The strongest status signals

post by pwno · 2010-03-06T08:13:40.962Z · score: -1 (28 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 48 comments

The community’s awareness and strong understanding of status-motivated behavior in humans is clearly evident. However, I still believe the community focuses too much on a small subset of observable status transactions; namely, status transactions that occur between people of approximately the same status level. My goal is to bring attention to the rest of the status game.

Because your attention is a limited resource and carries an opportunity cost, your mind is evolved to constantly be on the look-out for stimuli that may affect your survival and reproductive success and ignore stimuli that doesn’t. Of course, the stimulus doesn’t really have to affect your fitness, it just needs some experienceable property that correlates with an experience in the ancestral environment that did. But when our reaction to stimuli proves to be non-threatening, through repeated exposure, we eventually become desensitized and stop reacting. Much like how first time drivers are more reactive to stimuli than experienced drivers: the majority of past mental processes are demoted from executive functions and become automated. So it’s safe to posit a sort of adaptive mechanism that filters sensory input to keep your attention-resources spent efficiently. This attention-conserving mechanism is the crux of status transactions.

When someone is constantly surrounded by people who don’t have power i.e. status over them, their attention-conserving mechanism goes to work. In this case, the stimulus they’re filtering out is “people who share experienceable characteristics with low status people they’re constantly surrounded by.” The stimulus, over time, proved it’s not worthy of being paid attention to. And just like an experienced driver, the person devotes substantially less attention-resources towards the uninteresting stimuli.

The important thing to note is the behavior that’s a function of how much attention-resources are used. These behaviors can be interpreted as evidence of the relative status levels in an interaction. And because it’s evolutionarily advantageous to recognize your own status level, we’ve evolved a mechanism that detects these behaviors in order to assist us in figuring out our status level. [Notice how this isn’t a chicken or the egg problem].

This behavior manifests itself in all sorts of ways in humans. Instead of enumerating all the behaviors, think of such behaviors like this:

Assume an individual optimizes for their comfort in a given experienceable environment. If an additional stimulus (In terms of status, the relevant stimulus is other people) enters their environment and causes them to change their previous behavior, that stimulus has non-zero expected power over the individual. Why else would they change their most comfortable state if the stimulus presented nothing of value or no threat? Of course every stimulus will cause some change in behavior (at least initially) so the interesting question is how much behavior changed. The greater the reactivity from the stimulus, the more expected power the stimulus has over the individual.

The strongest status signal is observable reactivity; not only because we naturally react to interesting stimuli, but also because we’re evolved to interpret reactivity as evidence for status.

Most status signaling discussed on Lesswrong is about certain stuff people wear, say, associate with, argue about, etc. What Lesswrongers may not realize is how bothering to change your behavior at all towards other people is inherently status lowering. For instance, if you just engage in an argument with someone you’re telling them they’re important enough to use so much of your attention and effort—even if you “act” high status the whole time. If a rock star simply gazes at their biggest fan, the fan will feel higher status. That’s because just getting the rock star’s attention is an accomplishment.

By engaging in a high-involvement activity with others, like having a conversation, participants assume a plausible upper and lower bound status level for each other. The fact they both care enough to engage in an activity together is evidence they’re approximately the same status level. Because of this, they can’t do any signals that reliably indicate they’re much higher status the other. So most status signaling they’ll be doing to each other won’t influence their status much.

The behavior induced by indifference and reactivity to stimuli is where the strong evidence resides. Everything else merely budges what’s already been proven by indifference and reactivity. In short, the sort of status signaling Lesswrong has been concerned with is only the tip of the iceberg.

48 comments

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comment by eirenicon · 2010-03-06T19:56:50.777Z · score: 13 (15 votes) · LW · GW

What Lesswrongers may not realize is how bothering to change your behavior at all towards other people is inherently status lowering. For instance, if you just engage in an argument with someone you’re telling them they’re important enough to use so much of your attention and effort—even if you “act” high status the whole time.

People of high status assume their status generally cannot be affected by people of low status, at least in casual encounters (i.e. not when a cop pulls over your Maybach for going 200). To use an extreme example, when the President of the US goes into a small-town diner and chats with the "regular folks" there, he's not lowering his status. He's signaling, "My status is so high, I can pal around with whoever I want." Yes, this raises the status of those he talks to. (It also raises the President's status.)

If people of high status thought they had something to lose in engaging with someone of low status, they wouldn't engage with them. Of course, that would make them look afraid to lose status, which in itself would lower their status. So they engage with people of lower status in order to make it seem like status isn't important to them, which is a high status signal. In short, engaging with people signals higher status than ignoring them.

I wonder what will be in the random theory hat next time I reach in!

comment by pwno · 2010-03-06T20:12:58.933Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW · GW

To use an extreme example, when the President of the US goes into a small-town diner and chats with the "regular folks" there, he's not lowering his status. He's signaling, "My status is so high, I can pal around with whoever I want." Yes, this raises the status of those he talks to. (It also raises the President's status.)

This is not the best example because a president's institutionally granted power is a function of how likable and popular he is with the people. Imagine, however, that the president was more of a dictator and didn't need his citizen's approval. In this case, he'd be lowering his status by chatting with regular folk. He's signaling he still cares enough to chat with them despite having this unalterable power over them. Consequently, the citizens believe they must have some power over the dictator (however little).

comment by eirenicon · 2010-03-06T22:23:32.581Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

This is not the best example because a president's institutionally granted power is a function of how likable and popular he is with the people.

The President of the US is probably the highest status person in the world. The fact that roughly 20% of Americans voted for Obama is far from the only thing that gives him that status. Keep in mind that it takes extraordinary public disapproval to affect a President; Bush 43's lowest approval rating was one point higher than Nixon's. On the other hand, Clinton's lowest rating was 12 points higher than that, and he was impeached. Public approval is not very meaningful to the Presidency.

Imagine, however, that the president was more of a dictator and didn't need his citizen's approval. In this case, he'd be lowering his status by chatting with regular folk.

Or he'd be signaling that he's a benevolent dictator who, while not requiring the approval of the regular folk, wants them to think he's on their side. Having popular support would obviously raise a dictator's status, domestically and internationally. The people might think that their dictator wasn't such a bad guy if he was willing to talk to them. Anecdotally, when a dictator goes to ground and doesn't make public appearances, it's usually a sign that his regime is in trouble. Don't underestimate what a high-status move it is to be secure about your status.

comment by pwno · 2010-03-06T22:49:52.119Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

You're confusing a low status move that makes you more likable with a high status move.

The dictator is implying the citizens have something he wants when he bothers to talk to them. Don't even consider yet the consequences of such an action. Just realize he's making a move that reliably signals that the citizens have some power over him.

We tend to like people who lower their status to us and raise our own; especially if they're coming from a high status position. So it could be that the status gained from people liking Obama for chatting with them is greater than the status lost from chatting with them. But this doesn't change the fact that, on it's own, chatting with people is status lowering.

comment by JGWeissman · 2010-03-06T22:56:12.853Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

So it could be that the status gained from people liking Obama for chatting with them is greater than the status lost from chatting with them.

So you no longer believe that status signals of interaction are "The strongest status signals"?

comment by pwno · 2010-03-06T23:19:23.812Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Do you mean:

So you no longer believe that reactivity in an interaction is "The strongest status signals"?

If that's the question, then no. Whether or not the reactive move of talking to the citizens ultimately led to Obama's rise in status is not relevant. The citizens being reactive by liking him more is the indicator that his status is raised, not him chatting with them.

comment by JGWeissman · 2010-03-06T23:47:27.132Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

No, I meant what I said. In case it was too subtle, I was pointing out that you are shifting the goal posts, quietly backing off from your original strong claim as if you had never made it.

Your concept of "reactivity" seems about as useful as phlogiston. It can explain anything in retrospect. "The citizens being reactive by liking him" is nearly defining reactivity as assigning status to, weakly cloaked by the intermediary of "liking him". Yes, assignment of status is a strong indicator of assignment of status. But that is a tautology, not a useful theory about the particular world we live in.

comment by wedrifid · 2010-03-07T02:38:14.691Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Your concept of "reactivity" seems about as useful as phlogiston. It can explain anything in retrospect.

It is misuse of the concept that seems to be the problem here more so than the concept itself. I'm not sure about 'strongest' but being nonreactive, particularly not making reactions that are extreme or reveal emotion, is an obvious status signal. As a concept it may be somewhat clearer than the related 'insecure' label that is often used as both a description and an attack.

comment by JGWeissman · 2010-03-07T02:45:55.317Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not sure about 'strongest'

This is really a large part of my point. I think the misuse of the concept is the result of trying to prove that it is stronger than it actually is. I agree that, if defined more clearly, there may be status signals associated with reactivity, but these would not, in general, be strong than other types of status signals.

comment by CronoDAS · 2010-03-06T20:38:36.309Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

What about countersignaling? ;)

comment by pwno · 2010-03-06T20:45:03.015Z · score: -1 (9 votes) · LW · GW

Gonna get downvoted for this, but I don't believing counter-signaling is a useful abstraction - there's just signaling, period. The reason counter-signaling (as conventionally defined) may raise your status is because it displays indifference or less reactivity.

comment by wedrifid · 2010-03-06T22:50:16.424Z · score: 3 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Gonna get downvoted for this

Downvoted for that.

Counter-signalling is a useful abstraction, so long as it is understood that it is a strict subset of 'signalling'.

comment by pwno · 2010-03-06T22:57:11.600Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Fair enough.

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2010-03-06T09:33:58.414Z · score: 9 (17 votes) · LW · GW

This post is not clearly written.

comment by prase · 2010-03-06T13:38:49.047Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Agreed. More examples of the discussed behaviour would be helpful.

comment by wedrifid · 2010-03-06T09:48:48.097Z · score: 7 (11 votes) · LW · GW

What Lesswrongers are not realizing is how bothering to change your behavior at all towards other people is inherently status lowering.

You might need to reconsider your assumptions.

comment by Nic_Smith · 2010-03-06T21:52:22.774Z · score: 5 (9 votes) · LW · GW

So, why don't most CEOs regularly show up to work in their pajamas if social status is mostly a matter of interaction between people with different levels of status, and other signaling is "only the tip of the iceberg"? And if you say that the behavior of CEOs is an exception, and the behavior of celebrities is (somewhat) an exception due to expected behavior from celebrities, and the behavior of the P.O.T.U.S. and other politicians are exceptional -- whose behavior is explained well by this theory?

While interactions between people of different levels of status are important for an individual's social status, I suspect that it is not remotely the most important factor.

comment by wedrifid · 2010-03-07T02:40:49.444Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

The actual strongest status signal? My hunch is:

Being a male whose harem includes all of the most attractive females in the tribe.

comment by Jack · 2010-03-07T07:29:51.834Z · score: 6 (8 votes) · LW · GW

It seems our discussions of status are doomed to routinely skirt the border of PUA territory. And yet we may not enter.

comment by wedrifid · 2010-03-07T08:25:26.245Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Enter to whatever extent it is relevant. I don't expect you will meet any objections, basically because a lot of the discussions we have here, particularly on status, personal development (including akrasia) and morality are already in that territory and they seem to flow smoothly.

comment by JGWeissman · 2010-03-07T02:53:23.338Z · score: 0 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Good one. But stronger:

Being a female whose harem includes all of the most attractive males in the tribe.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-03-07T03:33:15.568Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

What females have a harem?

comment by JGWeissman · 2010-03-07T03:40:30.445Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Formidable, high status females who are capable of inverting typical social expectations.

comment by SilasBarta · 2010-03-07T05:24:56.716Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

And their names would be \_____?

comment by JGWeissman · 2010-03-07T05:47:30.382Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I never meant to claim that this had actually happened, but that if it ever does happen, it would be a strong signal of status, in part because it doesn't usually happen.

But, to answer you question: Cleopatra. (I am not really sure from the article how much was concurrent, but for other examples, see the article on polyandry.)

comment by Jack · 2010-03-07T06:03:31.874Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

If we're going to bring up Cleopatra- Other people worship you as a demi-god. seems like a pretty good gender-neutral status indicator.

comment by JGWeissman · 2010-03-07T06:10:28.101Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I knew I had a good reason for merely claiming I was presenting a stronger signal, not the strongest.

comment by wedrifid · 2010-03-07T03:04:34.270Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Interesting. I find that one harder to place on the scale since it doesn't resolve to an obvious unique social dynamic. It is certainly high but just how high would depend which rather artificial mechanism was used to enforce it. Female social politics are rather a lot different to males ones and that would be an extreme case. My impression is that the female in question would have a lower status differential to the other females and be more readily overthrown than the male would. (Even more) constant vigilance would be required to maintain dominance.

comment by JGWeissman · 2010-03-06T16:50:36.553Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

In an interaction between a rock star and a fan, it is likely clear to all parties involved that the fan is lucky to have this short lived, not likely to reoccur, opportunity, and the rock star can find a fan to interact with pretty much whenever he wants.

comment by JamesAndrix · 2010-03-06T18:23:31.596Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

We don't process probabilities very well either.

If the tribe chief is staring at you, it means something.

comment by JGWeissman · 2010-03-06T18:33:11.001Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

If the tribe chief is staring at you, it means something.

Oh, yes, it means something. That something might be good for you, or it might be bad for you. You will feel both possibilities, and know that the high status chief has the power of choosing between them.

comment by pwno · 2010-03-06T17:24:04.332Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

It's still evidence (however weak) that the fan was interesting enough, for whatever reason, to be gazed out. This weak evidence is enough for the fan to feel accomplished.

comment by JGWeissman · 2010-03-06T17:27:09.990Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Do you agree that this weak evidence still allows for a large difference in status between interacting parties?

comment by magfrump · 2010-03-06T17:34:11.666Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

That seems to be required in order for the situation to work; going to a concert, everyone present has acknowledged the high status of the rock star. This is what makes the attention so valuable.

comment by pwno · 2010-03-06T17:34:08.150Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

So what? The fan now feels they have slightly more status than before and therefore feel happier.

comment by JGWeissman · 2010-03-06T17:42:52.024Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

So, you should abandon or more tightly qualify this claim:

By engaging in an activity with others, like having a conversation, participants assume a plausible upper and lower bound status level for each other. The fact they both care enough to engage in an activity together is evidence they’re approximately the same status level. Because of this, they can’t do any signals that reliably indicate they’re much higher status the other. So most status signaling they’ll be doing to each other won’t influence their status much.

comment by pwno · 2010-03-06T18:01:30.464Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Maybe I need to clarify that the "activity" should be a high involvement one. Like an argument, long conversation, dancing, working together, etc. Because these activities are high involvement, each participant in the activity has good evidence they're approximately the same status level as the others.

comment by JGWeissman · 2010-03-06T18:09:20.023Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

So, what about the interaction between a professor and an undergrad, or a boss and an employee, a judge and a defendant?

High involvement is not a sufficient discriminator.

comment by pwno · 2010-03-06T18:15:59.382Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

First off, in those interactions the lower status person still has a substantial amount of power over the higher status person - just less. And if you pay attention to those interactions you'll notice the higher status person is much less reactive.

comment by JGWeissman · 2010-03-06T18:57:06.951Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Your original claim is that "engaging in an activity with others" prevents "any signals that reliably indicate they’re much higher status the other".

As we considered examples, you have modified this claim to require that the activity require "high involvement", and now that there is an exception if the higher status individual is "much less reactive". It seems to me that these exceptions do not come from an actual understanding of status interactions, but from over fitting the data of the counterexamples I provide.

So I could point out further that in office hours, a professor is reactive to the undergraduate student, or that a supervisor will respond with approval or disapproval based on the performance of a low-level employee, and wonder what characterization of these scenarios will you dress up as an excuse for your theory. But I suspect, if we really looked at all possible counterexamples, we would end up with something like "people cannot reliably signal high status when they cannot reliably signal higher status".

Or, you could reject your strong claim, and replace it with a weaker claim that engagement with a person does signal some status for them, in proportion to the level of engagement, but this is one of many factors, and can be dominated by other signals of status.

comment by pwno · 2010-03-06T20:06:33.151Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I realized that I may be begging the question by stipulating that the activity has to have high-involvement. Because by definition, both parties are more reactive in a high-involvement interaction, and therefore, both parties are approximately the same status level.

My main point is that reactivity provides the strongest evidence in determining respective status levels. The degree of engagement in an activity between people is a good measure of reactivity and therefore a good measure of relative status levels. I am saying that any other reference class of status signaling (like chosen topics of conversation), will be less accurate in determining status levels. The most relevant attribute of behavior is the degree of reactivity.

No matter how initially involved participants in an activity are, the status levels can change as their degree reactivity changes. For instance, if an employee starts to act less reactive than the boss while working together, it's evidence the employee has higher status i.e. more power over the boss.

comment by GreenRoot · 2010-03-06T12:27:01.196Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

It seems to me that in an analysis like this, some distinction should be drawn between people you expect to interact with in the future (people who's status matters) and strangers. People ignore others in cities all the time, and I think the I'll-never-see-you-again hypothesis explains it more simply than the you-have-no-power-over-me hypothesis.

comment by pwno · 2010-03-06T17:56:05.629Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The reason you may want to interact with someone in the future is because they proved to have something you want i.e. some power over you. The distinction you make does not account for how the status was initially determined between the interacting parties.

comment by Phil N · 2019-08-15T16:35:12.643Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

This interesting article omits one important factor that has a strong bearing on status interactions. I'm referring to self-esteem. for example, if I'm at a party and find one of the women incredibly attractive, my natural tendency is to ignore her because as much as I'd like her attention, it seems like such a long shot to even get eye contact, that I automatically assess the whole thing as not worth the energy or time.

comment by saliency · 2010-03-08T16:48:44.169Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Single strength is related to:

1) Difficulty of producing the signal. (A collage degree vs high school degree)

2) The size of the handicap vs the positive signal (Not having a collage degree but making a lot of money.)

3) The difficulty in faking the signal.

comment by pwno · 2010-03-08T17:08:43.222Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

There are several factors that make up your perceived level of power:

1) Symbols that reliably indicate wealth, intelligence, and high rank

2) Social proof: Having people publicly prove you have power over them.

3) Physical attractiveness

4) Knowledge of institutional power granted to you

5) Displaying behaviors that, in the ancestral environment, correlated with having high status

My article only focuses on the last factor that determines your status. The behaviors I am referring to all follow your criteria. The lower status you are the harder it is to be indifferent towards interesting stimuli (stimuli most people would be reactive to).

People who can display low status behaviors or appear more likable by lowering their status can only do so because high status was established by other factors.

comment by AngryParsley · 2010-03-06T08:55:50.007Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Could you please fix the font in your post? For some reason I'm seeing a small serif font instead of the medium sans-serif typical of LW posts. (I've checked this on different browsers and different OSes.)

comment by orthonormal · 2010-03-08T23:11:06.208Z · score: -4 (8 votes) · LW · GW

This post doesn't merit a response from me.