.

  • John_Maxwell_IV

    So here’s a post from Robin where he snubs people who snub others for snubbing according to an outmoded set of criteria. Wait, looks like I took it to the next level by snubbing Robin. I guess everyone just being friends simply isn’t an option?

    More seriously: (a) I’d like to see discussion of how to manipulate status norms so that prosocial behavior is high status (e.g. philanthropy should make you cool) and (b) “Because we all agree that we don’t respect behavior that is done mainly to gain status. Even though we do, we do, we very much do.” seems like an oversimplified framing. Humans are very complicated and their societies are even more complicated. It seems more accurate to say that being seen as a status seeker lowers your status. Maybe that’s why we keep inventing new ladders to climb: the old ones become ineffective as they correctly start to be seen as what they are, status games.

    It seems that people have a very strong response to status, so I endorse research in to (a) how to actually go about making behaviors high status (for example, I’d guess there are more effective methods than this: and (b) which behaviors should be made high status in order for society to run well.

    • Terd Ferguson

      Charity is status seeking behavior. How many philanthropic events have you been to where the main donor, award recipient, etc. are the focal point and not cause. Most cities have some local magazine where way too many pages are devoted to pictures of people being seen at events. Going to these events is showing that you have status in important circles, have accumulated enough wealth to be there or both. No one goes to charitable events for the cause, if that were the case, most people would be appalled by the opulence of the events and the large administrative budgets of most of these charities. Unfortunately, this sounds a lot like Dark Knight Rises…

      • John_Maxwell_IV

        Sure. So how can we improve on this and make non-opulent charity events higher status than opulent ones? Or make it so going to events for effective charities gets your more status than going to events for ineffective charities?

      • Peter David Jones

        The most ostentatious kinds of charity are probably status seeking, but charities receive anonymous donation as erll, at the other end of the scale.

  • var

    Perhaps the most overcomingbias-y post on Overcoming Bias this year. That’s a good end-of-the-year ranking idea, too, if I can say so myself.

    Merry Christmas!

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  • J Storrs Hall

    (Quoting myself)

    … to boldly go where no man has gone before!

    This final phrase of the classic Star Trek opening spiel had two problems with it, one as seen by people after the fact, and the other as seen by those who had gone before.

    As seen by earlier generations, the phrase “to boldly go” is a split infinitive. If E.E. Smith had written Star Trek in the ’20s, he would have written “boldly to go.” Avoidance of split infinitives, like many elements of grammatical style, was a cognitively expensive signalling behavior that advertised, essentially, that the speaker or writer was in the educated classes in an era where being educated meant you knew Latin. Infinitives in Latin are single words formed by inflection, rather than with a keyword such as “to” in English, so you can’t put an adverb in the middle of one. Avoidance of split infinitives lasted in “proper” English at least until mid-20th century, but had begun to fade (to slowly fade ) away thereafter.

    But there’s no real reason in English not to split infinitives. They are completely understandable, and often less ambiguous than alternative constructions. Apart from being a cognitively expensive signalling behavior, they had no value, indeed a cost in cumbersome and ambiguous sentences. Like many rules which were tacked onto the language by well-meaning grammarians, they were overly simplistic formalizations of a system, English grammar, which was and remains much deeper and more complex than anyone thought it was.

    The lack of the ability of “hand-coded” grammar to handle real language is most clearly displayed in the early attempts at machine translation, which were an abject failure. Only after 50 years of trying in natural language understanding, using statistically inferred models not formalized by humans, has serious progress been made (and there’s lots more progress needed before basic competence is achieved).

    The other, retrospective, problem with the Star Trek blurb, that the phrasing was considered sexist, was corrected in later incarnations to the more politically correct “where no one has gone before.” This, as it turns out, is another example where the unthinking application of a simple, formalized rule to “fix” something actually makes it worse.

    In the ’60s, the use of “man” in such a context was standard and unambiguous. It meant a human being (in fact, in my Websters from that era, “human being” is the first primary meaning, specialization to adult males being secondary). Star Trek, if you remember or have studied these things at all, was in its time one of the most progressive, liberal science fiction shows ever. It depicted a crew and implied a culture where barriers based on race and sex had been significantly lowered compared to the contemporary norm. So in the original, “man” meant “human.”

    Of course, the Enterprise went all over the galaxy seeking new life, new civilizations. The citizens of these civilizations had been there before. The distinction between “man” and these people is a fine one but one which can be reasonably be made consistent with the storyline.

    But what happens if you switch from “man,” meaning human, to “one,” meaning, well, anyone. The term is intentionally more inclusive: it pushes the boundary from that between humans and non-humans, to that between someone and something. But wait: doesn’t that mean that all the denizens of the strange new worlds, who have gone there before, are now not someones, but somethings? Isn’t the new phrasing, taken out of the context of American academia and applied to Star Trek without thought or understanding, actually worse than before? In classic Trek, the aliens are non-human people. In PC Trek, they’re non-persons.

    Just as was Victorian proper grammar, politically correct speech patterns are primarily a cognitively expensive signalling behavior. They have exactly the same import: the speaker is educated, intelligent, and ambitious enough to pay the cognitive price to consciously modify the vernacular. But as we have seen, PC speech is often yet another case of simplistic human-formalized rules, applied in a context-free way. They fail on their own terms — implying just the wrong thing, as above — when context shifts.

    In other words, simple human-formalized rules applied blindly to something as complex as grammar are brittle, a property they share with bureaucratic rules and AI programs.

    Human ethics are similar to human language in their depth and complexity. They are famously just as difficult to capture in simplistic formalism. Indeed, given the examples of PC speech, it’s quite arguable that grammar and speech are a proper subset of ethics. You can’t even reason about whether the Star Trek example is right or wrong without understanding language at a probably better than state of the art level. And it’s certain that all the subtleties of ontology and epistemology are part of ethics, just as they are of language.

    AI is just, in the past decade or so, beginning to get traction in the natural language field beyond the simple human-written formal rules stage. As for ethics, we’ve just barely gotten into the simple human-written formal rules stage. But if you want a preview of what machine ethics will ultimately look like, study modern natural language processing.

    • J

      Your comment was delightful to read. Thanks for posting it!

    • arch1

      JoSH, I like your basic thesis but disagree with your second example, in which you seem to regard concern with sexism in English as misplaced.
      If so, have you read “A Person Paper on Purity in Language” by Douglas Hofstadter? It presents us with a counterfactual world whose English is racist in the same way that *our* English is sexist, replete with an apologist who reminds overly fussy readers that of course everyone *knows* that chairwhites can be black, and asks what harm there can possibly be in “…such beloved phrases as ‘No white is an island,”‘ ‘Dog is white’s best friend,’ or ‘White’s inhumanity to white'”

      After reading that essay I came away believing that nonwhites growing up in such a world *would* experience harm, and that such a world *would* be improved if the racism in its English were removed. And therefore that analogous things are true of the sexism in *our* world’s English.

      • lemmycaution

        That was a good persuasive essay.

    • Ronfar

      But the aliens they find didn’t “go” there – they were already there! 😉

  • Dave Lindbergh

    Best post in a while, Robin.

    The next status game is always the same as the last – conspicuously not caring about status games.

    Status behaviors seem to change with a time lag that depends on class. People at the top switch first to the new behaviors, people at the bottom last.

    Those whose social circles span multiple levels are forced to maintain the out-of-date status behaviors in order to impress the lower classes who haven’t adopted the latest status style yet.

    My favorite example is clothing. Prior to ~1960, even bums wore suits, ties, and hats. Then good clothing became cheap enough (and society wealthy enough) that anyone could afford good-looking clothing.

    So now billionaires like Larry Page are rarely seen wearing suits, but politicians and bankers still must. University professors at the very top of their field don’t wear suits, but those still working their way up, do.

    • Jason Young

      No, conspicuously not caring about status games is low status. Winning the dominant status games without apparent effort is what high status people do.

      • Lucas Picador

        Yes. And in fact, Veblen was more insightful (and his critiques more universal) than you give him credit for. The essence of the status games haven’t changed — just the material circumstances in which they play out.

        Consumer goods are now cheap. Veblen points out that status is demonstrated through the ostentatious display/waste of whatever is scarce. Scarcity now resides in the investment of time and obsessive-compulsive attention to ever-changing trends in what is in; what is out; what can be enjoyed ironically, unironically, or not at all; and so on. Keeping up with hipster trends is exhausting. This is intentional. It creates scarcity, which can be used to demonstrate status in conspicuously following and conforming to up-to-the-minute trends and counter-trends that have no utility outside of the status game.

      • Jason Young

        But if you’re choosing to play the games hipsters play you cannot possibly be among the most competent, or most deserving of admiration, and thus your global status is capped. The “best” people do not become hipsters.

        What game you choose to play is more important, more determinative of ‘True Status’, than how well you play it.

      • Cliff

        I think we can all agree the very highest status is conferred to those acting pretentiously in blog comments

      • Jason Young

        If only!

      • Lucas Picador

        “What game you choose to play is more important, more determinative of ‘True Status’, than how well you play it.”

        I’m not sure I can agree with this. Cultures and sub-cultures are real: status does not translate well between them in most instances. Put people from different cultures in a room together and they won’t be able to determine their relative status: the Papua New Guinean highlander with the brightly-coloured penis gourd is not going to be impressed with the Jersey Shore party girl with her blinged-out phone, and she in turn will not be impressed by the DC bureaucrat’s first-name-basis communications with various US Senators.

        In fact, I’m extremely skeptical of the existence of this “True Status” you’re referring to. Is that a religious concept? Or a joke?

      • Ronfar

        True Status is determined by who can bring the biggest amount of force to bear in a dispute. In other words, “My army can beat up your army!” 😉

      • Lucas Picador

        Yeah, if there’s such a thing as “True Status”, it’s called “Power”. And it’s almost orthogonal to most systems of social status.

      • George

        Ah but being King of Shit Mountain is always preferable to Beggar on Utopia st. when you’re blinded by envy as most people seem to be. Keeping up with the Jonses never really went away. Status is always a relative thing.

      • lemmycaution

        “Keeping up with hipster trends is exhausting.”

        There are status games going on, but people do hipster stuff because it is pleasurable and fun.

      • Lucas Picador

        People also enjoy sailing yachts. And wearing cashmere sweaters. And playing polo. Status games have to be able to be passed off as “fun” — otherwise you’d be admitting to deliberately seeking out social status, which is taboo and leads to lower status.

      • lemmycaution

        Polo and yachting are probably a lot of fun as well. Crazy expensive, but fun. If I was sufficiently rich I certainly would like to play polo. If I knew how to ride a horse…

        Fun isn’t really something that gets contaminated by status games.

      • Lucas Picador

        Uh… that’s what I said. They’re fun. Status games are always blended into something fun, so the players have plausible deniability. That’s what I just said. Having a fancy car is fun. It is also a status game. There is literally nothing that counts as a status game that isn’t also appealing in some other way. That was my entire point.

      • There are alternatives to fun for deniable status-seeking. For example, expiation. The deniability of status-seeking through charitable giving is based on guilt-reduction.

      • Lucas Picador

        Yes, you’re absolutely right. I guess I should have said that status games must disguise themselves as “something else”. “I love sailing my yacht — it’s fun!” “I love my Rolex — it’s a beautiful object!” “Giving to charity makes the world a better place!” “I’m making an artistic/political statement with this expensive art installation that took me ten years to build in my studio!” “Thailand has become so westernized — I enjoy travelling to Vietnam much more now because it’s not flooded with tourists” “I’m so glad I retired from the rat race at 45 — it lets me focus on my family and develop as a person” “Veblen has written a lot about that — far too few people have read his works”. Etc etc. It’s all performative. Those people are a bunch of goddam phonies.

      • Nyongesa

        Insightful and informative comment up to the point you felt the need to punch people in the nose at the end. Your clearly to intelligent to not know that’s a signal in of itself.

        Are humans acting within their evolved cultural norms Phonies?

      • Lucas Picador

        Dude, it was joke. At my own expense. I was trying to point out that I’m not immune to my own critiques. We all play status games. One tries not to get carried away or take them too seriously, but I’m not enlightened enough to leave them behind altogether. I’m really not any better than the guys who buy Ferraris to convince people they’re cool. (Well, maybe a little better.)

      • Dave Lindbergh

        Hm. That would explain some things in my personal life. 🙂

  • Sam Dangremond

    What’s next?

    I’ve moved on to “conspicuous ANTI-authenticity”: everything I do is ironic.

    • Peter David Jones

      “”””Irony”””” is sooooo nineties.

  • Silent Cal

    Here’s a question: is the status competition nonpositive sum? Or is it like a an athletic competition, where the sum is ostensibly zero but in fact utility is maximized by everyone trying to win?

    Obviously activities you think of as vying for status are unpleasant, but as this post points out, vying for the status you believe in doesn’t feel like vying for status. When I do my best to use the outside view to identify which of my activities are status-seeking, I find that they are activities I deeply enjoy.

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  • Jason Young

    Conspicuous non-conformity has never been high status. Refusing to play the games everyone else is playing is an indirect admission that you can’t win, or that you can’t achieve a rank that’s acceptable to you, and it doesn’t fool anyone worth fooling. The most talented are never rebels.

    FWIW, the highest status people know and play with the rules that determine the future tokens of status. If you’re actually seeking the current tokens of status, or if your self-worth is conditioned on their acquisition, you’ve already lost. You’re a tool.

    • Cliff

      Oh you’re so meta

    • i dont quite understand this, ‘the most talented are never rebels’. . but second paragraph is if you play the rules of the game you are a tool. einstein (and people like marx) werent playing the game, but they changed it; now they are tools. i for awhile in elementary school played sports but i got beat up all the time (i think this might be called bullying or hazing) so i went and played my own games in a park (though it was like jumping out of the frying pan into the fire).

    • “The most talented are never rebels.”

      Perhaps you could make the case that the most successful are never rebels, but as it stands, this is absurd.

    • Ilya1981


    • Grant

      There is no single game “everyone else is playing”. People play different, often incomparable status games. Refusal to play in negative-sum games (which seem to be the dominant type) could easily signal high status in some circles. I would rather be associated with people who associate high status with the production of wealth, not the consumption of it.

      Refusal to play a status game is often done because there are often games which can achieve higher returns.

    • Peter David Jones

      The point of non conformity is to set up a new status game. To do that, you need other players. Solo non conformity is low status, because it amounts to being the town loony. Conspicuous non conformity has happened, and it has happened as a coordinated movement where groups all decide to rebel in the same way at the same time, whence the standard irony that individualistic rebels aren’t so individualistic.

      It’s true that conspicuous non conformity isn’t automatically high status, because in a new status game, there are still losers: they are the ones dismissed as fakes, imitators and sell outs…”weekend white Rastafarians” in Alexei Sayles’ phrase.

  • But if you start to learn that many people you know are starting to see conspicuous authenticity as just another way that posers vie for status, then of course your community will come to not accept that as giving real status.

    I think that’s an incorrect understanding of the mechanism: it isn’t a learning process regarding the status-seeking underpinnings. Familiarity with Veblen and Hanson hasn’t decreased the status of having a huge mansion of a house or the status of making huge philanthropic contributions.

    In addition to the dynamics mentioned in Lucas Picador’s comment, the evolution of status-seeking is (it seems obvious) a matter of countersignaling. [If it were satiation with current forms of status seeking, you would see cycles rather than progression.]

    • Jason Young

      Robin is describing what most kids grasp intuitively by the age of 8: when the wrong sorts of people start collecting Pogs, it’s time to stop collecting Pogs. But you don’t gain any points for realizing that *eventually* the wrong sorts of people will get into Pogs. Everyone knows that. No, you have to get in early to accrue the status benefits and get out before you squander them. When it comes to the fashion component of status, it’s always about timing.

      Alexander Pope on same:

      Be not the first by whom the new are tried,
      Nor yet the last to lay the old aside.

      • Robin is describing what most kids grasp intuitively by the age of 8: when the wrong sorts of people start collecting Pogs, it’s time to stop collecting Pogs

        The (usually) hypothesized mechanism for this process is that fads and fashions start with high-status folk, who are emulated by those further and further down the hierarchy. When low-status folk start adopting the fad, it becomes unfashionable with the style-setters.

        1. This seems a rather different mechanism from Robin’s: the exposure of status-seeking conduct as being that. [Am I placing to much weight on his jest about the effects of reading his essay?]

        2. The standard theory of fads fails to account for the fact that many low-status groups are today taken as “cool” models. (Countersignaling can explain this.)

  • michael vassar

    Robin, I think it’s time for you to revisit your post “dreams of autarchy”

  • Peter Fox

    If you haven’t already, you should read this :

  • Ilya1981

    I have a tangential question. My empirical observation suggests that in today’s day and age of hyper-connectedness, there is commercial interest and ability to constantly create and manipulate/shift the trends and fashions within the status game, most of it quite superficial and done for immediate profit, with masses of youngsters being conditioned to various sorts of almost-unthinking, Pavlovian-type response to various social situations, especially novel ones.

    It seems like this whole direction that society is taking is fairly dangerous long-term, as it seems that status game rules are made extremely fluid.

    It’s dangerous, because status-seeking and obtainment strongly correlates with mate acquisition. Mate acquisition, nowadays, is no longer guided by simple evolutionary pressure to find the best provider, but is increasingly more predicated on more vague concepts like “cool,” damn the evolutionary pressures that made this advanced society possible in the first place.

    As a person with skin in the game/this process, I (freely admit) watch with worry that without the “status game rules” being explicitly controlled by either wise elders who wish for long-term success of their (Western) society or some sort *religious* decree, things are going to devolve (again, long-term) along a very dire, fragile direction.

    • Peter David Jones

      You are assuming that evolutionary fitness equates to fitness in modern society, but that can easily be reversed: modern societies need to discourage the pattern of “find a partner with large muscles/breasts, breed early, breed often”.

      • Ilya1981

        You are essentially saying something along the lines I am suggesting. Evolution happens not just on the level of individuals, but also at level of cultures. Above, in my response to IMASBA, I outlined how I see things evolving.
        Western culture emphasizes the individual, essentially atomizing it, and leading to short term horizon in all of said individuals’ lives (ie it offers no strong, enforcing vision for caring about future generations beyond children or grandchildren). A more long-term oriented totalitarian, or likelier, theocratic society, will eventually prevail.

      • Peter David Jones

        Western culture offers a lot of material benefits which feed through to childrearing, such as a greater than 99% of making it to adulthood, instead of a 25% to 50% chance.

        Western culture isn’t good at optimizing happiness or mental health. There could be room for achieving a new synthesis, for instance living in Dunbar sized communities, and using electronics to collaborate on large projects.

        I don’t think traditional systems will overtake the western model unless they find a way of matching the wests material and technological progress, which would be a kind of synthesis itself.

    • IMASBA

      The status game rules are not “extremely fluid”, the rules stay largely the same, only the settings change. This isn’t decoupled from evolutionary pressures either, there’s a lot of sexual selection involved and safeties are already built into the ruleset: when some fad gets out of hand it becomes “cool” to belong to a counterculture.

      • Ilya1981

        Sorry, but you aren’t addressing my main concern. In some human cultures (and i don’t mean the hipster definition thereof), the status rules are fairly self evident. In the West, till approx. 1800, luxury items consumption was statusful. In a plentiful, secular society, as per Hanson’s post, the rules are now about hipster/authentic/cool.
        In some sense you are right: if a state’a society evolves along the lines of who is most colorful and adept at bullshit, the cornerstones of what that made such society plentiful (science and engineering) will be very much eroded, after generations of such evolution. Hence, at some point a powerful scientific + military caste (likely, quite totalitarian) will evolve (or come from outside state) that will make what made *it* strong into a more-or-less axiomatized rule set regulating what is high status and what is not. This totalitarian caste will also be high fertility (for, if not, it will be outcompeted by another such group/caste). Eventually , the “authentic” hipster “cultures” and their “countercultures” will be dead, relegated to history textbooks describing the hubris of yore.
        Eventually, one way or another strongly totalitarian, scientific society will evolve. This society will eventually become theocratic, because the people who cannot fit into the pro-growth/pro-hi-tech/pro-priestly mold will be selected against.
        I know how much our host, Prof. Hanson, approves of betting. Well: if I lived 10000 years, I’d be willing to bet 10000:1 that I am right. Alas, I can’t.

      • IMASBA

        Science and engineering flourish in societies that don’t have axiomatic status rules. A pro-growth, pro-hi-tech theocratic cult is pretty much an oxymoron. I wouldn’t worry so much. Status games won’t destroy civilization.

      • Peter David Jones

        I can’t imagine why you think that going a hipster and being a scientist or technologist are mutually exclusive. I live in the UK equivalent of the Bay Area and it’s crawling with hipsters who work for digital agencies and the like.

    • stevesailer

      I just saw again Puccini’s “La Boheme,” which was originally set in the 1840s Left Bank. The Pacific Opera Project revival is set in a gentrifying neighborhood of Los Angeles in 2012, which works very nicely (although the hipsters have to relocate to a ski resort for a snowy scene). So competing for mates against rich men by being “cool” isn’t wholly new.

      But, as you say, a lot more of the world is like the Latin Quarter than in the 1840s. On the whole, this is probably a fun thing.


    Could it be that for most people participating in trends is something they do to “keep up” (red queen game), not to get ahead. Only a small group (but a larger number of people can pass through such a phase sometime druing their lifetime) is actually trying to get ahead by starting trends or hopping onto them before everyone else does?

    So then we hate people who get ahead through status games, but we also need to participate in them ourselves to some extent because doing so signals that you’re mentally and physically capable of “keeping up” an we use that to assess a person’s capabilities.

    • stevesailer

      Good point.

      Keeping up uses up a lot of energy and it’s hard for older people.

  • Joshua Brulé

    Conspicuous concern about various forms of injustice seems to be a trend, if tumblr and the like is any indication. A typical post:

    “…if you are reblogging things that are not about ferguson right now please queue them instead. please pay attention to things that are more important. it’s not the time to talk about fandoms or jokes it’s time to talk about injustices.”

    A little extrapolation, and we can expect to see a new status game of the form “Do you (loudly) care enough about the right injustice?”

    And now that I think about it, the effective altruism movement seems to be doing exactly this. Although, they manage to say “This is the important thing to care about” with a lot less profanity and other unpleasantness, which is something I have a sentimental fondness for.

    • George

      The “politically correct hipster” is a stereotype. Not being racist, or homophobic just don’t quite cut it anymore. These days to stand out or be true to yourself you need to be part of a justice oriented cause and self label egalitarian/anti-capitalist/feminist/gender-neutral/anti-consumerist/local shopper/DIY self sufficient at least. You can’t crochet because you enjoy it you need to fight the good fight and buy locally sourced yarn in order to make your own hats this winter because sticking it to Walmart is a good cause.

      • IMASBA

        Nice countersignalling…

  • A.B.

    This list of the “14 best books of 2014” appeared in my RSS feed right after your article. Very telling.

  • arch1

    “At which point these new behaviors will have become your new status game. You see, status-seeking behavior must be a respected behavior that isn’t seen as overtly status seeking. Because we all agree that we don’t respect behavior that is done mainly to gain status. Even though we do, we do, we very much do.”

    Robin, you must have read Dr. Seuss’s “star-bellied sneetches” stories:-)

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  • Daublin

    From what I’ve seen, it’s more, once everyone around you is past a certain threshold, it stops being worth it to humblebrag about your wealth. You can’t brag about having indoor plumbing in the U.S.

    I see lots and lots of hipsterism. It is a way of bragging that you have the resources to adopt really stupid perspectives. If you have limited resources, you can’t afford to drive an electric car. You can’t afford to boycott Walmart and McDonalds. You can’t “work” for a volunteer organization, and you can’t turn up jobs that don’t include benefits. You can’t avoid all genetically modified food, or insist on only eating organic food. You can’t insist on “fair trade”.

    Doing any of these things is proof that you have the means to do so.

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  • Peter David Jones

    When I read this sentence,

    “The reason we don’t recognize it as such is because most of us are stuck in a model derived from the old aristo/bourgeois/prole hierarchy, where status is linear and vertical, a ladder on
    which one may (or may not) be able to move either up or down.”

    ….I thought it was going to lead into comment about overlapping hierarchies, like this one:

    Jaron Lanier: “I’d like to hypothesize one civilizing force, which is the perception of multiple overlapping hierarchies of status. I’ve observed this to be helpful in work dealing with rehabilitating gang members in Oakland. When there are multiple overlapping hierarchies of status there is more of a chance of people not fighting their superior within the status chain. And the more severe the imposition of the single hierarchy in people’s lives, the more likely they are to engage in conflict with one another. Part of America’s success is the confusion factor of understanding how to assess somebody’s status.”

    Steven Pinker: “That’s a profound observation. There are studies showing that violence is more common when people are confined to one pecking order, and all of their social worth depends on where they are in that hierarchy, whereas if they belong to multiple overlapping groups, they can always seek affirmations of worth elsewhere. For example, if I do something stupid when I’m driving, and someone gives me the finger and calls me an asshole, it’s not the end of the world: I think to myself, I’m a tenured professor at Harvard. On the other hand, if status among men in the street was my only source of worth in life, I might have road rage and pull out a gun. Modernity comprises a lot of things, and it’s hard to tease them apart. But I suspect that when you’re not confined to a village or a clan, and you can seek your fortunes in a wide world, that is a pacifying force for exactly that reason

    • stevesailer

      Status is whatever attractive women like.

  • myrealitie

    I’ve started to notice articles that are critical of “authenticity” as a pursuit, especially from the perspective of business and leadership. The handful of articles I am referring to have essentially claimed that being authentic can be an excuse for being lazy and refusing to develop aspects of yourself that are not your core strengths, thereby sabotaging your success in group environments. So, maybe the next status move will be more fully developing yourself, balancing your “authentic” self with your social self, so to speak.

    That said, I am not sure that I look at the progression that you outlined as purely a status game (although certainly it has that component).

    In addition to that, though, It seems to me that the progression of leisure, consumption, non-conformity, and authenticity as values represents an improvement in the sense that they accommodate and are accessible to a broader scope of people, albeit with some overshooting (i.e. buying authentic South American alpaca sweaters is not accessible to a broad group). If I am right that the next adopted value will be a light pendulum swing back to being sophisticated about group dynamics (without abandoning your true self but not all the way back to the super group conscious keeping-up-with-the-joneses), then it does in fact seem like our culture is on net getting closer to balancing group harmony with individual self-actualization.

    But maybe this is my idealism talking.

  • Dude Man

    Conspicuous production is next. Making a living out of “what you love” will be the next in thing, if it isn’t already.