Is Status-Seeking A Context-Neglecting-Value?

The main evolutionary function of sex for humans is obviously procreation. Yet our deep values regarding sex don’t seem to pay that much attention to info we have about if procreation is likely to actually happen in any given sex-related context. Consider our preferences regarding context for pornography, strip clubs, romance novels, and contraception. Oh our sex preferences do attend to cues that robustly correlated with procreation success for our distant ancestors. Such as the status of males and the youthfulness of females. But regarding kinds of context rare among our distant ancestors, our sex preferences seem drawn to the naive appearance of the possibility of successful sex, and neglect the more detailed context info that we have.

This sort of context-neglecting values also seems to happen with media. People seem to act as if the TV actors they watch regularly are actually their friends, and the sports stars they associate with are somehow going to raise their status. They feel they are raising their status by correcting strangers “wrong on the internet”. They also don’t seem to pay that much attention to how the processing of their food might change its nutrition, as long as it doesn’t hurt the taste.

Back in 2010 I posted on a context-neglecting-values theory to explain the demographic transition, i.e., the puzzlingly low fertility that seems to happen as societies get rich. I suggested that women who find that they are rich presume that they are relatively rich, and this have a shot at being “queens”, i.e., at mating with a high status man and producing high status kids. Or a shot at having their kids become kings or queens. This can justify delaying her own fertility to invest in status markers, or justify having fewer kids to let each kid gain more status markers. When entire societies get rich, each person neglects the fact that being absolutely rich doesn’t make you relatively rich. Plausibly among our distant ancestors, societies almost never got very rich for very long, and so this neglect wasn’t much of a problem back then.

Recently I realized that I should consider generalizations of this theory. What if, when societies get rich, we all feel like we have high relative status, and a decent chance to get even more, neglecting the fact that most everyone around us is also richer as well? In this case we’d be primed to take the sort of actions that makes sense for ambitious people with high relative status.

This might explain two big puzzles that I’ve long pondered. The first puzzle is our strong taste for variety in the last few centuries, which doesn’t seem to actually produce that much net value for us. Making new unusual choices can make sense for the high status, if they can use this as a way to show that they are leaders. That is, if they pick or do something different, and lots of people follow their example, they may prove to observers that they are a “thought” leader. And if we all see ourselves as strong leader candidates, we may all be attracted to such strategies.

The other big puzzle I’ve long pondered is our strong taste for paternalism, especially in the last few centuries, which seems to mostly hurt us on average. Instead of showing our high status by showing that others copy us when we do unusual things, we can also show our high status by our visible ability to stop others from doing unusual things. If people hear that we have such power and regularly use it, they have to conclude that we are “somebody.” And so ordinary people lend their support to paternalist policies in the hope that they will be personally credited for it. Much like people seem to think their status will be raised if they associate with celebrities who have never heard of them.

So my new suggestion in this post is that, because in a rich world we all greatly overestimate our relative status, we intuit that it makes sense to try to raise our status either by choosing variety and getting others to copy it, or by showing off our ability to stop others from choosing variety. These both actually make less sense for most of us as ways to gain status, because we aren’t actually high in relative status. But our intuitions don’t notice that.

Why would our preferences neglect context so? The idea is that they are coded in us at very deep levels, at places where our conscious thoughts just can’t change them. Such changes mostly require slower genetic and cultural selection processes.

Should welfare analysis focus on the context-neglecting preferences that we currently express, or on the ones that we would have if we took context more into account. That depends on if you care more about the immediate surface feelings of people today, or longer term outcomes and descendants.

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