Tag Archives: Status

Six Struggles Surrounding Status

Struggle For Function – These are struggles that individuals and organizations have to achieve non-status things. Keep a boat from sinking, don’t burn dinner, or have a wedding plan work out. Your status may depend on how well you do these things.

Struggle For Allies – You want to be liked by, and allied with, particular people that you encounter. Your status may help, but if you succeed they may well end up liking you much more than similar-status others.

Struggle For Status – Status is a widely shared estimate of esteem, within some status community. It is a weighted average of widely shared estimates of many admirable features. It combines direct power (dominance) and indirect power (prestige).

Struggle For Fashion – The weights of status vary with time, like fashions do. People form coalitions to push for more weight onto favorable features. In part via pushing to put their people into particular positions of power.

Struggle For Worlds – Status is usually not global, but instead relative to a community. These communities compete for influence in a wider world. People may care about how their local status struggles influences who wins there.

Struggle Over Struggles – All these struggles compete for the attention of individuals and organizations. Individuals, allies, coalitions, and communities can try to influence which struggles matter most.

The struggles for status, and for the fashion that sets status, tend to be zero-sum, at least directly. But the struggle for function clearly allows for mutual gains and higher efficiency. To a lessor extend, so does the struggle for allies; in principle we really can all have more lovers, friends and co-workers.

So if status puts more weight on function and allies, that can give added encouragement to attend to those struggles. And when people in a community care more about the struggle for worlds, they will want to put more status weight on such things. Especially on the kinds of functions and allies that most help win struggles over worlds.

It is also possible for a community to put less weight on status. For example, when status is the only visible quality marker re lawyers and doctors, customers must use it to pick those experts. But if customers can see visible track records, or use strong incentive contracts to pay for results, their status matters less. That can help to promote such functions, and also help a community to win the struggle over worlds.

Personally, I’m most engaged by the struggle over struggles. I’d like function and allies to matter more. And by reminding people of this struggle over worlds, I hope to influence the struggle for fashion to put more status weight on function, allies, and worlds. Yes, if I personally did better at the struggle for status, I could have more influence over the struggle for fashion. But at this point in my life, the opportunity cost of that seems quite high.

So I’ll content myself for now to point all this out to you, my readers. And invite you to join me in pushing to make status matter less, and to put more weight on function and allies. Such as via more trials with, and fewer legal barriers to, using track records and incentive contracts to substitute for status in picking experts.

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Prestige As Mob-Enforced Dominance

Humans distinguish two kinds of status, about which we are quite moralistic. There’s the good kind, prestige, and the bad, dominance. These are commonly described as pro-social vs. selfish:

Social status can be attained through either dominance (coercion and intimidation) or prestige (skill and respect). (more)

As Machiavelli noted, love [prestige] and fear [dominance] are both valuable assets that can be used to influence others. (More)

Dominance: Deference is demanded and is a property of the actor.
Prestige: Deference is freely conferred and is a property of the beholder. … Creation of authentic and lasting relationships … High in need for affiliation; high in authentic pride. (more)

Back in 2015, my co-author Kevin Simler argued for a “more cynical” view:

Central question [about prestige is] … What’s in it for the admirer? I know of two answers … first is given by Joseph Henrich and Francisco Gil-White … second … by Amotz Zahavi … and … Jean-Louis Dessalles … This [second] account may be more cynical, perhaps, but it’s one of the most powerful ideas I’ve ever encountered.

Henrich and Gil-White [say] … admiration … acts as a bribe. Admirers … are sycophants. … hoping to learn from their superiors. …

[But I say] prestige [is] … a kind of “credit” reflecting the amount of good each [babbler bird] has done for others. … Prestige-seeking and admiration (deference) are complementary teaming instincts. They help babblers stay attached to a group, keep groupmates happy, and secure a larger share of the group’s reproductive “spoils.” …

We [humans] voluntarily follow our leaders (and otherwise defer to them) because good things tend to happen when we do; it pays to be on their team. A leader who tries to command entirely with dominance — all stick, no carrot — will find his efforts thwarted at every turn … we want to be friends, allies, and teammates with people who do good things for their friends, allies, and teammates. [we] cultivate access to such people … by paying them respect and granting them the perks of prestige. …

Pinker … says, [prestige] is “the public knowledge that you possess assets that would allow you to help others if you wished to.” … Among our ancestors, then, bullies quickly got their comeuppance — unless they offset their dominance with a lot of prestige, creating many friends and allies in the process. (More)

But honestly, this view doesn’t seem that cynical to me. As they say, “hold my beer”. Consider my last post:

Elite employers … focus overwhelmingly on prestige when picking junior employees. … don’t that much care about your grades, what you’ve learned, or what you did in your jobs or extracurriculars, as long as they were prestigious. … Even though you have been chosen for your very consistent lifetime pursuit of prestige, that is very much not allowed to be one of your main goals. … What they are mostly selling is a prestigious aura around [their] advice. … Customers who paid as much for less prestigious advice would probably also be punished, via others being less willing to praise or follow that advice. (More)

Firms in this scenario aren’t just “freely giving” prestige, nor is this about learning, “love”, “authenticity”, nor rewarding generous allies. These firms instead face strong incentives from audiences to assign prestige in the way that key audiences think prestige should be assigned.

Consider academic “peer” review. Reviewers formally decide who gets how much prestige. But if they gave good reviews “freely” to whomever they most “authentically” “loved”, they might not get invited to review again, and their own prestige may suffer. When you hope to gain prestige by hosting an academic conference, you will be punished if you don’t invite the speakers that your key audiences think you should invite.

Or consider “cancelling”, which is in effect a form of negative prestige. While I still have my job, many events and organizations tell me that they can’t afford to publicly invite, fund, or associate with me because of what mobs say about me. They say they don’t personally have a problem with anything I’ve said or done, but they don’t want the hassle that mobs could impose.

In all these cases, we aren’t at all looking at each person just “freely” assigning to others the respect and evaluation that they privately think appropriate. Instead, evaluators face strong conformity pressures to agree with the evaluations of others.

Both dominance and prestige are expressions of power. In dominance, the power is direct, what that person can do to or for you. But with prestige, the power is indirect, enforced via a local mob. You must “freely” accord each person the respect that your relevant mob says is due, or risk their wrath. But make no mistake, there is a power that enforces prestige, just as with dominance.

Note that “socialists” tend to explicitly frame unequal money or physical power as unacceptable “domination”, and yet greatly admire historical cases where outraged and active mobs tried to fix such problems.

Added 6Nov: Mercer & Sperber’s Enigma of Reason similarly assumes that while those who present arguments might be biased, evaluators of arguments are neutral and fair.

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Prestige in US Today

Lauren A. Rivera’s Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs is a depressing book because it tells how the world works:

Pedigree takes readers behind the closed doors of top-tier investment banks, consulting firms, and law firms to reveal the truth about who really gets hired for the nation’s highest-paying entry-level jobs, who doesn’t, and why.

A big % of graduates of elite colleges take such jobs, and the other jobs they take don’t make nearly as much money. The other big employers, such as hedge funds, private equity firms, and tech firms, choose similarly. And elite colleges use similar criteria to pick their students. So this is a window into how we pick a big % of the top elites in the US today.

While I often assume that prestige is a big driver of human behavior, my poll respondents hardly admitted to putting much weight on prestige when picking experts. And many complain that I put too much emphasis on the concept. However, these elite employers strongly confirm my view, as they focus overwhelmingly on prestige when picking junior employees.

They only recruit at the most elite colleges, and they want recruits to be attractive, energetic, articulate, socially smooth, and have had elite personal connections, jobs, and extracurriculars. They don’t that much care about your grades, what you’ve learned, or what you did in your jobs or extracurriculars, as long as they were prestigious.

I noticed several interesting patterns worth pondering. For example, employers have little patience with candidates who didn’t pick the most prestigious possible college or job, but were swayed by other considerations. Such as topics of interest, limited money, or the needs of a spouse or family. A “serious” person always picks max prestige. Always.

Yet for extracurriculars, you are not supposed to connect those to your career plans, as “nerds” do. You must instead do something with no practical value, but that is prestigious. Like varsity athletes in lacrosse or crew, sports that are too expensive for ordinary folks to pursue. Excess interest in ideas marks you as a “boring” “tool”.

An interesting criteria is that you must tell a mesmerizing story about your life, a story told almost entirely in terms of choices that you made to pursue your internal goals, without external constraints having much influence. And even though you have been chosen for your very consistent lifetime pursuit of prestige, that is very much not allowed to be one of your main goals. You were instead pursuing other goals, and prestige just happened as a side effect. Lucky you.

The author convincingly argues that this is not that much of a “meritocracy”, in that the features sought are much easier for elite parents to promote in their kids, and many of them are not actually that useful to society. But it does look like an equilibrium, in the sense that firms who picked differently would probably be punished.

It seems that while these firms do sell concrete consulting services to their customers, what they are mostly selling is a prestigious aura around that advice. So firms that hired less prestigious workers would likely be punished. Customers who paid as much for less prestigious advice would probably also be punished, via others being less willing to praise or follow that advice. And so on.

All of this seems to fit my experience in academia, where at the highest levels the focus is overwhelming on gaining the endorsement of prestigious schools, journals, jobs, funders, etc. Whether the work you do is useful to society or even accurate is someone else’s job; your job to gain prestige and so you only do those other things if your prestige incentives encourage them.

Some of these features that these firms look for probably count for prestige in most any society. Such as looks, energy, intelligence, connections, and social savvy. But in other ways the particular packages of features most sought here now are probably a local equilibrium; other societies have valued different packages.

So a crucial question is: to what extent is it possible to move our prestige equilibrium to a different and more useful one? Where say it might be prestigious to actually do something useful for the world. Seems a worthy topic of study.

Some book quotes to confirm my claims above: Continue reading "Prestige in US Today" »

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Rulesy Folks Push Paternalism

“The Tudor landowning justice of the peace (J.P.) was the greatest of of paternalists, rivaled only by the Tudor judges and privy councilors who who controlled the J.P.s. … They wanted to regulate the prices of bread, beer, and wool, the games one played, the amount one drank, the nature of one’s apprenticeship, and the clothes one wore. They arrested drunkards, fined those who did not attend church, and penalized the adulterous. …  a paternal state … only the 20th century has come to eclipse it” (more)

I spent most of the day Tuesday reading papers on paternalism, which was the topic of my job talk paper long ago, and one that I’ve thought a lot about over the years. Alas, almost all writings on the topic seek to argue for or against paternalism, rather than trying to explain it. Now if it were typically efficient, that would in fact be a reasonable explanation. And there are many papers that reasonably argue for the plausible efficiency of mild paternalistic “nudges”, weakly enforced.

But in actual fact we see a huge amount of quite strong paternalism, vigorously enforced. People are greatly discouraged from suicide, and prevented from selling themselves into slavery. Professional licensing limits who can do what, and sex laws limit who can do what with who. Censorship limits what you can read or see. Regulations limit the availability and uses of land, buildings, cars, planes, power plants, food, drugs, and much much more. To prevent “exploitation”, many prices are regulated, purchase is required of schools, doctors, and more. Finally, contract law greatly limited the kinds and levels of penalties that contracts can impose, and the kinds of contracts to which you can agree. And by far the most common rationale offered for all of this is that you are being protected from hurting yourself, not from hurting others. 

This is another one of those subjects where everyone thinks they know the answer, but they all know different answers, almost none of which actually hold up under scrutiny. The most commonly offered explanation is that regulators know more than those they regulate. But then why can’t regulators just tell what they know, such as via very visible certification? If the info for certification is underproduced, why not subsidize it. If it is too easy to forget to check certification, why not offer “would have banned“ stores, where customers must pass a test showing they understand it only sells stuff is otherwise have been banned by regulations. 

Of course it is plausible that some parties extract big selfish gains from these rules, and we do see many examples, such as professionals whose wages are increased via the supply cuts caused by professional licensing. But we need to explain why most everyone else goes along – most actual paternalism is in fact very popular among most people. So for that we’ll need benefits that are much more widely distributed. (In the usual “Bootleggers and Baptists” story, we need to explain the Baptists.) 

The closest I can find to an efficiency explanation is the idea that people make random but correlated mistakes, at which times they are too proud to listen to advice, and at other times they can’t accept that this might later happen to them. Temporary mistakes are easy to fix by requiring modest waiting periods, and temporary individual mistakes can be fixed by requiring groups of associates to choose something together. (Or equivalently, close associates who can veto individual choices.)

But the hypothesis here is that every once in a while a whole group of associates will all go kinda crazy, a “childish” kind of craziness which may last for quite a while. In this rare but correlated childish-crazy mode, this hypothesis says people tend to be especially unwilling to listen to advice, perhaps out of pride. Maybe they see themselves in a status contest with authorities, and are eager to show independence or defiance. Furthermore, people somehow just can’t accept that this problem might happen later to them, and so aren’t inclined to voluntarily choose to commit ahead of time to some more local paternalistic process which would protect them later.

That’s the best I can come up with, and yes this could in fact explain some paternalism. However, I just can’t see it as sufficient to explain the actual typical huge levels of paternalism that we see. So I must look elsewhere. A year ago, I favored this story: 

Thus another possible explanation for min-quality regulations is that, by officially declaring common lower class choices to be bad choices, regulators support upper class claims to be better people. And by forcing everyone to visibly accept this declaration via their not visibly defying the bans, everyone appears to support this claim that elite choices are better choices. … Why would so many non-elites support these policies as voters? Plausibly because they aspire to elite status, and by publicly displaying their agreement with elite attitudes, they affirm that they are themselves good candidates for higher status. (More)

Prestige is a key human process, and a key element is that we all seek to copy the behavior of the prestigious, and to associate with them. So a strong eagerness to push everyone to do what elites do, and what they say that one aught to do, seems completely to be expected. 

Even so, this explanation has still seemed somewhat insufficient to me. There is so so much paternalism! So in this post, let me add one more factor that I think complements the above stories, but also adds substantially to them. 

The key idea is that there are many “rulesy” people in the world. (Think of Sheldon from Big Bang Theory and Dwight from The Office.) These people specialize in learning of and even creating rules, so that they can then find and reveal violations of these rules around them. This allows them to beat on their rivals, and also to raise their own status. It obviously raises their dominance via the power they wield, but they prefer to be instead seen as prestigious, enforcing rules whose purpose is more clearly altruistic. And what could be more altruistic than keeping people from hurting themselves? 

So many people who are especially good at noticing and applying rules, good at finding potential violations, good at framing situations as rule violations, and willing to at least gossip about violators, are eager for a supply of apparently-paternalism-motived rules they can enforce. So they take suggestions by elites regarding what is good behavior and work to turn them into rules they can enforce. They push to turn norms into laws, and to make norms out of the weak behavior patterns of elites, or from their patterns of praise and criticism. 

Now think of the incentives of observers. A declares that B has violated a rule, and audience C has a choice to support A or B in this situation. The rule might be obsolete, A may be stretching its meaning to fit this case, or declaring a new rule from related prior cases. Even so, if B is associated with C, it may seem like corruption for C to support B. If the rule is justified as protecting some folks, then by supporting B you seem to not care about those protected folks. And maybe folks will suspect C of wanting to violate this rule themselves, or of already having violated it. Most of these considerations seem to lean toward supporting A in their case against B.

For example, maybe at first some elites sometimes wear hats. Then they and others start to praise hat-wearers. Then more folks start to wear hats, and get proud of how they are good hat people. Good candidates for promotion to elite they are. Then hat fans start to insinuate that people who don’t wear hats are not the best sort of people in various ways, and are only hurting themselves. They say that word needs to get out about the advantages of hats. And those irresponsible people arguing against hats really need to be dealt with – everyone should be told that their arguments mostly don’t meet the highest possible standards of scientific rigor. (Though neither do most pro-hat arguments.)

It becomes a matter of pride to teach your children to wear hats. And to have hats taught in school. And to include the lack of hats in lists of problems that problem people have. Hat fans start to push the orgs of which they are part to promote hats, sometimes even requiring hats at org functions. Finally it is suggested that wouldn’t it be simpler and more efficient to just have the government require hats. Then foreigners who visit us won’t think we are such backward non-hat people. And its really for their own good, as we all know.

At every step along this path, people can gain by pushing for stricter and stronger hat norms and rules. They are good people, pushing a good thing, which just happens to let them dump harder on rivals. Which is plausibly why we tend to end up with just too many overly restrictive rules. Rules rise with the ratchet of crises that can be blamed on problems said to be fixed by adding new rules. And between the crises, we rarely take away or weaken our rules. 

This sort of tendency to create excess rules can help to explain why many organizations seems to be afflicted by excess “legalism”, including government.

And I’m not sure exactly how, but I suspect that this process is mutually supportive of processes that push for a lot of discretion in rule enforcement: 

To the extent that there are rules, there seems to be a preference for authorizing some people to have discretion to make arbitrary choices, regarding which they are not held strongly to account. … Most people mainly favor discretion … to project to associates an image of being the sort of person who is confidently supports the elites who have discretion, and who expects in general to benefit from their discretion. … The sort of people who are eager to have a fair neutral objective decision-making process tend to be losers who don’t expect to be able to work the informal system of favors well. (More)

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Our Hidden Motive To Submit

Dominance and submission are deeply embedded in animal and primate psychology, yet foragers had a strong norm against both, though they embraced the somewhat similar concept prestige. And we humans today retain this forager norm. So dominance and submission are obvious hidden motives to expect in human behavior, often under the cover of prestige. Over the years, I’ve noticed many behaviors that may be best explained by such hidden motives:

Why are we so terrified of, and bad at, public speaking? … I suspect that for our distant ancestors, it was dangerous to do well on an important mental task in front of a large group, if your performance could be clearly compared to other members. Doing so in a calm confident manner was likely considered a bid for high status. If you did not have the abilities and allies to make good on that bid, you might get squashed by others resisting your bid. So it was often more important to show a submissive low-status attitude than to do well on such things. (More)

A key function of managers may be to make firms seem more prestigious, not only to customers and investors, but also to employees. Employees are generally wary of submitting to the dominance of bosses, as such submission violates an ancient forager norm. But as admiring and following prestigious people is okay, prestigious bosses can induce more cooperative employees. (More)

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. … Start with prestigious teachers, like the researchers who also teach at leading universities. … Have teachers continually give students complex assignments with new ambiguous instructions. …. Have lots of students per teacher, to lower costs, to create excuses for having students arrive and turn in assignments on time, and 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 and decide which classes and jobs to take later. And continue the whole process well into adulthood, so that these habits become deeply ingrained. When students finally switch from school to work, most will find work to be similar enough to transition smoothly. (More)

In addition, many people better informed than I about such things say that dominance and submission are big but usually-denied parts of sexual attraction.

The most obvious place where we say we disapprove of domination and submission is in politics. Everyone has heard that in the bad old days everyone should have been ashamed to have kings, but in the good todays we have democracy, where we the public now runs the show. Now of course in those old day it was other nations who were said to have tyrants, while our king was good to us, and far from a tyrant. Even today most people say other politicians are bad people, but theirs are okay. And in our world today a great many areas of life are basically run by people who are very secure, hard to displace, and thus not very accountable.

Even after knowing all of the above, I was surprised by the following poll results on preferences for kings versus democracy:

In addition, I asked what should be the default choice when we don’t know what to do. Here are the results, sorted by % favor ruler:

When you ask in general (eg re default), people pick voting three times as often as rulers, but if you ask about specific areas, there is apparently nearly as much support for rulers as for democracy! We see this in the average response percentages (22% vs. 26%) , as well as in the number of choices where a plurality favors each approach (3 vs. 4). And this is in poll responses; I’ll bet that in actual practice people are even more accepting of rulers.

Note that, as indicated by this poll, respondents are most willing to accept rulers on technical topics. Perhaps because my followers tend to be technical, and imagine that they’d be a ruler. Maybe this suggests we are more willing to accept political rulers from technical backgrounds, such as is common in China.

We pretend to disapprove of dominance, but we lie.

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Honest Putdowns

What do people want? Surely one thing they want is to not be insulted or put down by others. Yet if you ask people what personal features they most aspire to improve, the features they pick have no correlation with the features used in the putdowns around them! Yet putdown features have strong correlations with the features used in praise, and with the features people say they care most what others think of them. In this post, I’ll describe and interpret these new results, concluding that putdowns are our best guide to what really counts for status; aspirations are deluded, and not to be trusted.

So let’s start. Recently on Twitter I asked people for the damning descriptors that most lower folks’ status in their world. I then collect 32 such putdowns, identified the key human feature to which each referred, and then taxed the patience of my Twitter followers by posting five sets of 24 polls, with each poll comparing four of these 32 features. (Each feature appears in exactly 3 polls in each set.)

Each poll set corresponds to a different choice criteria. For the first criteria, Putdowns, I asked which feature was most often used for putdowns in their world. The next three criteria are: Praise asks which feature is most used for praise or admiration, Aspirations asks which you most aspire to improve in yourself, and ImageSeek asks for which you care most what others think of you. The last criteria TryLookBad asks for which feature (e.g., fart rate) it is most plausibly has an issue of it looking bad to try hard.

For each criteria, I fit (via min squared error) poll % responses to a simple model wherein some % of responses are random, and the rest are in proportion to the relative (positive) “priority” of each feature. The following table shows, for each criteria, the average number of responses per poll (Ave Poll N), the average root mean square error (RMSE in %) of its model in estimating poll % responses, and correlations between its prioritizes and priorities of other criteria. The correlations in red have t-stats of over 4.

Note that TryBadLook seems to have just failed as a poll question, with large errors and weak correlations; many just misunderstood it. Praise and ImageSeek are quite strongly correlated with each other and are similarly correlated with Putdowns, though only Praise is weakly correlated (t-stat 1.37) with Aspirations.

The most striking result, shown in bold, is that priorities for Putdowns and Aspirations are uncorrelated! You might think that since people don’t like to be insulted, they’d aspire more to look better on vulnerable features. But no. To help explore this puzzle, here are the best fit relative priorities for all 32 features and five questions, sorted by the difference between Aspirations and Putdowns priorities. (The % priorities for each criteria add to 100%.)

The pro-Aspiration top of the list has features like wealth, creative, brave, and articulate, that impress observers even if observers don’t value them as much. And it has features like productive and effort, which we’d like to convince others are a high priority for us. I do not at all believe that these two features are actually most people’s highest priority for improvement.

At the pro-Putdowns bottom of the list are features like menacing, biased, sanity, pleasant, and honest, which people see as important in others but not worth of improving in themselves. Plausibly, people convince others that they are not the type of folks at risk of ranking poorly on such features, so there is little need to work at them. Or, admitting that they are working on them would admit they have problems with them. It seems that people are also reluctant to admit they might have a problem with insufficient smarts.

In the middle of the list are features, like breadth, curious, professional, and generous, that most people pretend to care more about than they actually do. They are neither damning enough to be worth more putdowns, nor valued enough to be worth more aspiration. Note that features like liked and attractive plausibly matter less in putdowns because audiences for putdowns don’t like to admit that they care about them as much as they do. Not also that in another poll, respondents said 3-to-1 that criticism influences reputations more than does praise, with a majority saying it does so far more.

As these interpretations of the PutdownsAspirations differences mostly blame Aspirations for being less than honest, I conclude that the priorities of Putdowns are a more accurate measure of the true determinants of status than are the other measures above. Praise and ImageSeek are closer than Aspirations, but they are also polluted, Praise by the tendency to flatter people on the features on they want to be praised, and ImageSeek by our delusions regarding what failures are plausible for us.

Putdowns show what features really determine status, and aspirations can’t be trusted, as we care a lot more about status than we care to admit.

Yes of course it would be nice to check that these results hold for larger poll pools, and to see how they might vary with different subcultures.

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Dreamtime Social Games

Ten years ago, I posted one of my most popular essays: “This is the Dreamtime.” In it, I argued that, because we are rich,

Our descendants will remember our era as the one where the human capacity to sincerely believe crazy non-adaptive things, and act on those beliefs, was dialed to the max.

Today I want to talk about dreamtime social games.

For at least a million years, our ancestors wandered the Earth in small bands of 20-50 people. These groups were so big that they ran out of food if they stayed in one place, which is why they wandered. But such groups were big and smart enough to spread individual risks well, and to be relative safe from predators.

So in good times at least, the main environment that mattered to our forager ancestors was each other. That is, they succeeded or failed mostly based on winning social games. Those who achieved higher status in their group gained more food, protection, lovers, and kids. And so, while foragers pretended that they were all equal, they actually spent much of their time and energy trying to win such status games. They tried to look impressive, to join respected alliances, to undermine rival alliances, and so on. Usually in the context of grand impractical leisure and play.

As I described recently, status is usually based on a wide range of clues regarding one’s impressiveness, and the relative weight on these clues does vary across cultures. But there are many generic clues that tend to be important in most all cultures, including strength, courage, intelligence, wit, art, loyalty, social support etc.

When an ability was important for survival in a local environment, cultural selection tended to encourage societies to put more weight on that ability in local status ratings, especially when their society felt under threat. So given famine, hunters gain status, given war warriors gain status, and when searching for a new home explorers gain status.

But when the local environment seemed less threatening, humans have tended to revert back to a more standard human social game, focused on less clearly useful abilities. And the more secure a society, and the longer it has felt secure, the more strongly it reverts. So across history the social worlds of comfortable elites have been remarkably similar. In the social worlds such as Versailles, Tales of Genji, or Google today, we see less emphasis on abilities that help win in larger harsher world, or that protect this smaller world from larger worlds, and more emphasis on complex internal politics based on beauty, wit, abstract ideas, artistic tastes, political factions, and who likes who.

That is, as people feel safer, local status metrics and social institutions drift toward emphasizing likability over effectiveness, popularity and impressiveness over useful accomplishment, and art and design over engineering. And as our world has been getting richer and safer for many centuries now, our culture has long been moving toward emphasizing such forager values and attitudes. (Though crises like wars often push us back temporarily.)

“Liberals” tend to have moved further on this path than “conservatives”, as indicated by typical jobs:

jobs that lean conservative … [are] where there are rare big bad things that can go wrong, and you want workers who can help keep them from happening. … Conservatives are more focused on fear of bad things, and protecting against them. … Jobs that lean liberal… [have] small chances that a worker will cause a rare huge success … [or] people who talk well.

Also, “conservative” attitudes toward marriage have focused on raising kids and on a division of labor in production, while “liberal” attitudes have focused on sex, romance, and sharing leisure activities.

Rather than acknowledging that our status priorities change as we feel safer, humans often give lip service to valuing useful outcomes, while actually more valuing the usual social game criteria. So we pretend to go to school to learn useful class material, but we actually gain prestige while learning little that is useful. We pretend that we pick lawyers who win cases, yet don’t bother to publish track records and mainly pick lawyers based on institutional prestige. We pretend we pick doctors to improve health, but also don’t publish track records and mainly pick via institutional prestige, and don’t notice that there’s little correlation between health and medicine. We pretend to invest in hedge funds to gain higher returns, but really gain status via association with impressive fund managers, and pay via lower average returns.

I recently realized that, alas, my desire to move our institutions more toward “paying for results” is at odds with this strong social trend. Our institutions could be much more effective at getting us the things we say we want out of them, but we seem mostly content to let them be run by the usual social status games. We put high status people in change and give them a lot of discretion, as long as they give lip service to our usual practical goals. It feels to most people like a loss in collective status if they let their institutions actually focus too much on results.

A focus on results would probably result in the rise to power of less impressive looking people who manage to get more useful things done. That is what we’ve seen when firms have adopted prediction markets. At first firms hope that such markets may help them identify the best informed employees. But are are disappointed to learn that winners tend not to look socially impressive, but are more nerdy difficult inarticulate contrarians. Not the sort they actually want to promote.

Paying more for results would feel to most people like having to invite less suave and lower class engineers or apartment sups to your swanky parties because they are useful as associates. Or having to switch from dating hip hunky Tinder dudes to reliable practical guys with steady jobs. In status terms, that all feels less like admiring prestige and more like submitting to domination, which is a forager no-no. Paying for results is the sort of thing that poor practical people have to do, not rich prestigious folks like you.

Of course our society is full of social situations where practical people get enough rewards to keep them doing practical things. So that the world actually works. People sometimes try to kill such things, but then they suffer badly and learn to stop. But most folks who express interest in social reforms seem to care more about projecting their grand hopes and ideals, relative to making stuff work better. Strong emotional support for efficiency-driven reform must come from those who have deeply felt the sting of inefficiency. Perhaps regarding crime?

Ordinary human intuitions work well for playing the usual social status games. You can just rely on standard intuitions re who you like and are impressed by, and who you should say what to. In contrast, figuring out how to actually and effectively pay for results is far more complex, and depends more on the details of your world. So good solutions there are unlikely to be well described by simple slogans, and are not optimized for showing off one’s good values. Which, alas, seems another big obstacle to creating better institutions.

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Status Apps Are Coming

A person’s social status is a consensus of those nearby on that person’s relative social value and power. Which factors count how much in this status vary across societies and subcultures. (They probably vary more at high status levels.) Most people spend a lot of effort in private thought and in conversations trying to infer the status of they and their associates, and trying to raise the status of their allies and to lower that of their rivals.

Typically a great many considerations go into estimating status. Such as the status of your ancestors and current associates, and your job, income, residence, health, beauty, charisma, intelligence, strength, gender, race, and age. Most anything that is impressive or admirable helps, such as achievements in sports and the arts, looking sharp, and seeming knowledgeable. Most anything that is disliked or disapproved hurts, such as often (but not always) applies for violence, rudeness, unreliability, and filth.

Today we generate shared status estimates via expensive gossip and non-verbal communication, but someday (in 20 years?) tech may help us more in this task. Tech will be able to see many related clues like who talks to who with what tone of voice, who looks how at who, who invites who to what social events, who lives where and has what jobs, etc. Given some detailed surveys on who says who has what status, we may build accurate statistical models that predict from all that tech-accessible data who would say who has what status in what contexts.

Or new social practices might create more directly relevant data. Imagine a future app where you can browse people to see numerical current estimates of their status (perhaps relative to a subculture).  You can click up or down on any estimate to indicate that you consider it too low or too high. Some perhaps-complex mechanism then takes prior estimates, background tech data, and these up/down edits to generate changes in these status estimates, and also changes in estimates of edit source reliability. All else equal, people who contribute more reliable/informative status edits are probably estimated to have higher status.

I don’t know how exactly such an algorithm could or should work. But I’m confident that there are many variations that could work well enough to attract much participation and use. Many people would be tempted to use these status estimates similarly to how they now use the status estimates that they generate via gossip and subtle social clues. They might even use them in even more places than they use status today, if these new estimates were considered more reliable and verifiable.

I’m also confident that governments, firms, and other organizations would be eager to influence these systems, as they’d see some variations as being more favorable to their interests. Yes, that creates a risk that they may push for bad variations, though don’t forget that our informal systems today also have many flaws. For example, many people use false rumors and other underhanded status tricks to hurt rivals and help allies, tricks that may be harder to get away with in a more transparent system.

Yes, this may look like a dystopia in many ways. But it is probably coming whether you like it or not, and this change may offer great opportunities to improve our status systems. For example, today we have many anti-discrimination policies that seem to be crude and awkward attempts to fix perceived problems with our current status systems. A more fine-grained, data-driven, and transparent status system might allow more effective and better targeted fixes. So it seems worth thinking now a bit more about how such systems could and should work, before some big government or tech firm imposes a system that quickly gets entrenched and hard to change.

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Quality Regs Say ‘High Is Good’

95% think doctors should be licensed. … 96% oppose legalizing crystal meth. (more)

One of the main ways that our world is not libertarian is that it is full of government rules requiring minimum quality levels for many kinds of products and services. We see this for food, drugs, building codes, auto/plane rules, allowed investments, censorship, professional licensing, school accreditation, sports equipment, and much more. Once you look for them, you find such rules everywhere. So a key basic puzzle is: why do we have so many min quality rules?

Here are some clues to keep in mind:

  1. Though these rules limit consumer choices, they have strong voter support.
  2. Such rules were far less common in the ancient world.
  3. Today these rules are extremely widespread, across many areas of life and types of societies and governments.
  4. These rules are implemented via many channels: liability law, regulatory agencies, and legislation.
  5. Poor nations tend to have lower standards, like rich nations did when they were poor, yet we see few exceptions for poor people or neighborhoods.
  6. Product bans are far more common than are official quality evaluations.
  7. Many such rules are retained even when they seem quite ineffective, such as laws against vaping (little health harm), recreational drugs, and prostitution.
  8. We don’t make exceptions for customers who can show that they clearly understand that the product is considered low quality.

Continue reading "Quality Regs Say ‘High Is Good’" »

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Paternalism Is About Status

… children, whom he finds delightful and remarkably self-sufficient from the age of 4. He chalks this up to the fact that they are constantly lied to, can go anywhere and in their first years of life are given pretty much anything they please. If the baby wants the butcher knife, the baby gets the butcher knife. This novel approach may not sound like appropriate parenting, but Kulick observes that the children acquire their self-sufficiency by learning to seek out their own answers and by carefully navigating their surroundings at an early age. … the only villagers whom he’s ever seen beat their children are the ones who left to attend Catholic school. (more)

Bofi forager parenting is quite permissive and indulgent by Western standards. Children spend more time in close physical contact with parents, and are rarely directed or punished by parents. Children are allowed to play with knives, machete, and campfires without the warnings or interventions of parents; this permissive patently style has been described among other forager groups as well. (more)

Much of the literature on paternalism (including my paper) focuses on justifying it: how much can a person A be helped by allowing a person B to prohibit or require particular actions in particular situations? Such as parents today often try to do with their children. Most of this literature focuses on various deviations from simple rational agent models, but my paper shows that this is not necessary; B can help A even when both are fully rational. All it takes is for B to sometimes know things that A does not.

However, this focus on justification distracts from efforts to explain the actual variation in paternalism that we see around us. Sometimes third parties endorse and support the ability of B to prohibit or require actions by A, and sometimes third parties oppose and discourage such actions. How can we best explain which happens where and when?

First let me set aside situations where A authorizes B to, at some future date, limit or require actions by A. People usually justify this in terms of self-control, i.e., where A today disagrees with future A’s preferences. To me this isn’t real paternalism, which I see as more essentially about the extra info that B may hold.

Okay, let’s start with a quick survey of some of the main observed correlates of paternalism. Continue reading "Paternalism Is About Status" »

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