Tag Archives: Status

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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A Missing Status Move

People who have status can use it to raise or lower the status of others. But they aren’t supposed to do this arbitrarily. Instead, we have social norms about how status is supposed to change. And our main norm is that status is supposed to track merit. So if you see someone whose status deviates from their merit, you are supposed help correct that deviation, at least when doing so is consistent with other norms.

For example, if you edit an academic journal, you aren’t just supposed to publish the papers of high status academics and reject the papers of low status academics. And you aren’t just supposed to publish the papers of your allies and reject those of your rivals. You are supposed to instead evaluate the merit of submitted papers, and publish the high merit papers. It is ok to use use status as a heuristic to estimate where merit is likely to lie, such rejecting without review papers that look bad on the surface and come from low status people. But when you have a private signal of merit, as might come from actually reading a paper, you are supposed to act on that signal.

This isn’t to say you should rudely force your private evaluations of merit on audiences who haven’t asked for them. If an audience treats a speaker with  respect, maybe you shouldn’t interrupt that speech to express your low evaluation. But neither should you praise that speaker just to gain favor with the audience, if you’ve been directly asked for your independent evaluation.

If you act to change someone’s status, that person might have a higher or lower status than you, and your act might raise or lower their status. This gives four possible situations. And in three of them, you have pretty plausible selfish motives for your actions. For example, because status is in part relative, any act to lower the status of others can plausibly be seen as selfishly trying to lower others to make more status room to raise you and your allies. Also, a bid to raise the status of someone above you can be seen as an attempt to associate with them, and as flattery, i.e., a gift to them in the hope they will reciprocate and raise your status.

The fourth possibility is where you act to raise the status of someone lower than you. Such an act would plausibly be selfish if that other person were an ally or minion of yours, or a rising star with a plausibly high future status. But selfishness is less plausible if they have no existing relation to you, aren’t a good ally candidate, and are past their prime. Especially if you try to raise their status to be above you.

Since trying to raise the status of an unaffiliated person below you is the least selfish looking way to try to change the status of others, we might expect this to be the least common variation observed. But we might also expect some people to go out of their way to do it, and to call attention to their act, in order to signal their devotion to the merit principle of status – the idea that we should all work to help make status better track merit. But I hardly ever hear of this.

So why don’t more people do this? We seem eager enough to invoke this status-should-track-merit principle when we criticize others for flattery, playing favorites, and unfair criticism of rivals.  But it seems few are committed enough to the principle to pay a clear personal cost to demonstrate their commitment.

Added 29DecInstapundit cited this post.

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Rejection Via Advice

We get status in part from the status of our associates, which is a credible signal of how others see us. Because of this, we prefer to associate with high status folks. But it looks bad to be overt about this. So we try to hide this motive, and to pretend that other motives dominate our choices of associates.

This would be easier to do if status were very stable. Then we could take our time setting up plausible excuses for wanting to associate with particular high status folks, and for rejecting association bids by particular low status folks. But in fact status fluctuates, which can force us to act quickly. We want to quickly associate more with folks who rise in status, and to quickly associate less with those who fall in status. But the coincidence in time between their status change and our association change may make our status motives obvious.

Since association seems a good thing in general, trying to associate with anyone seems a “nice” act, requiring fewer excuses. In contrast, weakening an existing association seems less nice. So we mainly need good excuses for pushing away those whose status has recently fallen. Such opportunistic rejection, just when our associates most need us, seems especially wrong and mean. So how do we manage it?

One robust strategy is to offer random specific advice. You acknowledge their problems, express sympathy, and then take extra time to “help” them by offering random specific advice about how to prevent or reverse their status fall. Especially advice that will sound good if quoted to others, but is hard for them to actually follow, and is unlikely to be the same as what other associates advise.

If different associates offer different advice, then this person with fallen status simply must fail to follow most of that advice. Which then gives all those folks whose advice was not followed an excuse to distance themselves from this failure. And those whose advice was followed, well at least they get the status mark of power – a credibly claim that they have influence over others. Either way, the falling status person loses even more status.

Unless of course the advice followed is actually useful. But what are the chances of that?

Added 27Dec: A similar strategy would be useful if your status were to rise, and you wanted to drop associates in order make room for more higher status associates.

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In Praise Of Profanity

Cursing … is a human universal. Every language, dialect or patois ever studied, whether living or dead, spoken by millions or by a single small tribe, turns out to have its share of forbidden speech. … The earliest writings, which date from 5,000 years ago, include their share of off-color descriptions of the human form and its ever-colorful functions. …

“Studies show that if you’re with a group of close friends, the more relaxed you are, the more you swear,” Burridge said. “It’s a way of saying: ‘I’m so comfortable here, I can let off steam. I can say whatever I like.’ ” Evidence also suggests that cursing can be an effective means of venting aggression and thereby forestalling physical violence. …

Men generally curse more than women, unless said women are in a sorority, and that university provosts swear more than librarians or the staff members of the university day care center. … Chimpanzees engage in what appears to be a kind of cursing match as a means of venting aggression and avoiding a potentially dangerous physical clash. (more)

My parents were very religious. They never drank alcohol, gambled, or used profanity. Since leaving them I’ve become comfortable with alcohol, and with gambling on important topics, but I’ve never been comfortable with profanity. Yet on refection, that is mostly a problem with me, not with profanity. Let me explain.

Traditionally, lower classes did hard physical labor, and as a result wore tough work clothes, and had skin that was callused, tanned, and wrinkled. Upper classes showed that they were too rich or skilled for such work by wearing fragile clothes and having soft smooth light skin. Similarly, upper classes have often nurtured polite language, avoidance of direct insult, and a heightened sensitivity and squeamishness on topics like sex or excrement. Such habits have helped the upper classes to contrast themselves with the tough and calloused attitudes of lower classes toward such things.

While upper classes have often portrayed lower class habits as due to ignorance of the universal benefits of politeness and sensitivity, lower class habits seem to me to in fact be functional adaptations to common environments. Just as it can be important to judge physical strength and toughness when allocating workers to hard physical labor, it can also be important to judge emotional toughness for tasks that may be emotionally stressful.

So lower class cultures tend to not only have more demonstrations of physical strength and toughness, including dangerous dares, fist fights, and excess drinking, such cultures also tend to have more direct and aggressive verbal challenges as well as profanity, insults, teasing, and taunting. People are even given nicknames that highlight their embarrassing weaknesses.

Such habits not only let lower class workers distinguish themselves from upper class managers and customers, they also help such workers to better express and gauge their physical and emotional weaknesses and strengths. This lets them better select and allocate people to tasks, and to push group members up to but not beyond their limits. So it makes sense that today profanity is more common in work groups that depend closely on one another, and who have high levels of physical and emotional stress. This includes surgeons, warriors, finance traders, movie makers, and restaurant servers.

Today, laws against sexual harassment, and wider monitoring of worker speech, discourage workplace profanity, in an apparent attempt to impose high class cultural standards on other classes. We should expect this to raise our status in the eyes of the world, even as it reduces the functionality of workgroups who strain against the limits of their capacities.

I also expect us to allow exceptions for work we consider to be especially important, like war and movies. I take recent increases in campus speech codes that basically ban any talk that anyone might offend anyone as further evidence that schools are more about signaling status than about gaining productivity.

If the world continues to get richer and more pampered, expect more rules against profanity in places that want to show themselves as high status. If, however, the world ever returns to really needing to get things done, expect any such rules to be mostly ignored, as people focus on productivity.

The em world scenario that I’ve been working on should have low wages, more competition, and work groups pushed to the limits of their emotional abilities, even as differences in physical abilities disappear. Em kids would also be rare, and rarely mix with adults. This all suggests that em work groups would more often adopt traditional working class habits, except emphasizing emotional over physical toughness. Em work groups will probably use lots of strongly emotional profanity, insults, and teasing.

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