It was recently pointed out to me that humans are weird, compared to other social animals, in that we conflate the pecking order with the group decision-making process.

The pecking order, for instance in birds, is literally the ranking of who gets to eat first when food is scarce.

We can also call it a “dominance hierarchy”, but the words “dominance” and “hierarchy” call up associations with human governance systems like aristocracy and monarchy, where the king or chief is both the decisionmaker for the group and the person entitled to the most abundant resources.

In birds, it’s not like that. Being top chicken doesn’t come with the job of “leading” the other chickens anywhere; it just entitles you to eat better (or have better access to other desirable resources).  In fact, group decisionmaking (like deciding when and where to migrate) does occur in birds, but not necessarily according to the “pecking order”.  Leadership (setting the direction of the group) and dominance (being high in the pecking order) are completely independent in pigeons, for instance.  Pigeons have stable, transitive hierarchies of flight leadership, and they have stable pecking order hierarchies, and these hierarchies do not correlate.

Logically, it isn’t necessary for the individual who decides what others shall do to also be the individual who gets the most goodies.  They can be related — one of the things you can do with the power to give instructions is to instruct others to give you more goodies. But you can, at least with nonhuman animals, separate pecking-order hierarchies from decision-making hierarchies.

You can even set this up as a 2×2:

High rank in pecking order, high decision-making power: Lord

High rank in pecking order, low decision-making power: Eloi

Low rank in pecking order, high decision-making power: Morlock

Low rank in pecking order, low decision-making power: Vassal

“Eloi” and “Morlocks” are, of course, borrowed from H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, which depicted a human species divided between the privileged, childlike Eloi, and the monstrous underground Morlocks, who farm them for food.  Eloi enjoy but don’t decide; Morlocks decide but don’t enjoy.

The other archetypal example of someone with low rank in the pecking order but high decision-making power is the prophet. Biblical prophets told people what to do — they could even give instructions to the king — but they did not enjoy positions of privilege, palaces, many wives, hereditary lands, or anything like that.  They did sometimes have the power to threaten or punish, which is a sort of “executive” power, but not the power to personally enjoy more resources than others.

In American common parlance, “leadership” or “dominance” generally means both being at the top of a pecking order and being a decision-maker for the group.  My intuition and experience says that if somebody wants to be the decision-maker for the group but doesn’t seem to be conspicuously seeking & enjoying goodies in zero-sum contexts — in other words, if somebody behaves like a Morlock or prophet — they will read as not behaving like a “leader”, and will fail to get a certain kind of emotional trust and buy-in and active participation from others.

My previous post on hierarchy conflated pecking-order hierarchies with decision-making hierarchies. I said that people-telling-others-what-to-do (decision-making hierarchy) “usually goes along with” special privileges or luxuries for the superiors (pecking-order hierarchy.)  But, in fact, they are different things, and the distinction matters.

Most of the practical advantages of hierarchy in organizations come from decision-making hierarchy.  A tree structure, or chain of command, helps get decisions made more efficiently than many-to-many deliberative assemblies.  Many of the inefficiencies of hierarchy in organizations (expensive displays of deference, poor communication across power distance) are more about pecking-order hierarchy.  “So just have decision-making hierarchy without pecking-order hierarchy!” But that’s rule-by-prophets, and in practice people seem to HATE prophets.

The other model for leadership is the “good king”, of the kind that Siderea writes about in this series of posts on Watership Down.  The good king is not just sitting on top of the pecking order enjoying luxury at the expense of his people. He listens to his people and empowers them to do their best; he shares their privations; he is genuinely committed to the common good. But he’s still a king, not a prophet. (In Watership Down, there actually is a prophet — Fiver — and Hazel, the king, is notable for listening to Fiver, while bad leaders ignore their prophets.)

My guess is that the “good king” does sit on top of a pecking-order hierarchy, but a very mild and public-spirited one.  He’s generous, as opposed to greedy; but generosity implies that he could be greedy if he wanted to. He shares credit with others who do good work, instead of hogging all the credit for himself; but being the one to give credit itself makes him seem central and powerful.

A “good king” seems more emotionally sustainable for humans than just having a “prophet”, but it could be that there’s a way to implement pigeon-like parallel hierarchies for resource-enjoyment and decision-making, or other structures I haven’t thought of yet.

New to LessWrong?

New Comment
18 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 12:08 PM

Temple cults are another important method for separating expertise from dominance: in order to ensure some material support for and deference to the priesthood, priests will orient their stories around a large dominant animal (usually depicted via statuary ambiguously identified with the body of the god) which demands to be fed large amounts of food, and obeyed. A large amount of food for a huge statue may be just the right amount to feed the priests and their families, and worship/submission is not directed at the priests themselves, so they preserve their access to information.

Do people hate prophets, or hate being prophets?

Making decisions (and owning those decisions, esp. taking responsibility for them) is very costly and effortful. It's great for having a sense of agency, but is still stressful.

One reason people sometimes found startups or organizations is because they just want the organization or product to exist. But often they do so because they expect an outsized payout if they do a good job.

Someone commented last year "being a leader sucks, and lately there's been a bunch of egalitarian forces that push against many of the benefits you traditionally get for being a leader."

People who identify with kings against competing interests often (but not always) hate prophets. But they often like the idea of prophets enough to retain false prophets. My former corporate employer in the mortgage finance field had lots of Econ PhD forecasters even though decisions weren’t being made based on technical expertise, to be able to claim that experts had been consulted & farsighted decisions were being made. We did have at least one true prophet too.

Relatedly – to what degree to animals have leaders? Also curious to what degree those leaders are accountable to decisions. Are there animals where leaders exist, and they don't also get disproportionate resources? In those situations, are they held accountable?

On the flipside, there's probably some kind of sweet spot of resources a leader can really get value from. I'm thinking of pirate captains, (and quartermasters) who had authority, and (as I understand it), somewhat more access to resources, but not much. (I think Legal Systems Different From Our Own claims they got an even share of the treasure, another book I read awhile back claimed they got two shares, as opposed to military captains that got much higher pay than the rest of the crew)

[edit: I've also heard that hunter gatherer societies also pushed egalitarianism in terms leaders not being much higher status. Or maybe this was part of a multi-level game where people play low status but actually are high status? In any case, the point is that the egalitarian forces are not new]

On my "How do people become ambitious?" question, one answer (not quite answering the question I meant to ask, but relevant here) was:

Seems to me like what happens is that redirection of sex or survival drives get caught up in some sort of stable configuration where they can never be satisfied yet the person doesn't notice that aspect of the loop and thus keeps Doing the Thing far past the time normal people notice. Essentially they've goodharted themselves in a way that creates positive externalities for others.

Where I think most "healthy" leaders would want some outsized share, but not the sort of infinite desire to score money or power that drives the CEOS of the largest corporations, or the sort of people who become president.

Both. The semi-mythical Cassandra is a case in point: people (and gods) hated her and she hated being a prophet, just couldn't do much about it. No one likes a bearer of bad news, and most prophesies are bad news. But being a prophet and being a leader are different jobs, not sure why the OP conflates them.

Do people hate prophets, or hate being prophets?

The former. Being a prophet is great! You've achieved enlightenment! All you're doing is trying to spread the good word of your revelations with the rest of humanity. Here are all of these people, living lives of immense suffering, and you have the solution. You can bring them peace. You can ease the torment of their souls! Even a cold-blooded utilitarian can see that a 5% reduction in suffering multiplied by several hundred million people represents a substantial gain in overall utility. And if a bit of force needs to be applied in order to get people to see the Good Word, then that is justified, is it not?

This feels fairly off both from how historical prophets seem to have thought, and the modern day aspiring-prophets I've seen behave.

Being a prophet sucks in part because you can clearly see that correct thing that everybody should do... but nobody understands you and are constantly misinterpreting you or not listening to you or seeing you as a threat to their power.

And you generally don't have the power to actually just make people do things. And if you do... you still have do all the stressful leadership things, without any commensurate reward.

Being a prophet sucks in part because you can clearly see that correct thing that everybody should do... but nobody understands you and are constantly misinterpreting you or not listening to you or seeing you as a threat to their power.

Turns out this part doesn't suck because being a prophet you also understand this is going to happen and are accepting of it and work with it. It only counter-factually sucks to the non-prophet imaging what it would be like to be a prophet.

At least for some sufficiently advanced prophet. I think Sarah is using "prophet" in a way that your interpretation makes sense, as in many people will be in what I might instead call the "advisor" category.

I think prophets vary in whether they are "the sort of enlightened which comes bundled with equanimity."

I agree advisor generally works, but not for the use case (important to this post) wherein someone does lead, but isn't at the top of the pecking order.

We've been using the term prophet here, but it's really just a term to refer to people who make decisions but don't allocate all the resources to themselves. Certainly that more general group of people has not achieved enlightenment.

I think the distinction is important, but also my sense is the people who are actually enlightened don't have that great a lived experience [at least of the process of trying to teach others about enlightment].

This framework very specifically fits farmers, not foragers, so it's not invariantly true across humans. The prophet model seems more workable in more forager-like conditions.

Let's note differences of degree here. Political systems differ massively in how easily decisionmakers can claim large spoils for themselves, and these differences seem to correlate with how pro-social the decisions tend to be. In particular, the dollar amounts of graft being alleged for politicians in liberal democracies are usually small compared to what despots regularly claim without consequence. (Which is not to say that it would be wise to ignore corruption in liberal democracies!)

Pigeons have stable, transitive hierarchies of flight leadership, and they have stable pecking order hierarchies, and these hierarchies do not correlate.

one of the things you can do with the power to give instructions is to instruct others to give you more goodies.

It occurs to me that leading a flight is an unusual instruction-giving power, in that it comes with almost zero opportunities to divert resources in your own direction. Choosing where to fly and when to land affects food options, but it does not affect your food options relative to your flight-mates. Most leadership jobs give many more opportunities to turn the position into zero-sum personal benefits.

I suspect this is not a coincidence. Can anyone think of a case where the pecking order and the leadership hierarchy are uncorrelated in a situation where the leadership is exploitable for pecking opportunities?

One obvious problem with your predicted "good king" scenario is that a high rank in the "pecking order" inherently attracts bad actors to it - which in turn are precisely the agents who will use that rank to do the most damage, both to other actors within the group and indeed to the organizational goal itself! Separating "pecking order" and "decision-making order" would seem to be the right answer - except for another wrinkle, that is; it seems that, among the few ways we know about of semi-reliably screening off bad actors, (1) requiring proof of having reached good decisions recently, especially on non-trivial and long-term matters; and (2) giving a boost to "prophet" types who can provide strong, complex signals of pro-sociality, not just momentarily but on a somewhat long-term basis (And yes, these reliable signals do seem to exist. For example, sound goal analysis that does not reduce to mere politicking and is based on a principled assessment of the group - this very blogpost provides us with a fine example! - impressive art, high-quality work in general - even something as simple as humour, perhaps!), are especially important. And both of these concerns would seem to push into the other direction, of commingling the "pecking order" and "decision-making" hierarchy to some extent!

I think it would be interesting to try and design honeypot hierarchies, that are expressly intended for bad actors to have harmless fun in, without dealing extensive damage to others. But a pecking order is not that; being low in the pecking order, especially with someone malicious at the top, is really bad. Thus, arguably, this is a goal that's best pursued by the market system as a whole, not by a small-scale social structure that - like all social structures - comes with inherently "soft" and "pliable" incentives that will never manage to keep the most toxic agents on the shortest leash.

I worry that it's way too easy to overgeneralize the roles we're talking about. The fact that pigeons have a different flight leader than food dominator does _not_ imply that one is the decision-maker and the other is the highest status. It only implies that the social organization for different activities can be different (still a very important observation).

One possible important distinction is how rivalrous the decision topic is. "who gets to eat this" is not just a different decision, but a different type of decision than "how high should we fly in order not to tire before we reach our destination".

And since humans went and invented language and self-modeling, now you get both the strongest and the best navigators trying to convince each other that the two are related.

I think saying that people hate prophets is like saying that people hate ads. They hate the bad ones, because those are the ones they consciously notice, whereas the best ads/prophets probably exert their influence without people even thinking of associating them with those categories.

Besides, if "low rank in the pecking order but high decision-making power" applies to people who exert substantial influence with their ideas but don't have a correspondingly impressive amount of wealth or shiny credentials, it's not difficult to think of examples who are very far from hatable.