Category Archives: Status

Ancient Political Self-Deception

From Gene Expression:

There are certain things which are sacred, certain lines you don’t cross. … I was thinking about [this] a few months ago when I read Rome & Jerusalem: A Clash of Ancient Civilizations and God’s Rule – Government and Islam.  You see, the ancient Romans and Muslims did not have kings. Kings were tyrants, and the early Roman and Islamic polities rejected such tyranny on principle. So of course, instead of kings, the Roman Empire was headed by an emperor, while the Muslims had caliphs. Get it? When Augustus defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra the official narrative was that the doughty republican traditions of Rome had bested once more the oriental despotism of the Hellenistic world, with their Greek kings and queens. Similarly, the righteous AbbasidsUmayyads. In its place they established a genuine Islamic state which was guided by the traditions of the community as opposed to profane naked autocracy. Right….

As you can see here, the extent of the self-deception and semantic delusion is really humorous. Now, it is true that the early emperors of Rome tended to keep up the illusion that they were simply stewards of the Roman Republic with some verisimilitude. Augustus’ shtick was that his was a restorationist project; he was no dictator or king, just the First Citizen. Similarly, the early Abbasids were ostensibly bringing the vision of the Islamic community to its true fulfillment (especially the Shia party), whereas the Umayyads had been worldly Arab tribalists more in keeping with the values of the jahiliya. … Muslim soldiers were enraged and shocked when the conqueror of Spain allowed his Visigothic wife to convince him to don a crown and so indicate kingship; they accused him of becoming a Christian.

I’ve been saying for years that people prefer democracy mainly because they think it raises their social status – being ruled by a king makes you lower status relative to people who "rule themselves."  We can’t quite fool ourselves into thinking a king is just a "steward", but we apparently can think we really rule because we elect our rulers.

Added 2Apr:  Nazi Hermann Göring:

Oh, [democracy] is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.  [HT Caplan

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Connections Versus Insight

Consider a fashion in music, clothes, tech, research topics, or most anything.  You could use this fashion at five possible times:

  1. Well before it is fashionable.
  2. When it is first fashionable.
  3. Before popularity peaks.
  4. After popularity peaks.
  5. Long after it is fashionable.

These five usage times can signal five positive features:

  1. Insight into what will be in fashion.
  2. Power to make people follow a your fashion concept.
  3. Connections to people who learn of fashion early.
  4. Cooperativeness in trying to match others.
  5. Strong behavior habits.

Now people who value insight highly often assume that earlier usage of a fashion is always a more positive signal.  But most people see using something well before it is fashionable to be a bad sign – yes it shows your insight, but it also shows your lack of power and connections. 

This is even true in academia, where people claim to value insight highly; really, even academics value power and connections more than insight.  Don’t assume you will be rewarded for working on a research concept well before it is fashionable.

Added 24Jan:  To clarify, I mean that even if you do have genuine insight about what will be fashionable, but not power or connections, then on average, considering both your rewards when you work on a yet-to-be-fashionable topic and later when it becomes fashionable, you’d have been better rewarded if you worked on something else.

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T.S. Eliot Quote

Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don’t mean to do harm– but the harm does not interest them. Or they do not see it, or they justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves.   T. S. Eliot, The Cocktail Party, (1974), p. 111   

Well put.  Found here. 

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Choose: Credit or Influence

When I started at Lockheed Research in 1985, my mentor was a veteran who explained his secret for getting funding from the other Lockheed divisions:

Find an idea for a project we could do for them, but don’t tell them the idea.  Instead break the idea into a few key parts, describe the parts to them, and let them put the parts together into the total idea.  They will be much more willing to fund a project that is their idea. 

Some advise academics not to post working papers, as others might steal your ideas.  Many fiction writers are afraid editors will steal their ideas.  Many are afraid that venture capitalists will steal their business idea instead of funding their team. 

Howard Aiken said "Don’t worry about people stealing an idea. If it’s original, you will have to ram it down their throats."  I don’t think it is quite that simple – people can and do steal ideas.  But if what you want is influence, instead of credit, the choice should be easy: you should want people to steal your ideas.  So think about it: how much do you or should you care about credit, versus influence? 

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Blind Elites

We have many clues that hint at the intelligence of the people around us.  These clues include the size of their vocabulary, the wit of their jokes, and the insight of their observations.  These clues, however, are less useful for distinguishing the intelligence of people who are smarter than us; we may not get their joke, understand their insight, or recognize their big word.  We might rely on evaluations of people smarter that us, but this just moves the problem back a level. 

This encourages assortative mating, because, for example, only the smartest women can can tell clearly who are the smartest men.  And it often makes it hard to reward people who are smarter than elites.  Yes, in some areas of life, like chess, intelligence may reveal itself quickly in better outcomes.  But usually, one has relatively little to gain by acting smarter than elites; elites usually can’t tell the difference, and if they can they may resent you for making them look bad.  You may well be better off hiding your extra intelligence, finding an area where the elites are smarter than you, or finding an area where better outcomes quickly show smarts. 

Arbitrary fluctuations in who are the elites in an area can thus change whether smart people are attracted to that area.  And the possibility of such fluctuations pushes smart people toward areas where better outcomes quickly reveal intelligence.  This is a plausible explanation for why smart people tend to prefer mathematical areas.  I quickly learned as a new teacher that my students were just as bad at math as at writing, but they preferred writing assignments because they could not as easily see that their writing was bad; math reveals intelligence more clearly.  Of course this effect could induce people to rely too much on math; people may prefer to show their smarts at the expense of being useful.

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Cheating as Status Symbol

Two years ago I posted on "Tantrums as Status Symbols":

CEOs throw more tantrums than mailboys.  Similarly movie stars, sports stars, and politicians throw more tantrums than ordinary people  in those industries.  Also famous for their tantrums: spoiled young wives, bigshot patriarchs, elite travelers, and toddlers.   … Of course, like a swagger, the signal is not so much the tantum itself as the fact that someone can get away with it.

A related status indicator is acting like the usual rules don’t apply to you.  From the May 9 New Scientist:

John Trinkaus … One of his specialities is the study of minor acts of dishonesty and antisocial behaviour. In his 25 years of research, one demographical group has come to stand out above all others as being most likely to push boundaries and break rules. These are not disaffected teenagers nor Italian football hooligans. They are women van drivers.

Trinkaus’s important sociological finding is perhaps best illustrated by his extensive work covertly monitoring a supermarket’s "10 items or fewer" checkout over a span of nine years. As many of us may have seen for ourselves, Trinkaus found that some shoppers using this lane had more than 10 items. Some cunningly placed their items in groups of 10 and paid for each group separately. Trinkaus found that about 80 per cent of all the supermarket lane cheats were female van drivers.

This is by no means the only time that these women have been linked with small-scale social transgressions. Trinkaus has also shown that 96 per cent of women van drivers break the speed limit, compared with 86 per cent of male ones, and in one study, a staggering 99 per cent of female van drivers failed to come to a complete stop at a T-junction with a stop sign, compared with 94 per cent of the total.

Female van drivers feel like, and are, the highest status people in their social circle.  I’ll bet they throw a lot of tantrums.

Added:  One report says "Forty-three percent of cell phone users do not turn their phones off at the movies."  If rich men happened to be more guilty here, I doubt folks would be as eager to explain this away, e.g., maybe they are just extra busy.

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