Tag Archives: Status

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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Be The Emperor’s Kid

I come from a state that raises corn and cotton and cockleburs and Democrats, and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I am from Missouri. You have got to show me. (Why Missouri is “Show Me State”)

Emperor’s New Clothes: Two swindlers arrive at the capital city of an emperor who spends lavishly on clothing at the expense of state matters. Posing as weavers, they offer to supply him with magnificent clothes that are invisible to those who are stupid or incompetent. The emperor hires them, and they set up looms and go to work. A succession of officials, and then the emperor himself, visit them to check their progress. Each sees that the looms are empty but pretends otherwise to avoid being thought a fool. Finally, the weavers report that the emperor’s suit is finished. They mime dressing him and he sets off in a procession before the whole city. The townsfolk uncomfortably go along with the pretense, not wanting to appear inept or stupid, until a child blurts out that the emperor is wearing nothing at all. The people then realize that everyone has been fooled. Although startled, the emperor continues the procession, walking more proudly than ever. (More)

My long intellectual career has in part been a search for the most important questions. I study X until I realize “No, Y is really the more fundamental issue behind X.” I have now made another step forward in this journey; I now guess that the biggest obstacle to getting the world to adopt the many institution reform proposals I favor is our status-gossip-trust system. Let me explain.

Status is respect, shared at a distance. And one of our main ways to create shared distant respect estimates is to accept the gossip-shared judgements of high status people, especially on who else to respect. Furthermore, as we all judge those who are most closely connected to high status people as being higher status themselves, we often try to create closer connections to high status people by blindly trusting them.

That is, they tell us that of course they love us, that they are worth $1000/hr as a lawyer, that their expensive new med treatment will cure us, that their management advice will save our firm, that the articles they write or publish are the most reliable and useful guides to their topics, that their advice given to the halls of power will guide the nation well, and that the candidates praised by their letter of recommendation are worth high salaries. And then instead of checking these claims by watching their track records, giving them financial incentives, testing their abilities, or evaluating the details of their arguments, we just believe what they say. Not only believe, but also actively resist checking their claims, for fear of not seeming to trust them.

This helps explain why we make it hard (often illegal) to give strong incentives to or collect track records about prestigious professionals like lawyers and doctors. Why we care more about potential than accomplishment. Why we prefer grants to prizes, and managed funds over index funds. And why elites so rarely give solid arguments to back their claims. Furthermore, our getting more status mad over the last few centuries can help explain the decline in marriage, decline in legal sanctions against lies, and removing test scores from school applications.

I’m still quite uncertain how exactly to resist this status-trust pattern, but I expect it has something to do with raising the status of status skeptics, like the “show me” people of Missouri, or the kid who exposed the emperor.

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Why Taxes Or Control, Not Subsidies?

All prices are relative; a price is how many As it takes to buy one B. So we can only say that prices are generally high or low relative to some reference asset, like land or hours of work.

Relative prices says that all taxes of A are really subsidies of Not A, and vice versa. But there is an enforcement difference: it is easier to subsidize than tax, as people have to come to you the enforcer to ask for their subsidy, but they might try to hide from your tax, via a “black” market.

If taxes and subsidies are in a sense equivalent, but subsidies are easier to enforce, we should expect to see a lot more formal subsidies than taxes. But in fact we see the opposite, not just in total revenue, but also in terms of the number items covered. Why?

Well even if we rarely see subsidized market items, we do see “subsidies” in the form of direct government provision. Instead of subsidizing private schools, hospitals, roads, libraries, parks, etc. we often see government instead hire workers to build and run such things, exercising detailed control over exactly how such things are done. In contrast, we see many broad taxes, which allow market participants to make detailed choices as long as they pay the broad taxes.

So why do we see so many market taxes, so few market subsidizes, and so much direct provision, which combines a subsidy with high levels of government control? I can think of two explanations, but I’m not very confident in them, and so am interested to hear more theories.

First, taxing and controlling things looks like you are dominating them, while subsiding things looks like you are submitting to them, as if you were paying tribute to a lord. So my first explanation is that government seeks to appear dominant over citizens, instead of submissive to them, and gives this a higher priority than having more efficient market influence.

My second explanation is that government employees have an unusual influence over government policy, and they prefer to have cushy jobs where they control society without taking many personal risks, and they want taxes raised to pay for their jobs. Sure, if we subsidized parks instead of having government run them, similar jobs would exist in private park firms, but those jobs would be less secure or cushy than government jobs, and give employees less control over the public.

Neither of these theories is very flattering of government. But as I said, I’m not very sure of these; what else ya got?

Another way to say this: why doesn’t government more often directly control the provision of stuff that it taxes? Like soda, gambling, luxury goods, polluting cars, etc.?

Added 11:30a: Bryan Caplan suggests its citizens or employees prefer government to be closer to good things, and more distant from bad things. So they want direct provision of things to subsidize, market provision of stuff to tax.

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What is ‘Elite Overproduction’?

Elite overproduction … describes the condition of a society which is producing too many potential elite-members relative to its ability to absorb them into the power structure. … a cause for social instability, as those left out of power feel aggrieved by their relatively low status. … explained social disturbances during the late Roman empire and the French Wars of Religion, and [Turchin] predicted that this situation would cause social unrest in the US during the 2020s. (More)

Toynbee argues that the ultimate sign a civilization has broken down is when the dominant minority forms a Universal State, which stifles political creativity. He states:

First the Dominant Minority attempts to hold by force – against all right and reason – a position of inherited privilege which it has ceased to merit; and then the Proletariat repays injustice with resentment, fear with hate, and violence with violence when it executes its acts of secession. (More)

There’s a simple and plausible income interdependence scenario where inequality matters little for policy: when [welfare] outcomes depend on [income] rank. … This applies whether the relevant rank is global, comparing each person to the entire world, or local, comparing each person only to a local community. [A] 2010 paper … makes a strong case that in fact the outcome of life satisfaction depends on the incomes of others only via income rank. (More)

I often hear about how many elite areas have become more competitive, and more stressful. People have to do and be more than they once did to succeed. There are ominously more hopefuls who will be disappointed, and becomes disgruntled. But people have always cared a lot about status, and tried hard to rise in status. And if status is mainly about one’s percentile rank in some overall ranking, what could have changed?

Some ideas:

  • The variance in money or popularity has changed; it is now more “winner-take-all”, so status gets you more.
  • There is more, or less, mobility in status over time, perhaps to different degrees at different status levels.
  • What were once many disconnected status hierarchies have merged into fewer more global rankings.
  • The relative weight on prestige versus dominance has changed; the one that is now bigger is more stressful.
  • As we get rich, we more satisfy our basic needs (and get more status drunk), and so care more about status.
  • We have gotten better at measuring status (e.g., via social media), making it more visible, so we care more.

Here is my related hypothesis: we now put more weight on many smaller lower-noise status markers, instead of fewer bigger noisier markers. In particular, we put more weight on markers of connections to statusful people and institutions.

For example, early in ancient empires, many rose in status via winning military battles, or perhaps by building new trading regimes. But later in such empires, status was counted more in terms of your connections to other statusful people. Which led to neglect of military success, and thus empire collapse.

So early on, ambitious soldiers tried to figure out how to win battles, and to get involved in promising battles. But it was hard to guess just how to do this, and outcomes were noisy functions of efforts. So no one could be very sure of their future status, or with whom to associate to gain status. But later on, ambitious soldiers would need to come from the right family, and make good new social connections. So they worked to make sure they wore the right clothes, went to the right events, flattered the right people, joined the right groups, and so on. In this world, they could more easily see who was higher status.

As another example, back in my day physics classes gave lots of hard problems that most students couldn’t do. So there was a lot of noise in particular grades, and students cared as much or more about possibly doing unusually well as doing unusually badly. One stellar performance might make your reputation, and make up for lots of other mediocre work. But today, schools give lots of assignments where most get high percent scores, and even many where most get 100% scores. In this sort of world, students know it is mostly about not making mistakes, and avoiding black marks. There is otherwise little they can do to stand out.

For a third example, it seems to me that in academia people now care more about the status of your journal articles and job institutions, and less about what exactly you said in those articles or did in those jobs. And theory, where a new entry might surprise everyone with its great power, has been displaced by lower variance empirics, where success depends more on access to funding and data, on mastering hard in-fashion stat techniques, and on having the right social connections.

In all of these examples, the new focus is on the low, not the high, end of the distribution of outcomes for each event or activity. The new focus is more on social connection and less on the non-social world. And people can better see their current status, and estimate their future status. All of these changes seem to me to naturally feel more “competitive”, producing more “anxiety”.

Added 22Aug: As status marker weights and groups sizes are always changing, there are always groups rising and falling overall in status. Yes, a high status group that is rising in size and falling in status might see that as a time of “elite overproduction”, but since that sort of thing is happening quite often why would we say it happens overall especially more at certain times?

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Seeking Status Fashion Stats

Some societies are more healthy, productive, innovative, and stronger than others. We now understand many factors that contribute to this difference, and we collect and track many stats related to these factors. To predict future changes in social health, it is especially important to track well the stats that change the fastest. After all, for slowly changing factors infrequent noisy measures may do fine.

However, I see one factor which is important, which can and does change rapidly, and yet where we do very little tracking of related stats. That factor is: fashions in the status markers seen as determining who is more elite. Let me explain.

All cultures and subcultures distinguish people by their status, via agreed-upon markers, such as wealth, power, attractiveness, credentials, wit, and much more. While the weights that different cultures put on these things usually have the same signs, their magnitudes can differ greatly. I’ve seen such weights vary greatly over my lifetime, and across the many social worlds I’ve inhabited. For example, societies that put more weight on military valor are likely to fight more wars, those that put more weight on business profits will see more wealth, and those that care more about music will hear more music.

These differences have huge consequences, as a big fraction of social energy is devoted to seeking higher status. Especially among the “best” people. These difference probably vary not only by nation, but by city and region, by industry and profession, and by ethnic and other subcultures. And over time, status marker fashion changes not only with overall fashions, but also with the status of subareas, such as recently when tech got rich and was then taken over by traditional elites.

Changes in status fashion have the potential to bring great societies crashing down, and to raise up once low societies. Such fashions do in fact often seem to change a lot over time timescale of decades. And yet I know of no attempts to create data series to measure these crucial changes. Seems a hole worth filling.

We should also put a lot more thought into how to change our status markers to be promote social health. And to prevent the rise of unhealthy markers.

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Green Knight Disses Glory

Many stories have morals. While such morals could be stated directly, perhaps via witty aphorisms, many claim that we use stories to make our moral lessons clearer and more vivid, to show us how they are applied in concrete familiar situations. As Jesus did with his parables. Sounds helpful, right?

But then we get parables like the movie The Green Knight, which describe strange events in alien worlds, with their moral lessons encoded elusively. Elite movie reviewers love it, in part because it is based on a medieval story many of them had to study in college. For them, difficult to follow literary references, and difficult to interpret moral lessons, are part of the attraction, as viewers can show their sophistication by figuring it all out.

(There are mild spoilers in what follows; you are warned.) Continue reading "Green Knight Disses Glory" »

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Neglecting Hard-To-Judge Abilities

Long ago when I first started teaching undergrads, I noticed that while they were equally bad at math and writing, they could more easily see that they were bad at math. So they were happier to get writing assignments. Math assignments made them face the uncomfortable fact that they were bad at something valuable, while writing assignments did not. So students liked my classes better when I assigned writing more.

Science fiction stories are usually set in a possible future world, and you might think that some people would specialize in working out the details of such worlds, while others would specialize in setting stories in those worlds. But while people (like me) who work out future scenarios are well aware that we are not good at writing stories in those worlds, it seems that the people who are good at writing stories don’t believe that they need any help figuring out the details of their worlds. Early in their career most sf authors have already collected a lifetime supply of story settings for their future stories; they have little interest in collaborating with world builders.

In the world of ideas, some people are especially good at finding and exploring interesting ideas, and some people are especially good at writing about such ideas in ways that are compelling and engaging to wide audiences. The people who are good at ideas usually know that they aren’t so good at writing about them, are generally interested in collaborating with those better at writing. But for the most part, the people who are good at writing well to wide audiences are not much interested in such collaboration. Those good writers mostly believe that the ideas that they have are among the best; no need to work together with idea people, as they are idea people.

In general, we see distorted behaviors resulting from the fact that some abilities are both respected and hard to judge. The people with the easier to judge abilities tend to assume that they are also the best at those other opaque but respected abilities. And so our world is full of people who rise to prominence because they are best at what we can more easily judge, who tell themselves and us that they are also best at important things that are much harder to judge. And we seem willing to believe, even if this seems quite implausible.

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Status Madness Starves Religion

A big reason why we have the delusions we do: as we get rich, we each increasingly over-estimate our relative social status. … 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 …) Yes, this method would work badly in environments where communities varied greatly in average levels of absolute income/wealth. …

This theory predicts that humans came to live much longer after the industrial revolution. … this theory predicts what we have seen: declining rates of violence and conflict, less war, and widening moral circles. … key prediction is: we are more mad for status, as we think we already have a lot of it. … this predicts more school … [as predicted,] fertility has fallen dramatically over the last few centuries … people more eager for news, talk, politics, democracy, government, and paternalistic policies. …

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. (More)

Centuries ago states took power and property from the church, and then over time participation in religion by ordinary people has greatly declined; I can see this decline directly in my family in in the families of people around me. Across nations (though not much within nations), this decline (and a decline in superstition) has been correlated with rising income, education, and welfare spending. People are mainly religious because parents push it on them, and religious change seems to be concentrated in childhood; once people reach adulthood they mostly retain their prior religion levels.

While many theories have been offered to explain this decline, status madness seems to me a pretty good candidate. People in richer and more educated nations see themselves as higher status. And the higher that people see themselves, the less willing they are to bow down to others. Culture has eliminated most of the ways that people once had to defer and bow to elites around them. We’ve used democracy to get rid of kings, and to see ourselves as partial rulers. And, full of ourselves, we are reluctant to bow down before and worship gods. Even ideal gods.

Some see the key dynamic here as people slowly learning over time the fact that there are no gods. But why should a nation have to get rich itself to learn this fact, if other nations around it have already learned it? Furthermore, this learning theory predicts that opinion change should follow a random walk, not a straight trend. And even today very few people actually understand the relevant evidence well enough to make this judgment.

Furthermore there are actually are gods! Maybe not the gods described in the most popular religions, but gods nonetheless. We should estimate that roughly half of the universe out there right now is filled with advanced creatures who are to us as gods. This part of the universe will be filled with gods within a billion years, and much sooner if we don’t all kill ourselves. And we might be being visited by UFO aliens right now.

Someday most of our descendants will meet creatures who are to them as gods. (Even if those gods are other of our descendants.) At that point I predict that they will no longer be so status mad, and so full of themselves, as to be unwilling to respect those gods. They will bow down to, and even worship, their betters.

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How High Our Elite Tax?

In the ancient world, invading armies were mostly men who, if they won, stayed and took over the top status slots in the new society. After a few generations, the locals would almost completely submit, and see invader descendants as the highest status elite members of “us”.

When invaders had distinctive looks, styles, etc. then those became marks of high status. People would seek such marks for they and their family, and try to associate with those who had such marks. To get people to support their ventures, they’d try to give them the appearance of elite support, via attracting elite members, investors, customers, suppliers, regulators, etc. As any substantial elite opposition could doom their ventures.

These elites would of course charge a price for their support, and such prices would add up to an elite tax on the society. The size of this tax would depend on how many such elites had to be “paid off” in this way to make anything happen, and how well suited were such elites for the roles they took on. In the limit of many available elites who were actually just directly the best people for their roles, this elite tax was zero. But the more that ventures had to pay off elites who were not otherwise the best for their roles, and have people do things in other than the best ways, in order to gain that crucial perception of elite support, the larger the tax.

Societies in history have varied in how they define status, and thus have varied in how much they waste in efforts to achieve status. When war was important, for example, societies that defined status in terms of military accomplishment had in essence a lower tax, and thus a competitive advantage over rivals. Today when innovation is important, then organizations where status is rewarded for promoting innovation can be at a similar advantage.

In academia, we often see similar effects on smaller scales. Particular fields are taken over by a mutual admiration insider’s club, and then everyone in that field must pay tribute to these insiders to get anything done. If you do not sufficiently praise, cite, fund, hire, etc. such insiders, you will be excluded from the field.

So how big a tax does our society pay for the perception of elite support? Much of status in our world is set via graduating from elite schools and being hired for elite jobs, and many say that we have a “meritocracy” in picking applicants to such positions only on the basis of directly relevant abilities. But of course we know this is only partially true.

As I’ve discussed before, in many areas today elites from around the world have merged into a single elite community which share common standards on who is elite and what criteria they use to decide status. As this world elite faces no competition from other worlds, our world is now more vulnerable to drifting status criteria; competition between societies won’t suppress wasteful criteria. For example, if elites everywhere measure status via years of pointless school, then the whole world could just keeping doing too much such school.

One interesting way to try to measure our elite tax is to look at events where the tax rose quickly and dramatically. Sometimes a particular field is low status, with people there paid accordingly, and then suddenly the field rises greatly income and status. At which point high status people enter and take over the highest status positions of that field. Such elite entrants tend to be young and lack experience in that field, and so tend to denigrate the old and experienced there. They push for generic elite practices that may not be the best for this area.

For example, tech used to be nerdy and lower status, and then made a lot of money and rose in status. Top school kids decided to take jobs in tech, especially right after investment banking jobs dried up after the 2008 crash. And so top school kids took over tech, putting a new extra premium on youth and top school degrees. Tech priorities and practices changed, including a lot more interest in woke politics.

Studies that compared the productivity, innovativeness, and social value produced by tech before and after this transition might give us valuable data on our elite tax. Similar studies might be done regarding other suddenly-prestigious areas before and after their status transition. Seems to me an important topic to study.

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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. Continue reading "We Moderns Are Status-Drunk" »

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