Tag Archives: Status

Super-Factor Scenario

A man always has two reasons for doing anything: a good reason and the real reason. J. P. Morgan

In economics today, as in many related fields, data analysis is king, and theory takes a back seat, at least as far as status goes. When people celebrate particular exemplary data analyses, they usually point to a use of difficult statistical techniques, or more commonly to some clever idea for how certain data could speak to an important question. They point far less often to what is more often the real limiting factor: access to relevant data, and to resources (such as time and student assistance) to process that data. Organizations with data are far more willing to show them to academics from prestigious institutions.

This is part of a more general pattern: when we give people status, the criteria we claim to use to choose who gets status often differs substantially from our real criteria. Let’s see how that might play out regarding the strong claim I posted on Saturday:

If we put together a huge super-dataset describing many individual people in as many ways as possible, a factor analysis of this dataset may find important new super-factors that span many of these features domains. Such super-factors would be promising candidates to use in a wide range of social research, and social policy. (more)

When someone finally does this data analysis that I’ve proposed, and finds some super-factors, they will be rightly celebrated. But what will they be celebrated for? Their main actual contribution will have been to get some organization to pony up enough resources to look for super-factors. But that’s not the sort of thing for which we like to celebrate intellectuals. So I predict that such people will instead be celebrated for the very idea of looking for super factors, for looking for a certain kind of super-factor, or for a clever computational or statistical technique used in the search.

There isn’t much risk of people finding my post and using that to undercut this celebration. I know of many cases where prestigious academics were celebrated for “insights” that others had expressed beforehand. As long as those others and/or their venues were of sufficiently lower status, academics see no conflict. Should anyone make an issue of it, there are always differing details that can be seized on to explain why the two ideas were really quite different.

If we had prediction markets on such things, and used them as the main way we allocated credit on such claims, well then in that case I might be able to lock in great rewards now, rewards that others couldn’t steal later. But that is one of the reasons we don’t want prediction-market-based rewards. In the end we like most of our hypocrisies, including those involving giving people status for different reasons than we claim.

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Life’s Laminar Endgame

I turn 56 in a week, and I’ve been thinking about how life changes with age. I’ve come up with a view expressed in terms of two key distinctions:

Foregame vs. Endgame Actions in games often have both direct local immediate consequences, and also more indirect global delayed consequences, such as those that result from how other players react to your actions, then more others react to those actions, and so on. The longer a game that stretches ahead, and the more other players who interact, the more that these indirect consequences can matter. In contrast, at the end of a game there are fewer moves others make after you, and fewer other players that your moves might influence. So endgame play focuses more on direct local immediate consequences. Cooperation often breaks down in endgames, as it often depends on threats of future and wider reprisals against uncooperative behaviors.

Turbulent vs. Laminar When fluids like water flow slowly, their flow patterns tend to be simple, stable, predictable, and efficient. As one increases the pressure pushing a fluid while holding constant its environment, the flow velocity also increases, and at some point the fluid switches to flowing in complex, unstable, and unpredictable ways. Turbulent flows are less efficient; if you must pay to push fluids then you want to keep your flow laminar. But turbulent flows also mix fluids much better. Each part of a turbulent flow could end up in far more possible future locations, and next to far more other parts, than can similar parts of a laminar flow.

My view is: Young life is a turbulent foregame, while old life is a laminar endgame. That is, when young we are in the foregame of life, where our life paths are more turbulent, and when older we transition into the endgame of life, where our life paths are more laminar.

In youth, the main consequences of our actions tend to be indirect, global, and delayed. Especially important are social consequences such as what others think of us, and who allies with us. We can end up with very different reputations, mates, communities, occupations, industries, and so on. The life paths of young people also tend to be complex, unstable, unpredictable, and inefficient. For any one young person, it is hard to guess their future mates, jobs, communities, and status, and they may inefficiently change directions and paths many times.

In old age, in contrast, we tend to make fewer and smaller changes to our mates, jobs, communities, and status. We don’t adapt as much to changing opportunities as when young, but this is mostly reasonable given our many investments. We are mostly stuck with existing associates and allies, and wider communities involve themselves with us less. So while we need to worry about how our immediate associates will react soon to things we do, we don’t need to concern ourselves as much with wider more delayed circles. And even our immediate associates can do less to help or hurt us. So we focus more on direct, local, immediate consequences of our actions.

When young, we collect and explore many options, including in associates. We meet many people, and while we don’t want to commit to strong relationships with most of them, we like the option of exploring those possibilities more later, especially if these people should become powerful and high status. The mean value of a future association may be much larger than its median value. That is, we can sometimes mostly care about the chance that they will later become especially powerful or high status.

The young should be especially wary of creating enemies with powerful allies. So when young we tend more to endorse and adopt the standard social norms of our world, including those that say everyone that meets certain criteria should be treated with minimal respect, as if they might become high status someday. As a result, younger people acquire thicker longer distance networks of associations, which can create powerful incentives to seem and act cooperative on larger social scales. The future weighs heavily, and a wide social circle matters more. Also, since when young we understand the social world less, and a wider social world is more complex, we are then more worried about unexpected consequences.

When older, in contrast, we are less worried about wider social punishment of our behaviors. Fewer people matter to us, their and our life paths are more predictable, and we understand our smaller social world much better. So we can more directly calculate the consequences of what we do to people. Thus we are more willing to betray distant allies of allies, as we less fear their future reprisal. So when older we are more in a laminar endgame, where our actions are less guided by generic social norms on how to uniformly treat a wide circle, and more guided by calculating the personal consequences of doing particular things to particular people. For example, we need less to pretend that everyone might become high status, as it becomes safer to treat associates differently by their now stable status.

In many job promotion ladders, and also many other kinds of status ladders, previous status sets a rough lower bound on current status. Thus people tend to rise in status over time until a point in time when they stop rising and then mostly stay near the same status. In such cases, those who are still rising have a more turbulent life path, while those who have stopped have a more laminar path. This creates a correlation between status and turbulence. Thus high status people tend to have more turbulent lives, more like the lives of the young, helping to make the turbulent lives of the young seem higher status. And high status people can less see the age pattern I’m describing.

If you are young, you might wonder how much people do things because they are good people who really believe in the morality of the standard norms, as opposed to doing things out of fear of social reprisal. You might wonder in particular what your associates would do to you if they less feared such reprisal. Good news: when older you will have much clearer data on this. And typical older people around you also have data now, if you will ask them. Haven’t asked? Perhaps you don’t like the answer you think they will tell. Or maybe you don’t trust them to tell you the truth. (And if they’d lie, which theory does that support?)

In the above, I have told a functional story about how behavior should reasonably change with age. However, I should admit that human behavior has not adapted very much to big changes that appeared only in the last few centuries. One of those big changes is that young lives are far more turbulent than those of our forager or farmer ancestors. So turbulent in fact as to call into question the plausibility of social reprisal. For example, high school students often invest greatly in their social reputation, an investment that is mostly lost when they go off to separate colleges and jobs. A more adaptive response to the modern world would be to more ignore wider social reprisal when very young and turbulent, then pay it more attention at a middle age of moderate turbulence, and then less attention again when old.

Let me also note that for some kinds of behavior young people can be at an endgame. Warring drug dealers who don’t expect to live more than a decade longer may feel they are in a local endgame. Also, evolution might have primed young men trying to impregnate young women while they are still promiscuous and fertile to treat that part of their lives as an endgame, since the consequences can be so huge there compared to later opportunities.

This whole perspective suggests another explanation for the puzzle of why we express more interest in people who have the potential to achieve X, relative to people who have already achieved X. Perhaps we presume that someone with the potential to X is younger with a wider social network that we might join by affiliating with them. In contrast, we presume that a person who has already achieved X is older, more tied to their key social network, and less open to new alliances with us.

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Doing Good ≠ Being Good

Most of us like to be associated with “idealistic” groups that claim that they are doing good, i.e., making the world better. However, this is usually not our strongest motive in choosing to associate with such groups. Instead, we more strongly want to make ourselves look good, and gain good-looking associations. Most idealistic groups quickly learn to cater to this demand by:

  • Making meetings where people can visibly show off their affiliation with the group, form ties with like-minded others, and affiliate with impressive speakers/leaders.
  • Making ladders of extra recognition, such as awards, and offices.
  • Offering training to develop and credential related skills.
  • Advocating for the world to put more value on the features that this group’s members have, and less value on other features.
  • Advocating to others to join this and related groups, via arguing the virtues of it and its members.

Of course such groups try to frame these activities in terms of making the world better. And yes, groups that really were trying to make the world better might in fact do some of these. The tipoff, however, is their relative neglect of everything else required to actually make the world better. Groups tend to be far clearer on how to tell who is good than on how exactly good individuals make the world better, on what else exactly is required, and on how they are going to manage that.

Let me give some examples:

  • Christianity presents itself as good for the world, but its main activity is meetings centered on impressive people, and at meetings most people are mostly thinking about how good or bad they are or have been. They talk a lot about what is good vs bad behavior, but are pretty thin on how more good behavior will help the world.
  • I recently talked at a conference of ecological spiritual consciousness raising folks. They had impressive speakers who celebrated features of attendees. Some presented an explicit ladder of higher consciousness, ranked famous people on it, and talked in detail about how to move to higher levels. They want a more egalitarian and ecologically sustainable world, but are fuzzy on how exactly spiritual consciousness helps there.
  • The recent movie Tomorrowland seemed on the surface to be about having hope for and working for a better tomorrow. But in fact a secret society was obsessed with finding the few best people in the world, even though it already had enough secret tech to save the world. Most superhero stories are on the surface about heros struggling to help the world against an opposing villain, but actually more about how cool and impressive it would be to have certain abilities.
  • Political disputes seem to easily get distracted by issues of who is better. Immigration becomes all about what immigrants are worthy. School becomes all about how it can makes you better and who deserves a chance to get better. Charity debates become ways to show who has enough empathy, or enough toughness. How to promote innovation quickly becomes celebrating particular innovators.
  • When discussing how to get better predictions, there is far more interest in finding correlates of who personally is a super-forecaster, than in finding better institutions like prediction markets to promote good predictions. Similarly for rationality, there is far more interest in how to spot rational folks, and in rationality training, than in institutions to promote rationality.

Look, yes the world is full of people, and yes the qualities of those people make some different to world outcomes. But a great many other things also matter for outcomes. So if you were really focused on doing good, you’d pay lots of attention to things other than being good. Doing good isn’t just being good, not by a long shot.

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Elite Evaluator Rents

The elite evaluator story discussed in my last post is this: evaluators vary in the perceived average quality of the applicants they endorse. So applicants seek the highest ranked evaluator willing to endorse them. To keep their reputation, evaluators can’t consistently lie about the quality of those they evaluate. But evaluators can charge a price for their evaluations, and higher ranked evaluators can charge more. So evaluators who, for whatever reason, end up with a better pool of applicants can sustain that advantage and extract continued rents from it.

This is a concrete plausible story to explain the continued advantage of top schools, journals, and venture capitalists. On reflection, it is also a nice concrete story to help explain who resists prediction markets and why.

For example, within each organization, some “elites” are more respected and sought after as endorsers of organization projects. The better projects look first to get endorsement of elites, allowing those elites to sustain a consistently higher quality of projects that they endorse. And to extract higher rents from those who apply to them. If such an organization were instead to use prediction markets to rate projects, elite evaluators would lose such rents. So such elites naturally oppose prediction markets.

For a more concrete example, consider that in 2010 the movie industry successfully lobbied the US congress to outlaw the Hollywood Stock Exchange, a real money market just then approved by the CFTC for predicting movie success, and about to go live. Hollywood is dominated by a few big studios. People with movie ideas go to these studios first with proposals, to gain a big studio endorsement, to be seen as higher quality. So top studios can skim the best ideas, and leave the rest to marginal studios. If people were instead to look to prediction markets to estimate movie quality, the value of a big studio endorsement would fall, as would the rents that big studios can extract for their endorsements. So studios have a reason to oppose prediction markets.

While I find this story as stated pretty persuasive, most economists won’t take it seriously until there is a precise formal model to illustrate it. So without further ado, let me present such a model. Math follows. Continue reading "Elite Evaluator Rents" »

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What Does Harvard Do Right?

Is Harvard the top rated college because it is the most clever in deciding who to admit? Not obviously. Instead, in the short run Harvard can gain plenty from a positive feedback loop: the best people apply and prefer to go there, which adds a glow to those who graduate from there, which makes the best want to apply, and so on.

While this seems an obvious and simple story, I must admit I haven’t been thinking enough in such terms, probably in part because I haven’t seen formal economic models that capture this story well. I thank venture capital (VC) titan Marc Andreessen for clarifying. Here is part of a 14 May twitter chat between him (MA) and myself (RH):

RH: VC is dominated by a few firms. What is the scale economy? Few geniuses? Info of seeing most pitches? Ability to create new fashions? Other?

MA: Core dynamic: A few firms have positive selection on their side; the other firms have adverse selection working against them.

The battle among VC firms is less “who is smarter?” than “who do the best founders approach first?”.

RH: OK, but why approach the top few first? What is more attractive about being funded by them vs others?

MA: Founders care about the VC brand halo because potential employees, potential customers, and other potential investors care.

RH: Is it just that top VC get first pick, so they are better picks, so their picks get halo by being in that pool, rinse & repeat?

MA: Yes, that’s the core positive feedback loop. How it starts is less meaningful than how it perpetuates.

Core dynamic: A few firms have positive selection on their side; the other firms have adverse selection working against them.

The battle among VC firms is less “who is smarter?” than “who do the best founders approach first?”.

The main historical driver of positive selection is prior success: a halo branding effect that new startups seek.

In essence, a new startup uses its VC’s brand as a credibility bridge until the startup establishes its own brand.

RH: Sure, but the question is why some VC brands shine brighter. Their money isn’t any more green.

MA: They have an aura of success as a consequence of having previously funded successful startups.

Arguably these dynamics are changing in real time in some interesting ways:

RH: Is there a prediction on if VC industry will become more or less concentrated as result of these changes?

MA: My belief is that VC is restructuring the same way retail stores, law firms, accounting firms, and investment banking did:

This seems to be the hallmark of a professionalizing industry being run properly. You either go big or you go specialist.

RH: I guess the key idea is that there are big scale economies with doing standard tasks, but big diseconomies for specialized tasks.

MA: Yes, but with the subtlety that the well-run scale players are also excellent at many of the specialized tasks.

RH: Many, but not most, or the specialized shops couldn’t exist long.

MA: This is exactly what happened in the talent agency business in the 1980s and 1990s. The big agencies got great at many things.

The specialized shops have to stay small and stay laser-focused on particular areas of specialized advanced competency.

But of course similarly, a scaled franchise firm that gets sloppy runs the same risk, can degrade itself into the middle tier.

RH: Summary: long trend is to scale given tasks, but also task specialization. Overall scale rises, but falls locally when specialize.

MA: Right, exactly. And this explains the size distribution — the scaled players have to be big; the boutiques have to stay small.

You see this in investment banking. You either work with Goldman Sachs or you work with a small boutique specialist bank.

RH: This makes sense, but I’m not sure we have any formal models that predict this correlation nicely.

This same sort of story also seems to work in the short run to explain why some journals have higher prestige. It is not so much that top journal editors are more clever, or use a smarter system to review submissions. It is just that the best papers are submitted there first, which makes the average quality of their publications higher, and so on.

In the long run, we see changes in the prestige rankings of these colleges, journals, investment banks, and venture capital funds. The key question is: what determines those long run changes? Do competitors with slightly better ways to evaluate or help submissions slowly win out over others? Or do other factors dominate?

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Financial Status

At a finance conference last year, I learned this: Instead of saving money directly for their own retirement, many workers have their employers save for them. Those employers hire in-house specialists to pick which specialty consulting firms to hire. These consulting firms advise employers on which investment firms to use. And those investment firms pick actual productive enterprises in which to invest. All three of these intermediaries, i.e., employer, consultant, and investor, take a cut for their active management.

Even employees who invest for themselves tend to pick at least one high fee intermediary: an active-management investment firm. Few take the low cost option of just directly investing in a low-overhead index fund, as recommended by academics for a half-century.

I’ve given talks at many active-management investment firms over the years. They pay speakers very well. I’ve noticed that (like management consults) they tend to hire very visibly impressive people. They also give big investors a lot of personal quality time, to create personal relationships. Their top people seem better at making investors like them than at picking investments. One math-focused firm said it didn’t want more investors because investors all demand more face time and influence over investment choices.

Since 1880 the fraction of US GDP paid for financial intermediation has gone from 2% to 8%. And:

The unit cost [relative to asset income] of financial intermediation appears to be as high today as it was around 1900. This is puzzling. Advances in information technology (IT) should lower the physical transaction costs of buying, pooling and holding financial assets. Trading costs have indeed decreased, but trading volumes have increased even more, and active fund management is expensive. … Investors spend 0.67% of asset value trying (in vain on average, by definition) to beat the market. … While mutual funds fees have dropped, high fee alternative asset managers have gained market share. The end result is that asset management unit costs have remained roughly constant. The comparison with retail and wholesale trade is instructive. In these sectors … larger IT investment coincides with lower prices and lower (nominal) GDP shares. In finance, however, exactly the opposite happens. … A potential explanation is oligopolistic competition but … the historical evidence does not seem to support the naive market power explanation, however. (more)

Our standard academic story on finance is that it buys risk-reduction, and perhaps also that we are overconfident in finance judgements. But it isn’t clear we’ve had much net risk reduction, especially to explain a four times spending increase. (In fact, some argue plausibly that those who take more risk don’t actually get higher returns.) On overconfidence, why would it induce such indirection, and why would its effects increase by such a huge factor over time?

Finance seems to me to be another area, like medicine, schools, and many others, where our usual standard stories just don’t work very well at explaining the details. In such cases most economists just gullibly plow ahead trying to force-fit the standard story onto available data, instead of considering substantially different hypotheses. Me, I try to collect as many pieces of related puzzling data as I can, and then ask what simple but different stories might account at once for many of those puzzles.

To me an obvious explanation to consider here is that we like to buy special connections to prestigious advisors. We look good when bonded to others who look good, and we treat investor relations as especially important bonds. We seem to get blamed less for failures via prestigious associates, and yet are credited for most of our success via them. Finally, we just seem to directly like prestigious associations, even when others don’t know of them. And we may also gain from associating with others who share our advisors.

To explain the change in finance over time, I’ll try my usual go-to explanation for long-term changes in the last few centuries: increasing wealth. In particular, social bonds as a luxury that we buy more of when richer. This can explain the big increases we’ve seen in leisure, product variety, medicine, and schooling.

So as we get rich, we spend larger fractions of our time socializing, we pay more for products with identities that can tie us to particular others, we spend more to assure associates that we care their health, and we spend more to visibly connect with prestigious associates. Some of those prestigious associates are at the schools we attend, the places we live, and via the products we buy. Others come via our financial intermediaries.

This hypothesis suggests an ironic reversal: While we usually play up how much we care about associates, and play down our monetary motives, in finance we pretend to make finance choices purely to get money, while in fact we lose money to gain prestigious associates.

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Advice Shows Status

When we give and seek advice, we think and talk as if we mainly just want to exchange useful information on the topic at hand. But seeking someone’s advice shows them respect, especially if that advice is followed. And in fact, a lot of our advice giving and taking behavior can be better understand in such status terms:

When making decisions together, we tend to give everyone an equal chance to voice their opinion. To make the best decisions, however, each opinion must be scaled according to its reliability. Using behavioral experiments and computational modelling, we tested (in Denmark, Iran, and China) the extent to which people follow this latter, normative strategy. We found that people show a strong equality bias: they weight each other’s opinion equally regardless of differences in their reliability, even when this strategy was at odds with explicit feedback or monetary incentives. (more)

Individuals in powerful positions are the worst offenders. According to one experimental study, they feel competitive when they receive advice from experts, which inflates their confidence and leads them to dismiss what the experts are telling them. High-power participants in the study ignored almost two-thirds of the advice they received. Other participants (the control and low-power groups) ignored advice about half as often. … Research shows that they value advice more if it comes from a confident source, even though confidence doesn’t signal validity. Conversely, seekers tend to assume that advice is off-base when it veers from the norm or comes from people with whom they’ve had frequent discord. (Experimental studies show that neither indicates poor quality.) Seekers also don’t embrace advice when advisers disagree among themselves. And they fail to compensate sufficiently for distorted advice that stems from conflicts of interest, even when their advisers have acknowledged the conflicts and the potential for self-serving motives. … Though many people give unsolicited advice, it’s usually considered intrusive and seldom followed. Another way advisers overstep is to chime in when they’re not qualified to do so. … many advisers take offense when their guidance isn’t accepted wholesale, curtailing further discussion. (more)

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Bowing To Elites

Imagine that that you are a politically savvy forager in a band of size thirty, or a politically savvy farmer near a village of size thousand. You have some big decisions to make, including who to put in various roles, such as son-in-law, co-hunter, employer, renter, cobbler, or healer. Many people may see your choices. How should you decide?

Well first you meet potential candidates in person and see how much you intuitively respect them, get along with them, and can agree on relative status. It isn’t enough for you to have seen their handiwork, you want to make an ally out of these associates, and that won’t work without respect, chemistry, and peace. Second, you see what your closest allies think of candidates. You want to be allies together, so it is best if they also respect and get along with your new allies.

Third, if there is a strong leader in your world, you want to know what that leader thinks. Even if this leader says explicitly that you can do anything you like, they don’t care, if you get any hint whatsoever that they do care, you’ll look closely to infer their preferences. And you’ll avoid doing anything they’d dislike too much, unless your alliance is ready to mount an overt challenge.

Fourth, even if there is no strong leader, there may be a dominant coalition encompassing your band or town. This is a group of people who tend to support each other, get deference from others, and win in conflicts. We call these people “elites.” If your world has elites, you’ll want to treat their shared opinions like those of a strong leader. If elites would gossip disapproval of a choice, maybe you don’t want it.

What if someone sets up objective metrics to rate people in suitability for the roles you are choosing? Say an archery contest for picking hunters, or a cobbler contest to pick cobblers. Or public track records of how often healer patients die, or how long cobbler shoes last. Should you let it be known that such metrics weigh heavily in your choices?

You’ll first want to see what your elites or leader think of these metrics. If they are enthusiastic, then great, use them. And if elites strongly oppose, you’d best only use them when elites can’t see. But what if elites say, “Yeah you could use those metrics, but watch out because they can be misleading and make perverse incentives, and don’t forget that we elites have set up this whole other helpful process for rating people in such roles.”

Well in this case you should worry that elites are jealous of this alternative metric displacing their advice. They like the power and rents that come from advising on who to pick for what. So elites may undermine this metric, and punish those who use it.

When elites advise people on who to pick for what, they will favor candidates who seem loyal to elites, and punish those who seem disloyal, or who aren’t sufficiently deferential. But since most candidates are respectful enough, elites often pick those they think will actually do well in the role. All else equal, that will make them look good, and help their society. While their first priority is loyalty, looking good is often a close second.

Since humans evolved to be unconscious political savants, this is my basic model to explain the many puzzles I listed in my last post. When choosing lawyers, doctors, real estate agents, pundits, teachers, and more, elites put many obstacles in the way of objective metrics like track records, contests, or prediction markets. Elites instead suggest picking via personal impressions, personal recommendations, and school and institution prestige. We ordinary people mostly follow this elite advice. We don’t seek objective metrics, and instead use elite endorsements, such as the prestige of where someone went to school or now works. In general we favor those who elites say have the potential to do X, over those who actually did X.

This all pushes me to more favor two hypotheses:

  1. We choose people for roles mostly via evolved mental modules designed mainly to do well at coalition politics. The resulting system does often pick people roughly well for their roles, but more as a side than a direct effect.
  2. In our society, academia reigns as a high elite, especially on advice for who to put in what roles. When ordinary people see another institution framed as competing directly with academia, that other institution loses. Pretty much all prestigious institutions in our society are seen as allied with academia, not as competing with it. Even religions, often disapproved by academics, rely on academic seminary degrees, and strongly push kids to gain academic prestige.

We like to see ourselves as egalitarian, resisting any overt dominance by our supposed betters. But in fact, unconsciously, we have elites and we bow to them. We give lip service to rebelling against them, and they pretend to be beaten back. But in fact we constantly watch out for any actions of ours that might seem to threaten elites, and we avoid them like the plague. Which explains our instinctive aversion to objective metrics in people choice, when such metrics compete with elite advice.

Added 8am: I’m talking here about how we intuitively react to the possibility of elite disapproval; I’m not talking about how elites actually react. Also, our intuitive reluctance to embrace track records isn’t strong enough to prevent us from telling specific stories about our specific achievements. Stories are way too big in our lives for that. We already norms against bragging, and yet we still manage to make our selves look good in stories.

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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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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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