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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  • J

    Narrow scope problems get more bogged down in details and are less applicable to life as a whole. So it makes less sense for us to read an account of the specific hassles you went through to get your driver’s license renewed, since they’re probably highly influenced by the details of your schedule and the local DMV.

  • For 5 and 6 I’d suggest that those might be caused simply by familiarity. Every(?) US high school teaches physics, chemistry, biology and math. Few teach geology, computer science, or anything engineering-related. I’d be shocked if 1 in 20 graduating high school seniors knew that “materials science” was a thing.

    You’re much less likely to want to study/major in a thing if you don’t even know it exists.

    • We want to explain high school topic choices as well.

      • Granite26

        First, I agree wholeheartedly with Jay. A lot of your engineering status comments are heavily affected by what is visible to the students in question.

        High school topics seem, to me, to be largely based around needing the basics of the science to do the engineering. You’ve got to learn the science first, before you can learn the cool things you can do with it. Even when high schools teach engineering, it’s usually as an advanced topic within the science class.

        Historically speaking, engineering feats are more likely to be usurped by later science advances. They represent the best design so far and can be improved. Science has the merit of being simple enough that truth is attainable.

        Also, most historic engineering personalities I’m aware of got rich off their efforts. Could there be some bias there? Especially given the traditional leanings of teachers?

        Finally, Geology. If I knew then what I know now, I would have done geology in school. There is tons of O&G work that’s well paying and it’s interesting and rewarding work. It just wasn’t on my horizon that there was a huge market for it, and there wasn’t the same obvious career path as computer engineer. Anecdote sure, but I think if more students had exposure to the types of work that are out there for those kinds of degrees, there wouldn’t be the dearth there is.

      • Dean Jens

        In re earlier assertions that “basic sciences” prepare you better for other fields, it might be more correct that they lay a foundation for other studies in a way that is not true in reverse; knowing a year’s worth of physics will help a mechanical engineer understand his craft better than a year of mechanical engineering will help a physicist understand his. (Though the latter effect is surely not zero.) As an explanation of high school topic choices, then, at least for college prep tracks, especially with smaller high schools scattered around the country, it makes some sense to provide a common base of “fundamental” knowledge on which to build.

        (How does the European educational system work? I’m under the impression it’s somewhat different, but don’t know a lot about it, and suspect it would be a useful data point here.)

  • steamboatlion

    Here’s one that doesn’t fit your explanatory model.

    In IT project management there is more status in screwing up a project so that the budget and/or schedule is headed for a massive overrun, and then make an heroic effort to bring it in with a smaller but still significant overrun, than to run the project properly in the first place and bring it in on schedule and budget.

    My analysis is that the relevant stakeholders (management, investors) don’t appreciate what is involved, so if you make it look easy by not screwing up, they assume it is easy.

    Alternatively, people love drama and heroic narratives.

    • Peter David Jones

      I’ve seen that first hand, … in fact that is just where I started to grok the whole signaling thing…I started noticeing that my bosses boss was in the habit of creating a drama out of a crisis in a very deliberate and controlled way, invariably timed to coincide with the arrival, in our backwater, of his own overlords from the US.

  • Matthew

    It would help if your grabbag collection of data points were all entirely true and weren’t caused by other factors.

    For instance, barely anyone majors in serious physical and natural sciences, in raw numbers and even compared to engineering, and of those who do where the ratio to jobs seems low, it’s mostly students who intend to go to medical school. Accounting for that it’s possible at most that it’s just this choice being part of a narrow case of status and signalling rather than your overall scope trend. And note that medicine, for instance, is not a field where “wider scope” choices are inherently higher status – general care is not the field of superstars, unless you want a really contrived argument that it’s low status for separate reasons but higher-status-than-it-would-be if it wasn’t wide in scope. The distinctions present for remaining other “science” majors do not fit with the trend you identify.

    Or, take #7, if it is even true right now that in software specifically “designing things from scratch” is not a better description of the predominant current jobs, it’s a short term trend. So this data point might be interesting not because it fits with the others but because the education pipeline might have been slow to adapt to changes when the opposite was true a short while ago. Doesn’t make a convincing case for the overall trend.

    • The choices of general care docs does not much constraint the choices of specialists docs, so my theory doesn’t predict they would be higher status. And I don’t believe that designing things from scratch will soon be the main activity in software jobs, or that it was the main activity two decades ago.

      • The general care docs constrain the specialists when the former (in the general case) make patient referrals. (Patients may complain that they were referred to the wrong specialty.) The general care docs constrain the specialists in the same basic way that a supervisor who decides which employee gets which work constrains the employee.

  • Power is the objective basis for status, but constraining intellectual choice is only one expression of power: other facets can predominate. Sometimes narrow endeavors have the higher status when specialists provide more powerful measures than generalists (e.g. medicine, per another commenter). In Europe national governments have more status than the EU because they’re much more powerful. (Similarly, the President of the United States certainly has more status than the Secretary General of the United Nations.)

    Regardless of whether they’re intellectually significant, interpretations of quantum mechanics and utopian forms of governance aren’t terribly high status because they’re viewed as without practical import (a form of power).

    Therefore, they might well have been relatively ignored.

    • Particle physics, and lots of other academic areas, are high status even though they have little obvious direct practical import.

      • Robert Koslover

        I think Stephen Diamond has a point here, if you note that “High status” varies by context. His unmentioned context differed from yours. For example, consider the following questions: Who has higher status, Ed Witten or Warren Buffet? How about Miley Cyrus vs. Peter Higgs?

      • I’m not claiming that choice scope is the only thing that contributes to status.

      • Ari

        Yeah this. Btw. what is your opinion on CERN and high-energy particle physics study in general? Should we delay it like cosmology?

      • You must be looking at obvious direct practical import in more fine-grained terms than I intend. We are told daily that innumerable crucial technologies depend on particle physics. On the other hand, many physicists consider interpretations of q.m. not worth the time because they have no relevance for the practice of physics. (Your version of q.m. metatheory has some minor practical significance in that it alerts us to the possibility that our world will be squashed, but there’s nothing we can do about it.)

        Your analysis almost entails my “solution” to why your early subject matter wasn’t already well-harvested. You explored how to explain broad-scope influence, and you concluded that broad-scope subjects tend to be seen as powerful because they’re viewed as strong constraints. The conclusion is a slight modification of the premise: choice constraint is now the signal of power.

        This predicts that when broad-scope subjects are viewed as not very constraining, they won’t be as high status. You could explain that the President of the U.S. having more status than the Secretary-General of the U.N. because the latter’s broad scope isn’t accompanied by substantial constraint.


    There’s probably some truth in there being more status in wider-scope events, but all those educational points you mention are probably meant largely to prepare students for “everything”. For the individual it means having a larger range of choices when having to find a new job (you’re not doomed for life if some specific maintenance task becomes obsolete) as well as having some small chance to ascend to the higher echelons and that might ultimately increase motivation enough to actually increase societal productivity.

    • I don’t see students as being less prepared for a wide range of life options if they study geology instead of particle physics, engineering instead of science, or focus on software maintenance instead of development.

      • IMASBA

        Really? It seems kind of obvious to me that the problems in physics and software development are broader and thus make it easier to adapt to something new (in the software case you can really be screwed if a system you’ve been trained to maintain is replaced, most higher ups have a background in development too, in physics you get more philosophical problems that make you think about the limits of models and counterintuitive results than you would in engineering and geology). I think you’re focusing perhaps too much on raw base productivity (where specialization does miracles) while in a society of human beings there are other factors that influence final productivity: it makes an enormous difference for morale if you have a society where everyone is unemployed for 5% of their adult life instead of a society where 5% is unemployed all their adult life, as well as the possibility of climbing the ladder motivating people. I wouldn’t be so sure that the the raw base productivity is necessarily the dominant factor here (at least so long as reasonable amounts of people go into engineering, geology and computer maintenance, there are places, notably Spain and most of the Middle East where so few people go into STEM or any practical majors at all that it hurts their economy).

  • Silent Cal

    I suspect that work on new forms of government is neglected due to the absurdity heuristic, since ‘we all know’ democracy is the best system. This seems like a much stronger effect that big-scope bias. And this goes double for em economics, another very broad field you’re almost alone in.

    My general hypothesis here is that the big-scope fields you take on are neglected for reasons specific to those fields in spite of the big-scope bias.

    • Silent Cal

      Though I suppose you still might be succumbing to big-scope bias if it turns out there are even-more-neglected narrow fields.

  • Tige Gibson

    >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.

    As an engineer, very little of my education seemed focused on design but on application, and I see that flaw in many young engineers, that they don’t really know how to properly design anything. Most of my design work has been updating existing designs as very little out there is completely original. And most of the effort within that context is the result of previous engineers not documenting their work, resulting in either fundamental breakage or if you’re lucky replacing the wrong tool with the right one.

    >8. Within engineering, designing products is higher status than designing the processes that manufacture those products.

    I’ve done a lot of process engineering, which is really little more than tooling design and equipment selection, and the worst and most common habit is to design something while completely ignorant of conventional manufacturing processes. People who actually do the manufacturing are rarely going to have special training for each unique product, the product is just going to cost way too much to manufacture until the designer learns or is replaced with someone else. There are many small companies that struggle under the weight of the cost of poor engineering despite having really good ideas.

    >9. Designing new categories of products is seen as higher status than new products within existing categories.

    My experience is that the new category team is going to be less practical and have more liberties and be more internal, while the existing category is going to be more tied to the existing infrastructure and manufacturing and external organizations.

    >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.

    In school, understanding the fundamentals is more important than creating. You need ideas for your thesis project or post-graduate work, but this won’t be very helpful in your courses. I remember getting bogged down on my own ideas and losing time for my real classwork. What is your professor going to say if you did something interesting but couldn’t demonstrate overall understanding of the subject?

  • consider

    It is interesting that Robin went into physics in part because he thought quantum mechanics was a neglected area or did that come about later? I studied physics for four years because that seemed to be a door into cosmology, quantum mechanics or philosophy (consciousness). I couldn’t see myself as an engineer, biologist, chemist or computer scientist, Maybe I was fooling myself, but I didn’t think much of status then but thought I’d have more options if I studied physics and math.

  • N

    Another reason that people might favour big-scope fields is that they are more intellectually exciting. People tend to like learning things which explain a many facts with a few simple principles, rather than learning additional facts. For instance, much of this blog is devoted to finding simple and abstract explanations for human behaviour. One is more likely to find such insights in big-scope fields. Smaller-scope fields tend more towards learning a multitude of little facts, rather than a few deep principles.

    • It isn’t clear that there is much of a difference between something being “exciting” and it being high status.

      • Dean Jens

        They aren’t logically identical, though it could well be that one causes the other — that their status is driven in part because they are more interesting to many people, or that many people learn to find them interesting because they are high status.

        I wouldn’t say you were “mistaken” to pursue topics you find interesting, as long as you and your family managed to stay reasonably well fed along the way. There’s a place for idealism (e.g. pursuing what you find intrinsically motivating) and pragmatism (e.g. pursuing what is most “useful”), and I draw the line between the two somewhere around lower middle class.

  • Peter

    I think a choice to study a “big scope” field looks much more practical when you consider jobs outside of the fields themselves. I can explain with an example: if you compare a “big scope” major like theoretical physics to a “small scope” major like agricultural science, it’s clear that the small scope field has more jobs available. But once we look at jobs outside the fields themselves, the situation changes. For example, of the two majors, which one is more likely to get a job at, say, a hedge fund? A bank? A consulting firm? Who has a better shot at med school or law school? I think the answer is clear. Maybe this is just an example of employers sharing the “big scope” bias. But if that’s the case, and “big scope” majors are then indeed more practical, is it really a bias any longer, or is it common sense?

    • As I said, the big scope fields have higher status, and plausibly signal greater ability. So it may be a private gain and a social loss.

  • Axa

    The 3rd possibility fits really well for small scope fields . My best friend designs robots for manufacturing steel products. He has to go to a manufacturing expo in Frankfurt or Barcelona to get some recognition. At the local level, the status is zero. For me, an hydrogeologist, it’s the same. If I publish something I’ll get some rejection of approval from a guy on the other side of the world. The community that understands the field it’s so small. There’s no status building in this kind of careers. Status understood as being recognized in a restaurant/airport, being interviewed in TV or someone dedicating a blog post to your work. There are even worse situations like plant scientists. They are also a small bunch and they work with GMOs that the rest of the world distrust.

    The high status of big scope careers choices is because every person in the world has an opinion on politics, economy, sports, morals or religion. In the case of science, the high status comes if the topic have been long discussed by science fiction like physics, astronomy and genetics so even the most ignorant people can have an opinion and find the topic fascinating. The status comes from the size of your audience, not the ability of the expert or the audience to understand the topic.

  • Dean Jens

    I think the “large scope” fields tend to lend themselves more to tournament-type structures than small scope fields; the biggest contributions in one of those fields eventually affects a lot of applied results, while work in the small scope fields tends to be an aggregation of smaller results. If we see the biggest impacts rather than the average impacts, we will overestimate the value of “fundamental” work.

  • John Salvatier

    I think it would be useful to try to come up with a list of counter examples, similar to your list of examples.

  • efalken

    You can ask ‘why’ at various levels, and eventually they become speculative and untestable. For many these big ‘why’ questions are simply more fun to contemplate, because if you can figure them out they are more important, they would drive more tactics. Clearly most of this speculation is pointless, but not all. Why do I care about big issues that have almost zero chance of being confirmed or adopted by others? It’s interesting to me.

  • Jake Stevens

    Man, rational self-criticism is so great. Even though I don’t always agree with Robin it’s so enjoyable when someone can at least make a good attempt at examining their own biases.

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  • brendan_r

    I encounter powerful “big scope status bias” when trying to train other folks to do productive equity research.

    The naive search process is to find big “trends” and then to find particular firms playing on that trend.

    It’s much better to scan broadly at the individual firm level (inside industries you understand) looking for idiosyncratic things.

    That’s better because, a) idiosyncratic things are less likely to be widely understood and therefore priced, and b) broad trends matter less than less variant things like market share, entry barriers, and operational efficiency.

    When I explain this to people – markets are super efficient and you’re only chance to find quirky problems that few people are analyzing – folks agree with me, and then revert right back to what they were doing before.

    And it doesn’t just affect the search process. You hand them a particular company, say, an Israeli chip metrology firm, you point them to key idiosyncratic unknowns, and next thing you know they’re analyzing the Mid-East security situation.