Category Archives: Status

What is Gossip For?

It makes sense to listen to gossip in order to keep track of what folks are up to.  But it seems the main reason we listen to gossip is to prepare to speak gossip, in jockeying for status:

We have consistently found that people are most interested in gossip about individuals of the same sex as themselves who happen to be around their own age. We have also found that information that is socially useful is always of greatest interest to us: we like to know about the scandals and misfortunes of our rivals and of high-status people because this information might be valuable in social competition. Positive information about such people tends to be uninteresting to us. Finding out that someone already higher in status than ourselves has just acquired something that puts that person even further ahead of us does not supply us with ammunition that we can use to gain ground on him. Conversely, positive information about our friends and relatives is very interesting and likely to be used to our advantage whenever possible. 

For example, in studies that my colleagues and I published in 2002 and in 2007 in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, we consistently found that college students were not much interested in hearing about academic awards or a large inheritance if it involved one of their professors and that they were also not very interested in passing that news along to others. Yet the same information about their friends or romantic partners was rated as being quite interesting and likely to be spread around.

I far prefer talking "big ideas" to gossiping, but I know that I am an outlier here, even relative to most academics. This once made me feel superior, but I now realize it puts me at a serious social disadvantage; when others see you don't gossip to monitor talk about you and to defend yourself and your allies, they feel freer to dis you and less inclined to ally with you. 
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What Do Schools Sell?

Major exams like the SAT or GRE are graded anonymously; info identifying test takers is hidden from test graders.  My department follows the same policy on its major “prelim” and “field” exams.  But in virtually every class, grading of homework, exams, etc. is not anonymous, even though that would be easy to arrange.  Yes class presentations and participation couldn’t be anonymous, but the rest could. Presumably the reason major exams are anonymous is to avoid even the appearance of the possibility of bias or corruption; why allow such an appearance with classes?

Also, letters of recommendations can be nearly as important as grades.  Yet most schools have zero procedures to avoid corruption there.  Students are given no guidelines or basis for comparison; no records are kept of who recommended who for what on what basis, so there isn’t any way to even look for corruption. Why so cavalier there?

Also, profs at top schools are advised to put minimal effort into teaching, as they will be evaluated mainly on their research.  So why do students pay extra to attend colleges with research-focused teachers who mostly ignore them?

As with docs and macro-economists, let me suggest people want to affiliate with prestigious others; a major product schools sell students is a direct relationship with prestigious faculty.  Anonymous class grading is avoided because it would reduce an important personal tone in the student teacher relationship; the possibility of corruption goes along with a personal connection.

Yes, colleges credential student performance, and those credentials would be more valuable if they better avoided the appearance of corruption.  But in addition to performance credentials schools are selling college students the ability to claim relationships with about fifty teachers, and to claim a closer relation with the few who write recommendation letters.  Perhaps students care about those relations nearly as much or more than they do about performance credentials.

Added: Schools also sell affiliation with other high status students.
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Who Are Macro Experts?

I never learned much macro-econ; they didn't respect it at Caltech where I got my Ph.D.  So while my econ colleagues blog 24/7 about the macro crisis, I've mostly kept quiet.  But I can speak on this issue: who are the real "experts"?

During this crisis, politicians and reporters have been eager to cite "economists" in support of their causes.  For example, Obama:

What I've said is what other economists have said across the political spectrum, which is that, if you delay acting on an economy of this severity, then you potentially create a negative spiral that becomes much more difficult for us to get out of. 

The Post:

While economists remain divided on the role of government generally, an overwhelming number from both parties are saying that a government stimulus package — even a flawed one — is urgently needed to help prevent a steeper slide in the economy. 

So who are these "economists"?  While Bryan reports "almost none of the economic `experts' pontificating [in the media] on Obama's economic plan are actually [degreed] economists", Obama and the Post were probably talking about standard "prestigious" economists, i.e., those holding top positions in prestigious institutions.  But are these really the most accurate sources for macro policy advice?  What is the best way to identify "experts" on such topics anyway? 

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What is Medical Quality?

The most prestigious Boston hospitals are paid 15-60% more per procedure, but are not especially healthier:

Call it the best-kept secret in Massachusetts medicine: Health insurance companies pay a handful of hospitals far more for the same work even when there is no evidence that the higher-priced care produces healthier patients. …

Brigham, Mass. General, Children's Hospital, and a few others are, on average, paid about 15 percent to 60 percent more than their rivals by insurance companies … The hospitals that are paid at the highest rates … have the bargaining clout to demand higher insurance payments. Often, that clout is based on a powerful brand name and elite reputation. … Insurers pay to keep Children's happy because they know parents won't buy insurance that doesn't include access to one of the world's most prominent pediatric hospitals. … One influential researcher found that Beth Israel's overall mortality rate was lower in 2005 than the mortality rates at both the Brigham and Mass. General, but the hospital and its doctors still earn 15 percent to 20 percent less for the same work. … 

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Hated Because It Might Work

Imagine someone who wanted their body dumped into an active volcano when they died, in order to really be one with Earth.  Even if this cost tens of thousands of dollars, few people would dump a significant other, or divorce a spouse, for this. Sure it is a bit weird, but hardly a deal-breaker.  Yet people do commonly divorce spouses for wanting their body dumped in liquid nitrogen at a similar expense, to live again.  (Bryan Caplan is aghast.)  What is the difference?  Two possibilities:

  1. Even though skepticism about whether cryonics will work is one of the main arguments against it, in fact people think there's a substantial chance cryonics might actually work.  This triggers an abandonment reaction, like your buying a one-way-ticket to a distant land from which you could never return.  And it creates uncertainty about whether you are actually dead, making it harder for loved ones to have closure after a funeral.  This is the reason my wife gives for intending to prevent my being frozen. 
  2. Saying you want to do something weird for value or symbolic belief reasons is far less threatening than saying you want to do something weird for instrumental reasons.  Common social norms encourage acceptance of weird values and symbolic beliefs, as long as those don't much effect ordinary behavior.  But by saying your weird act is a much better way to achieve important ordinary goals, you are saying the rest of us are making a big mistake. 
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Is Ideology About Status?

At lunch one day Tyler suggested the essence of ideology is which types of people should be admired.  I told him it seemed an excellent insight, pregnant with possibility and well worth pursuing.  He’s finally blogged it

Occasionally the real force behind a political ideology is the subconsciously held desire that a certain group of people should not be allowed to rise in relative status. … Some people on the right do not like those they perceive as "whiners."  They do not want these whiners to rise in relative status.  … Some [left-wing] people … do not want the monied class to rise in relative status, certainly not above the status of the smart people and the virtuous people.  …

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Ask For Help

From a new study in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology:

People underestimated by as much as 50% the likelihood that others would agree to a direct request for help, across a range of requests occurring in both experimental and natural field settings. … Experimentally manipulating a person’s perspective (as help seeker or potential helper) could elicit this underestimation effect. … Help seekers were less willing than potential helpers were to appreciate the social costs of refusing a direct request for help.

We don’t like to ask for help, men especially, because asking threatens our status.  Believing that others won’t help lets us "sincerely" avoid asking.

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Loud Bumpers

Humans express social status in many ways.  We show our submission to others by deferring to their wishes, copying their styles (e.g., dress, speech), praising them, laughing at their jokes, and so on.  We show our dominance by expressing desires, styles, jokes, etc. and then expecting others to show submission. 

Our opinions are part of this dominance/submission signaling system.  The higher we feel in status the more we feel free to express distinctive opinions and expect others to agree, or at least not greatly disagree.  Which is why we are so reluctant to agree with others we compete with, even when they make good points.

A vivid illustration from yesterday’s Post

Drivers of cars with bumper stickers, window decals, personalized license plates and other "territorial markers" not only get mad when someone cuts in their lane or is slow to respond to a changed traffic light, but they are far more likely than those who do not personalize their cars to use their vehicles to express rage — by honking, tailgating and other aggressive behavior.

It does not seem to matter whether the messages on the stickers are about peace and love — "Visualize World Peace," "My Kid Is an Honor Student" — or angry and in your face — "Don’t Mess With Texas," "My Kid Beat Up Your Honor Student." … Aggressive driving might be responsible for up to two-thirds of all U.S. traffic accidents that involve injuries. … Drivers who do not personalize their cars get angry, too, … but they don’t act out their anger. ….

Drivers who individualize their cars using bumper stickers, window decals and personalized license plates, the researchers hypothesized, see their cars in the same way as they see their homes and bedrooms — as deeply personal space, or primary territory.

Added:  As an analogy consider the strut.  It is clearly a dominance signal, even though the rich may strut less than the poor.  And if people around you think your strut is reaching above your status, they may severely punish you.

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Exploration As Status

I was puzzled to hear Paul Graham say:

Innocence is also open-mindedness. We want kids to be innocent so they can continue to learn. Paradoxical as it sounds, there are some kinds of knowledge that get in the way of other kinds of knowledge. If you’re going to learn that the world is a brutal place full of people trying to take advantage of one another, you’re better off learning it last. Otherwise you won’t bother learning much more.

So last week I asked:

This has some intuitive appeal, but it is puzzling – why exactly would learning that the world is a brutal place make one less interesting in learning more about that world?  Wouldn’t learning help one to avoid brutality? 

Tyler Cowen and Russ Roberts also posed this question to their readers, and all of the thoughtful comments have persuaded me to a new signaling view.

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Einstein’s Superpowers

Followup toEinstein’s Speed, My Childhood Role Model, Timeless Physics

There is a widespread tendency to talk (and think) as if Einstein, Newton, and similar historical figures had superpowers – something magical, something sacred, something beyond the mundane.  (Remember, there are many more ways to worship a thing than lighting candles around its altar.)

Once I unthinkingly thought this way too, with respect to Einstein in particular, until reading Julian Barbour’s The End of Time cured me of it.

Barbour laid out the history of anti-epiphenomenal physics and Mach’s Principle; he described the historical controversies that predated Mach – all this that stood behind Einstein and was known to Einstein, when Einstein tackled his problem…

And maybe I’m just imagining things – reading too much of myself into Barbour’s book – but I thought I heard Barbour very quietly shouting, coded between the polite lines:

What Einstein did isn’t magic, people!  If you all just looked at how he actually did it, instead of falling to your knees and worshiping him, maybe then you’d be able to do it too!

Maybe I’m mistaken, or extrapolating too far… but I kinda suspect that Barbour once tried to explain to people how you move further along Einstein’s direction to get timeless physics; and they sniffed scornfully and said, "Oh, you think you’re Einstein, do you?"

Continue reading "Einstein’s Superpowers" »

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