Epistemic status: trying to share a simplified model of a thing to make it easier to talk about; confident there’s something there, but not confident that my read of it or this attempt at simplification is good.
This post is a rewrite of a talk I gave at a CFAR event that seemed well-received; a couple of people who weren’t there heard about it and asked if I’d explain the thing. I tried to write this relatively quickly and keep it relatively short, which may mean it’s less clear than ideal - happy to hash things out in the comments if so.
The thing is much easier to describe if I occasionally use some woo-y language like “aura” and “energy” to gesture in the direction of what I mean. I’ll put these words in quotes so you know I know I’m being woo-y; feel free to mentally insert “something-you-might-call-” before each instance, if that helps.
But I think in our eagerness to notice and apply the concept of status, we end up conflating it with a related-but-different thing. I also think the different thing is super useful in its own right, and important to understand, and I hope sharing my relatively basic thoughts on it will also let others build off that beginning.
So this post is my attempt to explain that different thing. I’m going to call it “making yourself big” and “making yourself small”.
Horses, goats, bulls
What to do with it
1. Horses, goats, bulls
Let’s start with an animal showing how it’s done. This video popped up in my feed recently, and is an amazing example of an animal (the goat) “making himself big”. To us, it’s obvious that the bull could flatten the goat in any real contest. But the bull doesn’t know that! He’s not reasoning about relative mass or propulsive power; he’s responding purely to how “big” the goat is making his “aura”.
Watch the video and see if you can notice specifically how the goat is doing this.
0:07 - where the goat rears up - is an obvious moment, but I claim 0:30-0:36 is even better, where the bull feints forward a couple of times while the goat stands firm, using his posture to “project” his “energy” irrepressibly forward. The bull is simply unable to continue toward him.
The next two examples are of a human working with horses, to show examples of it looks like for a human to be big or small.
(Full disclosure: this post is actually describing a concept I ported over directly from horsemanship. Due to the amount of time I spent as a kid thinking about horse training, my brain is basically just a bunch of horse metaphors stacked on top of each other.)
First, getting big. The clip I’ll link to shows a stallion who was abnormally poorly trained, plus probably suffered some brain damage as a foal, who as a result is abnormally aggressive. The trainer, therefore, needs to make himself much bigger than is normally necessary to keep the stallion away from him.
See how the trainer uses his flag and motion/”energy” towards the stallion to make himself bigger, which pushes the horse away from him - without using any physical contact? Notice that the trainer does not hit the horse. (The motions he’s making may look like threats to strike, and it’s true that “making yourself big” ultimately rests on implied threat, but it’s the same flavor of threat that the goat is making in the video above - made much more of bluster than of capacity to harm.) I’m pretty confident this horse has never been struck by a human in his life, and certainly not by this trainer. He’s not recalling previous pain caused by this human and moving back to avoid it; he’s just instinctively making space for how “big” the trainer has made himself.
I found it harder to find a good clip of getting small, but I think this one of the same trainer working with a troubled mare is pretty good - watch 1:16-1:45 of this video.
Can you see the moments where he is “smallest”? The first is at 1:33, where he’s physically walking away - he’s actually making himself so small that a “vacuum” is created in his wake, and the mare walks towards him to fill it.
A more classic example is 1:41-1:45. Notice that his body faces away from the mare; he does not make eye contact with her; he moves slowly. In response, she’s able to be close to him, because his “aura” (unlike at 0:18-0:26, 1:16-1:21, or 1:39) is not pushing her away.
Hopefully you now feel like you have some intuition for what making yourself “big” or “small” could mean at all. The above examples show “bigness” and “smallness” causing other animals to physically move their bodies; I claim that this type of body language is a significant part of how social mammals like cows, goats, and horses communicate with each other.
So how does this apply to human-human interactions?
You guessed it: it turns out that humans are social mammals too! We just have more complicated ways of moving our bodies around. (e.g., wiggling our mouth-parts in ways intended to produce specific vibrations in the ears of people nearby.)
2. A framework
Before giving some human-to-human examples, here’s a simplified framework to distinguish high/low status from making yourself big/small.
High/low status is about (among other things):
How much power you have
How much attention you can expect
How much space you are entitled to
Making yourself big/small is about (among other things):
How much power you are exercising
How much attention you are demanding
How much space you are taking up
It’s pretty easy to think of examples of people who are high status and tend to make themselves big, or low status and tend to make themselves small. Here’s an example of each:
(That’s Elon Musk and Neville Longbottom, if you don’t recognize them.)
But what goes in the other corners? I encourage you to try to generate an example of each before scrolling down. (I’d love to hear in the comments what you came up with, and if you still think they’re good examples after reading the rest of the post.)
My low/big example is the very same Neville Longbottom of low/small fame. But this time, it’s Neville in a very specific scene - the one at the end of the first Harry Potter book, where he tries to prevent his friends from leaving the common room. As you may remember, this doesn’t end particularly well for him; indeed, making yourself bigger than the “size” that corresponds to how much status you have is often not a very successful move.
(Which makes sense in the framework above. What would you expect to happen to someone who is trying to exercise more power than they have, demand more attention than they can expect, or take up more space than they’re entitled to? I do think low/big can sometimes be effective, but it’s tough to pull off.)
The high/small example is even more interesting. The image is of Anna Salamon, one of the cofounders of CFAR. I don’t want to refer to teacher-Anna, who stands in front of a room and commands attention, but to mentor-Anna.
Mentor-Anna (whom you probably meet in a setting where she is fairly high-status, as a teacher or organizer or generally a person-whom-others-seem-to-respect) sits in a circle with you, or across from you one-on-one, and makes herself small. She doesn’t play low-status - she doesn’t act scared or powerless or shy. Instead, she talks slowly, leaves plenty of silence for you to fill, physically takes up a small amount of space (with knees to her chest, or legs crossed and hands in front of her, or similar), often looks away from you, and doesn’t interrupt. In response, the people she’s talking with tend to be drawn out of themselves; they have space to reflect; they share half-baked plans and half-acknowledged insecurities. They “expand” to fill the space she has created.
3. What to do with it
As with concepts like status or SNS/PSNS activation, I think what’s useful about having this concept in your mental toolbox is that you can practice:
1) noticing it at play in yourself and others
2)moving where you are on the spectrum
For the latter, probably the most important thing is your mental/emotional state - a friend suggested “not wanting to startle a small bird” as an mindset to inhabit, to encourage yourself to become “smaller”.
If you want more concrete/physical suggestions, here are a few:
Be silent more (both by pausing while you’re speaking, and by waiting a little longer before speaking after someone else)
Use less eye contact (both with the person you’re speaking with, and with others nearby - e.g. avoid the classic move of looking at everyone around the circle to see if they found your joke funny)
Take up less physical space (curl your body in rather than puffing it out, even if only slightly; lean away rather than toward)
Make hedged suggestions or share tentative ideas, rather than using more command-like language (example “smaller” language: “what do you think of the idea of…”; “how would it be if we…”; “maybe one option would be…”)
(By contrast, tips on how to play low status would be more like “make yourself seem defenseless/weak/submissive”.)
I’ve focused on making yourself small in this post, since I think it’s undervalued relative to making yourself big. But since every piece of advice can be reversed, maybe also consider whether you should be making yourself big more often, and how you would do that? (Suggested mindset: be a matador, owning the arena despite the bull charging at you.)
This is the part of the post where videos of human-to-human examples would be really helpful. Unfortunately I found it tricky to come up with examples I could search for that aren’t just high/big or low/small (e.g. the classic “new kid takes down the bully” scene in lots of high school movies usually involves the new kid “getting big”, but also doing a bunch of high-status behavior, which doesn't seem very helpful for explaining). Given that this post has been sitting in “drafts” for a couple of weeks now, waiting for me to get around to finding better examples, I decided to go ahead and post it without more videos.
But to point a little more towards why you should care at all, here are some brief descriptions of example situations where I claim this concept is relevant and useful (please mentally insert additional “I claim”s in any unintuitive-seeming places):
Per the Anna example above, making yourself small is a really good way to non-explicitly encourage someone who seems shy/intimidated/reticent to feel more comfortable coming out of their shell.
At the top, I said people often conflate high/low status with making yourself big/small. As an example, when meeting new people (e.g. at a party or networking event), you might go from thinking “higher status is better” to “I should make myself as big as possible”. But this often backfires, either because you become intimidating (see previous bullet) or because you infringe upon the “space”/”aura” of others, causing them to feel hostile/defensive/aggressive. Decoupling making yourself smaller from playing low status can help you make a much better impression - neither “loud and brash” nor “scared and shy”; more like “self-contained and confident”.
In any context where you want the people around you to pay attention to someone else (e.g. if you’re making a joint presentation of some kind, and it’s their turn to hold the floor), making yourself small will make it easier for that person to take up the space and hold the attention of others.
As with lots of interpersonal concepts, this can also be useful internally: if you’re familiar with internal double crux / internal family systems / other “parts-work”, play around with the motion of having parts of yourself make themselves small (or big).
More generally, directing your “energy”/”aura” in other ways (beyond just “bigger”/”smaller”) - and noticing others doing it - can be useful in tons of situations. As a trivial example, try it the next time you’re in that situation where you bump into someone walking in the other direction, and the two of you can’t figure out which side to pass each other on.
I hope those brief descriptions make sense just based on this post; if not, I can expand on in them the comments if there’s interest. I’d also be curious for what examples you can come up with (or notice in your daily life after reading the post).
If you know me personally, I’m also happy to share more examples of specific mutual acquaintances who are noticeably good or bad at making themselves big or small. I think those would be be difficult and potentially privacy-invading to try to describe to strangers, though, so I’m not including them here.
That’s all I have for now.
LOL j/k, there are also these *~optional horsemanship notes~* (which I could rant on about for pages but which you should feel free to skip):
 For the record, the style of horsemanship I like is pretty niche; you should not expect most people who work with horses to have heard the phrase “make yourself small” or to agree with me about what good horse training looks like.
 The horsemanship clips above are of Buck Brannaman, a trainer I highly respect. There’s a lot of skill and subtlety to what he’s doing in each clip (which I’d love to discuss with anyone interested), so I’d suggest not drawing strong conclusions about his methods based just on these short videos. If you’re really interested, I recommend this documentary about him, which I highly enjoyed but which might make less sense if you have less context on training horses.
 If you’re confused and/or curious about what Buck is doing in the video with the troubled mare: very roughly speaking, he’s 1) making himself big enough that the mare pays attention to him (which - do you see it? - is much less big than he needed to be with the stallion, because she’s not nearly as aggressive/oblivious); 2) showing her that if she’s paying attention to him, nothing bad will happen, and she can relax; 3) making himself small to allow her to approach him while in that relaxed and attentive state.
 I originally learned about the idea of making yourself big or small from The Birdie Book, by Dr. Deb Bennett. (The book is named for one of Bennett’s key ideas, which is that working with the horse’s attention/focus - which she nicknames its “birdie” - is a key part of understanding and communicating with horses.) I’m copying here a long passage from the book about getting small - feel free to skip, but I thought it might add some helpful color.
One of the most moving things I ever witnessed in horsemanship was watching Harry Whitney help a frightened weanling filly. She had come from a breeding farm whose operators cynically demonstrate to clients their horses' "brilliance" and "fire" by frightening them until they retreat with rolling eyes, trembling limbs and terrified sweating, to the back corner of a large stall. The filly's new owner, a woman from Arizona, very wisely brought her to us at a nearby ranch in California, for she knew that asking this animal to make the fifteen-hour trailer trip south in such a stressed and terrified state would likely kill her.
The moment Harry entered the pen where the filly had been placed, she began desperate attempts to flee. The pen, which was much too high for her to jump out of, was enclosed by strong wire netting. This was fortunate for it did not permit her to injure herself, which she would most certainly have done otherwise. As it was, she crashed into and bounced off of it once and then, in blind terror, ran straight at Harry, half knocking him down.
Harry's response was to retreat, very slowly, as far as he could get from her while she did likewise with respect to him. Physically as well as energetically, he made himself as small as possible. His flag (Harry's is made out of a collapsible fishing rod), remained stowed in his high-topped boots, as far out of sight as possible.
Then, from a position squatting close to the ground in one corner of the enclosure, Harry began to help the filly make some changes. Every time she would glance out of the pen, Harry would reach down to his boot and just barely crinkle the flag. The first time he did this, the filly stared at him, the whites of her eyes showing, her feet frozen to the ground, her tense and trembling body leaning stiffly away. As soon as she rolled her eyes toward him, Harry would stop the crinkling sound and resume waiting quietly. Those of us who stood watching hardly dared to breathe.
Our apprehension, however, proved unnecessary. As she spent more time regarding Harry, she began to relax. Soon she could stand still, relaxed, when Harry stood up completely straight. In another few minutes, he could take a step toward her - and then reward her for not fleeing by stepping away from her again. In half an hour, she was able to stretch her neck out to sniff his outstretched hand. A few minutes after that, Harry was petting her muzzle and her forehead. She found out it wasn't so bad. In fact, she liked it.
The second day, Harry repeated the first lessons and in a few minutes the filly was able to permit Harry to place the halter around her muzzle, and then buckle it on her head. In the same way, he then taught her to lead: a little pressure from the rope, let her feel of it, let her figure out how to relieve the pressure by stepping up, then release even more slack to her. After each bout, the filly worked her jaws as she chewed things over in her mind.
On the second day, the filly had two sessions with Harry, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, each of about 30 minutes' duration. By the end of the second lesson that day, the filly was allowing Harry to touch her all over, pick up all four feet, and lead her anywhere in her enclosure, which included a stall plus a run. She could follow Harry in and out of the door, stepping daintily over the threshhold connecting the stall to the run.
On the morning of the third day, Harry led her out of the stall. They walked all over the farm. If she showed indications that she might be getting "lost," Harry would crinkle his flag, or merely reach out to touch her. With this reminder of where her teacher was, she could relax again. It was clear that she wanted to be with Harry more than she wanted to be anywhere else. By the same internal process that underlies all affection - or if you like by the same miracle - he had become her trusted friend. He led her in and out of the owner's horse trailer, up and down the ramp, letting her find out all about it, and especially that it wasn't going to hurt her.
Using his human powers of pre-planning and foresight, Harry never got this filly into trouble, never came close to breaking her thread. This allowed her to begin to develop a much wider scale for adjustment. Some people call this "equanimity," "resiliency," or "inner calm." Others call it "emotional maturity."
On the afternoon of the third day, Harry handed the lead line to the owner. She had already learned much by watching the whole process for three days, and with a little support from Harry, she found to her delight that she too could pet, halter, lead, and load her filly and handle her feet. We all realized that they were both going to make it just fine to their new home in Arizona.
When I expressed my admiration to Harry later in private, he said, "my biggest worry was that I might not be able to make myself small enough."
This is really interesting and helpful, thank you.
My original introduction to status was in Impro, which describes it in the context of an improv scene. This means (as I recall) that it mostly focuses on things that are directly observable in body language, like eye contact and taking up space.
Since you suggest we think of most of those things as being about "size" rather than "status", I'm curious whether you think there are body language indicators of high/low status, or whether that's inherently contextual and based on actual power.
(One hypothesis: signs of nervousness like talking too quickly or fidgeting might be markers of low status?)
Yes, I do think there are body-language indicators that are more about status than size, though I definitely agree with alkjash below that the two things are entangled. I agree that Keith Johnstone in Impro is often talking about size, though I think he's conflating it with status, so often talks about both in one breath.
At a first pass, I think the clearest body-language-related thing that's about status rather than size is basically just how comfortable you seem, vs. intimidated/discomfited. So I agree with your suggestions - talking too quickly and fidgeting both seem like they signal discomfort.
Some examples where I think Impro gets this right, from skimming through my copy quickly:
In contrast to one teacher who was strict and terrifying, and one teacher who was weak and ridiculed, Johnstone talks about a teacher of his who was "upright, but relaxed" - I like that as a description of high/small. (he then goes on to describe him as "a status expert, raising and lowering his status with great skill", which I think should be "a size expert, making himself bigger and smaller with great skill.")
Johnstone describes a game he plays with his students where, without telling them, he starts inserting "er" (British for "um") at the start of all his sentences, and asks them if they notice any change. I think this is an example of something that makes you come across as less comfortable with the situation and therefore lower status. (Though there are lots of ways to say "um", so this probably isn't true as a blanket statement.)
Facial expression and apparent relaxed-ness are probably the most concrete I can get at a first pass. Does that help / thoughts?
I've been thinking about this since I posted it, and I came to similar conclusions. There are a cluster of behaviors that seem to mean discomfort and therefore low status: fidgeting, jumpiness, talking too fast, certain eye contact patterns (staring at the person and then looking away fast when they turn to look at you), ums and ers.
Some of them feel hard to disentangle. Whether you hold your head high seems mostly about status, but also a little about size. This seems like it might be inherent in the territory: There's a fine line between credibly signaling that you're powerful and implicitly threatening to use that power. (Schelling's The Strategy of Conflict comes to mind here.)
Being a well-written and engaging read, with good use of videos and pictures
Deepening a previously existing discussion on LW (about the nature of status)
Giving readers a puzzle they're challenged to think about themselves to test their understanding
Also, while it wasn't really a reason to curate, I want to add that I really appreciate the way that Helen has a very positive and friendly way of engaging with everyone in the comments. :)
A way to further improve the post would have been to clarify the distinction between status and size some more - I felt like I roughly understood the distinction, especially after reading the comments where this was discussed further, but I'm still not sure if I could always reliably distinguish the two.
Good post! I saw Kaj's response to having what he feels is "a bit of an 'aura of trustworthiness'," and that seems to be a phenotypical Real Life example of the Big Seeming Small, which, in my mind, demands a very separate discussion from the intentions of the seemer.
This post may be about intentions in seeming, but there also exist important lacks-of-intentions-in-seeming which came to the fore of my mind when reading this.
I am a large man, with a neanderthal-ish face, a strong chin, and a voice that sounds very much as if one or both of my parents were tenured professors. My body language, like my chest, is very broad. I'm not very smart. I'm a blabbermouth in real life, and I interrupt slow speakers without realizing it. My voice is consistently very loud, because my father was, in fact, a tenured professor with a hearing disability.
I project an aura of untrustworthiness when I try to act small. Because generally, no one believes I am small in any way, until they grow to know me. I think of myself as shy and self-conscious, but none of my physicality seems to express that.
One of my innate smallnesses is a lack of self-control, but this often expresses itself as a perceived lack-of-need-for-self-control, which people instinctively interpret as dominant.
When I interrupt people, I get away with it. Even, and especially, when I shouldn't. Then I beat myself up about it for three days, rehearsing my conversations in my head after-the-fact.
I am so self-conscious about this fact about myself that the first thing I could think of, seeing that charming picture of Anna Salamon, was to simulate a conversation with her where I was needlessly interruptive and obnoxious. I immediately felt shame, seeing that picture, because I am terrible at self-control and I can JUST IMAGINE how a conversation between us would go. And I'm still feeling pangs of shame, five minutes later, for that imagined conversation, in which I failed to know my place, with this smart person I've never met...
So, clearly I have a low opinion of myself that my body doesn't properly communicate, but attempting to act small goes poorly for me. People don't trust self-deprecations from me. I shout them everywhere I go, including right here and now. Despite everything I've said having been utterly true, my bigness even comes out in my writing, and I can feel doubt from you before I even click SUBMIT. "Is his face really neanderthal-ish? That sounds like body dysphoria, not a real problem." I promise you, when you imagine a neanderthal, you imagine my face.
I'm therefore limited to pretending to be small in Softening ways, not in Smallening ways. I do a lot of flamboyant shrugging and enthusiastic nodding and avoiding eye-contact. Does anyone have any advice for expressing "HI, I'M A LOUD IDIOT, PLEASE TELL ME WHEN YOU WANT ME TO SHUT UP."? Because I have literally used that as an opener before, and it kind of railroads me into a certain kind of conversation that I don't particularly enjoy having. I need to find something better.
A lot of your comment actually sounds pretty familiar to me.
The main suggestion I have based on what you wrote is to pick a small number of specific things you'd like to do differently, then gradually practice those in some conversations, treating it explicitly as practice that you will need to do for a while, not as a magic fix that you'd be able to implement perfectly if only you were a good enough person.
To unpack that:
Specific things to do differently: from your comment, it already sounds like you've already identified some things you do that make you "bigger" than you want to be - interrupting people and speaking in a loud voice. Take those, as a starter.
Practice in some conversations: explicitly pick some interactions where it feels OK to experiment with this - maybe it's first conversations with people you're not likely to meet again, or maybe it's group conversations with 4+ people where it's fine if you don't say much, or maybe it's some other type of context. However you choose, start trying to keep an eye out for "practice conversations".
Treating it as practice: in most conversations, you probably have multiple goals you're pursuing at once - maybe to learn something, maybe to tell someone else something, maybe to get them to like you, etc. The idea of explicitly picking some subset of conversations to be practice conversations is that in those ones, you bump up practicing your selected skills to be above your other goals.
Practice you'll need to do for a while: At first, your main goal is just to notice chances to practice the things you've picked. The first few times you try it, you might not notice until it's too late - maybe you'll notice once you're a sentence and a half into interrupting someone, or you'll talk quietly the first time you speak, but not the second. That's totally OK! See AgentyDuck on why noticing is so important (and hard). If you notice at all, that counts as you getting practice, and therefore as a win. If you stick with it, you'll gradually get better at noticing, and the better you are at noticing, the more chances you have to practice doing the thing.
This is basically what I did many years ago when training myself out of some pretty similar habits. Maybe the most similar was that when I felt insecure in a conversation, I would (subconsciously) default to trying to speak as much as possible - I think motivated by trying to show people I was smart? But this just resulted in (a) people being annoyed that they couldn't get a word in, and (b) my average contribution being not that interesting, because I was saying so many things. One thing I practiced very explicitly was noticing when I was feeling this kind of insecurity, and raising my bar for how interesting/funny/etc I expected my contribution to be. I knew theoretically that it's much more likeable to say a few things people enjoy than lots of things they don't, but it still took a lot of attentive practice to change my in-the-moment habits.
I'll note that trying to express "HI, I'M A LOUD IDIOT, PLEASE TELL ME WHEN YOU WANT ME TO SHUT UP." sounds to me like basically the epitome of low-big as described in the post - and I therefore wouldn't recommend it. I can understand it seems appealing since you're perceived as being much bigger than you want to be, and you're trying to compensate for that, but this is such a "big" way to try to compensate that I think it's bound to backfire. Instead, I think it's totally feasible to learn to work with features of yourself that you seem to be treating as fixed (voice volume, interrupting-ness, body language), to actually directly affect how "big" people perceive you to be, rather than asking them to forgive you for it.
My example for high status/small was an esteemed teacher unexpectedly dropping in to see to see their student perform, and entering silently and at the last minute, then standing quietly at the back of the room by the door.
I’d love to hear in the comments what you came up with, and if you still think they’re good examples after reading the rest of the post.
For "low playing big", I thought of a little kid (like five years old or something) acting all boasty and "adulty" with the kind of body language that would take up a lot of space if his body wasn't so small in the first place. For "high playing small", I actually thought of myself in some situations where I'm relatively high status.
The little-kid-one seemed pretty similar to your Neville example. And your description of Anna's behaviors and people's responses to them actually made me go, huh, yeah, that is how I often behave and how many people end up reacting in return.
(I seem to have a bit of an "aura of trustworthiness" that seems to make it easy for some people, including relative strangers, to open up and start telling me about their concerns. I remember one person in particular who I would often hang out with: she'd start talking about something that was on her mind, and after having spent 15 minutes explaining what was bothering her, she'd suddenly realize what she'd been doing and go "wait, why am I telling this to you?", using pretty much literally those words. )
Also, when I saw that you'd chosen a picture of Anna for the "high playing small" thing, I found myself thinking yes, oh man, she's a perfect choice for that one. :)
I'm really glad that this was written up. Around the time that Helen gave this talk I was having trouble with being reflexively big, in a way that was making some people feel like they couldn't be comfortable around me. Helen's talk and a conversation I had with one of these people helped me relax into being small sometimes.
There's also a thing I've been learning how to do that relationalists (people who do circling, etc.) call "holding space [for someone]." It looks sort of like high-small, except it doesn't involve looking away or using tentative language. You can do it without saying anything at all, and often it involves making and holding eye contact. I'm not sure I can explain how to do it via text. You sort of... radiate love and acceptance outward? It can be very powerful; people can just start crying immediately when someone does this for them. But I'm not sure to what extent it fits in this framework or needs a bigger framework.
Yeah, I love the concept of holding space. If I wanted to fit it into this framework, I'd say that holding space for person A is 1) making yourself small, then 2) making clear that the space you've left belongs to person A. Like, you're not just withdrawing into yourself, or leaving more space for anyone in the group to talk. I think 2) is a separate skill from what's discussed in this post, though.
So I guess tl;dr I think being small is necessary-but-not-sufficient to hold space. Thoughts?
Mod notice: just a pre-emptive caution, we think that there's a bit of a risk involved whenever people ask each other for public feedback on their real-life personas. In particular, there could be failure models of the kind "Kaj asks NewGuy for feedback, is a high-status person so gets a lot of upvotes, NewGuy feels pressured to respond and also hates Kaj's guts, but in light of the upvotes and Kaj's general status doesn't feel comfortable answering honestly, but doesn't want to answer dishonestly either, gets really uncomfortable".
Now, Duncan's comment here doesn't look like it would produce that kind of a problem (and we don't think that Duncan did anything wrong in asking). But just to avoid these kinds of problems, we want to publicly establish a policy that anyone who gets asked for feedback on their real-life behavior should feel free to ignore the question and just not respond, no explanation necessary. This policy obviously includes Duncan's comment to Helen here, so Helen shouldn't feel any pressure to respond if not totally comfortable with responding.
(This is the first time the mod team has really thought about this situation, so if you have thoughts about how we should deal with things like this [or whether we should intervene at all], feel free to open a post in meta about it with alternative suggestions.)
Thanks, Kaj - I think this is a good thing to be cautious of in general. In this case I'm happy to send Duncan my thoughts, but am planning to do so privately, since I feel like that creates less incentive for other people to be like "ooh, do me!" in the hopes of getting public praise.
(I'm happy to try sending thoughts to anyone I know who wants them, though I think in plenty of cases it'll just be "I don't notice anything particularly remarkable about you on this axis".)
This is great! Definitely useful to tease out more dimensions in the social game.
However, I worry that there's something not-quite-orthogonal about the two axes you describe. A piece of this is ... both noticing and moving in the social game are in themselves predictive of high status. That is to say, if you're in a social situation where you understand what's going on and have the mental slack to control your status moves, almost everything you do naturally will look like playing high, and it feels quite awkward to play low intentionally.
What this means in practice is that on the high status side it's very easy to play both big and small as the situation demands, but the lower right corner (low-status playing big) is a dangerous place to be and is rarely occurring in nature. This is probably why it's harder to come up with a low-big example than a high-small example. You're repelled from low-big by either (a) being pushed back down to the low-small state you "deserve" by social pressure or (b) being pushed up to high-big by gaining courage and status from playing big.
I'm curious about your claim that low-status playing big is rarely occurring in nature, because it was far easier for me to think of low-big examples than high-small examples. What examples did you think of, if you care to share? Maybe we're interpreting the thing slightly differently? And I definitely agree that low-big is a dangerous place to be, but it's not obvious to me that either (a) or (b) will come into play in all or even a majority of cases.
I think a lot of low-big happens when people are relatively socially oblivious, and in those situations I think social pressure is often ineffective at pushing people back down to the low-small state. There is a common problem at rationality meetups (where people skew higher-than-average autistic) where someone takes up far more than their fair share of air in the room and doesn't pick up on others' signals of annoyance or discomfort.
Another situation that leads to a lot of low-big is when a person who's used to being high status comes into a new context and erroneously expects their status to be conserved across domains. A probably-familiar example is a freshman at an elite university who was the smartest person in his hometown and therefore has been trained to think that everything he has to say is really important, who dominates class discussion despite having nothing interesting or insightful to say. In that case I guess I would naïvely expect (a) to push that person to be smaller eventually, but in practice that hasn't been my experience.
Also, a lot of old people and tenured professors play big no matter what situation they're in, and (a) is very unlikely to work on them, but (b) also might not work if they're in a situation where they can't gain status just by being big and blustery (e.g. the rationality community!).
Do you think there are other forces that act to repel people from low-big besides (a) and (b)? If not, are there other reasons why you think low-big is not a stable equilibrium? I ask because it definitely doesn't look like a stable equilibrium, but I haven't thought of things other than (a) or (b) that would make that the case.
I also agree that "both noticing and moving in the social game are in themselves predictive of high status," but I don't think it necessarily follows that "on the high status side it's very easy to play both big and small as the situation demands." I think there are plenty of people (probably particularly females, because of how we're explicitly socialized to not take up space) who have definitely acquired status but play small far more often than is warranted. Imperfect examples that come to mind are Lauren Lee and Scott Alexander (and me, but you don't know me) - although I'm concerned I might be equivocating here between 'being small' and 'playing low status.' I definitely always am both small and playing low status and trying to wrench myself out of that is painful and confusing, but I don't know if the same is true of Lauren or Scott.
I think all I'm really saying here is that 'being good at the social game' implies 'high status', but 'high status' does not imply 'being good at the social game' - which maybe makes the axes more orthogonal than you think.
I think I tend to filter out relatively socially oblivious people from in-person interactions, so I'm probably seeing a wildly different sample from you and that accounts for the difference. I'll make the weaker claim that low-big, unlike the three other locations on the map, is just not a good place to be in almost any situation.
I'm interpreting high-small to include many self-deprecating/minimizing behaviors made by high-status people (say good teachers and speakers) to seem more approachable/human and make everyone else more comfortable. "Holding space [for someone]" Qiaochu mentions in the other comment is an example of this. My experience is that most people "good at the status game" know how to play (exactly) high-big and high-small.
Indeed "high status" does not imply "good at the status game," that's a good point.
100% agree that status and size are intertwined. Depending on how strongly you mean it, I think I disagree with "both noticing and moving in the social game are in themselves predictive of high status"? I certainly disagree that relatively lower-status people shouldn't try noticing or moving.
For example, I think one straightforward and beneficial application of detangling these concepts is for people (of whom, like mingyuan in their other reply to you, I've met plenty) who spend a lot of their social lives unintentionally make themselves bigger than appropriate for their status. The beneficial outcome here isn't "they realize they should be smaller and make themselves so, good riddance" - it's something more like "they realize they should be smaller for now and make themselves so" -> "they start working on ways to be higher status while staying relatively small for the moment" -> "they gradually become higher status and can decide how much of that space to fill in any given moment".
I personally know a really good example of this happening (though they didn't use my terms/concepts, so it's not evidence those are useful). When I met this person a few years ago, they were really quite low status, and they made themselves really quite big, all the time. It was really annoying, and they knew it, and they were trying to figure out how to fix it. This person is now much higher status in their circles than they were back then, and also smaller most of the time, and I think learning to be smaller is an important part of the causal chain that ended up with them being higher status. (In my telling it also involved them learning and doing a bunch of things - I don't want to imply it was pure social conniving - but I think the smallness was a prerequisite or at least a notable booster.)
Come to think of it, though for some reason I've never put it in these terms before, I think this is also a good frame for a big shift I made in how I interact socially, around ages 17-20. Maybe that's why this concept seems so important to me. Huh.
Good question - not totally sure. One thought is that in the status-signaling game, making yourself small is one way of countersignaling high status? I don't think it's the only way, and I don't think it's the only effect of being small, but that's my quick take on how the concepts interact.
I think it also makes sense to do it for the purpose of making other people feel safe and sending signals that you are protecting them. In the Charisma framework outlined in the Charisma myth it would be a way to signal high warmth by signaling to someone else, "I want to give you this space, and I am going to protect you from others taking it". Gift-giving often seems to be associated with making yourself temporarily small, even if you are high status.
Yes, agree. Said, if you didn't read it before, you may also want to read the long quote I posted from the book where I got this concept - in the quote, Harry's trying to convey to the filly (completely truthfully) that she is not in danger and he is not going to hurt her.
(To preempt the obvious objection that he's only doing that so that later he can dominate and exploit her, I say yes, good job being cynical, but I really strongly claim that that's not how this school of horsemanship works. The best recommendation I have if you're still skeptical is to watch the documentary "Buck", which I linked to in the notes after the post. An 80/20 of that might be to watch some of the trailers on YouTube.)
Well, to be honest, the horse metaphors/examples/whatever don’t really resonate with me. I’m not sure what to do with them, truth be told. The fact is that people aren’t horses. Dealing with a person—who can think about what you’re doing, and understand your motivations, and modify their own behavior accordingly, and draw on reputation, and prior knowledge, and rumor, and possesses all those wonderful evolved psychological adaptations for dealing with other humans in social situations, etc.—is not like dealing with a horse, or any similar sort of animal. (I mean, if your analogies involved chimpanzees, I’d still be dubious, but less so—but horses…?)
Oh huh, that's interesting. I was expecting people to resonate less with the horse examples than I do, but it sounds like you don't find them helpful whatsoever, which I find kind of surprising.
In the specific case of horses, I think my intuition that they can provide helpful info about humans would probably be hard to explain from scratch - it's based on a lot of small examples of me comparing and testing things in my own experience.
More generally though, I'm curious if you find people talking about our "reptile brain" or "monkey brain" to be similarly useless? I agree with you that chimps are a better approximation of humans than either horses or crocodiles, but "social mammal brain" seems to me to fit naturally between "reptile" and "monkey" in the space of evolutionarily-valid-seeming claims-of-analogy. It's absolutely true that these analogies are a long way from perfect - a prefrontal cortex changes a huge amount of how we respond to reptilian urges, and language changes a huge amount of how we engage in monkey status games - but that doesn't seem to me to undercut their usefulness as analogies/inspirations.
(I'll also note that my previous comment was about a human's attitude/intention towards a horse, which seems like it *is* relevant to the question in your previous comment about reasons for high/small, but that's a separate and less fundamental question.)
More generally though, I’m curious if you find people talking about our “reptile brain” or “monkey brain” to be similarly useless?
I do indeed (and in fact I find this verbal/conceptual habit to be rather annoying).
The thing about analogical thinking is that it can be very dangerous—in several ways, but in one particularly insidious one: it’s easy to forget to tie the argument back to the actual thing you’re talking about. In other words, what I often see is that someone will say “ok, now imagine [some analogy]… in this scenario, blah blah… and therefore, blah blah… and so obviously, blah blah…”—and throughout all of this, they’re still talk about the analogy! I read such things, and I think: “ok, yes, now how do all of your claims, arguments, conclusions, etc., look when you translate them back to the real thing that all of this is an analogy for?”
In other words, analogies are good if they’re used as scaffolding, so to speak, to clarify the shape of an argument or a model, to help your interlocutor understand what you’re saying about reality. But you had better actually have a real argument, with claims about real things, etc.! If you just have the analogy, and all your reasoning is in the analogy-world, and all your conclusions are in the analogy-world, then that’s useless at best, and tremendously misleading at worst. Analogical thinking cannot replace reasoning about the real world. If it does that, then it’s detrimental, not helpful.
 The proper structure, therefore, goes like this:
“I am making an argument that [insert claim about reality]. As an analogy, consider [analogical scenario]; in that case, we can see that [reasoning in the analogy-world]; and therefore, [conclusion in the analogy-world]. And so in reality: [analogous reasoning in the real world]; and therefore, [conclusion in the real world].”
In the specific case of horses, I think my intuition that they can provide helpful info about humans would probably be hard to explain from scratch—it’s based on a lot of small examples of me comparing and testing things in my own experience.
I sympathize with the difficulty of conveying such experiential knowledge, but then I think that this is the crux of the matter. This might be a situation where you just can’t effectively convey your epistemic state—virtuous though it may be (or not, I don’t know, but certainly I have no specific reason to believe otherwise)—in a blog post.
Imagine a teacher at elementary school doing the Anna Salamon thing. I wouldn't call that countersignalling, because the age difference is mostly sufficient to make the difference, there is no need for further status moves. And I wouldn't call it deception either; I think the kids will not get deceived that this teacher is actually not a teacher. It is simply an instrumental move with a pedagogical purpose.
… a teacher at elementary school … the age difference is mostly sufficient to make the difference, there is no need for further status moves.
This is emphatically not the case. It is entirely possible for an elementary school student to make successful status moves against their teacher; indeed, it is entirely possible (and, in some educational settings, even common) for an elementary school student to gain substantial status over their teacher without even trying, and certainly with no conscious knowledge that this is what they are doing. Certainly I could cite examples from my own experience; and I’d wager that many Less Wrong commenters could do likewise.
(In fact, this is so common that it’s a well-worn trope in popular fiction, including one example with which we’re all familiar…)
In fact, the challenge of maintaining discipline in a classroom is, basically, the question of whether the teacher can maintain their status advantage relative to the students. It is absolutely necessary for a teacher to make status moves. Inept or sadistic teachers do this overtly, clumsily, and cruelly (and this, too, is a well-worn trope). Talented teachers do it subtly, casually, without anyone perceiving their actions as status moves—which is, of course, precisely the point.
A teacher at elementary school “doing the Anna Salamon thing” is precisely countersignaling.
I thought of a similar example to you for big-low-status, but I couldn't think of an example I was happy with for small-high-status. Every example I could think of was one where someone is visually small, but you already know they're high status. So I was struck when your example also used someone we all know is high status! Is there a pose or way of looking which both looks small and communicates high status, without relying on some obvious marker like a badge or a crown?
Buckley is interesting in this regard. If you watch old Firing Line episodes you often see him slouched in his armchair like a rag doll casually tossed onto it, mumbling his words, trying to let his interlocutors have their say, but very very confident that you will listen to him and regard him as a Serious Public Intellectual anyway.
I read somewhere that higher status men and women use their status in different ways when they are in a group of (lower status) people. Higher status women use it to kind of subtly chair the group, keeping themselves in the background but helping others have their say etc (i.e. make themselves small). Whereas higher status men put themselves centre-stage and talk a lot (make themselves big).
My clearest experience of unintentionally being 'big' was when I was at a meetup group in a pub. The others sat down to talk round a table, but there were no normal-sized chairs left, so I pulled up a bar stool which meant I was about a foot higher up than everyone else. Suddenly they all started paying close attention to everything I said! It was really weird!
This was a really helpful post for me. I can see now that there’s a distinction between how much status you have and how much status you’re using/spending/playing at a given time, and I figured out some important things on this axis for how I personally want to act.
Great model. I can think of lots of bigs acting small. Have you ever heard it said of a celebrity, "In person he (or she) was just like an ordinary person?" In short, the celebrity made himself small. Research has demonstrated that an increase in power and wealth leads to a decrease in empathy and a willingness to discount the needs of others. Using your formulation, power increases the likelihood that one will demand attention, or feel entitled to more space. The ability to act smaller when needed could be very important to people with power and status. I think we see this in good politicians, too.
This post really made me think about how I present. I can see now that I wanted to be high/small for a while now, but haven't been very good at making myself small. I want to be the kind of person who leaves space for others, but when I'm around a group of big people I turn big reflexively so they can't talk over me. I think part of the solution to that is spending more time with people who aren't "shouting me down".
The horse metaphor works well for me - humans aren't that different from other animals, at least in my mind.
Thanks for writing this! I would love to hear more about this and if you have links in mind, would love to read them:
"As with lots of interpersonal concepts, this can also be useful internally: if you’re familiar with internal double crux / internal family systems / other “parts-work”, play around with the motion of having parts of yourself make themselves small (or big)."
Thanks for the post! The example I came up with for low/big was someone taking up a lot of physical space and being loud in a full public transport, and for the high/small was a very established entrepreneur during a group conversations at his wife's family dinner.
There's one of French author's La Fontaine's fables that is named "the frog that wanted to make itself bigger than the bull". I feel like it is a good complement to this post, if only because it's a metaphor of low status making itself big.