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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  • adrianratnapala

    All this reminds me that status allocation works pretty well. If you are some dude who doesn’t think much about abstract stuff, then a good rule of thumb is that philosophers might or might not be talking sense. When deciding a nice crisp disagreement between philosophers and physicists, the rule of thumb favours the physicists. If they have higher status than philosophers, it is only because they (we?) have won it in rational discourse over centuries.

  • If they have higher status than philosophers, it is only because they (we?) have won it in rational discourse over centuries

    How then do you explain where folks believe clerics over physicists?

    Physicists attained their current high status because of the H-bomb. Remember, status derives from power (very helpful maxim), and an atomic bomb could harm even Superman.

    In a debate between a philosopher and physicist, you would have to look hard at the problem being debated. The philosopher will overestimate his own authoritativeness on substantial matters; the physicist might fail completely to grasp the problem (and address a different one).


    To R.H:

    it is so tempting to reject by ridicule, insinuating that the bidder is stupid and silly

    The reason it is so tempting is that the two efforts have similar surface features (as Katja wrote).

  • Guest

    I worked at McKinsey & Company for two years out of school and, reading your post (and the one from earlier), there would seem to me to be a lot of truth to Robin’s claim — or maybe it’s an observation — of a ‘big scope status bias’, at least in that particular (but sizable) niche within the business world.

    Management consultants are regarded as high status by their clients, who, for the most part, are comprised of managers and sundry direct reports and employees at American operating companies. This is not because mgmt. consultants have a better understanding of the ‘basic things’ that go into the day-to-day operation of the client’s business (the opposite is always true), but rather because the consultants are, as the theory goes, able to look up ‘out of the weeds’ and question ‘basic assumptions’ about a problem or situation.

    Most consultants come with the pedigree and ‘presence’ to intimidate most of their client audiences (above and beyond the intimidation that comes with the knowledge that your boss is the one that hired them), but consultants’ big-scope philosophizing does also at times end with ridicule, when clients with a well-trained BS detector cut through the clutter of a PowerPoint deck to expose the hollow shell underneath.

    Speaking from personal experience here, in the business world, the highest status folks (or the folks who rise fastest into high status positions) are never the line accountants and operators who know every number or know where all the bodies are buried, but the individuals who are the most confident and articulate around big scope ideas, like strategy, competitive analysis, corporate ‘vision’, etc.

    • This seems a good explanation for why firms so often pay prestigious outsiders to support pre-made decisions, because that prestige is especially important to resist the ridicule response.

      • IMASBA

        The question then becomes how it is possible that the status of hired consultants is not immediately lowered to that of the boss in the eyes of the employees, or do they not know that the consultants are only paid to support pre-made decisions (beats me how they could stay oblivious to that fact, but perhaps there’s a rational explanation). So in other words what prevents the opponents of the boss from hiring their own consultants or exposing the boss’ consultants as nothing more than managerial mercenaries?

      • I think the explanation is that the employees gain status by association with a company that is associated with high-status consultants. So they don’t want to subject the consultants to ridicule.