Tag Archives: status

Fragmented status doesn’t help

David Friedman wrote, and others have claimed similarly:

It seems obvious that, if one’s concern is status rather than real income, we are in a zero sum game. If my status increases relative to yours, yours has decreased relative to mine. … Like many things that seem obvious, this one is false. …

…what matters to me is my status as I perceive it; what matters to you is your status as you perceive it. Since each of us has his own system of values, it is perfectly possible for my status as I view it to be higher than yours and yours as you view it to be higher than mine…

Status is about what other people think your status is, but Friedman’s argument is that you at least get some choice in whose views to care about. People split off into many different groups, and everyone may see their group as quite important, so see themselves as quite statusful. Maybe I feel good because I win at board games often, but you don’t feel bad if you don’t – you just quit playing board games and hang out with people who care about politics instead, because you have a good mind for that. As Will Wilkinson says:

I think that there are lots of pastors, PTA presidents, police chiefs, local scenesters, small town newspaper editors, and competitive Scrabble champions who are pretty pleased with their high relative standing within the circle they care about. Back where I come from, a single blue ribbon for a strawberry rhubarb pie at the State Fair could carry a small-town lady for years.

This is a popular retort to the fear that seeking status is zero sum, so any status I get comes at the cost of someone else’s status. I think it’s very weak.

There are two separate issues: whether increasing one person’s status decreases someone else’s status just as much (whether status seeking is constant sum) and whether the total benefits from status come to zero, or to some other positive or negative amount (whether status seeking is zero-sum in particular).

That people split into different pools and think theirs is better than others suggests (though does not prove) that the net value of status is more than zero. Disproportionately many people think they are above average, so as long as status translates to happiness in the right kind of way, disproportionately many people are happy.

The interesting question though – and the one that the above argument is intended to answer – is whether my gaining more status always takes away from your status. Here it’s less clear that the separation of people into different ponds makes much difference:

  1. One simple model would be that the difference between each person’s perception of the status ladder is that they each view their own pond as being at the top (or closer to the top than others think). But then when they move up in their pond, someone else in their pond moves down, and vice versa. So it’s still constant sum.
  2. Another simple model would be that people all agree on their positions on the status ladder, but they care a lot more about where they are relative to some of the people on the ladder (those in their pond). For instance I might agree that the queen of England is higher status than me, but mostly just think about my position in the blogosphere.  Here of course status is constant sum (since we don’t disagree on status). But the hope would be that at least the status we care more about isn’t constant sum. But it is. However much I move up relative to people in my pond, people in my pond move down relative to me (a person in their pond). So again involving ponds doesn’t change the constant-sumness of people gaining or losing status.
  3. But perhaps changing the number or contents of the ponds could increase the total status pie? Increasing the number of ponds could make things better – for instance if people measure status as distance from the top of one’s favorite pond. It could also make things worse – for instance if people measure status as the number of people under one in one’s favorite pond. It could also not change the total amount of status, if people measure status as something like proportion of the way up a status ladder. Instead of one big ladder there could be lots of little parallel ladders. This would stop people from having very high or very low status, but not change the total. It seems to me that some combination of these is true. The maker of the best rhubarb pie at the State Fair might feel statusful, but nowhere near as statusful as the president of america. Probably not even as statusful as someone at the 90th percentile of wealth. So I don’t think we just pay attention to the number above us in the group we care about most. Nor just our rank on some ladder – being further up of a bigger ladder is better. So it’s not clear to me that increasing the number of ponds should make for more status, or more enjoyment of status.
  4. Maybe moving people between ponds can help? Will Wilkinson tells of how he moved between ponds until he found one where he had a chance to excel. It seems likely that he feels higher status now. However the people in the ponds he left now have fewer people under them, and their ponds are smaller. Either of these might diminish their status. In his new pond, Will is probably better than others who were already competing. This lowers their status. It’s unclear whether everyone’s more statusful or better off overall than if they had all been in one big pond.

It might sound intuitive that more ponds mean more status for all, but in most straightforward models the number of ponds doesn’t change the size of the status pie.

Does SI make everyone look like swimsuit models?

William Easterly believes Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue externalises toward women with their ‘relentless marketing of a “swimsuit” young female body type as sex object’. He doesn’t explain how this would happen.

As far as I can tell, the presumed effect is that pictures of women acting as ‘sex objects’ causes men to increase their credence that all other women are ‘sex objects’. I’m a bit puzzled about the causal path toward badness after that, since men do not seem on the whole less friendly when hoping for sex.

I think the important bit here must be about ‘objects’. I have no idea how one films someone as if they are an object. The women in SI don’t look inanimate, if that’s what it’s about. It’s also hard to make robots that good. I will guess that ‘sex object’ means something like ‘low status person to have sex with’, as opposed to just being sexually alluring. It seems unlikely that the concern is that women are taken to be sexier than they really are, so I think the problem is that they are taken to be low status in this particular sexy way.

If I guessed right so far, I think it is true that men increase their expectation that all other women are sex objects when they view videos of women being sex objects. I doubt this is a big effect, since they have masses of much better information about the sexiness and status of women around them. Nonetheless, I agree it is probably an effect.

However as usual, we are focussing on the tiny gender related speck of a much larger issue. Whenever a person has more than one characteristic, they give others the impression that those characteristics tend to go together, externalising to everyone else with those characteristics. When we show male criminals on the news, it is an externality to all other men. When we show clowns with big red noses it is an externality to all other people with big red noses. When I go outside it gives all onlookers a minuscule increase in their expectation that a tallish person will tend to be brown haired, female, dressed foreignly and not in possession of a car.

Most characteristics don’t end up delineating much of an externality, because we mostly don’t bother keeping track of all the expectations we could have connected to tallish people. What makes something like this a stronger effect is the viewers deciding that tallishness is more or less of a worthwhile category to accrue stereotypes about. I expect gender is well and truly forever high on the list of characteristics popularly considered worth stereotyping about, but people who look at everything with the intent of finding and advertising any hint of gender differential implied by it can only make this worse.

Or better. As I pointed out before, while expecting groups to be the same causes externalities, they are smaller ones than if everyone expected everyone to have average human characteristics until they had perfect information about them. If people make more good inferences from other people’s characteristics, they end up sooner treating the sex objects as sex objects and the formidable intellectuals as formidable intellectuals and so forth. So accurately informing people about every way in which the experiences of men and women differ can help others stereotype more accurately. However there are so many other ways to improve accurate categorisation, why obsess over the gender tinged corner of the issue?

In sum, I agree that women who look like ‘sex objects’ increase the expectation by viewers of more women being ‘sex objects’. I think this is a rational and socially useful response on the part of viewers, relative to continuing to believe in a lower rate of sex objects amongst women. I also think it is virtually certain that in any given case the women in question should go on advertising themselves as sex objects, since they clearly produce a lot of benefit for themselves and viewers that way, and the externality is likely minuscule. There is just as much reason to think that any other person categorisable in any way should not do anything low status, since the sex object issue is a small part of a ubiquitous externality. Obsessing over the gender aspect of such externalities (and everything else) probably helps draw attention to gender as a useful categorisation, perhaps ultimately for the best. As is often the case though, if you care about the issue, only being able to see the gender related part of it is probably not useful.

What do you think? Is concern over some women being pictured as sex objects just an example of people looking at a ubiquitous issue and seeing nothing but the absurdly tiny way in which it might affect women more than men sometimes? Or is there some reason it stands apart from every other way that people with multiple characteristics help and harm those who are like them?

Update: Robin Hanson also just responded to Easterly, investigating in more detail the possible causal mechanisms people could be picturing for women in swimsuits causing harm. Easterly responded to him, saying that empirical facts are irrelevant to his claim.

Humor isn’t norm evasion

Robin adds the recent theory that humor arises from benign norm violations to his Homo Hypocritus model:

The Homo Hypocritus (i.e., man the sly rule bender) hypothesis I’ve been exploring lately is that humans evolved to appear to follow norms, while covertly coordinating to violate norms when mutually advantageous. A dramatic example of this seems to be the sheer joy and release we feel when we together accept particular norm violations.  Apparently much “humor” is exactly this sort of joy:

[The paper:]The benign-violation [= humor] hypothesis suggests that three conditions are jointly necessary and sufficient for eliciting humor: A situation must be appraised as a [norm] violation, a situation must be appraised as benign, and these two appraisals must occur simultaneously.will be amused. Those who do not simultaneously see both interpretations will not be amused.

In five experimental studies, … we found that benign moral violations tend to elicit laughter (Study 1), behavioral displays of amusement (Study 2), and mixed emotions of amusement and disgust (Studies 3–5). Moral violations are amusing when another norm suggests that the behavior is acceptable (Studies 2 and 3), when one is weakly committed to the violated norm (Study 4), or when one feels psychologically distant from the violation (Study 5). …

We investigated the benign-violation hypothesis in the domain of moral violations. The hypothesis, however, appears to explain humor across a range of domains, including tickling, teasing, slapstick, and puns. (more;HT)

[Robin:] Laughing at the same humor helps us coordinate with close associates on what norms we expect to violate together (and when and how). This may be why it is more important to us that close associates share our sense of humor, than our food or clothing tastes, and why humor tastes vary so much from group to group.

I disagree with the theory and with Robin’s take on it.

Benign social norm violations are often not funny:

Yesterday I drove home drunk, but there was almost nobody out that late anyway.

Some people tell small lies in job interviews.

You got his name wrong, but I don’t think he noticed

Things are often funny without being norm violations:

People we don’t sympathize with falling over, being fat, being ugly, making mistakes, having stupid beliefs

People trying to gain status we think they don’t deserve and failing (note that it is their failure that is funny, not their norm-violating arrogance) or acting as though they have status when they are being made fools of really

Silly things being treated as though they are dangerous or important e.g. Monty Python’s killer rabbit, and the board game Munchkin’s ‘boots of but kicking’ and most of its other jokes

Note that the first two are cases of people we don’t sympathize with having their status lowered, and the third signifies someone acting as if they are inferior to the point of absurdity. Social norm violation often involves someone’s status being lowered, either the norm violating party if they fail or whoever they are committing a violation against. And when people or groups we dislike lose status, this is benign to us. So benign norm violations often coincide with people we don’t care for losing status. There are varieties of benign violation where we are not harmed but where nobody else we know of or dislike loses status,  and these don’t seem to be funny. All of the un-funny social norm violations I mentioned first are like this. So I think ‘status lowering of those we don’t care for’ is more promising a commonality than ‘benign norm violations’.

I don’t think the benign norm violation view of humor is much use in the Homo Hypocritus model for three reasons. Humor can’t easily allow people to agree on what norms to violate since a violation’s being benign is often a result of the joke being about a distant story that can’t affect you, rather than closely linked to the nature of the transgression. Think of baby in the blender jokes. More likely it helps to coordinate who to transgress against. If I hear people laughing at a political leader portrayed doing a silly dance I infer much more confidently that they don’t respect the political leader than that they would be happy to do silly dances with me in future.

Second, if it were the case that humor was a signal between people about what norms to violate, you would not need to get the humor to get the message, so the enjoyment seems redundant. You don’t have to find a joke amusing to see what norm is violated in it, especially if you are the party who likes the norm and would like to prevent conspiracies to undermine it. So this theory doesn’t explain people liking to have similar humor to their friends, nor the wide variety, nor the special emotional response rather than just saying ‘hey, I approve of Irishmen doing silly things, so if you’re Irish we could be silly together later’. You could argue that the emotional response is needed so that the person who makes the joke can judge whether their friends are really loyal to the cause of transgressing this norm, but people laugh at jokes they don’t find that funny all the time.

Last, if you want to conspire to break a social norm together, you would do well to arrange this quietly, not with loud, distinctive cackles.

That said, these are interesting bits of progress, and I don’t have a complete better theory tonight.

How does information affect hookups?

With social networking sites enabling the romantically inclined to find out more about a potential lover before the first superficial chat than they previously would have in the first month of dating, this is an important question for the future of romance.

Lets assume that in looking for partners, people care somewhat about rank and and somewhat about match. That is, they want someone ‘good enough’ for them who also has interests and personality that they like.

First look at the rank component alone. Assume for a moment that people are happy to date anyone they believe is equal to or better than them in desirability. Then if everyone has a unique rank and perfect information, there will never be any dating at all. The less information they have the more errors in comparing, so the more chance that A will think B is above her while B thinks A is above him. Even if people are willing to date people somewhat less desirable than they, the same holds – by making more errors you trade wanting more desirable people for wanting less desirable people, who are more likely to want you back , even if they are making their own errors. So to the extent that people care about rank, more information means fewer hookups.

How about match then? Here it matters exactly what people want in a match. If they mostly care about their beloved having certain characteristics,  more information will let everyone hear about more people who meet their requirements. On the other hand if we mainly want to avoid people with certain characteristics, more information will strike more people off the list. We might also care about an overall average desirability of characteristics – then more information is as likely to help or harm assuming the average person is averagely desirable. Or perhaps we want some minimal level of commonality, in which case more information is always a good thing – it wouldn’t matter if you find out she is a cannibalistic alcoholic prostitute, as long as eventually you discover those board games you both like. There are more possibilities.

You may argue that you will get all the information you want in the end, the question is only speed – the hookups prevented by everyone knowing more initially are those that would have failed later anyway. However flaws that dissuade you from approaching one person with a barge pole are often ‘endearing’ when you discover them too late, and once they are in place loving delusions can hide or remove attention from more flaws, so the rate of information discovery matters. To the extent we care about rank then, more information should mean fewer relationships. To the extent we care about match, it’s unclear without knowing more about what we want.

Dignity

Dignity is apparently big in parts of ethics, particularly as a reason to stop others doing anything ‘unnatural’ regarding their bodies, such as selling their organs, modifying themselves or reproducing in unusual ways. Dignity apparently belongs to you except that you aren’t allowed to sell it or renounce it. Nobody who finds it important seems keen to give it a precise meaning. So I wondered if there was some definition floating around that would sensibly warrant the claims that dignity is important and is imperiled by futuristic behaviours.

These are the ones I came across variations on often:

The state or quality of being worthy of respect

An innate moral worthiness, often considered specific to homo sapiens.

Being respected by other people is sure handy, but so are all the other things we trade off against one another at our own whims. Money is great too for instance, but it’s no sin to diminish your wealth. Plus plenty of things people already do make other people respect them less, without anyone thinking there’s some ethical case for banning them. Where are the papers condemning being employed as a cleaner, making jokes that aren’t very funny, or drunkenly revealing your embarrassing desires? The mere act of failing to become well read and stylishly dressed is an affront to your personal dignity.

This may seem silly; surely when people argue about dignity in ethics they are talking about the other, higher definition – the innate worthiness that humans have, not some concrete fact about how others treat you. Apparently not though. When people discuss organ donation for instance, there is no increased likelihood of ceasing to be human and losing whatever dollop of inherent worth that comes with it during the operation just because cash was exchanged. Just plain old risk that people will think ill of you if you sell yourself.

The second definition, if it innately applies to humans without consideration for their characteristics, is presumably harder to lose. It’s also impossible to use. How you are treated by people is determined by what those people think of you.  You can have as much immeasurable innate worthiness as you like; you will still be spat on if people disagree with reality, which they probably will with no faculties for perceiving innate moral values. Reality doesn’t offer any perks to being inherently worthy either. So why care if you have this kind of dignity, even if you think such a thing exists?

Why are obvious meanings veiled?

Why do people use veiled language even when both parties likely know the real message? For instance if a boy asks a girl up for coffee after a date, nobody is likely to miss the cliched connotation, so why not be direct?  The same question goes for many other threats, bribes, requests and propositions. Where meaning is reasonably ambiguous, plausible deniability seems a good explanation. However in many cases denial wouldn’t be that plausible and would make you look fairly silly anyway.

In The Stuff of Thought, Steven Pinker offers six possible explanations for these cases, the last of which I found particularly interesting: People are not embarrassed nearly as much by everyone knowing their failings as long as they aren’t common knowledge (everyone knows that everyone knows etc). Pinker suggests veiled language can offer enough uncertainty that while the other party knows they are very likely being offered sex for instance (which is all you need them to know), they are still unsure of whether you know that they know this, and so on. Plausible deniability of common knowledge means if they decline you, you can carry on with yours pride intact more easily, because status is about what everyone thinks everyone thinks etc your status is, and that hasn’t changed.

This has some problems. Does any vagueness preclude mutual knowledge? We don’t act as though it does; there is always some uncertainty. Plus we take many private observations into account in judging others’ status, though you could argue that this is to judge how they are usually judged, so any aspect of a person you believe others haven’t mostly seen should not inform you on their status. Pinker suggests that a larger gap between the level of vagueness that precludes mutual knowledge and that which allows plausible deniability is helped by people attributing their comprehension of veiled suggestions to their own wonderful social intuition, which makes them less sure that the other knows what they understood.

But veiled comments often seem to allow no more uncertainty than explicit ones. For instance, ‘it would be great if you would do the washing up’ is about as obvious as ‘do the washing up’, but somehow more polite because you are informing not commanding, though the listener arguably has less choice because angrily proclaiming that they are not your slave is off the table. Perhaps such phrases are idioms now, and when they were alive it really was less obvious what commenting on the wonderfulness of clean dishes implied. It seems unlikely.

Some other explanations from Pinker (I omit one because I didn’t understand it enough to paraphrase at the time and don’t remember it now):

The token bow: indirection tells the listener that the speaker has made an effort to spare her feelings or status. e.g. requests made in forms other than imperative statements are designed to show you don’t presume you may command the person. I’m not sure how this would explain the coffee offer above. Perhaps in the existing relationship asking for sex would be disrespectful, so the suggestion to continue the gradual shift into one anothers’ pants is couched as something respectful in the current relationship?

Don’t talk at all, show me: most veiled suggestions are a request to alter the terms of the relationship, and in most cases people don’t speak directly about the terms of relationships. This is just part of that puzzle. This explanation doesn’t explain threats or bribes well I think. By the time you are talking idly about accidents that might happen, awkwardness about discussing a relationship outright is the least of anyone’s worries. Also we aren’t squeamish about discussing business arrangements, which is what a bribe is.

The virtual audience: even if nobody is watching, the situation can be more easily transmitted verbally if the proposition is explicitly verbal. If the intent is conveyed by a mixture of subtler signals, such as tone, gestures and the rest of the interaction, it will be harder to persuade others later that that the meaning really was what you say it was, even if in context it was obvious. This doesn’t seem plausible for many cases. If I tell you that someone discreetly proffered a fifty dollar note and wondered aloud how soon their request might be dealt with, you – and any jury – should interpret that just fine.

Preserving the spell: some part of the other person enjoys and maintains the pleasant illusion of whatever kind of relationship is overtly demonstrated by the words used. Pinker gives the example of a wealthy donor to a university, who is essentially buying naming rights and prestige, but everyone enjoys it more if you have fancy dinners together and pretend that the university is hoping for their ‘leadership’. This doesn’t explain why some transactions are made with a pretense and some aren’t. If I buy an apartment building we don’t all sit down at a fancy dinner together and pretend that I am a great hero offering leadership to the tenants. Perhaps the difference is that if a donation is a purchase, part of the purchased package is a reputation for virtue. However outsiders aimed at mostly don’t see what the transaction looks like. For other cases this also doesn’t seem to explain. While one may want to preserve the feeling that one is not being threatened, why should the threatening one care? And seducing someone relies on the hope of ending air of platonic aquaintence.

Another explanation occurs to me, but I haven’t thought much about whether it’s applicable anywhere. Perhaps once veiled language is used for plausible deniability in many cases, there become other cases where the appearance of trying to have plausible deniability is useful even if you don’t actually want it. In those cases you might use veiled language to imply you are trying, but be less subtle so as not to succeed. For instance once most men use veiled come ons, for you to suggest anything explicitly to a girl would show you have no fear of rejection. She mightn’t like being thought either so predictable or of such low value, so it is better to show respect by protecting yourself from rejection.

None of these explanations seem adequate, but I don’t have a good enough list of examples to consider the question well.

A status theory of blog commentary

Commentary on blogs usually comes in two forms: comments there and posts on other blogs. In my experience, comments tend to disagree and to be negative or insulting much more than links from other blogs are. In a rough count of comments and posts taking a definite position on this blog, 25 of 35 comments disagreed, while 1 of 12 posts did, even if you don’t count another 11 posts which link without comment, a seemingly approving act. Why is this?

Here’s a theory. Lets say you want status. You can get status by affiliating with the right others. You can also get status within an existing relationship by demonstrating yourself to be better than others in it. When you have a choice of who to affiliate with, you will do better not to affiliate at all with most of the people you could demonstrate your superiority to in a direct engagement, so you mostly try to affiliate with higher status people and ignore or mock from a distance those below you. However when it is already given that you affiliate with someone, you can gain status by seeming better than they.

These things are supported if there is more status conflict in less voluntary relationships than in voluntary ones, which seems correct. Compare less voluntary relationships in workplaces, schoolgrounds, families, and between people and employees of organizations they must deal with (such as welfare offices) with more voluntary relationships such as friendships, romantic relationships, voluntary trade, and acquaintanceships.

This theory would explain the pattern of blog commentary. Other bloggers are choosing whether to affiliate with your blog, visibly to outside readers. As in the rest of life, the blogger would prefer to be seen as up with good bloggers and winning stories than to be bickering with bad bloggers, who are easy to come by. So bloggers mostly link to good blogs or posts and don’t comment on bad ones.

Commenters are visible only to others in that particular comments section. Nobody else there will be impressed or interested to observe that you read this blogger or story, as they all are. So the choice of whether to affiliate doesn’t matter, and all the fun is in showing superiority within that realm. Pointing out that the blogger is wrong shows you are smarter than they, while agreeing says nothing. So commenters tend to criticize where they can and not bother commenting on posts they agree with.

Note that this wouldn’t mean opinions are shaped by status desire, but that there are selection effects so that bloggers don’t publicize their criticisms and commenters don’t publicize what they like.