Tag Archives: Status

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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Beware Status Arrogance

Imagine that you are expert in field A, and a subject in field B comes up at party. You know that there may be others at the party who are expert in field B. How reluctant does this make you to openly speculate about this topic? Do you clam up and only cautiously express safe opinions, or do you toss out the thoughts that pop into your head as if you knew as much about the subject as anyone?

If you are like most people, the relative status of fields A and B will likely influence your choice. If the other field has higher status than yours, you are more likely to be cautious, while if the other field has lower status than yours, you are more likely to speculate freely. In both cases your subconscious will have made good guesses about the likely status consequences to you if an expert in B were to speak up and challenge your speculations. At some level you would know that others at the party are likely to back whomever has the higher status, even if the subject is within the other person’s area of expertise.

But while you are likely to be relatively safe from status losses, you should know that you are not safe from being wrong. When people from different fields argue about something within one of their areas of expertise, that expert is usually right, even when the other field has higher status. Yes people from your field may on average be smarter and harder-working, and your field may have contributed more to human progress. Even so, people who’ve studied more about the details of something usually know more about it.

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Status Bid Coalitions

Katja Grace and I talked a bit recently about a possible “big scope status bias”, and she wrote a post on one of the ideas we discussed:

I’m not convinced that more abstract things are more statusful in general, or that it would be surprising if such a trend were fairly imprecise. However supposing they are and it was, here is an explanation for why some especially abstract things seem silly. … Abstract rethinking of common concepts is easily mistaken for questioning basic assumptions. Abstract questioning of basic assumptions really is questioning basic assumptions. And questioning basic assumptions has a strong surface resemblance to not knowing about basic truths, or at least not having a strong gut feeling that they are true. (more)

Yes, people who question basic assumptions can be framed as silly for not understanding basic things. But I think a similarly strong effect is that people often just don’t like reconsidering basic assumptions. Once you’ve used certain assumptions and matching concepts for a long time, your thinking comes to rely on them. Not only would you lose a lot of that investment if your assumption was wrong, but it becomes mentally hard to even consider the possibility. A third strong effect, I think, is one I mentioned in my previous post:

It is harder to reason well about big scope choices, which is part of why it impresses to do that well. … Some topics will be so abstract that very few can deal well with them, or even evaluate the dealings of others. So those few people will tend more to be on their own, and not get much praise from others. (more)

Reasoning abstractly in a way that seems to question basic assumptions is often seen as a bid for status. As with most such bids, observers have to decide if to accept or oppose that bid. Observers are tempted to reject it, not only because they don’t like others to rise in status, but also because they don’t like to have to reconsider basic assumptions, and because it is so tempting to reject by ridicule, via insinuating that the bidder is stupid and silly.

But while these temptations can be strong, observers must also consider coalition politics – how many allies how strong can the bidder bring into play. If a high status field like physics brings broad unified support to the abstract reasoning, people will mostly back down and accept the abstract status bid. But if only a few supporters can be found with only modest status, the temptation to ridicule is likely to win out. Philosophers are often on the borderline here, with enough status to intimidate many, but not enough to intimidate high status folks like physicists, who are more tempted to ridicule them.

Added 10a: This helps explain the puzzle I engaged in Too Much Consulting? When managers want to push changes that seem to question basic firm assumptions, they need especially strong high status support to resist the ridicule response. So they hire prestigious management consultants.

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Big Scope Status Bias

Some data points:

  1. Many incoming college freshman like “international studies” or “international business.” Far fewer like local studies or local business. Yet there will be more jobs in the later area than the former.
  2. The media discusses national and international politics more than more local politics, yet most of the “news you can use” is local.
  3. Our economics department once estimated there’d be substantial demand for a “managerial economics” major. It would teach basically the same stuff as in an economics major gets, but attract students because of the word “managerial.”
  4. Within management, reorganization is usually higher status than managing within existing structures.
  5. The ratio of students who do science majors relative to engineering majors is much larger than the ratio of jobs in those areas.
  6. Within science, students tend to prefer “basic” sciences like particle physics to more “applied” sciences like geology or material science, relative to the ratio of jobs in such areas.
  7. Compared to designing things from scratch, there is far more work out there maintaining, repairing, and making minor modifications to devices and software. Yet engineering and software schools focus mainly on designing things from scratch.
  8. Within engineering, designing products is higher status than designing the processes that manufacture those products.
  9. Designing new categories of products is seen as higher status than new products within existing categories.
  10. Even when designing from scratch, most real work is testing, honing, and debugging a basic idea. Yet in school the focus is more on creating the basic idea.
  11. There seems to be an overemphasis at school on designing tools that may be useful for other design work, relative to using tools to design things of more direct value.

Do these trends have something in common? My guess: we see wider-scope choices as higher status, all else equal. That is, things associated with choices that we think will influence and constrain many other choices are seen as higher status than things associated with those other more constrained choices. For example, we think managers constrain subordinates, world policy constrains local policy, physics constrains geology, product designs constrain product maintenance, and so on. Yes reverse constraints also happen, but we think those happen less often.

The ability to control the choices of others is a kind of power, and power has long been seen as a basis for status. There may also be a far-view heuristic at work here, i.e., where choices that evoke a far mental view tend to be seen as high status. After all, power does tend to evoke a far view.

A lesson here seems to be that while it can raise your status to be associated with big scope choices, you should expect a lot of competition for that status, and a relative neglect of smaller scope choices. That is, more people may major in science, but there are more jobs in engineering. You might impress people by focusing on creating designs in school, but you are likely to spend your life maintaining pre-existing designs. If you want to get stuff done instead of gaining status, you should focus on smaller scope choices.

Now in my life I’ve spent a lot of time trying to reconsider basic big scope choices. For example, I’ve studied foundations of quantum mechanics, and proposed a new form of governance. And I’ve often thought of such topics as neglected. So how can I reconcile such views with the apparent lesson of this post?

One obvious reconciliation is that I’ve just been wrong, having succumbed to the big scope status bias.

Another possibility is that big scope topics tend more to be public goods where people tend to free-ride on the efforts of others. It is easier for a person or group to own the gains from better understanding smaller scope topics, and thus have a strong incentives to deal with them. If so, there would be positive externalities from progress on such topics, to counter the negative externalities from status and signaling. I think this explanation has some truth, but only some.

A third possibility is that it is harder to reason well about big scope choices, which is part of why it impresses to do that well. But if good reasoning is harder as the topic gets more abstract, there should be fewer people who can handle such topics. Some topics will be so abstract that very few can deal well with them, or even evaluate the dealings of others. So those few people will tend more to be on their own, and not get much praise from others.

Are there more possibilities to consider?

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Should You Kiss Ass?

Consider two possible work strategies. One strategy is just to try to do a good job. The other is to try to kiss ass and please your boss any way you can. Of course you can try either strategy, both, or neither. Which makes four different kinds of workers. Now ask yourself, of these four kinds of workers, which ones do you think achieve the most career success? Which ones have the most job and life satisfaction?

I came across a fascinating paper (ungated here) from 1994 that asked exactly this question. Looking at 500 ex students of industrial relations, they compared the effect of ass-kissing to doing a good job on success and job satisfaction.

Supervisor-focused tactics … include: agree with your immediate supervisor’s ideas; praise your immediate supervisor on his or her accomplishments; agree with your supervisor’s major opinions outwardly even when you disagree inwardly. Job-focused tactics … include: make others aware of your accomplishments in your job; try to take responsibility for positive events even when you are not solely responsible; arrive at work early in order to look good in front of others.

The result: workers who try to please their boss are more successful in their careers, and workers who try to seem good at their jobs are less successful. Boss-pleasers are also more satisfied with their job and life, while good-jobbers aren’t any more or less satisfied.

The only other thing that predicted satisfaction: being married. Other things that predicted job success: being married, being on the job many years, working more hours per week, and not having a PhD.

We like to act like we just want to do a good job, and would rather not have bosses breathing down our necks. But what if, we actually like kissing ass?

Please speak up if you know of any more recent that might confirm or disconfirm these results.

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What Cost Variety?

In 1930 Keynes famously predicted that by 2030 we’d be four to eight times more productive, and we’d use those gains to work far fewer hours. Though we could get by on less, we might work fifteen hours a week just to feel useful.

It is clear now that this won’t happen. But it is interesting to wonder what sort of lifestyle we could manage if we worked three to ten times fewer hours on average. And it occurs to me that we could probably work far less, and still have just as much stuff, of just as high a quality, if only we’d sacrifice product variety.

Imagine that we made just as many cars, houses, clothes, meals, furniture, etc., each one just as big with just as high quality materials and craftsmanship. But instead of the making these in the stupefying variety that we do today, imagine that we made only a few standard variations, and didn’t update those variations as often. A few standard cars, standard clothes, standard meals, etc. Enough variety to handle different climates, body sizes, and food allergies, but not remotely enough to let each person look unique. (An exception might be made for variety in music, books, movies, etc., since these are such a tiny fraction of total costs.)

I’d guess that this alternative could plausibly cost three to ten times or more less than what we pay now. Let me explain.

First, most products have fixed costs of production. That is, not only does it cost more to make more items, it costs to be ready to make that kind of item. For example, in addition to costing more to give you another gallon of gas, it costs to make a gas station and have it ready to sell you gas. With product variety, there is usually an added fixed cost for each new product variation.

Second, industry has worked hard to enable “mass customization,” i.e., product variety, by lowering fixed costs at the expense of increased per-item costs. Without product variety, industry would instead work hard to reduce per-item costs, at the expense of higher fixed costs.

Third, there is a lot of learning during most production processes, learning that makes it cheaper to make more items, even when the scale of the production process doesn’t change. A typical estimate is that costs fall in half when ten times as many items are made. So with a thousand times less product variety, costs would be eight times lower.

Fourth, there are lots of ways to save on costs when you produce at larger scales. For example, for most chemical processing, like making gas from oil, the cost of a production plant goes roughly as the surface area of its devices, while the amount processed goes roughly as the volume of the devices. Since volumes grow faster than surface areas, the per-volume cost goes down. There are also lots of ways to save on costs when you distribute and store more standardized items.

Even with a lot of bad management, the early communist revolution in Russia was still able to make impressive gains in output by using these scale economies. They didn’t have much variety, but they did make a lot of cars, etc.

What fraction of us would prefer to live in a world where they work only 10% as many hours, have just as much high quality stuff, but lose most of our product variety. If many of us would rather switch to this alternate world, then we may suffer from a coordination failure, of failing to switch together to more standard products.

I suspect that status competition is the problem here. We see those who don’t use distinctive products as lower status, either because they can’t afford them, or don’t have enough taste to pick ones well matched to them. Consider the distain expressed in the famous Pete Seeger Malvina Reynolds song Little Boxes for houses that look the same, and people who act similar. Consider the horror two women might feel to arrive at a party wearing the same dress. Or how folks at a restaurant are reluctant to order an item chosen by someone else at their table.

It isn’t like we are each born with detailed preferences for varied products, so I must own a tall white leather couch while you must own a short red cotton one. Instead we each try to construct a product-use-identity that is the right distance from other identities around us, and that well matches our few distinctive features. The more different others around us are from each other, the more different we must also be to not seem low status.

But it isn’t clear we are any happier, or that our lives have more meaning. This seems to just be part of the human status treadmill. A treadmill we don’t seem able or even much inclined to coordinate to avoid. Welcome to the human condition.

Added 20Feb: See a nice quote from Murray’s Coming Apart on increasing variety.

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Advice Isn’t About Info

Why is cynicism often taken as a sign of low status? One contributing factor is that we tend to get clearer evidence for cynical theories of the world when our status is falling, instead of rising:

I had lunch with a very senior managing partner at a venture capital firm as she was stepping down from the firm to spend more time with her family following a long and successful career in that company. She commented that once she announced her retirement, not only did her colleagues behave differently toward her, no longer inviting her to meetings and seeking her advice as often, but her time was less in demand by colleagues in the high-technology and venture capital communities more generally. Her wisdom and experience hadn’t changed— the only difference was her soon-to-be-diminished control over investment resources and positions in the venture capital firm. (Pfeffer’s book Power)

When you are young and rising in status, you can explain people listening to you more as their learning that you are wise. When you are older and falling in status, that explanation doesn’t work so well for why people listen to you less.

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Why Info Push Dominates

Some phenomena to ponder:

  1. Decades ago I gave talks about how the coming world wide web (which we then called “hypertext publishing”) could help people find more info. Academics would actually reply “I don’t need any info tools; my associates will personally tell me about any research worth knowing about.”
  2. Many said the internet would bring a revolution of info pull, where people pay to get the specific info they want, to supplant the info push of ads, where folks pay to get their messages heard. But even Google gets most revenue from info pushers, and our celebrated social media mainly push info too.
  3. Blog conversations put a huge premium on arguments that appear quickly after other arguments. Mostly arguments that appear by themselves a few weeks later might as well not exist, for all they’ll influence future expressed opinions.
  4. When people hear negative rumors about others, they usually believe them, and rarely ask the accused directly for their side of the story. This makes it easy to slander folks who aren’t well connected enough to have friends who will tell them who said what about them.
  5. We usually don’t seem to correct well for “independent” confirming clues that actually come from the same source a few steps back. We also tolerate higher status folks dominating meetings and other communication channels, thereby counting their opinions more. So ad campaigns often have time-correlated channel-redundant bursts with high status associations.

Overall, we tend to wait for others to push info onto us, rather than taking the initiative to pull info in, and we tend to gullibly believe such pushed clues, especially when they come from high status folks, come redundantly, and come correlated in time.

A simple explanation of all this is that our mental habits were designed to get us to accept the opinions of socially well-connected folks. Such opinions may be more likely to be true, but even if not they are more likely to be socially convenient. Pushed info tends to come with the meta clues of who said it when and via what channel. In contrast, pulled info tends to drop many such meta clues, making it harder to covertly adopt the opinions of the well-connected.

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