Fragmented status doesn’t help

David Friedman wrote, and others have claimed similarly:

It seems obvious that, if one’s concern is status rather than real income, we are in a zero sum game. If my status increases relative to yours, yours has decreased relative to mine. … Like many things that seem obvious, this one is false. …

…what matters to me is my status as I perceive it; what matters to you is your status as you perceive it. Since each of us has his own system of values, it is perfectly possible for my status as I view it to be higher than yours and yours as you view it to be higher than mine…

Status is about what other people think your status is, but Friedman’s argument is that you at least get some choice in whose views to care about. People split off into many different groups, and everyone may see their group as quite important, so see themselves as quite statusful. Maybe I feel good because I win at board games often, but you don’t feel bad if you don’t – you just quit playing board games and hang out with people who care about politics instead, because you have a good mind for that. As Will Wilkinson says:

I think that there are lots of pastors, PTA presidents, police chiefs, local scenesters, small town newspaper editors, and competitive Scrabble champions who are pretty pleased with their high relative standing within the circle they care about. Back where I come from, a single blue ribbon for a strawberry rhubarb pie at the State Fair could carry a small-town lady for years.

This is a popular retort to the fear that seeking status is zero sum, so any status I get comes at the cost of someone else’s status. I think it’s very weak.

There are two separate issues: whether increasing one person’s status decreases someone else’s status just as much (whether status seeking is constant sum) and whether the total benefits from status come to zero, or to some other positive or negative amount (whether status seeking is zero-sum in particular).

That people split into different pools and think theirs is better than others suggests (though does not prove) that the net value of status is more than zero. Disproportionately many people think they are above average, so as long as status translates to happiness in the right kind of way, disproportionately many people are happy.

The interesting question though – and the one that the above argument is intended to answer – is whether my gaining more status always takes away from your status. Here it’s less clear that the separation of people into different ponds makes much difference:

  1. One simple model would be that the difference between each person’s perception of the status ladder is that they each view their own pond as being at the top (or closer to the top than others think). But then when they move up in their pond, someone else in their pond moves down, and vice versa. So it’s still constant sum.
  2. Another simple model would be that people all agree on their positions on the status ladder, but they care a lot more about where they are relative to some of the people on the ladder (those in their pond). For instance I might agree that the queen of England is higher status than me, but mostly just think about my position in the blogosphere.  Here of course status is constant sum (since we don’t disagree on status). But the hope would be that at least the status we care more about isn’t constant sum. But it is. However much I move up relative to people in my pond, people in my pond move down relative to me (a person in their pond). So again involving ponds doesn’t change the constant-sumness of people gaining or losing status.
  3. But perhaps changing the number or contents of the ponds could increase the total status pie? Increasing the number of ponds could make things better – for instance if people measure status as distance from the top of one’s favorite pond. It could also make things worse – for instance if people measure status as the number of people under one in one’s favorite pond. It could also not change the total amount of status, if people measure status as something like proportion of the way up a status ladder. Instead of one big ladder there could be lots of little parallel ladders. This would stop people from having very high or very low status, but not change the total. It seems to me that some combination of these is true. The maker of the best rhubarb pie at the State Fair might feel statusful, but nowhere near as statusful as the president of america. Probably not even as statusful as someone at the 90th percentile of wealth. So I don’t think we just pay attention to the number above us in the group we care about most. Nor just our rank on some ladder – being further up of a bigger ladder is better. So it’s not clear to me that increasing the number of ponds should make for more status, or more enjoyment of status.
  4. Maybe moving people between ponds can help? Will Wilkinson tells of how he moved between ponds until he found one where he had a chance to excel. It seems likely that he feels higher status now. However the people in the ponds he left now have fewer people under them, and their ponds are smaller. Either of these might diminish their status. In his new pond, Will is probably better than others who were already competing. This lowers their status. It’s unclear whether everyone’s more statusful or better off overall than if they had all been in one big pond.

It might sound intuitive that more ponds mean more status for all, but in most straightforward models the number of ponds doesn’t change the size of the status pie.

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  • Daniel

    I think Will’s point is important. In particular, I think your arguments that status seeking is a constant sum seem to me to assume that which ladders/ponds/whatever people care about is relatively static. Suppose A gains status relative to B, where this whole status gain is relative to some particular status ladder X. Assuming that A and B just care about ladder X, this might look constant sum. But B’s losing status relative to ladder X might just lead B to focus on ladder Y instead. So now A’s gain needn’t lead to a similarly sized loss for B. But if B focuses on some other ladder, is A’s “pond” smaller? Not necessarily. Maybe A and B are in the same profession, and now that B is lower status in that profession, B doesn’t leave it, but he does focus more on his non-professional life. Maybe after A makes partner and B doesn’t, B stays in the legal world (so the pool of lawyers for A to favorably compare himself to is just as big) but focuses on his alligator wrestling. And since B is a much better alligator wrestler than B, B can feel happy about that. 

    General point, if losses in relative status tend to lead people to focus on/care about metrics of status other than the ones relative to which they lose, then the game of status seeking may be positive sum, rather than constant sum. 

  • Daniel

    Oh, and will B’s focusing more on alligator wrestling diminish the status of other alligator wrestlers? I don’t see that it has to, for lots of reasons. Maybe B isn’t better than most alligator wrestlers. He’s just a better alligator wrestler than most lawyers. So B is happy cause he’s better than most of his puny buddies that he works with, while the other alligator wrestlers are happy cause they’re better than the moonlighting lawyers. 

    I actually remember feeling like this in high school. I played a sport and played an instrument. At neither one was I great. But when my non-greatness at the sport was salient to me, I’d typically think I was a better musician than all these athletes, and when my non-greatness as a musician was salient to me, I’d typically think that I was a better athlete than all these musicians. People can be very flexible about this stuff. 

  • Mark M

    I am not diminished by the success of others, nor am I improved by the failure of others.

    I see status as a sliding scale, rather than a ranked list.  When status changes for one person, others remain the same. 

    Your view may be different than mine, depending on whether you have a scarcity or abundance world view.  This means that others in my same pool may feel that my status has changed when a higher status person comes along.

    This is why status discussions can be hard – they’re all about perception.  I may not feel diminished, but I may be diminished in the eyes of my peers.  I may not feel that someone else’s status is diminished by my success, but others in our little pond may feel that it has.

    • Michael Wengler

      “I am not diminished by the success of others, nor am I improved by the failure of others.”
      As long as you are not bidding against baseball players and corporate kingpins for an apartment on Park Avenue, you are completely correct.  
      Or not trying to acquire any other resource that other humans would like to acquire.  

      Are you successfully able to meet those preconditions for your statement to be correct?  Is your life really improved by circumscribing your behavior thusly just to get that statement to be true?

      • Mark M

        Yes, there are winners and losers in competition for scarce resources.  Does your success or failure in this competition change your status, or does it simply demonstrate your current status?

        This is a trick question.  Perception is key.  You can fail successfully (Can you believe I got to pay so much for that apartment?) or miserably (Can you believe got that apartment when I deserved it?).  You can also win successfully (Can you believe I’m paying so little for this apartment?) or miserably (The price of this apartment is going to bankrupt me!).

        My perception of my own status remains unchanged after failing to secure the Park Avenue apartment.  My peers may not feel the same way.  Which is exactly what I said in my earlier post.

  • Quite simply, if one measures status as being as near to the top of a ladder as possible, then being able to alter the total number of ladders prevents this from being a zero-sum game. If there are X people in our world, then with X ladders (one for each person) everybody can attain maximum status and no-one loses any, as status is measured by distance from the top of a ladder, not by how many people are underneath. 

    • daedalus2u

       Why stop with X ladders?  Why not have 100X ladders?  Then everyone could have maximum status in 100 hierarchies. 

    • Yes, but in such a world people would quickly make their own private ladders, which we don’t see.

      • Chad S Gilbert

        That’s always seemed like a plausible way toward a utopia to me.

    • JenniferRM

       @ Katja: I suspect there are many more such ladders (and/or “social bubbles”) than you’ve observed.  They tendency would be to tuck them away so that interactions within them would not be dramatically observable outside of themselves so that unfortunate contrasts (in either direction: from within-looking-out or outside-looking-in) are easy.  There is a reason Facebook controls who can see what so assiduously.  Or for a less common example, have you ever heard of model mayhem?  There’s a whole collection of social universes over there that probably have little overlap with this part of the net.  At this point I doubt the number of functioning social bubbles exceeds the number of people, but it *might* if you allow combinatorial reframings of nested factions within larger communities.  Five people can form (2^5)-5=27 “committees” of at least two people, with each person getting to work on (2^4)-1=15 of them.  That’s a lot of leadership positions to fill 😛

      @daedalus2u: So far as I can tell, the place you really run into
      problems is with Dunbar’s
      .  A given person can only meaningfully help “fill in
      members” for a finite number of pseudo-tribes.  The best book I know on
      the implications of this angle (among many other things relevant to “transhumanist existentialism”) is Schroeder’s Lady
      Of Mazes

  • Scott H.

    Maybe you need new models?  More ponds means more status, even though, within the pond, my status gain is largely someone else’s status loss.

    A thought experiment to prove this out.  Imagine that econ blogging meant nothing, and that income was the only “pond”.   You and all your buddies would lose much more status than all the income people would ever gain. 

  • manwhoisthursday

    Steve Sailer had a go at this awhile back:

  • Dremora

    Play computer games -> have your hero be worshipped by non-player characters -> high status

    Copy computer games digitally -> high status for everyone

    Of course, it’s low status to admit you’re wireheading your high status, so let’s just call it “interactive entertainment” instead.

  • Thom Blake

    “Number of ponds” is perhaps the wrong phrase for it, but it becomes clearer when you think of it as multiple dimensions.  If I am the best programmer in my office and Bill wins all the games and Carol is the highest-paid, then each person can consider oneself the highest-status in the office on the dimension one cares about.

    • Yes, the boundaries of the “ponds” are not obvious. Someone can beat me in chess; but I don’t care about it, because I don’t care about chess; but the other person may think that everyone cares about chess deep inside. So from the other person’s view, I am in their pond, below them. From my point of view, I am not in their pond.

      Analogically, having a blog makes me higher status than people who would like to have a blog, but don’t have one, because they don’t have the time or courage or ideas. But how many such people are there? My estimate may be completely wrong; and if I share this illusion with other bloggers, everyone in our “pond” can feel high-status.

      Both of these examples are based on someone being wrong about opinions of others. Is it possible to feel higher status even without having illusions about others? For example two people can disagree about something, and each of them can feel as the one who is correct, and therefore superior to the other, even if the other one is too stupid to understand it. Or is it “status” only when other people agree with your superiority?

      • Alex Schell

        One way to get something like status without disagreements is to index ponds to each person judging their status, while allowing that “x is in y’s pond” and “y is in x’s pond” may differ in truth-value. The chessplayer can recognize that you don’t care about chess but still can feel like he’s gaining status by beating you (he includes you in his pond while agreeing he’s not in your pond).

        For example, the chessplayer could have a higher sense of the significance of chess skill than you. You still “disagree” but only about values.

    •  And not only are there many dimensions, there are lots of possible metrics. I don’t think it’s reasonable to think that everyone has the same metric. Perhaps *some* people care about “the number of people below them on their favorite dimension,” (i.e., the L infinity norm), but there’s a lot of other possibilities.

      Once you consider that, one argument is that to increase the total amount of status, you convince people to adopt different norms.

      Also note that I think that many people, when counting “the number of people below them” on their favorite status ladder, actually do count the people who aren’t competing on that ladder as beneath them. So someone going to compete on another dimension doesn’t reduce their status, contrary to the post.

  • Matthew Graves

    Robin, have you read The Gervais Principle by Venkatesh Rao? Part IV is the relevant part, but the whole thing is worth reading.

    Basically, within a group people can value each other on different things. At the board game group, people respect me because of my narration; people might respect Bill because he plays quickly; people might respect you because you win frequently. Notice that even in a competitive, explicitly ranked environment, we can come up with lots of things to declare people above average on- imagine how many more there are in a book club or less competitive social group!

    The trick is that you can merge pools to mix up the rankings so that everyone is ‘above average,’ *so long as you consider the thing that they’re above average on*. You, Bill, and I all have ‘narration’ scores, play speeds, and win percentages- but people focus on the thing that will make every person above average. There’s definitely collusion on the level of choosing what judgements to make about people, but there also can be collusion on the level of performance- suppose that I both narrate better and play faster than Bill- I might actually start *slowing down* my play so that Bill will shine as the fast player and be more engaged with and invested in the group.

    The other thing that’s incredibly important here is *who* decides to use this trick, and who doesn’t decide to use this trick. But that takes long enough to explain that I’ll leave it to Venkat.

    • JenniferRM

      (+1) If no one else posted that link, I was going to.  Rao’s whole sequence there is worth reading if only for the idea of “graciousness”: high status playing low status out of consideration for others.

      The other big thing to have read in order to build on top of the best thoughts in this area is Fukukayam’s End Of History which was conceptually retracted by the author once he grokked transhumanism’s deep implications.

  • Vladimir

    It gets worse. You can have as many supposedly independent status hierarchies as you want, but the status implications of success in each of them will be largely due to their signaling value in terms of the underlying general abilities and traits — intelligence, social acumen, sexual attractiveness, physical prowess, etc. Your success in one hierarchy isn’t because you’ve found a niche for your special talent, but rather a measure of some combination of these.

    So, basically, what gets multiplied are not so much dimensions of status, but rather the ways of signaling these more general status-laden abilities and traits. This leads to a spontaneous consensus about the meta-ranking of these supposedly independent hierarchies. For example, everyone instinctively recognizes that a great computer programmer, which signals mostly just intelligence, is lower-status than a great trial layer, which in addition signals high charisma and social acumen. And both are way above any accomplishment that doesn’t signal much of either, like pie baking or computer games.

    What’s more, genuinely independent status hierarchies can exist only under traditional and non-liberal social orders, in which there are numerous kinds of truly relevant and yet independent hierarchies. However, the modern liberal order has largely obliterated those and replaced them with a mere handful of relevant status dimensions — basically, the only ones that really matter nowadays are money, sexual attractiveness, and bureaucratic rank in business and government. These dimensions in fact provide an immediate meta-ranking of all the seemingly parallel status-hierarchies, without even getting into the lower-level analysis of general trait/ability signaling.

    • lemmycaution

      Probably the the highest status density comes when there a lot of relatively-egalitarian, small, tightly-knit groups, like that discussed by  Boehm in  “Hierarchy in the Forest”.  The fourth best hunter or third most attractive women in a tribe of 20 is still doing pretty good.

    • Ilya Shpitser

      “the only ones that really matter nowadays are money, sexual attractiveness, and bureaucratic rank in business and government.”

      Intellectual influence also.

  • The mistake in your argument is the assumption that someone I measure status relative to must measure status, in the same way, relative to me.

    My old example was my observation, as an undergraduate at Harvard, that everyone was at the top of his own ladder. From the standpoint of the people putting on plays, they were high status–relative not merely to the other actors but to the audience, who had come to see them. From the standpoint of the committed leadership of the Young Republicans and Young Democrats, they were high status–relative not merely to each other but to (at least) the membership of those organizations. But to most of the other members, status in those organizations mattered only occasionally–the important status, if they happened to be actors, was their high status relative to the audience.

    Which might have included the YR and YD leadership.

    • Vladimir

      I think that with this story you’re inadvertently proving the opposite of what you’d like to. Harvard students can all feel high-status this way only because they’re aware that the rest of society outside of Harvard unanimously recognizes them as super-high-status.

      Plus, it’s logically impossible (given time and attention constraints) that everyone at Harvard could have a significant audience of Harvarders. And if the audiences are coming from outside of Harvard, then again it proves quite the opposite of what you’re aiming for.

      • Turk Matt

        Adam is the second best tennis player and best volleyball player; Barry is the best tennis player and second best volleyball player.   Adam thinks volleyball is the most important and glamorous sport; Barry thinks stardom in tennis is all the really matters.

    • justin

      Katja argued that other people are the ones who measure our status, but you seem to assume we measure our own status.  Or am I reading you incorrectly.  Maybe the disagreement comes from the two of you defining status differently.

      • There’s a problem arguing that status is what other people think of you. What people? The entire world? If you never interact with people outside of one community, what do you care what people who have never met you think of you?

    • Newerspeak

      Sorry, where did you go to school again?

      Germane or not, I like to know these things.

  • MPS

    It’s probably more accurate to say parallel status hierarchies help, but don’t totally alleviate the problem.  I haven’t given it serious thought as to how to make this totally crisp and consistent.  But I do get the sense that we as a society more or less get along better than people in the past because we have so many parallel status hierarchies, so we don’t have to constantly assert our dominance over others along lines of physical strength / violence, for instance.

    At the same time, I think the acridity of political struggle is indication of the “zero sum” nature of status.  Economics is famously not a zero sum game, and one might wonder therefore why politics contains as much conflict as it does, since it’s not always the case that political decisions pit one group’s interests against another’s in the zero sum way.  I think the zero-sum nature of status rivalry among groups explains this.  

    I think it also explains the problem with wealth and politics, from the liberal perspective.  The liberal is confused why these people with enormous wealth fight to keep so much of it.  After you get well into six figure income, your material needs / comforts are pretty much satisfied, so why the fuss?  The liberal perspective sees wanting more as greed.  It seems to me, after satisfying material needs / comforts, people want to use their money to buy social status.  And it’s precisely because status is ultimately zero sum game that they really don’t want to give an inch.  It’s especially so if they believe their taxes are not simply subsidizing other people’s material needs, but subsidizing their abilities to compete in status rivalries.

  • Adam Miettinen

    Whether it’s zero sum or not depends on what we look at as “the prize”. If status itself is the prize, then status is zero sum. That should be obvious: Debits equal credits, the number of ladder rungs above equals the number of rungs below, and in a monogamous society brides equals grooms.

    If perception of status is the prize then status is, again, zero sum, but if we allow for optimistic biases or sorting effects it could be positive sum.

    …I just realized that the movie Highlander is a perfect analogy of status contests. Definitely a negative-sum game there!

  • justin

    If you consider a model where people swim in more than one pond, you could avoid these problems.  For example, say the universe has 100 people who swim in 50 ponds. Each person swims a little bit in each pond and a lot in a select few ponds. In each pond, those who swim frequently in that pond emerge as high status. In other ponds they are low status, but they are remembered mostly as swimming in the pond where they are high status.  For example, maybe the King is low status in the ‘Chess Pond’ and the high status people in the “Chess Pond” are low status in the “Political Pond,” but they are all still thought of as high status.

  • Vladimir Nesov

    You might be missing the following positive externality. Status reflects quality of participation to some extent, and it’s clear that there are different distributions of quality in different ponds. If perception of own status depends on perception of your pond as a whole (e.g. it might feel higher-status to be a high-status participant of a better pond), then improving your quality of participation improves your pond, which leads to higher perception of status for its other inhabitants higher on the ladder.

  • Fred Burnaby

    I (and most people) have at least partial membership in several “ponds”. I can hypocritically decide which of those ponds I care about later, once I know which ones I’m doing well in. But others can plausibly count me as a member of their pond where my status would be low (if I ever paid it any attention) and theirs higher.

    Both candidates of a political debate always claim to “win”. They can both make their claim seem plausible by pulling the same trick – decide after the fact which issues mattered after all, based on which ones they plausibly won the debate on.

    • Fred Burnaby

      I suppose this looks more like “lying to oneself about one’s place in a status hierrarchy” than being higher on it. If we’re strict about status being a strict hierarchy, then yes, there’s no way to win. But factor in the self-deception, and that;s good enough to do the job.

  • Eric Falkenstein

    Mickey Kaus wrote a book noting that the diverse set of status silos was a real boon to modern society.  I think this helps, and is one reason why high school is so oppressive: status is pretty singularly defined as the beautiful, athletic, extroverts.  Yet even after we find our various niches, many people remain below average in everything they do, and I’m not sure that’s a solvable problem.

  • SK

    I think the key point in David Freidman’s essay you quoted is that status is what “I perceive others think of me”. Not actually what others think of me, or what the larger society thinks of me. This is clearly not zero sum.
    Agree on the more black and white situations – you win or you lose, you have money or you don’t, etc. But we can’t discount the individual perception.

  • komponisto

    The correct model of status is not an ordering of persons, but rather a number associated with each person, somewhat like Less Wrong’s karma, counting the number of “upvotes” one has received. The higher your status score, the more respect you get; the more respect you get, the more you get listened to. It is entirely possible for everyone in a group to be listened to a lot, or a little.

    You may think that if a group has many members, it’s hard to listen to everybody. But if a group has many members, all of whom are considered high status, then that means the group agrees on most things. If a group has disagreements, then not everyone will have high status, since not everyone will get their way. (But note that everyone might well have low status, since maybe no one will listen to anyone else, and no one will get their way!)

  • “Status is about what other people think your status is,”

    But which other people? Surely status can’t be about what other people you’ll never interact with think of your status. If so, that’s simply a useless definition. E.g., we all have no status because all the bacteria, or the extraterrestrials don’t assign us status.

    Even if status is defined by other people and not yourself, it still has to be defined in terms of the other people with whom you interact. And therefore, there still is room for many different metrics for status, not just different ladders. Thus, it is clearly not zero sum.

  • SurfSmurf


    Interesting topic. Where I disagree is that you seem to assume there is an objective, universally agreed to way to sort the fish. We each have different values and goals. Within a pond, I can desire to be the fish furthest to the right, to the left, moving at the fastest pace, with the prettiest color, biggest fish, smartest, most conscientious, and so on. In theory there are as many rankings as there are fish. And we do not have to leave the pond. In a way, we are all top fish on our chosen dimension.

    The odd thing is that it is also possible to be bottom fish on just about every dimension. It is all about how we define the hierarchy. Those choosing to be losers will be. Those choosing to define the hierarchy based upon their values will be able to feel good about their status.

    Status is not an objective thing. It is subjective, and our sense of accomplishment does not require that we conform to others. Even if everyone else views winning as getting the most points, I can still define it as getting the most points while playing fairly, or just as trying harder than everyone else.

    The other retort to subjective pride is that status games are REALLy about acquiring mates. This is of course just genetic reductionism gone astray. I refuse to define myself by what is best for my genes. I enjoy food regardless of my need for calories, I enjoy sex even when using birth control, and I value pride in accomplishment and status even in fields where others don’t.

  • Michael Wengler

    At one end of a spectrum is zero-sum.  All we are doing is slicing up a pie.  When the amount you get is increased, it is entirely balanced by the net amount by which other’s pieces are decreased.  

    At the other end is some sort of Pareto relationship.  On the margin, your addition to or exclusion from the pool makes no difference to the pie size of anyone else.  Indeed, the collective pie is almost certainly bigger than the sum over pies if the collection of people were broken up into smaller sets, reflecting economies of scale and efficiencies of specialization.  

    I can’t imagine that we cant be somewhere between these extremes in real life.  And status with a sort-of sliding scale of pools would seem to be between.  In my own home, I get to sleep with the woman who lives there.  If another guy comes along who she prefers, maybe he makes a lot more money and I get a jet ski out of the deal, but I lose exclusive mating rights.  In a small academic department, I might be the expert on cellular telephones.  Hire in a younger brighter researcher in cell phones, and that will probably change.  Maybe my status will go up in the external world as I write joint papers with this youngster, but there will be losses as well.  

    My reading of Friedman did not suggest at all that he thought “more ponds mean more status for all.”  Rather, it came across to me as the very reasonable suggestion that if status tends to fall somewhere between zero sum and Pareto, that an interesting measure that might distinguish one form of efficiency in societies might be WHERE along that spectrum status in that society falls.  

    • daedalus2u

      The guy that the woman in your home
      prefers could also beat the crap out of you, leave you permanently
      brain damaged and disfigured, take your house and all your
      possessions, and then move on to a woman he likes better. That isn’t
      zero sum, it is negative sum. Everyone but him is worse off, and he
      isn’t enough better off to make up the difference.You could
      mitigate your losses by deciding you like to be a victim and become
      this guy’s thrall and pretend to yourself that you have vicarious
      status by being the slave of a guy with high status. Tribal
      affiliation is like that, people have loyalty to abusive leaders when
      they perceive the leaders to be “tough” and “high status”,
      even when those leaders do things against their interests. That is
      the essence of Stockholm Syndrome, accepting and making the best of a
      bad situation (and deluding yourself that you like it) to avoid a
      worse situation.

  • stephen

    The total sum has to be zero if status is measured as (or a proxy there of) the number of people beneath minus the number above. If N is the number of status races, then in the limit N equals the total number of participants. Everybody is in there own race. SUM(0 – 0) = 0

  • Floccina

    Seeing that high status seems good for  health and well being, is there a way that we can fool ourselves into thinking we are high status? 

    • Rdc

      High status isn’t necessarily good for health and well being over the long haul, well at the highest level anyway. While lots of primate research (on baboons) does show health benefits to status, I believe there was a recent study which showed that at the very top of the status ladder there was a great deal of health costs due to the stress of maintaining position.

  • MattUkr

    There is another way of looking at this. In many ways of measuring status, you don’t even need a realistic perception of how other people see you relative to that group. You can just percieve a status, and that’s that.

    For instance, most people consider themselves better than average drivers. Their reasoning doesn’t have to have anything to do with their actual driving skill, because it’s not a skill where a significant number of people are going to comment on their ability to drive – unless they’re atypically bad at driving and get into accidents.

    Likewise, people can choose to think of themselves as having the status that was most meaningful to them, at some former point in time. For instance, the former high school athlete still living off his past feats isn’t going to be challenged on his athletic prowess status, because the gain in status from the high school championship is frozen in time, always there to comfort him, with no one or few to challenge his perception of how events actually played out. The guy who is flipping burgers after high school, but somehow managed a high ACT score, can still consider himself incredibly capable – he can always just say it was the circumstances or ‘bad luck’ that got in the way.

    I follow international soccer, and although his comments are always biased and never insightful, Pele, once a player so good countries stopped a war to watch him play, always makes the most incredibly boastful comments as if he believes people are still hanging on his every word (and hey, it doesn’t hurt that ESPN often obliges). No doubt, he does. Even though he’s just an old man hanging onto past glories. Based on current comments and performance, he shouldn’t have a high status. But to him, and presumably also to many of his fans from the past, his status remains elite. If still treats their most valued status at one point in time as their current status, it’s no longer a zero sum game.

  • Robert Wiblin

    Perhaps the idea that Will has is that he can change what he cares about (to the things he is good at), while others don’t have to and can keep feeling better than him about the things he is bad at. The less mutual status relationships becomes (I can care about being better than you but not bad for being worse than me) the better off we can all be.

  • (Too late to be read, but…)

    And yet, I’d be inclined to say that the average status of humans has increased since the days of God-appointed absolute monarchs ruling over legions of serfs – the king and a few aristocrats may be somewhat higher-status than our own elites, but the median person was so much lower in status that this easily compensates.

  • The development of communications technology pushes toward more unified status markets by lessening barriers to symbolic competition.  In the ancient Islamic world, status competition was intense in a sphere of symbolic competition that spanned from southern Spain to Iran. The significance of status fragmentation today is relatively small.

  • NickW

    The corollary: people will gravitate to situations where they have status and avoid situations where they don’t have status.

    The might be the purest way to think of success in life, ability to seize opportunity and avoid frustrations. Failure to do so is a very negative sign.

  • NickW

    This is Emerson’s discourse on “compensation”:

    The concept broadly means every benefit comes with a correspondingly offsetting negative, such as species with high birth rates typically come with low life expectancies. Emerson felt this was true at any scale: cellular, individual, groups, the planet, etc.

    Like smoke and fire, if you see a positive trait, there must be a negative lurking nearby. Thinking about gain-loss psychology, there’s a stronger incentive to mask the negative than there is to display the positive.

    Two ways of managing negative traits:
    1. force yourself to the average, like a political independent.
    2. join a self-sustaining group (employers, service providers, marriage partners) of individuals that share your negatives, and therefore aren’t prejudiced to your negatives.

    As far as drawing a connection between this observation and your post? If people join groups to hide or minimize the impact of negatives, then people don’t create fragmented groups to gain status, but to avoid losing status.

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  • Zamba

    Reading most of the comments you can see people generally agree with the, say, subjective view of status. If you percieve yourself as high status, you are, then, high status.

    But it’s also clear to me that there is an objective dimension of status. Although everything ultimately is interpretation, it seems awkward to think that a bullied teen (or a ignored one) will continuously keep the belief that he is doing good. 

    Maybe the bridge is the amount of attention you get. It’s very dificult to lie to yourself about your qualities when there is nobody out there reinforcing your perception.

    I always had that intuition of zero-sum game. I try not to think too much about it, because it’s one of the most depressing insights I think you can get.