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July 23, 2010

Comments

The Silent Sceptic

Yes, but in your analysis you've assumed that status implies heirarchy, without justification. A semantic leap with which I will quibble.

Andrew

But, as you sat in your sixth-form common room, didn't you try to achieve status within the group by being the funniest, the coolest, the most cynical? By being the one all the girls liked?

And don't you still want to be the most erudite, wittiest, thoughtful econ-blogger around? If you didn't have the status that you do (as a very erudite, witty, thoughtful econ-blogger), if you weren't quite so far up the hierarchy and only getting a few paltry hits a day, would you still be doing this?

You may not fall for the explicit rankings such as grades or Dale's top 10000, but I took Tim's message to be more that we all have implicit goals, hierarchies and statuses that we measure against, and it is that which is difficult to remove from human, and indeed a lot of other, nature. Didn't this kind of thing used to be called 'keeping up with the joneses'? maybe in this sphere it is keeping up with the pollys or wolfs.

Neil

Yes Chris, your decision to become a blogger and publish your opinions for all and sundry to read and comment on certainly demonstrates that you are in no way motivated by a desire for status.

I further salute you, sir, for eschewing the opportunity to demonstrate your clear moral superiority over the likes of Worstall by NOT writing a piece telling everyone that you abhor hierarchies and would *never* be motivated by relative status.

Luis Enrique

The idea of status has some broader meanings. I am sure Robin Hanson would still diagnose status seeking behaviour in you, he sees it everywhere:

http://www.overcomingbias.com/tag/status

Lots of people seek status of a sort by signaling "I'm above all this status seeking rubbish".

I think your views on anyone in any position of power or authority are quite mental, frankly. There are plenty of lovely people in positions of power. And plenty of people move up hierarchies by hard work and being good at their jobs. Rather than look at your upbringing, I'd blame you not having worked in jobs where team work and competence in managers really matter. Where people can move into management having demonstrated abilities in planning, co-ordination motivation, conflict resolution etc. I'll make recourse to anecdotes. My girlfriend works in film, where good directors & producers make a world of difference to the lives of the crew, and some individuals both have power and thoroughly deserve it, and are much appreciated by the crew. Others not - I'm not claiming cream always rises, just that it does much more frequently than you credit. Why do you think it's remotely defensible to think of these individuals (the good ones) as cunts? It's almost as if you are ... trying to signal your status as a rebellious radical.

NB: if somebody is, say, violently assaulting somebody else because of their 'issues with authority', I think regarding that as a problem, as opposed to an expression of legitimate beliefs, is sensible.

chris

@ Andrew - I don't remember what motivations I had in the 6th form. And it would, surely, be odd to base a theory of human nature upon how teenage boys behave.
And I certainly don't want to keep up with the Pollys or Wolfs. For one, I'd rather write something different each week.
@ Neil - I'm not at all sure what my motives for blogging are, so I'm surprised that you know them. One could equally surmise that blogging diminishes my status, as every day I reveal my limitations, whereas if I kept quiet, I wouldn't.
There's nothing in my piece to suggest that abhorring hierarchy is a more moral position than not; I've long thought morality over-rated. It would be a perfectly coherent position to argue that some hierarchies are desireable on moral grounds, but inefficient in other ways.

John H

we should distinguish between supporting hierarchies for functional reasons and supporting them because we inherently like them.

Interesting to think what other words could be dropped into that sentence in place of "hierarchies" (and with some pronoun adjustments as required!). "Markets" and "capitalism" are two that spring to mind.

Neil

@Chris: "And I certainly don't want to keep up with the Pollys or Wolfs. For one, I'd rather write something different each week."

Fantastic work undermining your own argument, that.

So, in the course of arguing that you are not motivated by status, you include a witticism intended to demonstrate how clever you are, and which implies that you are (or hope to be) superior to others in your field in terms of the variety of work you put out.

But you aren't interested in the status that comes with people thinking you're witty or eclectic, right?

Tim Worstall

"But if he’s saying that such inequalities are hard-wired into our nature"

Not quite. Certainly not that the current method of measuring status, of producing that hierarchy, are hard wired into us.

Certainly not that seeking status produces *one* hierarchy. One of the great joys of a plural society is that there are multiple hierarchies....a point that David Friedman has made much of in talking about world of warcraft and the like just recently.

But that as human beings we do both seek and recognise status within those hierarchies we care to recognise....yes, that is hard wired. It's an inescapable part of being a social animal as far as I can see.

That out of 6 billion humans there's an economics blogger/journalist who claims total indifference to status of course proves nothing: among 6 billion examples you can find just about any belief, no?

rjw

we need to distinguish status and hierarchy.

I think we all seek some form of status ... it's part of identity, how we define ourselves. But social status does not imply hierarchy, though the two do indeed often go together. We can be different but equal, in principle at least.

Where hierarchy exists, it very often does confer some social status, and indeed people often seek status and identity precisely through the means of finding a position in a hierarchy.
This might be attractive if one is good at climbing greasy poles, or if the social identification of status and hierarchy is strong.

Others prefer to stay outside such hierarchies - either because they do not have the patience to play the game, or because they think the game is not worth playing, or simply that the established hierarchy lacks legitimacy and they do not want to be co-opted. They prefer their status of outsider.

Hierarchies may be funcional or dysfunctional of course. It's all contingent.

Peter Risdon

This is an empirical matter. Anthropologist Donald E Brown composed a list of "human universals" - characteristics that "comprise those features of culture, society, language, behavior, and psyche for which there are no known exception." They include statuses and roles; statuses, ascribed and achieved; statuses distinguished from individuals and statuses on other than sex, age, or kinship bases.

As Steven Pinker pointed out in the Blank Slate, there's a reluctance to accept this in some parts of the political spectrum. Thus, for example, it can be made illegal to try to help your children, by getting them into a better school for example. This "modern denial of human nature" is exceptionally cruel.

http://www.temple.edu/tempress/titles/864_reg.html

http://condor.depaul.edu/~mfiddler/hyphen/humunivers.htm

chris

@ Peter - just because status inequalities are universal doesn't mean they arise from human nature. It might just be that the obstacles to otherthrowing inequality (and I'd add adaptive preferences to the obstacles) are universal.
@ Tim - I entirely accept your point that there are multiple hierarchies in western societies. And I accept that I might be freakish in not wanting to be chase status in any of them. But is this really so?
@ Neil - no, I'm not interested in what people think of me, as long as the pay cheques keep coming.

Peter Risdon

Blimey, Chris. Could there be a better illustration of Pinker's point than that answer?

Peter Risdon

I was a bit shocked, but to be more substantive: this isn't about status inequalities, it's about status preoccupation. The inequalities, if you want to put it like that, are the result, not the cause.

Status is important to every human society ever studied. Does that seriously not give you pause? This isn't about correlation versus causality. It's about universal human characteristics. A preoccupation with status is universal, from the Congo to the Amazon rain forest, to London.

But there's more. Studies of identical human twins separated at birth (for adoption) have shown that despite having had no contact at all with each other, hard-wired similarities can be as fine-grained as favourite recording artist or clothing preferences, favourite colours and favourite foods.

The modern denial of human nature is entirely unscientific. It ignores the data on this subject. There isn't even any opposing data.

Frankly, this is ridiculous.

Luis Enrique

mabye you need to reconsider your belief that you are not interested in status hierarchies after having just called people of a certain status cunts. That sure seems like placing yourself above them in a hierach.

libertarian

You've confused status with rank and in human motivation terms they are completely different.

Not only humans, but all primates, most mammals and some birds all have strong status drives

McGazz

There's seems to be huge jump being made here from the idea of seeking status as the funniest or cleverest person among a group of bloggers or a sixth-form common room and seeking status via acquisition of wealth and exercise of political power. Surely there's a massive difference? I don't know if you can justify the country's wealth inequality by pointing out that some bloggers are smart arses, or some kids like to appear a bit hard.

I also wonder if the people here who're so keen on hierachies would feel the same if they were at the bottom of one?

Gaw

A problem that's arising here is a difference over how to define hierarchy. Of its various meanings two are:

1. A body of persons having authority. [The 'cunts' according to Chris]

2.a. Categorization of a group of people according to ability or status.
b. The group so categorized.

As long as someone is ranking those kids in the sixth-form common room (i.e. who's the funniest) there's a hierarchy there (according to 2a). And we all know that there is someone there wondering who's the funniest, don't we? We've all been that person.

Fcablog

Well, I too don't care much for hierarchy. A cat can look at a king and all that. But I have absolutely no doubt that many others do. Even the briefest of observations of other people should make that clear. Just look at people jostling to get off a train, for instance.

Isn't this the whole basis of the Spirit Level and an implicit justification for basing redistributive benefits on median income rather than on what you need to merely survive?

chris

@ Peter - I'm not arguing for a blank slate view of human nature here. I'm just asking whether status-seeking is a significant part of it. As I say, it is possible (at least)that our "universal" preoccupation with status might be the result of inequality, not the cause.
Also, even if humans are preoccupied with status, it does not necessarily follow that this is a good thing.
For example, in the vast majority of human societies, you'll find silly religious beliefs and the oppression of women. Does it follow that these are desireable or inevitable?
If we must drag Pinker into this, take his view of violence. In primitive societies, huge proportions of men die violently. These days, many fewer do. Humans can, then, thrive by overcoming their base instincts. Mightn't this be true of status preoccupation?

Luis Enrique

Maybe what matters isn't so much status preoccupation per se, but what status is based upon. If you take a very broad definition of status, you can argue that I am preoccupied by status if I tell jokes to a group of people, to show what a funny guy I am and win a mate, or if I think I'm better than somebody else because I don't steal and lie. Or maybe thinking oneself better than those cunts who have climed the greasy pole. Defined this broadly, status preoccupation might be a human universal, and maybe Chris you are not immune to it, and arguably nor should you be. Defined this broadly, it means little more than ranking certain forms of behaviour (honesty better than dishonesty, amusing better than dull, being a worker better than grinding your heel in the face of the workers) and then mapping yourself somewhere on that ranking.

This still leaves room for there to be degrees and/or forms of status preoccupation - for example, deference and internalisation of social status in the old class system sense - that we'd be better off without. Perhaps preoccuptation with status within hierarhical economic organisations is one such. I imagine most of us would say that a chief executive who regards themselves as, in essence, no better than the humblest worker is preferable to one with a grotesque sense of entitlement and contempt for the lower orders.

Andrew

"@ Peter - I'm not arguing for a blank slate view of human nature here. I'm just asking whether status-seeking is a significant part of it. As I say, it is possible (at least)that our "universal" preoccupation with status might be the result of inequality, not the cause."

That makes no sense to me. In order for inequality to cause status preoccupation, we would need to be concerned with our unequal...status. Do you simply mean that if we were equal we might not be motivated to pull ahead from the crowd? Why would we care about being behind but not ahead? Why wouldn't we desire the most desirable things (and therefore compete for them)?

Any species that has mate selection influenced by social status is going to have a high preoccupation with status. No I don't' have empirical data to back that up. I would be no more motivated to go looking for that data than for data to support the notion that sexually reproductive species are in general interested in sex. Some hypotheses are so prima facie strong that you need a pretty good case against them simply to go looking.

"Also, even if humans are preoccupied with status, it does not necessarily follow that this is a good thing."

Who suggested it does?

Andrew

I have been uncharitable in interpreting your point just now - You presumably meant that people are concerned with the implications of low status in terms of resource availability, autonomy and so on, rather than concerned with social status per se.

I'm not clear that you can easily separate the corcern for the consequences of status from the concern for the abstract notion itself. People are concerned with how others behave towards them, their chances with the opposite sex, and their material quality of life. Whether they are, in addition, concerned with "status", which profoundly affects all these things, strikes me as a not particularly fruitful question.

Do people care about money? Or just what it can do for them?

About getting food? Or just...etc etc.

Do you mean that all we *really* care about is activation of our neurological reward systems?

Luis Enrique

As to whether status is useful, surely it depends on its domain. I imagine for early humans, it was very useful to know who's the best hunter. That implies the link between status and merit is important. Giving the worst hunter the status of best would not be useful. It might also be useful to award somebody the status of "somebody whose opinions are worth listening to", if indeed they are. Whether caring about one's own status is useful, it can be hard to distinguish between that and merely caring about being a good hunter, which surely is useful in the acquisition of skill etc.

Charles Wheeler

Perhaps it's just that a minority that believes in the efficacy of hierarchies rise to the top for that reason and the rest of us just let them get on with it. Perhaps plenty of talented people don't put themselves forward for promotion because they don't like ordering others about and don't seek the extra status - hence the more power-crazed, and those that value status, control things by default - then make the assumption that everyone else thinks as they do?

Or maybe we all accept a level of inequality is inevitable - even beneficial - but disagree over the degree of inequality that's acceptable?

In any case, it seems that all those 'social norms' inculcated in childhood - 'don't snatch', 'don't bully', 'share', 'don't be selfish', 'don't be greedy' go out the window if you want to 'succeed'. And those who stick to the rules get trampled on.

Paul Sagar

FWIW in the debate between Chris and Peter above it's definitely Chris who is right.

I may blog these exchange at length because it neatly illustrates some very common misunderstandings and category errors in associating concepts.

Luis Enrique

Charles,

I'm sure plenty of talented people do not put themselves forward for promotion, but isn't that usually because their talent does not consist of being good at ordering people about, or more generously, management, but that's what promotion would entail. Not every talented footballer is a good manager and not every good manager was a talented footballer.

Do you really believe that one's "probability of advancement" increases if you are a greedy selfish bully? I've only had 5 long-term jobs in my life, spannning 4 different industries, and my experience has been that having those characteristics would make one less likely to be promoted. The people I've seen being promoted, to senior engineer, editor, team leader, head of department etc. have usually been thoroughily decent people.

But perhaps there are non-linearities here - perhaps the higher up the ladder you climb, the more unpleasant personal traits come into play. I have certainly encountered some CEOs and company directors who were utter arseholes.

Paul Evans

For the most part, I completely buy this argument with one reservation: Having a perceived status can be very useful if you want to actually achieve some social goal - and there is something that goes beyond either flaky concepts like 'altruism' where we sometimes look at an arrangement and say to ourselves "this could be done *better*' - call it some variation on OCR if it suits you.

I find that - if you have a bit of reputation - people return your calls and will collaborate with your plans more readily.

Luis Enrique

For the most part, I completely buy this argument with one reservation: Having a perceived status can be very useful if you want to book a table at Nobu

Tim Worstall

"Perhaps it's just that a minority that believes in the efficacy of hierarchies rise to the top for that reason and the rest of us just let them get on with it."

That certainly explains why all us intelligent and sensible peole are here and all the power lusting lunatics are in Westminster....

Luis Enrique

why would intelligent and sensible people consent to live under a system where idiots and lunatics are handed power?

Bialik

Charles Wheeler - I think he's right in his first paragraph.

I didn't think this post was about equality so I won't be entering that debate.

It is a bit of a step to say that antisocial behaviour is motivated by a dislike of hierarchy. It could be a dislike of people.

Status seeking behaviour includes acquiring the paraphanalia that make one appear to be of higher status. No idea if it's innate but even the hierarchy-hating folk over-dress for work.

Perhaps the problem with humankind is that when we don't big ourselves up we are underestimated by our peers rather than correctly judged on status. Is that the result or the cause of our over-optimism that status-seeking will get us what we want.

Peter Risdon

Chris,

"I'm not arguing for a blank slate view of human nature here. I'm just asking whether status-seeking is a significant part of it."

It seems to be, from the evidence.

"As I say, it is possible (at least)that our "universal" preoccupation with status might be the result of inequality, not the cause."

What does that mean?

"Also, even if humans are preoccupied with status, it does not necessarily follow that this is a good thing.
For example, in the vast majority of human societies, you'll find silly religious beliefs and the oppression of women. Does it follow that these are desireable or inevitable?"

We're not talking about the vast majority of cultures. A claim to universality has to be founded in every known culture. Categorising status with the abuse of women is tendentious. Status serves some useful purposes, for example if I want a good lawyer I know a very high status one is likely to be above average. Status saves me having to research every lawyer in town.

"If we must drag Pinker into this, take his view of violence. In primitive societies, huge proportions of men die violently. These days, many fewer do. Humans can, then, thrive by overcoming their base instincts. Mightn't this be true of status preoccupation?"

A logical error here, Chris. You have to prove that "base instincts" lie behind higher male mortality before you can base an argument on the idea. High proportions of men die violently in advanced cultures too; is coal mining a "base instinct"?

But let's say you're right. Channelling male aggression into ritualised behaviour that doesn't actually kill many people, like sports. might be part of the reason why male mortality has fallen in some societies. That's channelling, not denying the existence of, a characteristic.

I'm objecting to this denial of human nature, not to suggestions that aspects of it are destructive or need to be channelled harmlessly.

Paul, my favourite: the un-argued assertion. I look forward to seeing the argument.

Andrew

'Lots of people seek status of a sort by signaling "I'm above all this status seeking rubbish"'.

By the same logic, some religious apologists insist that atheism/agnosticism is itself just another form of "faith".

Me, I think that if atheism is a religion, then not collecting stamps is a hobby. And the same goes for not seeking status being just another form of status seeking.

Luis Enrique

Andrew,

GPWM. It is possible to define status seeking so broadly, everything - even going to live in a cave - can be called status seeking, even if it's only acquiring status in one's own judgment. Some people (see Robin Hanson) do think that almost everything we do has to do with status.

It might be sensible to limit 'status seeking' to refer to seeking mainstream status in the eyes of strangers. But that would exclude too much imho. Like people who want to be the biggest baddass in the hood, or the most counter-cultural wild child in the commune, whatever. How would you restrict the concept? Would you call expressing contempt for 'bosses' and seeking approval from your fellow radical socialists status seeking or not?

milgram

AFAIC "desire for status" is wanting to be treated with dignity and as an equal. This motivation is different from seeking a position of [political|economic|social] power *over* others in a hierarchical system.

And it is possible to blog for reasons of increasing "power-to" (i.e. influencing peers, improving skills, clarifying ideas), although many prefer to take the "power-over" route of using their blogs to put other people down (e.g. by insulting folk, or "winning" arguments).

Jilly

Good grief, women really are invisible as far as almost all your commenters are concerned.

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