[This is an essay that I’ve had bopping around in my head for a long time. I’m not sure if this says anything usefully new-but it might click with some folks. If you haven’t read Social Status: Down the Rabbit Hole on Kevin Simler’s excellent blog, Melting Asphalt read that first. I think this is pretty bad and needs to be rewritten and maybe expanded substantially, but this blog is called “musings and rough drafts.”]
In this post, I’m going to outline how I think about status. In particular, I want to give a mechanistic account of how status necessarily arises, given some set of axioms, in much the same way one can show that evolution by natural selection must necessarily occur given the axioms of 1) inheritance of traits 2) variance in reproductive success based on variance in traits and 3) mutation.
(I am not claiming any particular skill at navigating status relationships, any more than a student of sports-biology is necessarily a skilled basketball player.)
By “status” I mean prestige-status.
Axiom 1: People have goals.
That is, for any given human, there are some things that they want. This can include just about anything. You might want more money, more sex, a ninja-turtles lunchbox, a new car, to have interesting conversations, to become an expert tennis player, to move to New York etc.
Axiom 2: There are people who control resources relevant to other people achieving their goals.
The kinds of resources are as varied as the goals one can have.
Thinking about status dynamics and the like, people often focus on the particularly convergent resources, like money. But resources that are only relevant to a specific goal are just as much a part of the dynamics I’m about to describe.
Knowing a bunch about late 16th century Swedish architecture is controlling a goal relevant-resource, if someone has the goal of learning more about 16th century Swedish architecture.
Just being a fun person to spend time with (due to being particularly attractive, or funny, or interesting to talk to, or whatever) is a resource relevant to other people’s goals.
Axiom 3: People are more willing to help (offer favors to) a person who can help them achieve their goals.
Simply stated, you’re apt to offer to help a person with their goals if it seems like they can help you with yours, because you hope they’ll reciprocate. You’re willing to make a trade with, or ally with such people, because it seems likely to be beneficial to you. At minimum, you don’t want to get on their bad side.
(Notably, there are two factors that go into one’s assessment of another person’s usefulness: if they control a resource relevant to one of your goals, and if you expect them to reciprocate.
This produces a dynamic where by A’s willingness to ally with B is determined by something like the product of
- A’s assessment of B’s power (as relevant to A’s goals), and
- A’s assessment of B’s probability of helping (which might translate into integrity, niceness, etc.)
If a person is a jerk, they need to be very powerful-relative-to-your-goals to make allying with them worthwhile.)
All of this seems good so far, but notice that we have up to this point only described individual pair-wise transactions and pair-wise relationships. People speak about “status” as a attribute that someone can possess or lack. How does the dynamic of a person being “high status” arise from the flux of individual transactions?
Lemma 1: One of the resources that a person can control is other people’s willingness to offer them favors
With this lemma, the system folds in on itself, and the individual transactions cohere into a mostly-stable status hierarchy.
Given lemma 1, a person doesn’t need to personally control resources relevant to your goals, they just need to be in a position such that someone who is relevant to your goals will privilege them.
As an example, suppose that you’re introduced to someone who is very well respected in your local social group: Wendy. Your assessment might be that Wendy, directly, doesn’t have anything that you need. But because Wendy is well-respected by others in your social group, they are likely to offer favors to her. Therefore, it’s useful for Wendy to like you, because then they are more apt to call on other people’s favors on your behalf.
(All the usual caveats about has this is subconscious, and humans are adaption-executors and don’t do explicit, verbal assessments of how useful a person will be to them, but rely on emotional heuristics that approximate explicit assessment.)
This causes the mess of status transactions to reinforce and stabilize into a mostly-static hierarchy. The mass of individual A-privileges-B-on-the-basis-of-A’s-goals flattens out, into each person having a single “score” which determines to what degree each other person privileges them.
(It’s a little more complicated than that because people who have access to their own resources have less need of help from other. So a person’s effective status (the status-level at which you treat them is closer to their status minus your status. But this is complicated again because people are motivated not to be dicks (that’s bad for business), and respecting other people’s status is important to not being a dick.)