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Recently, I have been thinking about social status. In this post I want to propose a framework about how to think about status in peer groups and cultures. The epistemic status of the framework is loose, but it is a start.
Status is intuitively understood by almost anyone. Most people can tell which people in their surroundings have the highest status. This is interesting for many reasons since it indicates that we humans are extremely sensitive to social status, almost unconsciously. What is social status then? ‘Status is the level of social value a person is considered to hold.’ (Wikipedia) This definition highlights the kind of social consensus dimension of social status. People around you determine your social status by comparing you relative to others and themselves.
Since we are so intuitively aware of social status, it is no wonder that it is a fundamental source of motivation for behavior in humans. This is well described in The Elephant in the Brain by Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler. The main argument of the book is that humans deceive themselves about their motivations for their actions. Why?
‘We deceive ourselves, the better to deceive others.’ In other words, to make ourselves look good in front of our peers we hide our real motivations and to make it believable we must hide it from ourselves as well.
Hanson and Simler argue that one of the most common hidden motivations to our actions is social status. We are obsessed with status and it is a good that is in limited supply and having it can lead to more sex and other favorable exchanges. They give some examples of behaviors that seem to be governed by considerations of status. One such example is charitable giving. We think that we give to charity because we care about the lives of others, but data indicates that this is not the entire reason. If we only cared about saving lives or reducing suffering, then the charities that are most effective would get more donations. (For effective charities, see GiveWell) Instead, it is the public and large charities that get the most donations. Most of the donations made are also made publicly in some way, which makes it possible to show how great of a person you are. We want to be seen as caring and altruistic, maybe even more than we care about the lives of others.
I can give a similar example from my own life. In retrospect, I have realized that the primary reason that I chose to study at SSE was because I wanted the status. SSE is a prestigious school that is hard to get accepted to, and I was seduced by that. Still, that is not what I told friends and family. To them I said that I wanted to try something new, that I was tired of mathematics, physics, and chemistry after three years in high school. (I have to add that I do not regret the decision, despite me figuring out my main motive.)
This is the first part of the loose framework. Status guides many of our decisions and behaviors. The Elephant in the Brain is an excellent book that highlights this and many other important things, I repeatedly find myself thinking about the book months after I have finished it.
For the second part of the framework, we need to investigate how humans gauge status. How do we know the status of ourselves and others?
Robin Hanson has an idea here regarding human status detection. His hypothesis is that the basic detection system is based on absolute wealth/income, i.e we gauge relative status by looking at absolute wealth/income. He argues that we evolved to detect status this way and that it worked relatively fine in ancient times as wealth/income was stable over a lifetime. Hanson argues that this have made us humans ‘status-drunk’ in that we, after the industrial revolution, have become so wealthy that all of us wildly overestimate our relative status.
This hypothesis predicts that, as we behave as higher status, we should live longer, have less conflicts and wars, spend more on additional status markers, and be more political. I am not sure of the strength of this hypothesis, especially in the sense that it can explain the increase in life expectancy and the decline in wars and armed conflicts. I have not seen any strong evidence in favor of the hypothesis. Still, the basic idea seems right. We are very sensitive to wealth/income when we gauge the status of others. I think of it as the baseline judgment, the first thing we acknowledge, then as we deepen the relationship with the person we use other markers to judge the status.
The method of gauging social status by income/wealth seems to work at first contact or between groups. But in the group or in deeper relationships we seem to have always used other markers of status. I think this picture is confirmed in the book The Old Way by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas. In the book, she describes the lives of an old tribe in the inland of Africa. The tribe lived as hunter-gatherers and their life probably resembled the lives humans lived before becoming farmers.
In the tribe, status is given to those of old age who can share important knowledge to the younger members of the tribe. Status is also given to hunters, who are very important in bringing food to the tribe. Among tribes however, gift-giving is an important practice and the tribes that are best at giving gifts are given more status. This seems to confirm the picture that wealth/income is important between distant groups while other markers are important in closer relationships.
Another example of both how important status, or the lack of it, is to our well-being and how important income/wealth is for status are the recent trends of deaths of despair among white Americans without a college degree. Deaths of Despair by Angus Deaton and Anne Case documents these trends in deaths from suicide, drugs, and alcohol and they also try to give some possible explanations. Among these explanations are the healthcare system in the US, the stagnant wages, and the use of strong opioids as painkillers. While these are important, especially opioids, I think the authors overlook the loss of status this demographic group has had. They have had stagnant wages and they barely have any wealth in assets. Similarly, in the American culture education is highly valued and not having one means less status. I think the despair in this demography is deeply related to status, it feels terrible to not be appreciated by society.
Other markers of status include education, hobbies, and cultural tastes. A recent paper has examined the status in cultural tastes. They find that high status people are inclusive when it comes to genres in culture and that they are exclusive when it comes to objects in the genre. They also find that these cultural tastes are learned in different stages of life. Inclusivity is learned from the family and exclusivity is learned in formal schooling. I think this indicates that we learn to acquire status in a broad sense early on in our life and later in life we learn the specific markers of status in our cultures and peer groups.
The third, and last, part of the framework is the difference in status markers in different cultures. Different cultures grade different markers of status more or less highly. Some describe American culture as one of the most allowing in the world, people are more allowed to do what they feel like in America. Similarly, Swedish culture is often described as a consensus culture, where consensus is valued highly. In the US entrepreneurship and innovation has been status giving, while in Sweden the ability to compromise and come to agreement is status inducing. (Differences have become less pronounced as of lately, due to globalization and the internet.)
Combining these three parts gives us a framework for thinking about status—in cultures, peer groups, and relationships. Humans are motivated by status concerns, often without admitting to themselves that status governs behavior. Additionally, humans are very sensitive to markers of status and we unconsciously gather data about the status of others at all times. Everything can serve as a status marker, but the most basic one is wealth/income which translates into the ability to consume. Others include education, expertise, habits, hobbies, and cultural tastes. And finally, status markers differ among cultures, groups, and relationships.
This framework makes it possible to think about behaviors and phenomena and the possible motivations behind them. Such as understanding the market for art, charitable giving, and trends in educational choices. It also allows us to think about the markers of status in our environment. What gives someone status in my own peer group? Would a certain behavior make me look worse in one group while making me look better in another? Similarly, it can help us explain differences among countries. I think one of the most important factors that make the US the most innovative country in the world is the fact that being ‘weird’ by indulging in your niche interest gets you status.
I want to leave you with a couple of useful questions that can help you to apply this framework to the world.
What is valued in this context? Or, what markers of status are important in this context?
Given these markers of status, what behaviors would someone who would want status exhibit?
What consequences do these behaviors have?
The usefulness of the framework can be shown by looking at charitable giving again. In most cultures and groups, altruism and giving is valued highly. (Which makes sense from an evolutionary perspective—having altruistic people in your group increases the chance of survival.) This means that giving gifts or making donations become markers of status in this context. (We can ignore the income-effect on status that comes from showing that you can afford to forego parts of your income. Although this is also important.) Given this, we can predict that people will expend money and time to make sure that their giving will be acknowledged. Again, this is consistent with the data. Most donations are made publicly and we are more prone to give when other people are watching.
Many behaviors are possible to get a firmer grasp of by thinking about social status aspects. I also think one can understand oneself better by trying to recognize when you try to get status and why.