Selfishness Signals Status

by Liron1 min read7th Mar 201092 comments

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The "status" hypothesis simply claims that we associate one another with a one-dimensional quantity: the perceived degree to which others' behavior can affect our well-being. And each of us behaves toward our peers according to our internally represented status mapping.

Imagine that, within your group, you're in a position where everyone wants to please you and no one can afford to challenge you. What does this mean for your behavior? It means you get to act selfish -- focusing on what makes you most pleased, and becoming less sensitive to lower-grade pleasure stimuli.

Now let's say you meet an outsider. They want to estimate your status, because it's a useful and efficient value to remember. And when they see you acting selfishly in front of others in your group, they will infer the lopsided balance of power.

In your own life, when you interact with someone who could affect your well-being, you do your best to act in a way that is valuable to them, hoping they will be motivated to reciprocate. The thing is, if an observer witnesses your unselfish behavior, it's a telltale sign of your lower status. And this scenario is so general, and so common, that most people learn to be very observant of others' deviations from selfishness.

On Less Wrong, we already understand the phenomenon of status signaling -- the causal link from status to behavior, and the inferential link from behavior to status. If we also recognize the role of selfishness as a reliable status signal, we can gain a lot of predictive power about which specific behavioral mannerisms are high- and low-status.

 

Are each of the following high- or low-status?

1. Standing up straight

2. Saying what's on your mind, without thinking it through

3. Making an effort to have a pleasant conversation

4. Wearing the most comfortable possible clothes

5. Apologizing to someone you've wronged

6. Blowing your nose in front of people

7. Asking for permission

8. Showing off

 

Answers:

1. Standing up straight is low-status, because you're obviously doing it to make an impression on others -- there's no first-order benefit to yourself.

2. Saying what's on your mind is high-status, because you're doing something pleasurable. This signal is most reliable when what you say doesn't have any intellectual merit.

3. Making an effort to have a pleasant conversation is low-status. It's high-status to talk about what you care about.

4. Wearing the most comfortable possible clothes is high-status, because you're clearly benefiting yourself. (Dressing in fashionable clothes is also high-status, through a different inferential pathway.)

5. Apologizing is low-status because you're obviously not doing it for yourself.

6. Blowing your nose is high-status because it's pleasurable and shows that you aren't affected enough by others to stop.

7. Asking for permission is low-status. Compare: recognizing that proceeding would be pleasurable, and believing that you are immune to any negative consequences.

8. Showing off is low-status, because it reveals that the prospect of impressing your peers drives you to do things which aren't first-order selfish. (Of course, the thing you are showing off might legitimately signal status.)

 

Pwno's post makes a good related point: The most reliable high-status signal is indifference. If you're indifferent to a person, it means their behavior doesn't even factor into your expectation of well-being. It means your computational resources are too limited to allocate them their own variable, since its value matters so little. How could you act indifferent if you weren't high-status?

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For me, the answer for each question appears to be "both".

  1. Standing up straight-- High: Politician addressing an audience, wanting to show confidence Low: Soldier, at attention

  2. Saying what's on your mind, without thinking it through-- High: Confident person, assured of their status in the group Low: Person revealing emotions which are considered taboo to discuss.

  3. Making an effort to have a pleasant conversation-- High: Skilled businessman or other "people person" trying motivated to accomplish a positive outcome with that person. Low: Service industry person who must be deferential to keep their job

  4. Wearing the most comfortable possible clothes-- High: The business owner who can wear whatever they want and still be paid attention to because of their innate value Low: The slacker who has stopped caring about their sweapants and stained shirt

  5. Apologizing to someone you've wronged-- High: The conscientious, strong, professional person with integrity who has the wisdom do recognize their mistake and seeks to keep lines of communication open and maintain an honest and fair relationship. Low: Someone who must apologize for violating a social norm.

  6. Blowing your

... (read more)
6Rain11yThese are good examples showing that status signals are not singular, isolated actions, but are interpreted by combining many different signals into a larger, complex whole with highly variant outcomes depending on which signals are being combined (alternatively, "context"). I think recent posts on the topic are simplifying too much and providing overly broad, vague definitions of "signal" and "status".
0Liron11yYou have to understand the idea that inferred self-optimization is a component of intuitive status inference. Deniz gave good examples if how this component can be dominated or logically negated by other factors.
0Psychohistorian11yEvidence? If he (and apparently others) doesn't understand it or doesn't agree with you, doesn't that suggest it might not be an intuitive component?

Imagine that, within your group, you're in a position where everyone wants to please you and no one can afford to challenge you. What does this mean for your behavior? It means you get to act selfish -- focusing on what makes you most pleased, and becoming less sensitive to lower-grade pleasure stimuli.

This is not particularly accurate, or, more precisely, I'd like to see evidence that this is how people act. The president of the US, for example, cannot act strictly selfishly. Kings of old generally couldn't either - they had nobles to keep happy and so forth. While there are cases where selfishness is an option because of high status, there are many cases where people prevent themselves from being successful because they are selfish. Indeed, there are many people who are unsuccessful because they are particularly disagreeable - they'd need to be high status to get away with their behaviour, and they're not, so they don't. Thus, merely observing that someone is selfish is, in a Bayesian sense, not even necessarily evidence that they are high status.

This post is yet further evidence that one should approach any status-based explanation with extreme skepticism. Saying that "S... (read more)

2Jack11yI'm sympathetic to your skepticism. A couple things, though. Public speaking competitions probably aren't the best contexts to gather evidence on this because the competition format dictates so much status. The competitors, at least in this domain, are almost always lower status than the judges. The whole point is to get the judges to like them and their speech, obviously a competitor signaling higher status than the judge isn't going to succeed. But I was involved in high school debate where status between debaters was routinely signaled by one debater treating the other informally and this included a relaxed posture. When interacting the the judges, however, behavior was more formal and the debaters would stand at attention (which is what I think the OP really means by stand straight). That said, the posture thing isn't the best signal because standing straight also tends to indicate higher socio-economic class, which in most domains is a high-status property. But it still signals status because everyone who didn't know you were high-status before know sees that you're high-status enough to get away with blowing your nose in public. It is getting away with these things that is high status, not just doing them.
2Psychohistorian11yIt is actually only getting away with them that is high status. Doing them is not high status. As far as public speaking, while most of what I've done involves coaching competitions, the basic principle of standing up straight corresponding to confidence applies across a broad spectrum. It is not always the case, as there are times when slouching may indicate relaxation or boredom, and relaxation or boredom may signal high status (for example, being the only person in a group who is not stressed out about an upcoming event may signal high ability, which is high-status). Thus, the claim that standing up straight is a low-status thing to do is simply false, as there are many, many occasions when it signals high status. Standing at attention is another matter; if that is what the original author meant, they should have been clearer.
2wedrifid11yDoing them is inferential evidence that he or she has not suffered sanctions for taking similar actions in the past or, having been sanctioned, they have the emotional physical resilience to be unaffected by said sanctions. Both of these predict higher status.
3Psychohistorian11yEvidence? There are plenty of low-status people with bad manners or bad posture. What data do you have that leads you to believe that, for some X under discussion here, on observing X, you can systematically infer the doer of X is high status? More precisely, not suffering sanctions and emotional resilience may predict higher status, but does the behaviour under discussion reliably predict those characteristics, or may it predict others? You ignore the fact that if you display low-status behaviour at a social gathering, people won't kill you and your offspring; you just won't get invited back. Thus, people can quite easily repeatedly take actions that lower their status. This is even more so the case if they are somewhat oblivious to social rules, and, of course, being oblivious to social rules makes them far more likely to act "selfishly" (as used by the original author) in the first place. I believe you need to observe a rather complicated series of events to infer that any particular selfish behaviour shows high-status. This makes the concept advocated by the post's author rather useless: selfishness signals high status, except when it doesn't, which is quite frequent and hard to identify precisely.
0wedrifid11yThe behavior of humans provides information about their experiences and their social influences. This being the case I reject your correction and in particular the emphasis on the absolute, 'only'. Jack said it well.
0Jack11yThe concerns I have with the public speaking competition evidence may be generalizable across a broad spectrum as well. Standing straight corresponds to confidence in interactions with superiors because the status-acceptable alternative is leaning forward and keeping one's head down. In say, job interviews, if an interviewee leans back he/she is viewed as not caring enough or unprofessional (and I think this is because their posture is indicating they don't recognize the authority of the interviewer). Standing straight is the appropriate posture for an interviewee that wants to demonstrate confidence and appreciation of authority. But the interviewer can easily get away with leaning back in his/her chair and in interactions with equals this demonstrates confidence.
2Psychohistorian11yI rather explicitly avoid disputing this. There are times when slouching signals high status. There are times when it signals low status. There are times when it signals nothing. The original poster's claim was that standing up straight signals low status; this claim was made in an unqualified way. Since there are many cases where this is false, his claim is incorrect. In particular, the fact that people often reflect their status in their posture - i.e. people who are presently successful/high-status reflect that by standing up straight and taking up more space - is a serious problem for the original poster's claim. The fact that cases exist where slouching signals status is largely irrelevant; the original poster's claim was that standing up straight is principally a sign of low status. This is false, because it is also (indeed, I would argue, normally) a signal of high status.
1Liron11yThat's right. Imagine if one of the debaters didn't even care or react to what the other was saying. That's a textbook high status move. The fact that the two are engaged in a debate, already puts them both in the same tier of status, with the winner of the "debate" going slightly higher.
2Jack11yActually, the biggest status move I can recall was using your opponent's first name.
0Liron11yPresident of the US is not an instance of the category I was describing. Think African strongman.
1Psychohistorian11yYou're just moving the goalposts. The problem is that there are many, many high status people who cannot or do not behave like this, and there are many low-status people who can and do behave like this. The main problem is that "high-status" does not carve out the space you are describing. It describes someone with a lot of power. This is purely situational and may or may not coincide with high status. The only electrician in a small town can get away with saying or doing all kinds of things that other people can't. Likewise the African strongman, or the schoolteacher, or the government bureaucrat. Power is the determinant here, not status. Selfishness signals power, which may or may not signal status. The other problem is that, once someone's status is low enough, their behaviour may be incapable of influencing it, so they may behave selfishly because they have basically nothing to lose. At this point, I'd also throw in that you really haven't defined what you mean by "selfish" and what constitutes "getting away with it," both of which would probably help. This whole post is riddled with vagueness, and I think that vagueness helps to either mask the lack of a point, or to distract from an actual good point you have not made.

I think a much better, more general principle is "you gain status among members of a group by making efforts which have no other point, because that shows you care enough about the group to be loyal and commit your own resources." This is a large part, for example, of why fraternities haze people- anyone willing to go through the hazing must care a lot about getting into the fraternity.

"1. Standing up straight is low-status, because you're obviously doing it to make an impression on others -- there's no first-order benefit to yourself."... (read more)

2wedrifid11yHi Tom. The convention for block quotes is to use markdown syntax. Put a ">" at the start of a quoted paragraph instead of surrounding it with ' " '.
3bathymetry11yThat's Tom signalling that his status puts him above such niggling details. ;)
2Liron11yYou are talking about a totally different component of status signalling. Selfishness is its own status-signalling component.
0Douglas_Knight11yTom McCabe said, but should have headlined: It's not entirely clear to me that you're talking about game theory [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Signalling_(economics\]), but if you are, it sure sounds like countersignaling to me.
0[anonymous]11yGreat comment. Completely agreed.
0[anonymous]11yGreat comment, completely agreed.

Note that these only work if the group also knows that the person is capable of all these low-status indicators. For example, slouching, not understanding social-niceties and manners, not being able to converse, not being able to afford nice clothes or have the sense of fashion to pick decent sets, or not having anything worth showing off are all low-status indicators. It's demonstrating the option, not the necessity of these behaviors that is high-status.

1Liron11yThat is why I say: Selfishness signals status. The inference goes: surface features -> detecting the presence of optimization for self-pleasure -> high status It could have also gone: surface features -> detecting poverty/incompetence -> low status But the former is what I mean by "selfishness".
7Jack11yI think it might be more basic like: x gets away with breaking norm y -> x is high status. But alright
0magfrump11yCould this possibly explain people being put off by homeless people, etc.? Because they are breaking norms (wearing nice clothes, being clean, etc.) they are seen as demonstrating high status, but they clearly are not. So they are exceeding their status and should be shunned?
0wedrifid11yIt is the getting away with it part that suggests high status. Not getting away with it is low status to the extreme!
2magfrump11yThere are two levels [http://lesswrong.com/lw/1kr/that_other_kind_of_status/] of "getting away with it." That is, while they may not be "getting away with it" in other people's eyes, they aren't appropriately embarrassed by their extreme low status.

.... through a different inferential pathway...

I read these examples and it seems to me like a clear case of rational analysis going crazy. You see, there is no systematic basis for the correctness of these interpretations. It may have been established that selfishness can act as a valid interpretation for these examples, but what says that this interpretation is necessarily more correct than any other? Or even that there is a correct interpretation? These questions are far more important, and without answering them, these interpretations are frankly wo... (read more)

-2Liron11yI did explain a link between the definition of status and the reliability of selfishness as evidence, but I agree that a reader could justifiably remain skeptical that "selfishness signals status" after reading the post. However, selfishness does signal status. An experiment that will settle this is to come up with your own examples and take a poll of people's perceptions (preferably with IQs in the bottom three quartiles, because the top quartile is capable of having one thought after another in a chain of sequitors, and who knows how that could skew their perceptions).

As far as I can tell, no one has quite as much status as you're describing, but the best test would probably be to study major dictators, but not expect ordinary high status people to be on a continuum with them

In particular, displays of generosity are a common way of showing status.

Wearing comfortable clothes as a signal of status isn't typical of all civilizations. For a counter-example, consider the Elizabethans.

As with standing up straight where you didn't include a relaxed vertical posture, you're leaving out the practical middle ground about conver... (read more)

3Morendil11yFollowing on my previous comment [http://lesswrong.com/lw/1vs/selfishness_signals_status/1q80], I'm deeply puzzled by observations like this one. What warrants the assumption that dictators have high status? There seems to be an 1-place interpretation of status and a 2-place interpretation [http://lesswrong.com/lw/ro/2place_and_1place_words/], and lots of the observations on status that I come across here fail, as far as I can tell, to take that distinction into account. The present post has clearly distinguished "status" as 2-place word: "the perceived degree to which others' behavior can affect our well-being" implies that status is a relational quantity, "my status relative to yours". There is a suggestion that it is symmetrical, i.e. "your status relative to mine" is the same quantity with opposite sign. I suspect that it may be more complex than that; something like a 3-argument function, depending on not just the You and Me values, but also on some Situation value. Neither am I fully convinced it is symmetrical. So, repeating my earlier call - where can I find a normative discussion of what people here are referring to when they say "status"? Preferably one that taboos the term itself, and explains it without bringing in the everyday connotations carried by the term.
4wedrifid11yI am confused. The whole foundation of status in humans is our heritage as tribal animals, with tribal instincts that have similarities to plenty of species of mammal. It's all about power, control and access to resources and mates. Dictators have that. They may not be the highest status, I'm not sure how to put the various forms of high status in a single scale. But to doubt that they have high status at all amounts to discarding most of the meaning of the term.
8Morendil11yThat's what I mean by "the everyday connotations carried by the term". The OP's hypothesis is that if I see someone acting selfishly, I will choose my behaviour toward them on the basis of my inferring from this selfishness a quantity the OP calls "status". I don't really understand this hypothesis. Consider the following situation. I'm invited to dinner. I notice an individual at the table who's grabbing food from everyone's plates, including mine. That counts as selfish behaviour in my book. Nobody reacts in any other particular way to that individual's behaviour; that is, their behaviour toward him is the same as toward each other, and only this individual differs from the others, in this particular respect only. The OP's prediction is that I would assign high status to that individual. My intuition is that I would consider them a little crazy, and interpret the others' behaviour as tolerance (which, again intuitively, I would equate to the individual having low status). By contrast, if you tell me that someone is a dictator, what I would expect based on that hypothesis is that others around him behave in particular ways: they will show deference, fear, eagerness to please them. That is because my understanding of dictators is that they will routinely have people around them shot or tortured if they displease them (and sometimes even if they don't, just as a whim). The fact that the dictator has this strategy is entirely sufficient to explain his entourage's behaviours towards him: "status" strikes me as a superfluous hypothesis. I'm confessing my ignorance of what explanatory work the term "status" is supposed to achieve. No "countersignaling" (I should really say "dissembling" or something like it) on my part here, just honest confusion. Pointing me to an authoritative source could be a good start to my correcting this state of ignorance.

The fact that the dictator has this strategy is entirely sufficient to explain his entourage's behaviours towards him: "status" strikes me as a superfluous hypothesis.

I'm confessing my ignorance of what explanatory work the term "status" is supposed to achieve.

If you are in the presence of a dictator, I do not recommend doing the following:

  • Maintain eye contact with him.
  • Correct him when he is wrong.
  • Interrupt him while he is speaking.
  • Wear flamboyant clothes that attract more attention than him.
  • Talk in a voice that is slow, deep and firm, brooking no interruption.
  • Standing tall, taking up space in a relaxed manner. For example, occupying all of a doorway, leaning on it slightly.
  • Sitting back on your chair, legs somewhat apart, hands hanging loosely drawing attention to your crotch.
  • Teasing women in a playful manner that makes them laugh, lower their eyes, and touch you.
  • (Um... what else is high status?) Catching and maintaining the attention of the audience by telling stories that emphasize your dominance and popularity.

Doing the above (high status) behaviors can, all else being equal, be expected to increase your chances of death. Status is a useful con... (read more)

3Morendil11yFor instance, Wikipedia has a "social status" [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_status] entry which defines it as "the honor or prestige attached to one's position in society". That does not entail any particular behavior, so more narrowly I'd be interested in an authoritative source for what you call "high status behavior". It seems to me that the list above contains items that have contextual interpretations: for instance, "flamboyant clothing" could be worn in the presence of a dictator, if you are, say, an entertainer. Your assumptions about some of these items could be cultural: a Google search turned up the suggestion that "in many Middle Eastern cultures, intense eye contact [...] especially between men can mean I am telling you the truth". Another example is the way you sit, with some cultural conventions strongly interpreting what others find trivial, such as sitting with the soles of your shoes showing. (The same Google search is starting to suggest that the primary source for this list of supposed "high status behaviors" is Keith Johnstone's 1979 book on improvisational theatre. Robin Hanson refers to the book [http://www.overcomingbias.com/2009/08/actors-see-status.html]. I'm also pretty sure I remember coming across a link to a gloss on this book while browsing an earlier conversation about "status" on LessWrong.) (ETA: what I'm really interested in is teasing apart the concepts variously used here of "having high/low status", versus "behavioral cues to one's self-assessment of high/low status", versus "game theoretic signalling" whereby one's behavioral cues are less than fully honest as to one's self-assessment. I'm unable to find these concepts pinned down with enough precision that I can reliably tell the difference between me being confused about them and other people being confused.)
9Jack11yThis is a reply to you chain of concerns about status, not this comment in particular: I like that you're pushing for more rigor-- in nearly every case that is a good thing. Your concerns do need to be addressed. But I'm a little confused about why the concept is so foreign to you. Status isn't merely this theoretical concept used to explain behavior. At least for me it is a constant, pre-theoretical feature of social life. We should have a deep, well-defined theory of status but I don't think we need to to say a lot of meaningful things about it. I believe I'm an authoritative source on the status signals of the groups I'm a part of (and some universal signals) in the same way I'm an authoritative source on the English language-- it is a cultural practice I'm embedded in. I literally grew up with it (didn't you have popular and unpopular kids in grade school?) You're right that the status values for just about any behavior are highly dependent on context... it just the same way meaning can be in language. This is why it is often easy for someone from a different culture to screw up. Moreover, more subtle signals can often be read differently by different people (just as there is ambiguity in pragmatics).
6Morendil11yIt hasn't felt foreign before. It's more like the recent posts about it, added to the comments on LW before that, have made me wake up to a confusion that was there before. Part of that is understandable, as LW is the first community I've come across where the notion is invoked that much. Previously, my immediate association for the word "status" used to be in the sense of "project status". In my professional community, referring to the term in its social acceptation was a daring excursion: for instance when I or a colleague observed that "a project status report is often about status, yes - the project manager's status". When I used it that way, I had a rather narrow sense in mind, specifically, the perceived position of someone in a group's pecking order. The LW discussions seem to invoke a much more general and pervasive meaning, which is what I'm coming to question; specifically because the "status" concept here seems to be used here to explain everything. Which is precisely what this site has been teaching me to see as a red flag. I have my own everyday-life observations about status (for instance, a status hypothesis about schools and universities) that intersect with the topic of rationality, and that I might explore in a post sooner or later, but I have to pin down the concept first. Perhaps this is just a "clack" on my part. I'd appreciate being pointed to any evidence of that.
6Rain11yNo, I think you're right in that it's not being rigorously defined or used appropriately in some of the recent articles.
2wedrifid11yI agree, the abuse of the term has made me cringe at times.
1orthonormal11yBravo. It's possible to act in genuinely status-defying ways, but the vast majority of people who tell you they don't care about status are just not good enough at self-analysis to realize the effect it has on them.
5xamdam11yYes, high status behavior can border on crazy (while being just short of it). I knew of a rich real estate guy who would walk around in "sports pants" that would be best described as ballet tights. At the same time I knew he was rather shrewd and well thought-out. "Peakocking" comes to mind.

Observation 4 seems directly contradicted by my personal observations in the corporate setting, where "mere" software engineers wear jeans and t-shirts and their managers tend to wear more formal clothing (shirt, tie, suit) the higher in the hierarchy you go.

Observation 6 seems to make a truckload of cultural assumptions. In workplace settings I'm familiar with (I live in France) it's common to leave boxes of tissues around, and people prefer someone who blows their nose in a group to someone who sniffles constantly. Now in Japan for instance I u... (read more)

IAWYP, and I think you're getting bashed with disagreement in part because you needed some disclaimers. We can all think of counterexamples, but all else being equal you can often tell the hierarchy in an unfamiliar social group by who acts the most selfishly versus who is looking to please others.

This is, of course, not an endorsement of the unrestricted practice of selfishness, especially around here.

1wedrifid11yI think you are right, and add that part of the problem is using 'selfishness' like a 'Man With a Hammer', forcing unrelated status signals into that category.

The problem with trying to define a list of high status actions is that they are context dependent.

Counter-signalling means that, in a particular context, it could be higher status to perform in a manner that, in any other context, would appear low status.

Under most general circumstances though, good posture is high status (because the assumption is that they just stand like that - not that they are standing like that to make an impression). In general, people don't think as carefully as you about motivations. You are over-iterating your thinking beyond what an average person would ever consider. Go out and look at people on the street and see how the high and low status people stand.

0pwno11yJust look at male models [http://www1.macys.com/catalog/index.ognc?CategoryID=29851&PageID=128212579705375] , they never stand straight. People here incorrectly assume the alternative to standing up straight is slouching.
4Morendil11yWhat seems to be going on in this last exchange is a ping-pong game where people get to point at whatever "example" they can think of that seems to favor a "high" or a "low" status hypothesis. "High status, look at X." - "No, low status, look at Y". That's very frustrating, and each such exchange (there have been others, concerning the other examples from the OP) nudges me one notch away from assigning credibility to "status" hypotheses; I assume that's counter to the posters' original intentions. Where are the falsifiable predictions made in advance of the evidence? How would I go about constructing one such prediction and testing it?
2pwno11yHow attractive you are to women is a good proxy for status. I would assign very low probability for a low-status-behaving guy to be attractive to physically attractive women, conditioning on the fact he hasn't already signaled status through other means [http://lesswrong.com/lw/1vm/the_strongest_status_signals/1qby?context=1#1qby].
1Morendil11yOne issue I see is that the evidence on this is likely to be mostly anecdotal, rather than qualitative and carefully recorded under bias-mitigating conditions. But I'm willing to pursue the line of inquiry. Expanding that list, you would assign low probability of scoring a gorgeous date to a poor, stupid, ugly dude no one has ever heard of and who can't pull rank on anyone. Neither would I. So the surprising prediction, with this low prior, would be that such a person could systematically, by displaying specific behaviors, improve their chances above the base rate for someone similarly situated. Can you give specific examples of single behaviors which have that effect? Or, if single behaviours do not reliably have that effect, a minimal set of distinct behaviors that do have that effect? If these behaviors were to match up reliably (which I'm not sure how we'd measure, but set that aside for now) with behaviors independently predicted (say, from observation of primate behavior) to be found in dominant individuals in something like our EEA, that would convince me of a useful "status hypothesis". It seems that we're heading into the PUA topic. I'm hoping we can do that in a reasonable way, i.e. without offending anyone. I promise to drop the thread if anyone feels offended, even at something someone else says. If that does happen I'll make amends by thinking seriously about why that happens [http://lesswrong.com/lw/1s4/open_thread_february_2010_part_2/1mv4]. An interesting observation is that the PUA community also refers often to the Keith Johnstone book [http://lesswrong.com/lw/1vs/selfishness_signals_status/1qbb] as a "primary source" for their list of supposed high-status behaviors. (I'm guessing that's where Robin Hanson picked up the reference.) Johnstone's own inspiration was Desmond Morris of Naked Ape fame; at least that much is tracking for me. On the other hand, Johnstone himself is no scientist, but a drama instructor.

Can you give specific examples of single behaviors which have that effect? Or, if single behaviours do not reliably have that effect, a minimal set of distinct behaviors that do have that effect?

There probably aren't going to be any, due to what the PUAs call "shit testing".

The term refers to deliberate probing behaviors intended to determine someone's status (and therefore attractiveness), by finding out how confident they are in response to resistance, criticism, etc.

This potentially lets the tester get past any faked confidence/status signals, and appears to be triggered by any incongruity or sense that the status-displaying person is "too good to be true".

Or in more Bayesian terms, when an approaching man's status displays indicate higher status than a woman's prior for the status of men approaching her, she will be more inclined to respond in ways that "test" him, in order to determine his true status.

However, the PUAs also generally contend that this process never stops, although it occurs more at first meeting and at any perceived status increase, with "maintenance" testing occurring throughout a relationship.

During these testing p... (read more)

3wedrifid11yIt would be more accurate to say Johnstone's book is a "primary inspiration". The examples of high status behaviors given actually tend to be based off a combination of personal experience, cultural learning and wider reading in evolutionary and social psychology. Cialdini [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Cialdini] is also commonly referenced, as is Dawkins [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Selfish_Gene]. In fact, references range as far as animal training guides, with the caveat that experience and discretion is applied in working out which of the status moves apply even across the boundaries of species.
2wedrifid11yPlayful teasing combined with emotionally non-reactive response to challenges has that effect reliably (and to some extent applies independently of just attraction of mates). Strong eye contact is possibly an even stronger example. By strong eye contact I mean holding eye contact until the other party breaks it, with a slight pause from when they look away to when you do. If the other party doesn't look away quickly, this is actually a surprisingly difficult thing to do and so doing it naturally remains a reasonably effective status signal. I cannot, for obvious reasons, give personal testament that these examples work for attracting mates even if you are ugly... but I have seen it work for others that may fit that description.
-1[anonymous]11yPrediction: There is no culture in which breaking eye contact by looking up (as opposed to down or to the side) is not a sign of disrespect. Surely Eliezer has made a post on that subject at some stage. Does anyone recall a reference? (But in this case it is clear that neither of us is familiar with all the evidence on cultural practices throughout the world so the prediction passes anyway.)
0Morendil11yMy most recent memory of seeing this is on TV yesterday, when some dude talking to a camera broke eye contact to look up while mentioning how his fate in a some silly contest was to be decided by his favorite deity. He didn't look disrespectful to me (just silly), and I'd predict he wouldn't have looked disrespectful to most viewers.
1marc11yThis wasn't really meant as the thrust of the comment. I was trying to raise awareness of the difficulty of creating an absolute list of high status behaviours when people can counter signal. It means that there are always exceptions. But since you replied to this aspect: I think I now understand. Are you using "standing up straight" in an extremely literal way? If you mean that standing to attention - in an uncomfortable military style - is low status, then i would agree. I don't think those models prove anything except that, within the bounds of what normal people would call standing up straight, they pretty much do.
3pwno11yYou can only "counter-signal" when you already have high status established, regardless by which means. If you're starting off with no pre-established status, then there exists a list of absolute high status behaviors, i.e. behaviors that are evidence of your high status.
3marc11yI agree. But that doesn't stop people getting high status behaviours confused with counter-signalling (like with standing up straight) and therefore, makes making these lists difficult.
-1pwno11yNormally when someone does something high status and people’s reaction is “who does this person think he is?” the person signaled lower status somehow via other factors or past behaviors. So this "counter-signaling" is really people acting the status level others consider appropriate. For example, blowing your nose in a job interview is a high status move, but displays inappropriate status level. The fact you're interviewing for a job is evidence your status is lower than the interviewer's - stronger evidence then your high status move.
1marc11yNope. You've misunderstood counter-signalling. Alicorn wrote a great post [http://lesswrong.com/lw/1sa/things_you_cant_countersignal/] about it.
1pwno11yI've read it... and I disagree with it.

OK, the point of the post was to identify and explain a principle that ties together a set of high-status mannerisms that would otherwise seem disjoint.

The idea that selfishness signals status makes testable predictions that most LW readers would not have made, and it looks like a lot of commenters are defying the data, but I think it is data that people with more anecdotal evidence about how "normal" people act can confirm.

it looks like a lot of commenters are defying the data

There isn't any data here to defy. Your post is entirely theory.

4Liron11yYou're right, it's more like "defying the predictions".
3Jack11yI think a more precise hypothesis is that getting away with selfishness signals status. I did vote you up though... actually I almost voted you down because I thought most of your post was, while significant, pretty obvious and a little over-simplified (especially the posture stuff). But apparently it isn't obvious.

To echo others, you can't readily define absolute high or low status behaviors. Here's the catch, status is like poker. When you make a high status action it's not immediately asserting high status, it's making a bid for high status. The game changes depending on who you're playing against. As anyone who plays poker knows, the same hand will be played completely differently depending on what sort of hands you estimate you're up against. You might start out modestly, but start getting aggressive when you see how weak everyone else is and vice versa. O... (read more)

Selfishness is a counter signal/handicap http://lesswrong.com/lw/1sa/things_you_cant_countersignal/

How it is interpreted based entirely on your positive singles. Counter signals at best enhance the underlining signal.

If you are high status despite being rude then you must have some trait that compensates for your flaw. If you are low status and rude then you have no trait to compensate for your rudeness.

3 is high status 4 and 6 are low status, as all demonstrate self-control, social clue, etc.

In general higher testosterone signals higher status and produces more generous behavior. It does, however, trigger less fearful and less risk averse behavior.

-2Jonathan_Graehl11yYour second paragraph is unclear. How and what is test. signaling or triggering (less of)?

For reasons I perhaps don't fully understand this, and threads like it are unsettling to me. Doesn't high status confer the ability (and possibly duty, in some contexts) to treat others better, to carry their pack so to speak? Further, acting high status isn't necessary at all if you actually have it (it being the underlying competence status (supposedly, ideally) signifies. I am a high status athlete (in a tiny, circumscribed world) and in social situations try to signify humility, so others won't feel bad. They can't keep up, and if made to feel so, ... (read more)

8wedrifid11yKeep in mind that describing something is not the same as approving or advocating. I would like it if status was used in the way that you describe. Sometimes it can be, and is, used that way. But it is a mistake to assume that status is supposed to be a measure of competence and an even greater mistake to expect it to be correlated (positively) with treating others better. It just isn't. It's a silly game, but it is one that is played right down to the very core of our instincts. And it is right through to the core of even those 'close relationships' you mention. You can't avoid the game. Just find the parts of it you like or are of particular use to you and satisfice the rest.

(Voted back up towards 0.)

  1. Standing up straight is low-status, because you're obviously doing it to make an impression on others -- there's no first-order benefit to yourself.

False. Slouching is a submissive gesture. It is signalling that you are not making a challenge to the more dominant members. Standing up straight but in a relaxed way is higher status. A strong core, head naturally raised, with gender specific variations. Remainder of the body should not be rigid but convey a balance of comfort and control. Gender specific variations tend to emph... (read more)

0Larks11yI can think of times when it would be high-status; namely, if you're already seen to be high-status, it can show insolence.
1wedrifid11yInsolence: "I want your status but I don't have it... yet." It's certainly higher status than submissiveness but not as high status as conveying that there isn't an immediate authority to whom you need to be insolent towards (whether that is because you are granted an acceptably high status through rapport with those above or because you grant it to yourself without a challenge that you accept.)
2Larks11yAt the Oxford Union, James Dray (President) wore a hoody to debates (everyone else being in black tie) and slouched in the President's chair. It made him seem a little aloof and supremely confident. Similarly, Caesar was excused from standing before the Senate.

Proper posture tends to be more comfortable; surely this is a benefit to myself.

I also apologize to people when I have wronged them, not because they are higher-status than me, but because I do not like being a jackass.

4Liron11yThe apology is a noble thing, and so is its rationalist cousin the mind-change. I'm not making any prescriptive recommendations -- I'm just elucidating one of the mechanisms of status evaluation.
0JamesAndrix11yAs I read that I thought "Oh yes you are, [you're outlining a path to winning]" And then I felt like I had caught by the tail the error of confusing describing something vs. promoting something.

Wow, impressive! This leads to a conundrum -- say that I'm trying to acquire high status to get power to do good, but acquiring and signaling that status requires selfish behavior. It means that even a utility-maximizing strategy could be casually interpreted by many as "hypocritical". This dilemma underscores the hypothesis that in order to achieve any semblance of generally self-consistent "good" requires a society made up of agents besides human ones, agents that can modify their status-appraisal mechanisms to a significant extent.

-1pwno11yNot only that, by going up in status you're making people lower status, it's a zero-sum gain.

How could you act indifferent if you weren't high-status?

You could just be clueless.

4Liron11yOn the contrary, most people who are socially clueless seem pretty easily excitable around everyone, regardless of status. But I have seen some clueless types act selfishly, and it definitely registers as high-status. Why shouldn't it? The hardwired inference is still logically sound.
2orthonormal11yI second that observation. A friend of mine is extremely clueless in social situations (constantly needs to ask friends for help interpreting others' actions and for advice on what to do in fairly standard cases), but just doesn't seem to experience the "flight" response when in intimidating situations. Result? He's the one who (e.g.) walks up and talks to the cute female bassist of the indie band after the show. And it definitely comes across as "awesome", i.e. high-status, although he doesn't show any other symptoms of it.
2JGWeissman11yWhen clueless people act selfishly, the typical reaction I observe is "Who does that guy think he is?!" People get upset when people do things they don't really have the status to get away with. An important point to remember when analyzing meta-status signals is that there is an underlying reality to status, grounded in a person's actual value to society and power within it, and meta signals can't let you deviate far from this unless people are cut off from the primary evidence.
1Liron11yThat's right, high-status selfish behavior can be trumped by actually violating the boundaries of your social role. I was referring to selfish behavior that either (1) they really have the status to get away with, e.g. if Einstein took all the scones for himself at a physics conference, or (2) might be impolite but doesn't actually overstep boundaries, e.g. "can I have one of your cigarettes?" "no."
1JGWeissman11yThe absence of such caveats and context from the post is what I referred to when saying that this was second order effects that should be corrections to first order effects, not the whole story [http://lesswrong.com/lw/1vs/selfishness_signals_status/1q6e]. Ignoring this makes the claim seem stronger than can be justified.

You are describing second order status effects (status signaled to those analyzing your behavior for first order signaling motivations), which should be corrections to first order effects (status signaled to those taking your actions at face value), as if they were the whole story.

0Liron11yI'm not sure what "taking your actions at face value" means. The main point is that, regardless of the other features of the interaction, people have a mental subsystem to make inferences about one another's statuses, and part of the inference works by measuring deviations from the ultimate high-status behavior: selfish pleasure-seeking.
2JGWeissman11yThat was meant as a contrast to analyzing for signaling motivation. Are you saying that actual people, not consciously concerned with the other's signaling motivations, assign low status to people who stand up straight? I don't think that actually happens.
0Liron11yStanding up straight is higher-status than the way a lot of people are slouching, but yes, a relaxed standing posture is typical and higher-status. Look at Michaelangelo's David, that's what I mean. The problem with standing up fully straight is that it's not a relaxed, pleasant behavior. It's perceived as contrived to influence influential others.
2JGWeissman11ySo, by "standing up straight", you meant something like military "at attention" (which signals the high status of one's leader or group, but not the signaling individual)? That is not how I read it initially at all. I was thinking, as opposed to slouching.