Tag Archives: sociology

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.

Epistemology of evilness

Most everyone seems to think that a big reason for bad things happening in the world is that some people are bad. Yet I almost never see advice for telling whether you yourself are a bad person, or for what to do about it if you seem to be one. If there are so many bad people, isn’t there a very real risk that you are one of them?

Perhaps the model is one where you automatically know whether you are good or bad, and simply choose which to be. So the only people who are bad are those who want to be bad, and know that they are bad. But then if there is this big population of bad people out there who want to be bad, why is so little of the media devoted to their interests? There’s plenty on how to do all the good things that a good person would want to do, such as voting for the benefit of society, looking after your children, buying gifts, expressing gratitude to friends, holding a respectable dinner, pleasing your partner. Yet so little on scamming the elderly, effectively shaking off useless relatives, lying credibly, making money from investments that others are too squeamish to take, hiding bodies. Are the profit-driven corporate media missing out on a huge opportunity?

If there aren’t a whole lot of knowingly bad people out there who want to be bad, and could use some information and encouragement, then either there aren’t bad people at all, or bad people don’t know that they are bad or don’t want to be bad. The former seems unlikely, by most meanings of ‘bad’. If the latter is true, why are people so blase about the possibility that they themselves might be bad?


Prompted by the excellent book Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, in which there is much talk of avoiding becoming ‘dark’, in stark contrast to the world that I’m familiar with. If you enjoy talking about HPMOR, and live close to Pittsburgh, come to the next Pittsburgh Less Wrong Meetup.

Motivation on the margin of saving the world

Most people feel that they have certain responsibilities in life. If they achieve those they feel good about themselves, and anything they do beyond that to make the world better is an increasingly imperceptible bonus.

Some people with unusual moral positions or preferences feel responsible for making everything in the world as good as they can make it, and feel bad about the gap between what they achieve and what they could.

In both cases people have a kind of baseline that they care especially about. In the first case they are usually so far above it that nothing they do makes much difference to their feelings. In the second case they are often so far below it that nothing they do makes much difference to their feelings.

Games are engaging when you have a decent chance at both winning and losing. Every move you make matters, so you long to make that one more move. 

I expect the same is true of motivating altruistic consequentialists. I’m not sure how to make achievements on the margin more emotionally salient, but perhaps you do?

What’s wrong with advertising?

These two views seem to go together often:

  1. People are consuming too much
  2. The advertising industry makes people want things they wouldn’t otherwise want, worsening the problem

The reasoning behind 1) is usually that consumption requires natural resources, and those resources will run out. It follows from this that less natural-resource intensive consumption is better* i.e. the environmentalist prefers you to spend your money attending a dance or a psychologist than buying new clothes or jet skis, assuming the psychologist and dance organisers don’t spend all their income on clothes and jet skis and such.

How does the advertising industry get people to buy things they wouldn’t otherwise buy? One practice they are commonly accused of is selling dreams, ideals, identities and attitudes along with products. They convince you (at some level) that if you had that champagne your whole life would be that much more classy. So you buy into the dream though you would have walked right past the yellow bubbly liquid.

But doesn’t this just mean they are selling you a less natural-resource-intensive product? The advertisers have packaged the natural-resource intensive drink with a very non-natural-resource intensive thing – classiness – and sold you the two together.

Yes, maybe you have bought a drink you wouldn’t otherwise have bought. But overall this deal seems likely to be a good thing from the environmentalist perspective: it’s hard to just sell pure classiness, but the classy champagne is much less resource intensive per dollar than a similar bottle of unclassy drink, and you were going to spend your dollars on something (effectively – you may have just not earned them, which is equivalent to spending them on leisure).

If the advertiser can manufacture enough classiness for thousands of people with a video camera and some actors, this is probably a more environmentally friendly choice for those after classiness than most of their alternatives, such as ordering stuff in from France. My guess is that in general, buying intangible ideas along with more resource intensive products is better for the environment than the average alternative purchase a given person would make.  There at least seems little reason to think it is worse.

Of course that isn’t the only way advertisers make people want things they wouldn’t otherwise want. Sometimes they manufacture fake intangible things, so that when you get the champagne it doesn’t really make you feel classy. That’s a problem with dishonest people in every industry though. Is there any reason to blame ‘advertisers’ rather than ‘cheats’?

Another thing advertisers do is tell you about things you wouldn’t have thought of wanting otherwise, or remind you of things you had forgotten about. When innovators and entrepreneurs do this we celebrate it. Is there any difference when advertisers do it? Perhaps the problem is that advertisers tend to remind you of resource intensive, material desires more often than they remind you to consume more time with your brother, or to meditate more. This is somewhat at odds with the complaint that they try to sell you dreams and attitudes etc, but perhaps they do a bit of both.

Or perhaps they try to sell you material goods to satisfy longings you would otherwise fulfil non-materially? For instance recommending new clothes where you might otherwise have sought self-confidence through posture or public speaking practice or doing something worthy of respect. Some such effect seems plausible, though I doubt a huge one.

Overall it seems advertisers probably have effects in both directions. It’s not clear to me which is stronger. But insofar as they manage to package up and sell feelings and identities and other intangibles,  those who care for the environment should praise them.

*This is not to suggest that I believe natural resource conservation is particularly important, compared to using human time well for instance.

Why we love unimportant things

Consider all the things humans have ever invented. On average, the ones that have been adopted by the most people should be the most useful ones. This seems to be roughly what has happened.

Now consider the ones we get really excited about, and identify with, and celebrate. These are the ones that are not widely adopted. Chairs have been adopted by everyone, because they are great. Nobody ever mentions this. You might think they are just taken for granted because they are old. But consider skis. Skis have been around forever. But they are more controversial than chairs: they have never caught on with some people. Now notice that people who do like skis actually rave about them, and think about them, and consider themselves skiing enthusiasts.

Here are some more unpopular and raved about innovations: drying fruit in the sun, dancing, the iphone, the gin and tonic, the internet, Christianity, watercolour painting, eating a larger meal at lunch time than in the evening, sexual promiscuity, tea

Here are popular uncelebrated innovations: the escalator, the hat, the mobile phone (this was on the other list back when they were rare), the phillips head screwdriver, the computer, queues, tv, bread, floors

Here are the closest things I can think of to counterexamples: the internet (really fits in the first category, but many people who love it must rarely contact with those who don’t and vice versa. Then again people who rave about it often mean to support quite extreme and unorthodox use of it), anti-racism (virtually everyone seems to think they like it, but the ones who rave about it do at least seem to think that others do not), people rave about anything they consciously want at that moment (e.g. they have been standing for ages and they find a chair, or someone brings them a big cake) though they still don’t tend to speak up that item in general or identify with it, sex.

So it seems that we largely celebrate the things that are least important to our actual wellbeing. It even looks to me like the less consensus there is on the value of something, the more impassioned are its fans. At the extreme, when people make up their very own theory or cheesecake or whatever they can often become quite obsessed.

I take all this as a sign that we basically celebrate stuff to draw attention to our identities, not because it’s important.