We Moderns Are Status-Drunk

Twelve years ago I posted on how our era is a rare unique “dreamtime” of fast growth, wide cultural integration, and delusional beliefs. But I think I missed a big reason why we have the delusions we do: as we get rich, we each increasingly over-estimate our relative social status. Let me explain.

The core idea of evolutionary psychology is that evolution shaped our behaviors to be adaptive in our ancestral environments. That is, we do stuff that gives us more descendants. But because our ancestors only experienced a limited range of environments, we only evolved behavior rules sufficient to induce adaptive behavior in those actual environments. This made our behavior indeterminate in the other new environments which humans have experienced since then. So a re-run of the process of evolution could easily lead to different behaviors in these new environments. That is, human behavior today results not just from adaptation to ancestral environments, but also from the many random ways that evolution happened to encode our behavior in rules.

For example, our ancestors needed to drink water to avoid dehydration, but because in their environments water always had the same combination of water smell and water feel, we could have evolved either to check that stuff is water by its smell, or by its feel. If those two water features always go together, and if both methods are just as easy, then this difference won’t make much difference to behavior. We find water, check that it is water, and drink it. But if later we encountered stuff that had water smell but not water feel, or water feel but not water smell, then these two different ways to detect water might lead to very different behaviors. For example, water-smell humans might drink stuff that smells but doesn’t feel like water, while water-feel humans would not drink such stuff.

In this post, I want to suggest that much of the “modern” human style which has arisen since the industrial revolution results from a particular way that evolution happened to encode human detection of relative status. This has made human history go surprisingly well in some ways, and surprisngly badly in others. Had evolution happened to have coded our status detection machinery differently, these last few centuries might have played out very differently. And perhaps they did, in alien histories. But before we get into that, let us first see how our status detection methods have shaped the modern human style.

Most social animals have status ladders, and humans are no exception. Selfishly optimal animal behavior depends on where an animal sits in such ladders. Thus animals need ways to detect the relative status rank of themselves and potential interaction partners. The same applies to humans, though humans had some new ways to mark and assert status, and so needed some new ways to judge status.

My key hypothesis is this: evolution had humans use their absolute income/wealth to judge their relative status. (I’m talking here about overall status in the larger community, not status relative to particular associates; we have many better clues to judge that.) Yes, this method would work badly in environments where communities varied greatly in average levels of absolute income/wealth. In that case, someone rich might think that they had high relative status, when in fact most everyone in their society was also rich.

But before the industrial revolution there were few persistent differences in average income/wealth across societies. Yes, there were temporary famines and pandemics, and so good times and bad, but these periods were short relative to human lifetimes. So until recently absolute wealth, averaged over many years, was in fact a good indicator of relative status.

However, for the first time in history the industrial revolution enabled income/wealth to grow faster than did human population, inducing a rapid increase in average income/wealth, an increase that has been continuing for several centuries now. As a result, our status detection systems have severely misfired. They tell us each that, because we are rich, we have high relative status. And the richer we have become, the more severe has been this error.

To judge how this has this distorted our behavior, we mainly just need to know how humans had previously evolved to adjust their behavior to relative status. For forager and farmer era humans, what behaviors were more adaptive for the high in status? We can find many such differences.

For example, for most social mammals, being higher status protects you more from stressful life events, so that you less often invoke the standard mammal stress response. By not spending on stress, you body invests more in growth and immunity. So higher status primates are less sick, and live longer. Thus this theory predicts that humans came to live much longer after the industrial revolution. You might think that this outcome is also predicted by our being able to afford more medicine, nutrition, clean water, and other public health measures. But in fact these factors do a poor job of explaining the magnitude and steadiness of the mortality fall over the last few centuries. Changes in these other factors have been weaker and less steady than declining mortality.

Higher status animals also tend more to be group leaders, and thus to be peacemakers regarding local disputes. Yes, the leaders of a group may manage its disputes with outsiders, and then they may need to act tough. But leaders are supposed to less take sides regarding internal disputes, and more try to resolve them peacefully. That is, they have a wider moral circle, and are more cooperative and pro-social. Thus higher status animals less often pick fights with associates, so they are on average more peaceful. And low status humans are consistently more violent than are high status ones. Thus this theory predicts what we have seen: declining rates of violence and conflict, less war, and widening moral circles.

However, even as wars get rare, the fact that soldiers are higher status means that more people expect to participate in wars when they happen; soldiering has become more democratic. This wider view of leaders seems to be implemented in part via leaders taking on more abstract/far views, relative to concrete/near views. This predicts that we moderns increasingly take on far views, relative to near views, and this seems roughly right.

As status markers tend to complement each other, it makes sense for people with some markers to work harder to acquire more such markers. Also, the high in status tend to have more resources and better abilities, both of which suggest higher returns from investing in more status markers. Thus people who believe they are high status naturally try to invest more in rising even further in status. What specifically they will do depends on what counts more for status in their society for their age, gender, etc. For example, they might do sports, combat, poetry, music, art, crafts, travel, scholarship, invention, etc. But the key prediction is: we are more mad for status, as we think we already have a lot of it.

Also, as status is often conferred for showing range and variety in such abilities, we pursue such range and variety. And as most of these things require training, this predicts more school, as does the fact that school tends to confer status directly. Over the last few centuries we have in fact seen a consistent rise in the fraction of their time and energy spent on all these things, and also a rise in their emphasis on variety in such things. We do more school, even though we don’t seem to learn much useful there. We have slowly spent more time on leisure as we’ve become richer, but this decline has been slower than many had expected. Plausibly this is because work also gives us great status, and it is mainly the pressure for variety in our status markers than makes us also pursue non-work status.

In most societies, investments in fertility take time and time and energy away from investments in status. Yes fertility confers some status, but in our world not as much. As people get rich, they are tempted to invest less in immediate fertility in order to gain in status, which could help them or their children later become a high status “king” or “queen”, a role that could then allow much higher fertility later. For example, a young woman might delay fertility to invest in poetry, music, etc., hoping to then be chosen as queen, which would allow her kids to have many grandkids. Or parents might choose to have fewer children, so that they can invest in more status markers for each child that they have. Both strategies reduce overall fertility, and in fact fertility has fallen dramatically over the last few centuries, seemingly in response to local wealth levels. The other explanations offered for this fertility fall are mostly quite unsatisfactory.

While in most firms various political factions vie for dominance, low level workers are often well advised to “keep their head down”, and just do their job. But high level managers must pick sides and play the game. More generally, high status people are expected to participate in elite conversation and governance. That is, they are more expected to take on formal governance roles, and also speak up and express opinions on the issues of the day. Which will naturally result in them allying with political factions. And to do this well they need to keep up with gossip and the news. Also, we all tend to rise in status when we seem to influence the behavior of others, but fall when lower status others seem to influence us.

All this induces higher status people to track more news, and to talk more, more visibly, and more politically. It induces us to make and push more behavior recommendations, and to try harder to govern everything, creating more governance roles to fill. As democracy allows more people to participate in governance, we predict more democracy. And in fact over the last few centuries we have seen people more eager for news, talk, politics, democracy, government, and paternalistic policies.

As high status people are held to higher standards regarding social and moral norms, we hold ourselves to higher standards, but are also more willing to criticize others who see claim high status but fail to meet such standards. Regarding religion, our seeing ourselves as higher status makes us more expect to be prophets, priests, monks, martyrs, and activists, but less to be the prototypical attendee of religious services, the meek supplicant to whom religion offers comfort and meaning in their hard life. And in fact we are more moral, more morally critical, seek more to be prophets and activists, but less attend church.

The high in status tend to have relationships and projects that last longer, so that they need to attend to longer timescales. And they will suffer less theft and loss of relations which can discourage long term investments. Thus the high in status discount the future less. And we do in fact see over time less discounting and longer time horizons, expressed in particular in lower interest rates.

All told, this theory seems pretty successful to me. The assumption that evolution had humans estimate their relative status vis their absolute income/wealth predicts many trends and unique styles of the industrial era, including rising lifespans, lower fertility, falling violence, more school, more effort into art/travel/invention/etc., and much more. We now have a deeper understanding of how and why we modern humans have a different style from ancient humans. Note that as evolution should slowly correct our mistaken non-adaptive way to estimate relative status, this modern era won’t last forever; we will eventually wake from our dreamtime.

Science fiction often depicts alien worlds with very advanced technology, and yet with social styles and attitudes more like those of our ancients. I always thought that a mistake, but this analysis suggests it isn’t so crazy. Had evolution had us use relative wealth to estimate our relative status, most of these changes would have not happened, or been much weaker. We might well have continued more with ancient human styles in the industrial era and beyond.

Early in the industrial era many expressed great fears for where it might go, and while those fears seem to have been overblown, this analysis suggests that they weren’t crazy. A more ancient-style industrial era would have had more violence and war, shorter lives, more work and less emphasis on variety in leisure, and thus more regimentation of leisure as well as work. There’d also be less democracy and politics, and less obsession with social media. A dramatically different world that might have been, and may well have actually existed in alien histories.

Added 28Jun: During the forager era, humans had strong direct contact with everyone in their band, and so had relatively clear signals about their status relative to each such person. Which easily added up to one’s relative status overall. So it may have been the introduction of larger communities (~1000) in the farming era that created a need for ways to estimate one’s status relative to people with which one did not have much contact. That is where it would have been handy to be able to just look at yourself to infer your relative status. Looking at your personal wealth would have worked well then.

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