Status-Regulating Emotions

post by lsusr · 2020-06-03T22:32:03.082Z · score: 29 (15 votes) · LW · GW · 8 comments

Elizer Yudkowsky wrote an interesting comment on What Universal Human Experiences Are You Missing Without Realizing It?

It was the gelling of the HPMOR hatedom which caused me to finally realize that I was blind, possibly I-don’t-have-that-sense blind, to the ordinary status-regulation emotions that, yes, in retrospect, many other people have, and that evolutionary psychology would logically lead us to expect exists.

…It was only afterward that I looked back and realized that nobody ever hates Hermione, or Harry, on account of either of them acting like they have more status than someone else has already mentally assigned. Characters in HPMOR may dislike people who are ahead of them, or envy people who have things they want, but “you don’t have a license to be important” is not a thing that anyone in HPMOR, hero or villain or NPC, ever feels.

For though I have known many a negative emotion in my life, yea I have known bitterness, frustration, despair, resentment, and a few times even envy and a sense that someone else has something that I deserve more, I have never felt the status-regulation-slapdown emotion. I needed to deduce its abstract existence via evolutionary psychology once HPMOR finally provoked enough data. I still have no idea what it feels like.

Are these a real thing? To find out, I asked my friend Justin Ith. Justin Ith is a master of social finesse. Asking him if status-regulation emotion is real is like asking Leonardo da Vinci if red and green are different colors.

Justin: "Are you asking if status-regulation emotion is a real thing people feel?"

Me: "Yes."

Justin: "If so, then absolutely yes."

Justin: "Lets say there are 9 followers and 1 leader in a group. If one of the followers started bossing the other followers around, it's frustrating because that person is acting out of their status."

Justin: "Even more clearly, lets say 9 soldiers and 1 general. If one of the soldiers starts commanding the others without any authority bestowed on them by the general, the other soldiers would react in a pissed way because they don't have to listen to them."

It bothers me when someone is disruptive. It bothers me when someone attempts to selfishly seize power. I can be jealous of people in positions of authority. But someone "acting above their station" has never bothered me. I barely comprehend the idea.

I to treat waiters and laborers with absolute courtesy. I give children with the same respect I give adults. On the other hand, I often unwittingly insult people in positions of authority over me.

I get along so badly with institutions that by age 15 I had written off compulsory school as an obstacle to my education. By 21 I concluded the same thing about college. By 22 I had taught myself computer programming but I was so impertinent[1] to potential employers I resorted to [LW · GW] starting own tech company at age 24 because nobody would hire me.

My lack of status-regulation emotions damages me socially. It compensates me by reducing my self-censorship.

At first the default reaction of the Slashdot trolls was (translated into articulate terms): "Who is this guy and what authority does he have to write about these topics? I haven't read the essay, but there's no way anything so short and written in such an informal style could have anything useful to say about such and such topic, when people with degrees in the subject have already written many thick books about it." Now there's a new generation of trolls on a new generation of sites, but they have at least started to omit the initial "Who is this guy?"

Six Principles for Making New Things by Paul Graham

Perhaps most importantly, when I think about people like Albert Einstein [LW · GW], my next thought is "I could do that" [LW · GW]. Then I try to [? · GW].


  1. I once got an interview at a startup by leaving on the CEO's desk a printed declaration of my intention to start a competing company. ↩︎

8 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Viliam · 2020-06-04T21:17:26.295Z · score: 7 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think that either you or Justin have misunderstood what Eliezer meant by the status-regulation emotion. Of course if a rando starts bossing me, I will get angry. Being commanded by someone is a thing that even most autists would resent. This could hardly surprise anyone.

But people get angry over "inappropriate" things that are nothing like that. Imagine a situation like this:

Someone writes a book of fiction. The book sells many copies. Many readers fall in love with the book, and then say this is the best thing they have read in years.
The author is young. This is the first book he wrote. He never published anything before; not even a short story. His name is completely unknown to literary critics. He never studied literature. He never attended a writing workshop. He is just some random guy. He never asked anyone (e.g. a high-school teacher) whether it is okay for him to write a book. He never asked anyone whether the book is good enough to be published. He just wrote the book, and then used some publishing service.

For some people, such as me (and, I assume, Eliezer), there is absolutely no issue with this. So, the guy succeeded to write a great book -- good for him! The prior probability of someone accomplishing this feat successfully is low -- but he did it, we already have the evidence of success, so the usual predictors (opinions of the high-school teachers, literary critics, and publishers; effort spent; previous experience) became irrelevant now. Looking forward to read another book! Nothing more to say about this, except perhaps ask him for some writing advice.

However, there are people whose blood would boil with rage after observing this situation in real life. This is not how things are supposed to be done; how dares he! The proper way is to start humble: write an essay, listen to your teacher's feedback, write another essay, and when your teacher is finally satisfied, write a short story and send it to a respected literary magazine, get rejected, read the review carefully and memorize it, attend a writing workshop, listen to experts, keep following their advice until they are happy, then send to the literary magazine again, maybe get published, do the same thing again and again until the critics become familiar with your name, and only after they approve of your talent, only then your trembling hand should start writing your first book; and of course you need to get your manuscript reviewed and update it until your editor is happy, and only then it goes to press; and it's still faux pas if your readers praise you more than the experts... Avoiding this process entirely, that is cheating, and deserves to be punished. No one has the right to be successful, without first spending a lot of time as a humble apprentice! If the angry observer is a literary critic, expect a scathing review; otherwise, expect your Wikipedia page to be vandalized repeatedly. If your identity is known, expect to find your tires slashed.

This is a reaction that is difficult for me to empathize with, and it took me a lot of time to learn that this is how many people function. They perceive "undeserved" success as a personal affront, and volunteer to punish it. Where "undeserved" can be rationalized as "did not spend appropriate effort", but it actually means "does not have sufficient status". (In this example, learning that the author spent last 10 years working on the book 3 hours a day, and rewrote it 5 times from scratch, would not diminish the anger. He still avoided the proper channels!)

comment by Rafael Harth (sil-ver) · 2020-06-05T12:54:59.460Z · score: 17 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

(I'm basing this on what I feel like – unlike you, Isusr, and Eliezer, I feel this emotion very strongly.)

I agree that Justin's answer is missing the point. I also think your description isn't quite right. You assume that what is inappropriate is based on social norms. That does not need to be true.

For example, I am not at all angry at the success of HPMoR because I think the success is appropriate. But my blood still boils in other cases where people are successful. And success isn't even required – I can get angry at someone even attempting to do something that I consider inappropriate.

The regulation module that decides what is or isn't appropriate is complicated and very bizarre. There have been several instances where I felt anger at someone for being successful immediately before reading their stuff, but then performing a perfect turnaround and deciding they're high status and deserve even more success. I distinctly remember this happening with Scott Alexander and SSC. I also got vaguely angry at your generic description of the guy being successful, but reading that he worked on it really hard did remedy that.

I think there might be a subset of [people who have this emotion] who base what is appropriate primarily on social norms, and that's what you describe.

I also suspect that blindness to this emotion is disproportionately common on LessWrong because it correlates with all sorts of good things. I certainly think I would be much more successful if I had never felt it.

comment by Viliam · 2020-06-05T20:53:33.660Z · score: 6 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thank you for providing personal evidence! It is difficult for me to analyze an emotion that I don't feel, and that most people would refuse to describe. My data are mostly "this seems to be the type of situation that triggers the reaction" and "the explanation provided by people feeling this emotion usually does not make sense (they blame it on X, but if they learn that it was not X, they immediately find another excuse [LW · GW])".

What you wrote resonates with my observation. Yes, even attempting to do something "inappropriate" can trigger this emotion. I guess it is because the attempt is not perceived as mere question ("I don't know if I can do this, so this is an experiment to find out"), but rather as a positive statement about competence ("I know that I can do it with sufficiently high probability"). People are not supposed to try doing something, unless they have some kind of permission to do that. Examples of permission:

  • they already did it in the past (and it was "appropriate"), so now they are "the person who does X";
  • they never did it before, but a higher-status person told them to try;
  • they are so high-status that it is okay for them to do anything.

And, yes, to certain degree status is in the eyes of beholder (I can't describe well how exactly this works; it's probably some Keynesian beauty contest among whom you perceive to be your reference class), so deciding that someone is high-status makes it "appropriate" for them to do high-status things.

Using the example of the young author, it would be okay to find out that (1) actually he already published in the past under a pseudonym, following the socially required rituals; or (2) he is actually a previously unknown illegitimate child of Stephen King; or (3) he is a successful entrepreneur who made millions. In that case the author could be forgiven. Also, the literary critics could for some mysterious reason decide that he is a great author, and that would retroactively make his approach "appropriate".

I certainly think I would be much more successful if I had never felt it.

There would still be other people out there to stop you.

I am not sure what is the expected outcome of doing "inappropriate" things. You would probably do many experiments, and succeed at some, getting extra knowledge and skills. On the other hand, you might accidentally anger an exceptionally furious punisher -- in extreme case someone who would kill you, or completely ruin your reputation -- so the net result could be negative. Maybe the Eliezers we see are merely the status-oblivious people who won the lottery.

comment by Rafael Harth (sil-ver) · 2020-06-06T11:58:44.508Z · score: 6 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
I guess it is because the attempt is not perceived as mere question ("I don't know if I can do this, so this is an experiment to find out"), but rather as a positive statement about competence ("I know that I can do it with sufficiently high probability").

Yes, and I instinctively want to assume self-awareness, too. Not just "I think I can do this" but "I am knowingly asserting my status by claiming that I can do this."

Using the example of the young author, it would be okay to find out that (1) actually he already published in the past under a pseudonym, following the socially required rituals; or (2) he is actually a previously unknown illegitimate child of Stephen King; or (3) he is a successful entrepreneur who made millions. In that case the author could be forgiven. Also, the literary critics could for some mysterious reason decide that he is a great author, and that would retroactively make his approach "appropriate".

Yeah, all of those would make it better.

I am not sure what is the expected outcome of doing "inappropriate" things. You would probably do many experiments, and succeed at some, getting extra knowledge and skills. On the other hand, you might accidentally anger an exceptionally furious punisher -- in extreme case someone who would kill you, or completely ruin your reputation -- so the net result could be negative. Maybe the Eliezers we see are merely the status-oblivious people who won the lottery.

I strongly suspect that it's positive. For most people who aren't already successful, it's pretty difficult to substantially damage their reputation. If Eliezer had published three terrible fanfics before HPMoR, I don't think that would have changed much of anything. On average, I think the emotion makes you way more afraid than what is rational. And any anger about what other people do is almost guaranteed to be unproductive. Just consider – you write this:

Someone writes a book of fiction. The book sells many copies. Many readers fall in love with the book, and then say this is the best thing they have read in years.

And my instinct is to get upset even though I know it's a made-up example, and I even got upset about you claiming not to have a problem with it.

But the negative effects go beyond not doing inappropriate things. Say I'm a newcomer to some online community (think of a forum). I want to establish that I'm high status right away – this is not impossible, there are people who are new but are immediately respected. I am extremely conscious of this while I write my first post or participate in my first discussion or whatever. But other people who share this emotion see that, recognize what I'm doing, and their blood boils, and they want to punish me for it. I end up being received much worse than if I hadn't had this instinct. And it's nontrivial for me to shut it off. There have been a lot of cases where I've looked at something I've written some time later and essentially had that reaction (feeling like I would need to punish the person who wrote this if it wasn't myself). It's so bad that, ever since I've figured this out, this is the number one thing I worry about when I write stuff. If it's important, I make sure to revisit it a few days later and correct the tone if needed. I'm astonishingly bad at judging whether this will be necessary at the time that I write it. Right now, I'm worrying about how I sound in this comment and whether I should revisit it later.

I even feel like there are cases (not on LW, but on other sites) when the reaction to a post is largely determined by the first couple of responses, namely in cases where the post is status-grabby but also somewhat impressive. If the first few responses signal that the person who wrote it is high status, further status-aware respondents are more likely to accept it themselves, and that perpetuates. If you read a status-grabby post as a status-aware person, the reaction is likely to fall onto either extreme.

But maybe the biggest negative is just that it takes up so much brain power. You're not working on the right thing if you obsess about status.

Also – if I look at the people who are the most "famous" in the rationalist sphere, as far as I can tell, virtually none of them feel this emotion (with the possible exception of Robin Hanson). It's less consistent in other areas, but even there, not having it seems to correlate with success. Which I admit is consistent with the hypothesis that it increases variance.

It's possible that I'm conflating the "status regulation" emotion with other status-related emotions here. I don't have an intuitive grasp on what instincts people who are blind to the first still have.

comment by Viliam · 2020-06-06T16:36:23.172Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
Not just "I think I can do this" but "I am knowingly asserting my status by claiming that I can do this."

Well, this is the problematic part of this all. On one hand, it is true that almost everything we do has some impact on status, whether we are aware of it or not. And if you don't see it, well, you are blind against something that exists and plays a very important role in human relationships. Bad things will start happening to you for unknown reasons.

On the other hand, if people evaluate everything merely by the optics of status (like, someone says "2+2=4" and the audience hears "hey, I am a high-status mathematician, start worshiping me, losers" and then they start throwing stones), then we are screwed, as a humanity. I mean, imagine that maybe there were hundreds of people who had the potential to cure cancer or invent immortality, but they decided not to, simply because it felt "inappropriate". In other words, take your personal regrets and multiply them by 7 billions. Fuck!

In reality, it's likely on a scale, like some people perceive the status aspect more strongly, some more weakly, and some not at all. This could be an important thing to research. Maybe you need to have some "bubbles" of people who don't care or only care weakly about status, to have innovation happen; and if the same people are more homogenously spread among the population, the same innovation won't happen, because each of them will be quickly down-regulated. Then, creating and protecting these "bubbles" could be a useful thing. (Am I now reaching above my status again? Who am I to propose a sociological research? I didn't study sociology, and I don't even have a PhD in anything.)

Yeah, all of those would make it better.

And to state the obvious, 2 of 3 have no impact on the writing itself.

For most people who aren't already successful, it's pretty difficult to substantially damage their reputation.

Yeah, the typical damage would be just slowing them down. Like, if you are in a strategic position in their planned path, you can block them.

I have described the hypothetical young author as too invulnerable. Let's imagine instead that he published a few short stories online, they became popular, and now he wants to publish a book. If you are a publisher, you can reject him, even if you see that the book is great. (Assume an inbalance of power, where the publishers have many books to choose from, but the authors only have a few publishers to choose from.) If you are on friendly terms with other publishers in your region, you could ask them to do you a professional favor and put him on a blacklist (you could make up a story why). You can ignore him as a bookseller. If multiple people independently feel the same way, the author may find out that too many doors are closed for irrational reasons.

The author may be angry about this treatment. If he is not resilient psychologically, he may give up. But this is still not worse than not having tried at all.

comment by gwern · 2020-06-14T16:48:27.157Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

There have been several instances where I felt anger at someone for being successful immediately before reading their stuff, but then performing a perfect turnaround and deciding they're high status and deserve even more success. I distinctly remember this happening with Scott Alexander and SSC.

I've been amused to notice this happening with me too, particularly as Said Achmiz steadily upgrades gwern.net's appearance & features and I integrate them into my writing. While most people have nothing but praise for the design and things like the popup annotations, it seems like there are a handful of people who the better it gets the angrier they get.

An example from a week or two ago: my "Ordinary Life Improvements" essay was linked on Reddit. It's not a complex or intimidating article: there's no math or self-experiments or statistics---it is just a list of uncontroversial ordinary things that anyone my age or older knows from personal experience if they take a moment to think about it (and if they are doubtful they can find lots of citations for, and I provide a bunch anyway). You do not need to be any kind of credentialed expert to make a list of items like "you can now buy preserved guacamole", and it requires zero special expertise to verify most of the items as I did not select exotic items, so the usual good reasons for credentialism don't apply. It is just a fun thought-provoking read which is also rather nicely formatted & pretty.

But nevertheless, the reaction of the respondent in their reply was to be extremely angry! They seem to have not read it at all, since they didn't criticize any of the specific points, but instead they apparently went straight to the sidebar and about-me page (for character assassination?), and got angry when they couldn't find anything about what college degrees I have (apparently they assume I have none, since I didn't specify it) or what prestigious institutions I am affiliated with, and got even angrier when they read the section about what sort of software/computers I used. (They weren't angry about me using an AMD CPU instead of an Intel one or anything, just that the section was there at all.)

So, that's a thing.

comment by kithpendragon · 2020-06-14T12:04:29.692Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

OMG, this explains SO MUCH of my childhood!!

I just had a fully hour-long conversation with my household about this. Apparently the only other person who didn't know about it was the preschooler. The others helped me explore how status regulation is probably a huge contributor to the persistence of racism, classism, and that thing where communities tend to strongly distrust "blowins".

Mind blown; thanks for that!

comment by remizidae · 2020-06-04T17:07:56.161Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

>It bothers me when someone attempts to selfishly seize power.


I think this is what Eliezer is talking about. If someone tried to tell you what to do without justification, would you resent it? If so, that's the emotion. We accept being told what to do by hierarchical superiors because we believe that is what is best for the larger whole, whether that's the CEO setting direction for the company or your mom deciding what is served for dinner. People who tell others what to do outside an accepted hierarchy are perceived as acting selfishly and disruptively.