A Theory Of Status

A few days ago I asked for a theory of status, to help predict how status will change in a rather different future. Today let me offer such a theory.

Here are our main clues about status:

  1. Status is a socially shared way to evaluate and rank people
  2. Status seems mostly relative; you can’t raise everyone’s status
  3. Human status has two main parts: dominance and prestige
  4. Most animals have dominance, which is who would win a pairwise conflict
  5. Prestige status seems to not exist in animals with simple social relations.
  6. Unlike other shared rankings, like sexiness or dominance, we seem unaware of what exactly prestige ranks.

So what is prestige? That is, what sort of ranking would be useful for human-like primates to track about each other, but also be something illicit, so that foragers would be reluctant to admit its true function? One obvious candidate stands out to me: one’s value as an ally in coalition politics. That is, how much better off is a typical coalition with this person as an ally, relative to not having them as an ally. This is clearly an important concept, well worth tracking. It only makes sense in groups with complex coalition politics, and foragers have norms against overtly engaging in such politics.

Since an ability to win pairwise contests is useful to coalitions, we expect dominance to add to prestige. But humans and similar primates can also add value to a coalition by having skills that make them useful associates, and by being on good terms with other good-ally-material folks. And both skills and associations also seem to make important contributions to human prestige. Note that this theory predicts that other primates with complex coalition politics, like chimps, will also have a prestige status distinct from dominance status.

If prestige is about one’s value in coalition politics, what does that predict about em prestige? Of the list I gave, items 2,5,7,12,16, should be substantially related to prestige.

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  • Sounds like the dichotomy could be boiled down to: would you rather be feared or loved? Dominance is being feared, prestige is being loved. Basically, “stick vs. carrot” in civil society relationships.

    • Roland

      I disagree. If you are a great musician you won’t be feared but lots of people will admire you. Not all will love you, some will envy you. The key is having a skillset that others don’t have. This makes you higher status.

    • Someone from the other side

      I agree, prestige would be more likely to be admired (which is something you obtain by having something that others do not have, which again implies that status derived from prestige is, much like that from dominance, a relative ranking) than being loved.

      I do not necessarily agree that sexiness is a ranking. Its somewhere in between a ranking and an absolute measure. A sexy person would not lose that attribute if everyone around was equally sexy but probably lose the benefits that being a rare person confers.

      • Noumenon

        I think a lot of the women you see around you every day have lost the attribute of “sexy” because everyone else is equally sexy. Smooth shaven legs, styled hair, colored makeup, and short sleeves surely would have gotten you very high in the rankings in a lot of societies (aside from not fitting in to the norms of other women).

  • RJB

    Here is a definition of prestige and application to chimps:

    Humans follow the example of prestigious, high-status individuals much more readily than that of others, such as when we copy the behavior of village elders, community leaders, or celebrities. This tendency has been declared uniquely human, yet remains untested in other species. Experimental studies of animal learning have typically focused on the learning mechanism rather than on social issues, such as who learns from whom. The latter, however, is essential to understanding how habits spread. Here we report that when given opportunities to watch alternative solutions to a foraging problem performed by two different models of their own species, chimpanzees preferentially copy the method shown by the older, higher-ranking individual with a prior track-record of success. Since both solutions were equally difficult, shown an equal number of times by each model and resulted in equal rewards, we interpret this outcome as evidence that the preferred model in each of the two groups tested enjoyed a significant degree of prestige in terms of whose example other chimpanzees chose to follow. Such prestige-based cultural transmission is a phenomenon shared with our own species. If similar biases operate in wild animal populations, the adoption of culturally transmitted innovations may be significantly shaped by the characteristics of performers.

  • Eric Falkenstein

    I think the distinction between status and prestige is mainly semantic, and that one could argue prestige as contained within status, just as one could argue the virtues of ‘politeness’, ‘honesty’, and ‘moderation’, fall under ‘prudence.’

  • Direct marketers have a mantra they call “modeling success.” (People outside the direct marketing industry might prefer the term, “plagiarism.”) It is a means of duplicating the achievements of a prestigious other. Status, on the other hand, is pursued for its own sake, the end result of the foraging rather than what inspires it.

  • Thursday

    Status is about value.

  • jim

    Is this why so much of politics is about lowering the status and prestige of your opponents — instead of countering their arguments?

    In this context the goal is lower their value as a coalition partner. When Republicans, to take an example. are smeared as vile, racist, wife-beating, bigots with no redeeming value — the goal is to make the social costs of being a Republican outweigh any benefits you might gain from policies you support.

    The smear campaign has been a part of politics from day one. The general idea being to poison the well, so nothing your opponent says is listened to. So even if they make sense, people assume it’s a trick or a clever lie. Typically the smear is about claiming your opponent violates some fundamental tenant of societal morality.

    So in the past this was more about illicit affairs or rumors of homosexuality. And today it might be about once saying the n-word in public. Though clearly accusations of odd sexual conduct are still a common and effective tactic. Accusations of being a thief or a liar seem pretty universal.

    So what kind of smear campaigns were engaged in in early forager or farming communities? Being a shirker? A liar? A thief? A cuckold?

    Do small town or, say, middle school smear campaigns give us any insight? At what age do children start smearing each other?

    Before puberty kids clearly rank each other. I remember the rankings mainly being according to athletic and scholastic skill. Teacher praise raised the status of kids. Playground skill was important. Size, speed and coordination.

    It seemed serious smear campaigns only started after puberty, with girls calling other girls sluts being a seemingly universal smear. Same with boys calling other boys gay. Being poor and having a messed up family life were common smears. Well, not really smears since they tended to be just true. But if word got out that a kid was poor, other kids tended to ostracize him. And everybody wanted to be the friend of the rich kids. They had cooler stuff!

    Post-puberty is also typically when the first popularity contests start – class president, queen of the dance, yearbook awards. cutest, smartest, most likely to X, etc, etc. Also when the first cuts start occurring – school teams, cheerleading squad. Before that everybody who want to play is put on a team. By junior high some kids start being told they just aren’t good enough to even participate.

  • Why wouldn’t 6 (past accomplishments) be tied to prestige? What are Nobel prizes awarded for, and aren’t they commonly regarded as embodying the most prestige?

  • Rory McCallion

    Just read Chimpanzee Politics. I think that what you’re calling dominance and prestige are two factors in the same equation, but I think ‘prestige’ has a little too much wrapped into it. Status is definitely a social ranking. Physical fitness beyond healthy-for-your-body-type is an important part of the equation for humans, but mostly because we’re hard-wired to think so. Social-intellectual fitness (for lack of a better term) is much more important to humans for the purpose of modern reproductive fitness.

    First post. 🙂