The red paperclip theory of status

by Morendil, Kaj_Sotala4 min read12th Jul 201022 comments

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Social Status
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Followup to: The Many Faces of Status (This post co-authored by Morendil and Kaj Sotala - see note at end of post.)

In brief: status is a measure of general purpose optimization power in complex social domains, mediated by "power conversions" or "status conversions".

What is status?

Kaj previously proposed a definition of status as "the ability to control (or influence) the group", but several people pointed out shortcomings in that. One can influence a group without having status, or have status without having influence. As a glaring counterexample, planting a bomb is definitely a way of influencing a group's behavior, but few would consider it to be a sign of status.

But the argument of status as optimization power can be made to work with a couple of additional assumptions. By "optimization power", recall that we mean "the ability to steer the future in a preferred direction". In general, we recognize optimization power after the fact by looking at outcomes. Improbable outcomes that rank high in an agent's preferences attest to that agent's power. For the purposes of this post, we can in fact use "status" and "power" interchangeably.

In the most general sense, status is the general purpose ability to influence a group. An analogy to intelligence is useful here. A chess computer is very skilled at the domain of chess, but has no skill in any other domain. Intuitively, we feel like a chess computer is not intelligent, because it has no cross-domain intelligence. Likewise, while planting bombs is a very effective way of causing certain kinds of behavior in groups, intuitively it doesn't feel like status because it can only be effectively applied to a very narrow set of goals. In contrast, someone with high status in a social group can push the group towards a variety of different goals. We call a certain type of general purpose optimization power "intelligence", and another type of general purpose optimization power "status". Yet the ability to make excellent chess moves is still a form of intelligence, but only a very narrow one.

A power conversion framework

The framework that (provisionally) makes the most sense to us is the following, based on the idea of power conversions.

  1. There are a great many forms of status, and a great many forms of power. (Earlier discussion hinted to the "godshatteriness" of status.) Dominance is one, but so are wealth, prestige, sex appeal, conceptual clarity, and so on.
  2. All such forms of power are evidenced by the ability to steer the future into a preferred direction, with respect to the form considered: sex appeal consists of the ability to reliably cause arousal in others.
  3. Any given form of power will have limited usefulness in isolation. This is why planting bombs does not equate to "high status" - detonating a bomb is a dead-end use of one's power to bring about certain outcomes.
  4. Greater optimization power accrues to those who have the crucial ability to convert one form into another. For instance, causing bombs to be planted, so that you can credibly threaten to blow people up, may be converted into other forms of power (for instance political).
  5. Neither the claim "status is something you have" nor "status is something you do" is fully correct. Status emerges as an interaction between the two: a fancy title is meaningless if nobody in the group respects you, but even if you have the respect of the group, you can act to elevate the status of others and try not to have an disproportionate influence on the group.
  6. The difference between intelligence and status is that intelligence is the general ability to notice and predict patterns and take advantage of them. Even if you were the only person in the world, it would still be meaningful to talk about your intelligence. In contrast, your status is undefined outside the context of a specific social group.

In the story of the "red paperclip", Kyle MacDonald started out with having just a single paperclip, which he then traded for a pen, which he traded for a doorknob, until he eventually ended up with a two-story farmhouse. Humans are not normally much interested in paperclips, but if you happen to know someone who desires a red paperclip, and happen to be in possession of one, you may be able to trade it for some other item that has more value in your eyes, even while the other party also sees the trade as favorable. Value is complex!

The more forms of status/power you are conversant with, and the greater your ability to convert one into another, the more you will be able to bring about desirable outcomes through a chain of similar trades.

Because we are social animals, these chain of conversions predictably start with primitives such as dominance, grooming and courting. However, in and of themselves skills in these domains do not constitute "having status", and are not sufficient to "raise your status", both expressions this framework exposes as meaningless. The name of the game is to convert the temporary power gained from (say) a dominance behaviour into something further, bringing you closer to something you desire: reproduction, money, a particular social position...

Subtleties

In fact (this is a somewhat subtle point) some conversions may require successfully conveying less power than you actually have, because an excess of power in one domain may hinder your opportunities for conversion in another. One example is the PUA technique consisting of pretending that "you only have five minutes" when engaging a group in conversation. This ostensibly limits your power to choose the topic of conversation, but at the same time allows you to more effectively create rapport, a slightly different form of relational power. Gaining the group's trust is what you are after, which is easier to convert into knowledge about the group, which is yet another kind of power to be converted later. This is a more subtle play than creating the impression that you are barging into the group.

Another example can be found in Keith Johnstone's Impro. Johnstone has an exercise where an angry person is blaming another for having read his letters without permission. The person under attack reacts by debasing himself: "Yes, I did it. I always do things like that. I'm a horrible person..." As the conversation continues, it becomes harder and harder for the angry person to continue without making himself feel like a complete jerk. Johnstone describes this as lowering your own status in order to defend yourself, which would make no sense if we had a theory where status was simply the ability to influence someone. You can't influence someone by reducing your ability to influence them! But with the concept of power conversion, we can see this as converting general-purpose influence to a very narrow form of influence. The person debasing themselves will have a hard time of getting the other to agree on any other concessions for a while.

A similar argument can be made in the case of a needy person, who controls somebody that cares about them by being generally incompetent and needing a lot of help. The needy, clingy person is low-status is because he has converted his ability to influence people in general to the ability to influence a specific person.

Conclusions

Relational, short-term forms of power (what has been discussed under the heading of "status-related behaviours") are only the beginning of a long chain. People who are good at "corporate politics" are, in fact, skilled at converting such social advantages as rapport, trust or approval into positional power. This in turn can readily be converted into wealth, which can in turn be converted into yet other kinds of power, and so on. Individuals widely recognized as high-status are "wild capitalists" performing in social groups the same kind of efficient trades as the hero of the red paperclip story. (This framework can also help make sense of high-performing individual's careers in other domains, such as science: see the essay at the link just previous.)

This way of thinking about status gives us a better handle on reconciling status-related intuitions that appear contradictory, e.g. "it's all about primate dominance" vs "it's all about wielding influence". When we see status as a web of power conversions, spanning a number of different forms of power, we see how to integrate these diverse intuitions without either denying any one of them or giving any one primacy over all others.

Authorship note

(This is a co-authored post. Morendil first applied the concept of power transfers to status and wrote most of this article. Kaj re-wrote the beginning and suggested the analogy to intelligence, supplying points V and VI of the framework as well as the examples of the self-debasing and the needy person.)

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These are some great points, I'm just surprised why there isn't more discussion on this article. Perhaps because it got buried under a bunch of articles posted just shortly after?

It's correct, complete, and not an obvious source of immediate advice for sexy personal problems.

In the context of other points Morendil made about self esteem transaction, it does suggest things I should do differently.

Aww, so far I'd been assuming it was just stunned silence at the post's sheer brillance. You spoilsport. :)

I hadn't read it until now partly because of the relatively large number of articles posted recently and partly because the title turned me off reading it for reasons which I can't currently discern.

Worried about the post turning you into a paperclip maximizer?

Yeah, same here. The red paperclip aspect didn't quite click with the opening paragraphs. It is only mentioned briefly towards the middle.

I think this is a great model for understanding status -- especially the transactional nature of it.

I hope the authors (or some other LWers) will elaborate on the different kinds of status transactions. It seems to me that status can be traded off for various other benefits -- money, sex, knowledge, favors. For example, conspicuous consumption is a way of exchanging money for status. Endorsements (think B-list celebrities) are a way of exchanging status for money. Powertalk is the art of trading status for knowledge and vice versa. Similarly, seduction hints at a sex/status transaction. Of course, none of these are simple, zero-sum, X for Y exchanges, but they all have a transactional quality to them.

The authors' use of the phrase "power conversion" is great, although I think "energy conversion" would make a good metaphor here as well. Just as it's possible to convert kinetic energy into potential energy and vice versa, or electrical energy into light or heat, it's possible to convert status among its different forms, and also into other forms of social or biological value. A full treatment of this would be fascinating.

Without taxonimizing, I would point in the general direction of rags-to-riches stories, which are aplenty, especially if you consider political power as riches (hitler and stalin were clearly geniuses at this). Also I think cults and cult leaders on a personal level are very good at some of these exchanges.

One specific example: I think celebrities who do "shocking things" that everybody "accidentally" finds out about exchange some "respectability" status for name recognition which they plow into their next money-making project. (e.g. what launched Paris Hilton's "career"? Might have been an accident, but with at least some celebs I think this is quite deliberate.)

While this post is good at pointing out ways to convert and use status, it does not explain how to circumvent status hierarchies. Status games are not subjected to the rule: "The only way to win is not to play." Outsiders are without influence in almost all circles.

The typical movie example is the crackpot scientist who happens to be right about the upcoming disaster. Ahem, LW.

Can the power exchange metaphor be extended in some way to incorporate convertible forms of potential status power?

I think there are many good points here but I think this whole discussion should be cast in terms of "how can we explain the way that people associate varying degrees of status with those around them?" rather than "what is the correct definition of status?" The former permits direct reasoning from evidence, whereas the latter risks becoming circular, and I see a lot of just-so stories in your framework.

It's hard to "explain the way that people associate varying degrees of status" when nearly everyone seems to mean something different by "status". Plainly, I disagree that this "permits direct reasoning from evidence".

This post argues that the kind of evidence we may find useful to reason from is "improbable outcomes that rank high in an agent's preferences attest[ing] to that agent's power". If you can reliably get people to pay you large sums of money, or hop into bed with you, or carry out your orders, that is something worth explaining. (Though not all such explanations will necessarily be status-based.)

Similarly what makes the red paperclip story hard to argue with is that its protagonist ends up with a house at the end. That's definitely an improbable outcome attesting to that person's ability to do... something.

This post makes some testable predictions. It argues, for instance, that you do not get a house (or a customer to sign a large contract with you, etc.) by looking into someone's eyes in a high-status way and hinting that you'd like a house (or that contract, etc.). It argues that such "high status behaviours" as they have been called in fact gain you nothing directly usable, but pave the way for further transactions.

It's hard to "explain the way that people associate varying degrees of status" when nearly everyone seems to mean something different by "status".

Well I think that part of the reason that status is interesting is that people do perceive it consistently -- perhaps not in a way they can easily verbalize but surely if you asked a group of people to rank the status of a bunch of businessmen/athletes/janitors based on one photograph then their responses would correlate better than chance. Or if each person in a particular social group ranked the status of all the other members, etc.

I guess my point is that the interesting thing about status is the complicated procedure by which we perceive and act on it. That is, it's interesting as a question about human psychology. The evidence should be the status perceptions that people make, and the question should be how and why they make them. Starting with "status=optimization power" leads to a different set of questions, which, while valid, are not the questions that people usually ask about status, and which I think miss the point.

if you asked a group of people to rank the status of a bunch of businessmen/athletes/janitors based on one photograph then their responses would correlate better than chance.

That's an interesting experiment to suggest, let's think it through carefully.

Suppose we took a set of photographs, each of a single person, in a similar pose, and we asked a random sample from a given demographic to rank these photographs.

Immediately one complication that arises is what question we're asking. "Rank these people by status" is going to be interpreted differently by different people creating one more variable to control for: any correlation that arises could be a correlation in how people in our sample are likely to interpret the question.

Even supposing that complication could be somehow mitigated, there is the question of whether people are basing their rankings on some readily available characteristic other than status. It seems likely, for instance, that irrespective of the question asked people would perceive physical attractiveness (which is but one form of "influence power" as the post uses that notion) and rank the photographs according to that.

Intuitively, I wouldn't necessarily expect that if you controlled for physical attractiveness, there would be anything left for people's rankings to correlate on.

But the post is quite clear that physical attractiveness is not necessary to achieve what people would call "high status", any more than starting out wealthy is the only possible way to acquire a house (we have an existence proof that you can do it with one red paperclip to start with).

a different set of questions, which, while valid, are not the questions that people usually ask about status, and which I think miss the point.

Perhaps it is "the questions that people usually ask about status" which miss the point.

I feel the term social capital more clearly captures many of the key concepts.

I think you guys have put together an interesting and potentially very useful redefinition of status.

Take this for example:

Johnstone describes this as lowering your own status in order to defend yourself, which would make no sense if we had a theory where status was simply the ability to influence someone. You can't influence someone by reducing your ability to influence them

Yes, the letter-snooper IS lowering his status, even though he is gaining a temporary advantage of not being berated by triggering guilt of this one person. An observer looking at this would have a low opinion of the snooper loosing his dignity, and he would have less status-induced influence thereafter.

I think status is much closer to dominance in common usage.

I would suggest using another word(combination) for what you're describing.

Yes, the letter-snooper IS lowering his status, even though he is gaining a temporary advantage of not being berated by triggering guild of this one person. An observer looking at this would have a low opinion of the snooper loosing his dignity, and he would have less status-induced influence thereafter.

Yes, but he's lowering his status (general-purpose influence) for the particular purpose of achieving a specific outcome. The point is that he's trading it for something else. What you say is in agreement with this article.

I think based on the

In brief: status is a measure of general purpose optimization power in complex social domains

the authors would claim that the person "increased" or "used" their status in this transaction, but I would say they lowered it in common usage of the term, including yours

Yes, but he's lowering his status

hence I would claim this is a redefinition of the term.

I am only semantics here, but I feel it's important because using the term in an uncommon manner will lead to confusion.