Tag Archives: Status

The Accuracy of Authorities

“WHO treads a difficult line, & tends to be quite conservative in its recommendations to avoid putting out info that later proves to be incorrect. ‘You can’t be backtracking’ … because ‘then you lose complete credibility’.” (More)

There is something important to learn from this example. The best estimates of a maximally accurate source would be very frequently updated and follow a random walk, which implies a large amount of backtracking. And authoritative sources like WHO are often said to be our most accurate sources. Even so, such sources do not tend to act this way. They instead update their estimates rarely, and are especially reluctant to issue estimates that seem to backtrack. Why?

First, authoritative sources serve as a coordination point for the behavior of others, and it is easier to coordinate when estimates change less often. Second, authoritative sources need to signal that they have power; they influence others far more than others influence them. Both of these pressures push them toward making infrequent changes. Ideally only one change, from “we don’t know”, to “here is the answer”. But if so, why do they feel pressures to issue estimates more often than this?

First, sometimes there are big decisions that need to be made, and then authorities are called upon to issue estimates in time to help with those decisions. For example, WHO was often called upon to issue estimates to help with a rapidly changing covid epidemic.

Second, sometimes a big source of relevant info appears, and it seems obvious to all that it must be taken into account. For example, no matter how confident we were to win a battle, we should expect to get news about how that battle actually went, and update accordingly. In this case, the authority is more pressed to update its estimate, but also more forgiven for changing its estimate. So during covid, authorities were expected to update on changing case and death counts, and that didn’t count so much as “backtracking”.

Third, sometimes rivals compete for authority. And then sources might be compared regarding their accuracy track record. This would push them toward the frequently updated random walk scenario, which can degrade the appearance of authority for all such competitors. (The other two pressures to update more often may also degrade authority; e.g., WHO’s authority seems to have degraded during covid.)

Due to the first of these pressures, the need to inform decisions, authoritative sources prefer that dependent decisions be made infrequently and opaquely. Such as by central inflexible organizations, who decide by opaque political processes. E.g., masking, distancing, and vaccine policies for covid. There can thus form a natural alliance between central powers and authoritative sources.

Due to the second of these pressures, authoritative sources prefer a strong consensus on what are the big sources of info that force them to update. This pushes for making very simple, stable, and clear distinctions between “scientific” info sources, on which one must update, and “unscientific” sources, on which it is in considered inappropriate for authors to update. Those latter sources must be declared not just less informative, but un-informative, and slandered in enough ways so that few who aspire to authority are tempted to rely on them.

Due to the third of these pressures, authoritative sources will work hard to prevent challengers competing on track record accuracy. Authorities will issue vague estimates that are hard to compare, prevent the collection of data that would support comparisons, and accuse challengers of crimes (e.g., moral positions) to make them seem ineligible for authority. And other kinds of powers, who prefer a single authority source they can defer to in order to avoid responsibility for their decisions, will help to suppress such competitors.

This story seems to explain why ordinary people take backtracking as a sign of inaccuracy. They have a hidden motive to follow authorities, but give accuracy as their excuse for following such sources. This forces them to see backtracking as a general sign of inaccuracy.

This all seems to be bad news for efforts to gain credibility, funding, and legal permission for alternative estimate sources, such as those based on prediction markets or forecasting competitions. This helps explain why individual org managers are reluctant to support such alternate sources, and why larger polities create barriers to them, such as via censorship, professional licensing, and financial regulation.

This all points to another risk of our increasingly integrated world community of elites. They may form central sources of authoritative estimates, which coordinate with other authorities to suppress alternate sources. Previously, world wide competition made it easier to defy and challenge such estimate authorities.

Added: As pointed out by @TheZvi, a 4th pressure on authorities to update more often is to stay consistent with other authorities. This encourages authorities to coordinate to update together at the same time, by talking first behind the scenes.

Added 11Apr: Seem many comments on this over at Marginal Revolution.

GD Star Rating
a WordPress rating system
Tagged as: ,

We Trust The Statusful

The ancient world heavily favored aristocrats for important social positions. Yes, they were probably on average more competent in many ways, but many have claimed that good family connections were favored more strongly than can be explained by this effect.

You might argue that aristocrats were just conspiring to favor themselves, but it seems that others also shared their preference. For example, many stories (e.g.) describe someone seeking an audience with a high official, out of a belief that higher officials must be less corrupt and more concerned with general welfare, relative to the lower ones. “If only the king would hear, he’d do something.”

It seems to me that humans have generally trusted higher status people more, and that we still do so today. For example, status is the main way we trust doctors, lawyers, CEOs, fund managers, and many other professionals (instead of track records or incentive contracts).

As another example, even though people say that they trust smaller orgs more than big ones, people say they trust those at the top of orgs more than those at the bottom. Yes, top people get more easily spread their messages blaming lower folks for problems, and can more easily repress lower folks who blame them. But it seems most people don’t correct for this, or don’t see it as a big correction.

Furthermore, consider our criminal law system. Whether and how much a possible criminal is accused or punished is influenced by many parties. First police, then prosecutors, then judges, then appellate judges, then executives who can pardon, and finally prison wardens and parole boards who influence prison duration and severity. All of these parties are either politicians, political appointees, or folks appointed directly or indirectly by such appointees, and thus should all have incentives to please such people.

Yet if you ask people who they trust to make choices in this system, they consistently prefer the higher status people. In some recent polls, I’ve found that they trust prosecutors more than police, trust judges more than prosecutors, trust judges more than prison wardens or parole boards, and trust executives whose pardons overrule judges. Furthermore, people only proposed recently to “defund” the lowest status among these groups, and one of the main proposals to make police more trustworthy is to require more years of education, i.e., to raise their status.

Some people say this is because the higher status groups have better incentives. But we have chosen the incentives that each of these parties to be what they are, and we could, if we wanted, give all these other groups the same incentives we now give the most trusted group, judges. The relative status of these groups seems to me a cleaner explanation.

I think we are suffering enormous losses from trusting based on status, instead of using other methods. But it seems very hard to displace our innate trust of the high status enough to get people to consider such alternatives. We don’t seek solutions when we don’t think we have a problem.

Added 6Apr: I failed above to mention that we are reluctant to ask for track records or incentives from our statusful suppliers in part because we see that as weakening the connection by which their status raises our status. We want it to look like we mutually trust each other, as that’s the kind of relation by which associates gain status from each other.

GD Star Rating
a WordPress rating system
Tagged as: ,

Friends, Factions, And Status

We have three different kinds of reasons to favor others: friends, factions, and status. First, we favor those to whom we have relatively direct connections: friends, family, co-workers, neighbors, sport teammates, church-mates, etc. Second, we favor other members of our self-promoting groups, where each such group makes up a substantial fraction of our relevant society. Such as groups who share gender, ethnicity, education level, or religion. Third, we favor people we see as having prestige or dominance, and are thus accepted by most everyone as being better than others.

Over time, groups can move between these roles. For example, Christianity started out as small groups who favored each other due to their direct connections. Then it became a repressed minority faction within the Roman Empire, then a large faction, and then the largest dominant fraction, where it repressed others. Over the following centuries Christianity became so dominant, at least in areas near Europe, that it became part of the local concept of status; Christians were higher status than heathens or atheists, and status within Christianity counted as social status more generally. Lately, Christianity has retreated to become more of a strong faction.

Similarly, science started out as small community, then became a minor faction, but by now has become entrenched and dominant in our society. That is, most everyone accepts that being more scientific is better overall for your status. Anti-science factions are repressed factions, when they are allowed at all. For example, we fight over if economics is “science” as a way to fight over it s status.

Another example is prestigious college degrees. Once these were an optional and contested status marker, but now they are almost universally seen as a powerful marker, quite often required for any elite position.

Over the last few centuries, “liberation” movements have succeeded in moving some group differences in the other direction, from status to faction. For example, regarding aristocrats, ethnicities, gender, and sexual preferences. Previously these were all widely accepted as status markers, with some types better than others, but recently they have come more to be seen as just more ways that people can be different. Some now try to induce similar changes in how we treat looks, age, and urban/rural, but they have so far largely failed.

Humans have long worried that allegiances to friends or factions would interfere with loyalty to other shared units. So regarding friends and family favoritism, firms limit nepotism, judges recuse themselves when they have personal connections, and teachers aren’t supposed to grade their friends, family, or lovers.

Regarding faction favoritism, humans have long had neutrality norms to limit such favoritism. As a result, faction favoritism is a common “hidden motive” to which we are often consciously blind, like other hidden motives we discuss in our book Elephant in the Brain.

For example, you are supposed to set aside faction allegiances when you rule as a judge, or grade as a teacher, or review a journal article. As a firm representative or responsible professional, you aren’t supposed to give better or cheaper service to customers who share your factions. In a firm, you are supposed to argue for choices of personnel, projects, or policies based on what is good for the firm as a whole, not for your within-firm factions.

Some legal rules of evidence, and common norms of good debate, can be seen as trying limit factional support. For example, rules against hearsay can discourage factions from getting their members to lie for each other, and rules against revealing prior criminal convictions to jurors may prevent conviction-correlated faction action. And debate norms that discourage group-based insults or appeals to authority or popularity can also discourage factional coordination.

In most ancient societies, there was usually a single dominant power coalition, and this still holds for most democratic cities today. The founders of US democracy worried a lot about democratic polities plagued by factions. They thought they had a fix (many small ones), but they were wrong; in larger democratic polities, we’ve often seen a consistent split into two main roughly-equally-strong political factions.

Which subgroups comprise these two factions changes during rare “political realignments.” And in such polities, people like judges, teachers, or generals who represent the polity as a whole are usually expected to set aside their affiliations with these two political factions when making key decisions.

In such polities, it is more okay to say that you favor particular political candidates because they favor your factions. But even there we prefer factions to say that they are trying to do good for the polity as a whole. Valid factions, we say, merely hold different opinions on what is good for us all.

Yes, we are aware that factions may hypocritically pretend to serve the general good while actually serving themselves. We are also aware that high status groups like the top-college-educated may in part just be self-favoring factions so powerful that they suppress any substantial opposition. Even so, we prefer hypocrisy to more overt factional self-dealing, and we prefer to suppress the factions that we can suppress rather than to suppress none at all.

In the U.S. since WWII, we have seen increasing and now record “polarization” between the main two political factions. And recently we’ve seen the relatively new phenomena of “reverse discrimination”, whereby some groups which were first seen as low in status, and then second were supposed to be treated neutrally as just another faction, are now third to be treated in key selection processes as if they were actually higher in status, to correct for their past lower status. Is this a new political realignment?

I actually think it is even bigger; we are now seeing a political faction make a bid for promotion, from faction to status. They want most everyone to accept that their side is just morally better. This faction has come to dominate the most prestigious high ends of many social high grounds: tech, academia, media, civil service, finance, charity, and more. And this faction has induced those arenas to set aside their usual professional neutrality norms regarding political factions, to strongly favor this faction.

In wider public discourse, this faction has used direct control over media and tech, and also the threat of punishment in other arenas it controls, to silence disliked parties and points of view. The opposing faction now mainly retains control of roughly half of top political positions, of peripheral locations of all sorts, and of professions like construction, engineering, and the military wherein they still proudly apply professional norms of factional neutrality. Which looks to me like a weak and losing position.

The main thing I can see that could derail this fast strong train is factional infighting. Such as between those focused on anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-capitalism, and pro-immigration. There are plausible cleavages there, but I don’t see them opening much anytime soon; this alliance really does show extreme ideologue/religion/etc levels of passion and bonding. Which has long been the origin of new empires in history.

GD Star Rating
a WordPress rating system
Tagged as: , ,

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.

GD Star Rating
a WordPress rating system
Tagged as: , , , ,

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.

GD Star Rating
a WordPress rating system
Tagged as:

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.

GD Star Rating
a WordPress rating system
Tagged as: ,

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?

GD Star Rating
a WordPress rating system
Tagged as:

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.

GD Star Rating
a WordPress rating system
Tagged as: ,

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" »

GD Star Rating
a WordPress rating system
Tagged as: ,

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.

GD Star Rating
a WordPress rating system
Tagged as: