Status Hypocrisy

Humans (and some other animals) recognize two kinds of status: good and bad. Good status is “prestige” while bad status is “dominance.” Here is Trump today saying the US wants to be high status in the world, but only via good status:

We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world, but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first. We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example. We will shine for everyone to follow. (more)

Many animals have a local “pecking order” set by winners of pair-wise physical fights. In some animals, rank is also influenced via prestige elements. For example, babbler birds rise in rank by doing good things for their local group, such as by sharing food and warning against predators. These things count for rank even when gained via violence, such as by fighting other birds for the best places to look out for predators, and by forcing food down the throat of other birds.

Human foragers have strong norms against using or threatening force, and even against bragging about such serious abilities. Hunters may exchange arrows to disguise who deserves credit for good hunts. But foragers are okay with communities having a shared sense of who are better sources of advice, and who are better to emulate and associate with. And it can be okay, in play mode, to brag about play abilities like singing or joking. In The Secret Of Our Success, Joseph Henrich says human cultural evolution was promoted by our tendency to copy behaviors of prestigious people.

Today we tend to say that our leaders have prestige, while their leaders have dominance. That is, their leaders hold power via personal connections and the threat and practice of violence, bribes, sex, gossip, and conformity pressures. Our leaders, instead, mainly just have whatever abilities follow from our deepest respect and admiration regarding their wisdom and efforts on serious topics that matter for us all. Their leaders more seek power, while ours more have leadership thrust upon them. Because of this us/them split, we tend to try to use persuasion on us, but force on them, when seeking to to change behaviors.

You can see this split in typical motives of heroes and villains in fiction, and in how such characters treat their subordinates. It also appears often in war propaganda, such as in accusations about different leadership styles of Trump and Clinton in the US last election.

Firm bosses today tend to be reluctant to give direct orders to subordinates, and prefer a general impression that they have their position mainly because of how much everyone respects their wisdom and effort. Bosses also prefer the impression that their main task is to collect information, apply wisdom, and make good decisions in the firm interest. Subordinates often go along with this story, as they don’t like to publicly accept domination. Employees can just conveniently decide that they respect their boss, and are persuaded by his or her arguments. And firms pay extra for the pretty dynamic bosses to which employees less mind submitting, even if those are worse at making key decisions.

Modern folk often don’t understand how the ancients could have tolerated not having democracy, as we us tell ourselves today that democracy is why we are not dominated by leaders. But while the ancients saw rival nations as under the thumb of tyrants, they themselves had kings whose virtues proved that they deserved their position. And we today look away from evidence that our leaders win elections via illicit means (such as personal connections etc.); our elected leaders are often far from the most prestigious people available. Even if we see most politicians as corrupt, we see our personal politicians as much less so. US residents look away from evidence that the US is not just high status in the world due to its good advice and general helpfulness; the US also uses force, bribes, etc.

Clearly, while there is some fact of the matter about how much a person gains their status via licit or illicit means, there is also a lot of impression management going on. We like to give others the impression that we personally mainly want prestige in ourselves and our associates, and that we only grant others status via the prestige they have earned. But let me suggest that, compared to this ideal, we actually want more dominance in ourselves and our associates than we like to admit, and we submit more often to dominance.

In the following, I’ll offer three lines of evidence for this claim. First consider that we like to copy the consumer purchases of people that we envy, but not of people we admire for being “warm” and socially responsible. I suggest that relative to us, the latter group has prestige while the former has dominance.

Second, consider the fact that when our bosses or presidents retire and leave office, their legitimate prestige should not have diminished much. That is, such people have about the same wisdom and good advice, and they remain as useful a model for copying behavior. Yet others usually show far less interest in associating with such retirees. This suggests that what people really want in associating with bosses is their dominance powers, not their prestigious advice.

For my third line of evidence, consider our differing preferences for short vs. long term mates. We are much more publicly associated with our long term mates, and so we naturally care more about what other people think of them. Their prestige will bleed over onto us. In contrast, short term mating is often done in secret. Thus we should care more about prestige in long term mates, and dominance in short term mates, even if we don’t admit this consciously.

For short term mates, humans seem to mainly care about physical attractiveness. This is in contrast to long term mates and non-sexual short term associates. Women also care about men having a deep voice, and if men are relatively attractive, women like them to show off luxury goods. Women may like creative intelligence in men, but while we can infer overall intelligence quickly and reliably from faces, that just doesn’t much influence how attractive they seem.

While there is a lot of complexity in mating preferences, and we still don’t understand it all, it seems to me that one important component is that for long term mates we more care about prestige features that are good for the group, but for short term mates, we care more about dominance features that are more directly useful to us personally. Physical attractiveness (and a deep voice) shows off capacities for violence and fertility, both of which are useful powers.

Overall intelligence can be good for the group, but for our ancestors it was much less useful to individuals. This may be part of why IQ matters more for national than individual income. We humans may have long known that smarts is good for our groups, and yet made it less of a priority in our selfish choices of associates.

Added 21Jan: The two kinds of status have different kinds of status moves. For example, you look directly at someone prestigious, but avoid looking directly at a dominator.

Added 22Jan: This can help explain why smart & sincere tend to go together.

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  • J

    A while back you asked what things your readers want to hear about. My favorite part of your existing work is how you’ve let me simplify my model for how humans behave: we’re much simpler creatures than we pretend to be. So that makes me curious if you can do the same thing about groups of people. You talk about firms and countries and such pretty often, but generally in terms of how the individuals act. But I suspect we can also model the larger group as having a relatively simple set of incentives and tendencies.

    • dat_bro06

      I find the analysis jarring — there is almost too much truth to behold here (in terms of basic human tendencies with near-ubiquitous relevance). It’s not that my worldview is shaken, but rather that most other media I consume by comparison–say, the Harvard Business Review, CNN–seems conspiratorially opposed to reality in fact. Give us more, Robin (preferably with tips + tricks for everyday life)! “Tangible steps to turn the matrix into your own personal cash register,” and so on.

  • https://dndebattbetyg.wordpress.com/ Stefan Schubert

    Great post. Some of this seems somewhat akin to leftist analyses of society, according to which subtle power relations are much more ubiquitous than conventionally thought. The difference is of course is that you don’t seem to postulate that this due to capitalism or any other particular feature of contemporary society, but rather mainly to human nature.

    • Dain Fitzgerald

      Well put. A parallel insight can be gleaned from “structural forces” vs. inborn tendencies of individuals. Both ideas deviate from centrist, broadly liberal notions of what animates people. Despite shared resistance to the supposed power of free will and elbow grease to determine one’s fate, these groups are at each other’s throats, the latter for alleged racism.

    • FuzzDog

      They are so concerned with subtle power relations that their own writing becomes an insane shot at increasing their own power by bringing down people who aren’t them, usually men and capitalists.

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

      The difference is of course is that you don’t seem to postulate that this is due to capitalism or any other particular feature of contemporary society, but rather mainly to human nature.

      Both are right, of course. Tendencies that are part of human nature are one-sidedly amplified by capitalism.

  • Lord

    Not sure how this represents hypocrisy. We may aspire to good status while knowing we won’t get along with everyone and may have to work with or against those we dislike. We will consider our motives good and when others obstruct us we will view their actions as bad even if in their own self interest. Ego and self centeredness are natural if not always good. We may try to persuade them to take our view and try to convince them of the negative effect of their actions on us or yield their self interest to us or try to negotiate a deal but when such attempts fail or only one of two options is possible, dominance will rule. We may wish that weren’t the case and even regret it, but having a different perspective or exerting dominance isn’t necessarily hypocrisy though it can be, often a matter of motivations.

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

    Minor question: How does physical attractiveness (in the facial aspect you actually discuss) signal capable use of violence?

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      I didn’t say faces signaled violence ability, though I don’t know that isn’t true.

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

    While there’s a tendency deep in the human genome to find dominance repugnant, I disagree that prestige is necessarily licit. That is, I disagree that the essential distinction between dominance and prestige is between licit and illicit status. Powerful but notorious individuals have high prestige. In http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/2013/10/211-status-inflation-and-deflation.html I analyze prestige as a function of dominance in varied status hierarchies. Traits that confer dominance across many status hierarchies (such as having huge wealth or being able to adjudicate truth claims) confer prestige. Warm-heartedness makes for likability, but this should be distinguished from any form of status. It relates it social inclusion rather than hierarchy. (It might be of interest that on Cattell’s 16 Factor Personality Inventory, a question diagnostic of Dominance is that people try to avoid talking to you.)

    • Riothamus

      Is there any implication for degree of inclusion or the size of a social group for hierarchy?

      Naively I would expect having more friends to confer prestige, with allowances for the position of those friends in the hierarchy.

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

        If we view prestige as general value as an ally, already having allies should increase prestige (and more markedly, dominance). Alliances, based on power interests, are greased with friendship. But this tendency is opposed by the lower status of those individuals who are very likable due to the personality traits that make them likable. (The absence of overweening dominance drive.)

  • Roland

    What would be the best mating strategy(looking for short term partners) for someone who is intelligent but physically unimpressive?

    • dave schutz

      1. put yourself in contexts where your brains make you stand out – scrabble contests, jeopardy events, trivia contests.
      2. give up on the idea that a roll in the hay is going to happen for you, accept the idea that women who are looking for that want to roll with Adonis, and acquiesce to the idea that you are looking for long term partners. If you are a believer, go to church.

    • Pancake Mouse

      Pick up a copy of Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength and become physically impressive.

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

      Prioritize getting laid and invest your intelligence in pickup artistry.

      • UWIR

        If we’re being precise, copulation refers to penis in vagina.

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

        True, but I’m not sure that copulating without procreation or intended procreation is mating.

    • JW Ogden

      Use your brains to get and display wealth.

  • Gustavo Woltmann

    Very sophisticated kinds of brainwashing. Gustavo Woltmann

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

    The two kinds of status have different kinds of status moves. For example, you look directly at someone prestigious, but avoid looking directly at a dominator.

    I think this is a significant observation. Humans luxuriate in the presence of the prestigious but feel browbeaten in the presence of the dominant. The key distinction between my account and yours hinges on whether the looking away expresses shame (on your illicitness account) or defeat (on my account, on which dominance and prestige differ more fundamentally).

  • https://www.facebook.com/app_scoped_user_id/1026609730/ Jim Balter

    Today, our leaders are sociopaths.

  • Vítor Margato

    This seems convincing, but I’m curious about your stating that “we can infer overall intelligence quickly and reliably from faces”. On that, two questions: (1) Is that tweet you linked to the only available reference, or is there some lit on that topic? (2) Do you think facial features are really what provides info on intelligence, or do you think it’s something else, like facial expressions, style (e.g. clothes), or posture?

  • Dawson Allen

    Dude Robin these posts often bum me out. I remember sucking up to good looking people in school instead of smarties from my classes. I think u r right