Status Explains Lots

Some complain that I try to explain too much of human behavior via signaling. But the social brain hypothesis and common observations suggest that we quite often do things with an eye to how they will make us look to others.

Here’s another big influence on human behavior strongly supported by both theory and common sense: status. While it seems obvious that dominance and prestige matter greatly in human behavior, even so it seems to me that we social scientists neglect them, just as we neglect signaling. In this post, I will try to support this claim.

Humans have only domesticated a tiny fraction of animal species, even smart primates. In fact, apes seem plenty smart and dexterous enough to support a real Planet of the Apes scenario, wherein apes do many useful jobs. The main problem is that apes see our giving them orders as an attempt to dominate them, which they sometimes fiercely resist.

And humans are if anything more sensitive to domination than are other primates. After all, while other primates had visible accepted dominance hierarchies, human foragers created “reverse dominance hierarchies” wherein the whole band (of ~20-50) coordinated to take down anyone who would try to overtly dominate them. Which both makes it plausible that dominance matters a lot to humans, and also raises the question of how it is that we’ve come to accept so much of it.

Farmers accepted more domination that did foragers; farmers had kings, classes, wealth inequality, slavery, and generals in war. But most farmers didn’t actually spend much time being directly dominated. War wasn’t the usual condition, most workers had no bosses, and most of their interactions were with people at their same level.

But in the modern world, most workers put up with far more than would most foragers or farmers. Our performance is frequently evaluated, we are ranked in great detail compared to many others around us, and we are given many detailed orders, and not just during an apprenticeship period. All of which allows our complex modern organizations and social interactions, the key to industrial-era wealth, but which raises the key question: how did we get Dom-averse humans to accept all this?

Bosses: It might seem odd to ask what bosses are for, as they have so many plausible functions to perform in orgs. Yet to explain many details, such as the kinds of people we pick for management, and the ways they spend their time, we must still ask which of these functions are the most important. And my guess is that one of the most important is to give workers excuses to obey them.

Here’s the simple story: we often have a choice about whether to frame an interaction as due to dominance or prestige. Humans are supposed to hate dominance, but to love prestige. So if we can frame our boss as prestigious, not dominant, we can tell ourselves and others that we are following their lead out of admiration and wanting to learn from them, not from fear of being fired. If so, firms will want to spend extra on hiring prestigious bosses, who are handsome, articulate, tall, well-educated, pro-social, smooth, etc., even if those features don’t that much improve management decisions. Which does in fact seem to be the case.

School: I’ve discussed several times my story that schools use prestige to train people to take orders:

When firms and managers from rich places try to transplant rich practices to poor places, giving poor place workers exactly the same equipment, materials, procedures, etc., one of the main things that goes wrong is that poor place workers just refuse to do what they are told. They won’t show up for work reliably on time, have many problematic superstitions, hate direct orders, won’t accept tasks and roles that that deviate from their non-work relative status with co-workers, and won’t accept being told to do tasks differently than they had done them before, especially when new ways seem harder. … How did the industrial era get at least some workers to accept more domination, inequality, and ambiguity, and why hasn’t that worked equally well everywhere? … prestigious schools. … if humans hate industrial workplace practices when they see them as bosses dominating, but love to copy the practices of prestigious folks, an obvious solution is to habituate kids into modern workplace practices in contexts that look more like the latter than the former. … while early jobs threaten to trip the triggers than make most animals run from domination, schools try to frame a similar habit practice in more acceptable terms, as more like copying prestigious people. … Start with prestigious teachers [teaching prestigious topics]. … Have students take several classes at at a time, so they have no single “boss” … Make class attendance optional, and let students pick their classes.… give … complex assignments with new ambiguous instructions,… lots of students per teacher, … to create social proof that other students accept all of this. Frequently and publicly rank student performance, using the excuse of helping students to learn.

In two recent twitter polls, I found a 7-2 ratio saying college teachers were more impressive/prestigious than one’s job supervisor then, and a 2-1 ratio for high school teachers. Many descriptions of teaching describe the impressiveness and status of teachers as central to the teaching process.

Governance: we are even more sensitive to dominance in our political leaders than in our workplace bosses. Which was why all though history, each place tended to think they had a noble king, while neighbors had despicable tyrants. And why prestige was so important for kings. In the last few centuries we upped the ante via democracy, a supposedly prestigious mechanism wherein we pretend that all of us are really “ultimately” in control of the government, allowing us to claim that we are not being dominated by our leaders.

The main emotional drive toward socialism, regulation of business, and redistribution from the rich seems to me to be resentment of domination, which is how most people frame the fact that some have more money than others. Our ability to use democracy to frame government as prestige not domination lets us not see government agencies who regulate and redistribute as domination. Furthermore, aversion to dominance by foreigners is the main cause of world poverty today:

Most nations today would be richer if they had long ago just submitted wholesale to a rich nation, allowing that rich nation to change their laws, customs, etc., and just do everything their way. But this idea greatly offends national and cultural pride. So nations stay poor.

Disagreement: I spent many years studying the topic of rational disagreement, and I’m now confident both that rational agents who mainly wanted accurate beliefs would not knowingly disagree, and that humans often knowingly disagree. Why implies that humans have some higher priorities than accuracy. And the strongest of these priorities seems to me to be to avoid domination. People often interpret being persuaded to move toward someone else’s position as being dominated by them. Why is why leaders so often ignore good advice given publicly by rivals. Pride is one of our main obstacles to rationality; it is the main reason we disagree. Prediction markets are able to induce an accurate consensus even in the presence of such pride, but pride prevents such markets from being allowed or adopted.

Mating: Dominance and submission seen central to mating; relations are often broken due to one party being either too dominant, or not dominant enough. See also clear evidence in BDSM:

~30% of participants in BDSM activities are females. … 89% of heterosexual females who are active in BDSM [prefer] the submissive-recipient role … [&] a dominant male, … 71% of heterosexual males preferred a dominant-initiator role … 19.2% of men and 27.8% of women express a desire to attempt in masochistic behavior

So in this post I’ve outlined how status is central to bosses, school, governance, disagreement, and mating, more central than you might have realized. Status really does explain lots.

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