Michael Vassar once suggested:  "Status makes people effectively stupid, as it makes it harder for them to update their public positions without feeling that they are losing face."

To the extent that status does, in fact, make people stupid, this is a rather important phenomenon for a society like ours in which practically all decisions and beliefs pass through the hands of very-high-status individuals (a high "cognitive Gini coefficient").

Does status actually make people stupid?  It's hard to say because I haven't tracked many careers over time.  I do have a definite and strong impression, with respect to many high-status individuals, that it would have been a lot easier to have an intelligent conversation with them, if I'd approached them before they made it big.  But where does that impression come from, since I haven't actually tracked them over time?  (Fundamental question of rationality:  What do you think you know and how do you think you know it?)  My best guess for why my brain seems to believe this:  I know it's possible to have intelligent conversations with smart grad students, and I get the strong impression that high-status people used to be those grad students, but now it's much harder to have intelligent conversations with them than with smart grad students.


  1. Vassar's hypothesis:  Higher status increases the amount of face you lose when you change your mind, or increases the cost of losing face.
  2. The open-mindedness needed to consider interesting new ideas is (was) only an evolutionary advantage for low-status individuals seeking a good idea to ride to high status.  Once high status is achieved, new ideas are high-risk gambles with less relative payoff - the optimal strategy is to be mainstream.  I think Robin Hanson had a post about this but I can't recall the title.
  3. Intelligence as such is a high-cost feature which is no longer necessary once status is achieved.  We can call this the Llinas Hypothesis.
  4. High-status individuals were intelligent when they were young; the observed disparity is due solely to the standard declines of aging.
  5. High-status individuals spend more time on dinners and politics, and less time on problem-solving and reading; they exercise their minds less.
  6. High-status individuals are under less pressure to perform, in general.
  7. High-status individuals are just as smart as they ever were, but when you or I try to approach them, the status disparity makes it harder to converse with them - they would sound just as intelligent if we had higher status ourselves.
  8. High-status individuals feel less social pressure to listen to your arguments, respond articulately to them, or change their minds when their own arguments are inadequate, which decreases their apparent or real intelligence.
  9. High-status individuals become more convinced of their ideas' rightness or of their own competence.
  10. High-status individuals get less honest advice from their friends, especially about their own failings.

Did I miss anything important?

Having achieved some small degree of status in certain very limited circles, here's what I do to try to avoid the status-makes-you-stupid effect:

  • I try to feel a small flash of self-satisfaction whenever I publicly admit that I am wrong, over what a good rationalist I am being and what a good impression I am making.  Not so much satisfaction that I forget that it's better to be correct in the first place, but enough to be a counter-force to the fear of losing face.
  • I consistently refuse to be drawn into running the Singularity Institute.  I have an overwhelming sense of doom about what happens if I start going down that road.
  • I try in general to avoid sending my brain signals which tell it that I am high-status, just in case that causes my brain to decide it is no longer necessary.  In fact I try to avoid sending my brain signals which tell it that I have achieved acceptance in my tribe.  When my brain begins thinking something that generates a sense of high status within the tribe, I stop thinking that thought.
  • I remember my low-prestige roots - for example, I remember what it was like to be a child squeezed through the horrors of the elementary school system.  I haven't switched sides to declare that children are stupid and need to be overridden for their own good (as would signal my own adulthood and maturity).  I remember the battles I fought then, and would still fight them now on behalf of another child if a target of opportunity arose.  That is supporting and identifying with the downtrodden - not to be confused with the high-prestige activity of supporting trendy minority causes that other celebrities support.  The vast majority of celebrities who "support the downtrodden" don't go so far as to support children against adults.  (David Deutsch is a notable exception to this, and earned a huge amount of respect from me for it.)
  • I refuse to conform to people's expectations of a wise sage who always speaks with kindness and sober deliberation, of which I have said:  "I am not bloody Gandalf."
New Comment
146 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:
Some comments are truncated due to high volume. (⌘F to expand all)Change truncation settings

As a first step, let me just enumerate some hypotheses inconsistent with yours to see if they stick: (all intended to explain why higher-status people seem smarter)

  • Higher status increases the amount of face you lose when you continue to believe something obviously untrue, or increases the cost of losing face.
  • High-status individuals were less intelligent when they were young; the observed disparity is due solely to the wisdom that comes with age.
  • High-status individuals spend more time on dinners and politics, and less time on problem-solving and reading; they exercise their minds more.
  • High-status individuals are under more pressure to perform, in general.
  • High-status individuals are just as smart as they ever were, but when you or I try to approach them, the status disparity makes it harder to converse with them - they would sound less intelligent if we had higher status ourselves.
  • High-status individuals feel more social pressure to listen to your arguments, respond articulately to them, or change their minds when their own arguments are inadequate, which increases their apparent or real intelligence.
  • High-status individuals get more honest advice from their friends, especially about their own failings (and have better friends).

Nice exercise.

Great comment, makes it wonderfully clear that Eliezer's list was all just-so-stories. Now my head spins and I can't even tell whether the effect is real! Do higher-status people actually make stupider decisions on average? Has anyone ever measured that?

Not all; some of them really don't work for me the other way round! I feel I would have objected to the following claims even were they presented to me before their counterparts:

Higher status increases the amount of face you lose when you continue to believe something obviously untrue, or increases the cost of losing face.

High-status individuals spend more time on dinners and politics, and less time on problem-solving and reading; they exercise their minds more.

High-status individuals feel more social pressure to listen to your arguments, respond articulately to them, or change their minds when their own arguments are inadequate, which increases their apparent or real intelligence.

High-status individuals get more honest advice from their friends, especially about their own failings (and have better friends).

On the other hand, I find this reversed claim more plausible than the original:

High-status individuals are just as smart as they ever were, but when you or I try to approach them, the status disparity makes it harder to converse with them - they would sound less intelligent if we had higher status ourselves.

I certainly buy that higher-status people have better friends. Status tends to make one's social network grow, and you can pick the best of them. But 'best' might end up meaning something unuseful to intelligence. The second one you list seems plausible to me (on the face of it). Talking to academics over dinner has exposed me to a lot of interesting arguments that I wouldn't have encountered in my undergraduate nerdery. And the first seems true, though it's tempered by the difficulty in cashing out 'obvious' and the ability for high-status people to obfuscate their ignorance.
The large majority of these proposals simply don't stick, at least for definitions of "higher status" along the lines of 99.9th percentile rather than 99th percentile. Many of the same proposals are very plausible when talking about the 90th percentile rather than the 50th percentile. Sadly, we don't have grammar rules which encourage us to inconspicuously quantify values in English. Could be useful in a constructed language.
Well done -- these sound just as plausible as their uninverted forms, suggesting additional hidden assumptions behind the original hypotheses.

Another way of looking at this is that the lower status person was just as stupid but no one noticed it. It is probably a lot easier to forgive/forget faults in someone who is lower status because they don't matter as much.

So, if we have an intelligent conversation with a grad-student we pick out the good stuff and remember it. If we have a similar conversation with someone higher-status we pick out the good and the bad stuff and remember.

ETA: It would be interesting to see a compare and contrast between this and the halo effect.

As a lowly grad student, I'm frequently congratulated by professors for being clever. But, I'm mostly just explaining things that they already know. I think they're just impressed because they have no expectations for me, and I only speak up when I know what's going on (which is rarely).

On the flip side, they spend an hour lecturing for every ten minutes of conversation I have with them. As a result, they have far more opportunity to reveal some misconception or minor incompetence. We're unlikely to share the same misconceptions about the world, so I'll probably be able to call them on this error. I think the difference is that they -- with their high status -- are the ones who have to do most of the talking. Even someone who is a leading expert in their field is going to get called out by some know-nothing if they talk long enough.

So pretty much: I think you're probably right -- that our higher expectations will bias us away from excusing and forgetting a mistake made by someone who is of high status. I just want to add that we also give them more opportunities to reveal their shortcomings because they have high status.

11) Status doesn't make people stupid, rather traits other than intelligence determine status, making it unlikely that the highest status individual in a group will also be the most intelligent.

IE- Do the most intelligent scientists really get the most grant money? Does the most intelligent candidate usually win the election? Are the most arrogant mofos (self perceiving high-status) really the smartest?

That being said, I do see a positive correlation with intelligence and status, but it probably breaks down at the high levels of intelligence you (Eliezer) generally deal with.

I think Laura is getting it right. Even though intelligence might help people increase their status in a vacuum, highly intelligent people tend to have other traits that might decrease their seeking of status or success at attaining it. It's a tradeoff. For instance, many highly intelligent people are introverts, yet extraversion is probably an advantage for leadership. There is also a correlation between intelligence and openness to experience. While you probably need decent openness to be a good leader, you will seem wishy-washy if you have too much. In certain fields that depend on competence, such as science, technology, and some parts of academia (but not others), status depends more an accomplishment and is more tightly linked to intelligence. In other fields, the most intelligent and epistemically-trustworthy people will have trouble ascending to leadership positions.
Is this true? Or are highly intelligent introverts just more likely to put there intelligence into book learning and paper writing that make it easier to evaluate their intelligence?
The Wikipedia page on introversion and extraversion cites a couple studies suggesting a link between introversion and intelligence/giftedness, such as this study. A bit more Googling lead me to a study using Big Five extraversion finds that the relationship might be more complex.
Of course, within the subset of intelligent people, ascending to higher status might also reduce their epistemic hygiene, as Eliezer observes. (Though these individuals will maintain the same intelligence.)

I'd be more comfortable with thinking that status produces stupidity if I'd heard the claim from a less contrarian source. My guess is that Eliezer has been talking about somewhat contrarian claims, and I expect smart grad students to be more open to such contrarian claims than are older more world-wise high status folks. If the intelligence test were not conflated with contrarian stuff, I'd expect high status folks to look much better. Of course do tell me if my guess is wrong. Now why higher status folks are less open to contrarian ideas is different issue. That could be because they are less smart on such topics, that they are more knowledgeable about such topics, or just that such openness better fits the desired image of a grad student than a high status person later.

As someone with extensive experience speaking with intellectually orientated people along the status continuum I would expect you to have a body of observations on which to make your own judgement. Given your own interest in status and signalling I would be surprised if the possibility of such a relationship hadn't occured to you. What does your experience suggest? Do you observe 'stupidity' used to signal status? Does this seem to operate on the level of actually being stupid?

I'd be more comfortable with thinking that status produces stupidity if I'd heard the claim from a less contrarian source.

So would I, and yet I would be shocked if I did. Apart from being tantamount to an admission of either stupidity or low status it is also signalling that you are not part of the in group. Not a conservative move at all.

I observe that my performance in chess and go over the course of a game more than regresses to the mean. The farther ahead I get the worse I play.
I notice a similar (not to the mean) regression when I am playing chess and, well, just about everything. I excel under pressure. It strikes me that these observations are relevant to the opening post but not to the immediate ancestors, at least by content.
I try in general to avoid sending my brain signals which tell it that I am high-status, just in case that causes my brain to decide it is no longer necessary.  In fact I try to avoid sending my brain signals which tell it that I have achieved acceptance in my tribe.  When my brain begins thinking something that generates a sense of high status within the tribe, I stop thinking that thought.

This is shocking, insofar as many people, as far as I understand, actively do the opposite. I'm surprised I haven't seen you mention this anywhere before.

I've explicitly trained myself to be aware of status feelings, so that I can take them as object, but I hadn't thought to explicitly push against them. (I think this is a big deal for me, one way or the other.)

I refuse to conform to people's expectations of a wise sage who always speaks with kindness and sober deliberation, of which I have said: "I am not bloody Gandalf."

I'm far from convinced that niceness correlates with status (or stupidity). For every Gandalf, there is a Stalin.

In fact, wait a minute! Gandalf is a fictional character. And indeed, though history is full of Stalins, I'm actually having trouble thinking of very many real-life Gandalfs. There are of course plenty of legends about wise, kind rulers; but it seems that very few actual historical (as opposed to fictional) high-status people have had this "Gandalf" disposition you speak of.

So really, is this your true rejection of niceness?

7Eliezer Yudkowsky
I think I must have been unclear on this point. What I am rejecting is conformity to an image that exists in other people's minds; I am refusing to behave in accordance with the stereotyped expectations of people who do assign me high status. So Gandalf, in fact, is an appropriate illustration, because if status-seeking makes you behave like the Tolkien character that people expect you to be, that could also make you stupid. (Similarly if you behave like Frodo, i.e., never noticing the fact that you're a hero.)
Isn't Sam the hero?
2Eliezer Yudkowsky
I shan't deny that Sam is a hero, though his unawareness of the fact is three times worse than Frodo's.
Perhaps replace 'kindness and sober deliberation' with 'dignity and sober deliberation'.
I am far from convinced that Stalin is "high-status"--at the very least most socialists I know disavow him. On the other hand I agree that Gandalf is a fictional character. A couple of counterexamples quickly came to mind then failed, I'd be interested to see a larger list: Gandhi: disowned his son for getting married who then committed suicide; told women not to fight against rape. I'm not thinking of a good one for Lincoln, Einstein, MLKJ. Any evidence against them? I'd be surprised to see it about Einstein. ETA: Clearly Stalin was high status when leading the USSR, and perhaps continues to be, I seem to have slipped into non-LW-mode for that sentence. My question of whether other, commonly-though-of-as-kinder public figures are less gandalf-like still stands.

I am far from convinced that Stalin is "high-status"--at the very least most socialists I know disavow him.

That may be true now, but Stalin was pretty high status while he was in charge of the USSR.

EDIT: Comment rescinded due to being dumb.
Status is not the same as popularity. Besides, it's just an ape thing - you don't have to intrinsically value it, and so feel bad about acknowledging the high status of someone you don't like.
Stalin is definitely high-status, at least in present-day Russia. He's alarmingly popular among lower-class older people here -- and perhaps among the net-savvy public too, as he is believed to be the actual winner of the state-sponsored contest "The Name of Russia". If you ask me, that's not surprising at all given the current situation in the country -- it's crawling with corruption.
Lincoln illegally suspended habeas corpus and the freedom of speech, shut down newspapers that disagreed with him, and arrested legitimately elected members of the Maryland General Assembly on suspicion of supporting the South. Many argue that these were necessary measures, but Lincoln doesn't have a spotless record by any means.
I didn't mean to say he did, I just didn't have the list on hand myself.
I wasn't trying to contradict you, just supplying the evidence you requested.
Sorry, I got defensive because other posts of mine were getting downvoted (justifiably).

From: You and Your Research

When you are famous it is hard to work on small problems. This is what did Shannon in. After information theory, what do you do for an encore? The great scientists often make this error. They fail to continue to plant the little acorns from which the mighty oak trees grow. They try to get the big thing right off. And that isn't the way things go. So that is another reason why you find that when you get early recognition it seems to sterilize you.

Here is another mechanism by which status could make you "stupid", although I'm interpreting stupid in a different sense: as in making one less productive than one otherwise might. Although, I think the critique could be more general.

Its generally only worth talking about things that we can make progress in understanding so if you have an inflated sense of what you can accomplish then you might try to think about and discuss things that you cannot advance. So you end up wasting your mental efforts more and you fall behind on other areas that would have been a better use of your talents.

The thing I've noticed about high status people is that they're only interested in associating with other high status people. But low status people are interested in associating with high status people. So high status people seem to spend a lot of time assuming that the person who just came up to talk to them is only interested in shining in their status. So a hypothesis:

  • More time defending status than low status people need to spend
  • Energy spent identifying need to defend status prevents engaged interaction with many of the people who come up to them.

To test this hypothesis, I would argue that high status people are more intelligent when they are in either contexts where they only interact with high status people or contexts where no one knows they are high status than they are in contexts where they interact with low status people who know who they are.

I've seen this with people who have high community status -- they're more intelligent in communities that they're not usually members of.

One reason I've had such fun reading the customer-service-horror-story blog Not Always Right is that it provides scads of anecdotal evidence that otherwise bright and competent people, when put in a situation where they feel they have high status (e.g. as a paying customer dealing with an employee), are suddenly quite apt to fail noticing the obvious, refuse to process information given them repeatedly, or read an entire situation confidently wrong.

I see no evidence that the customers featured in Not Always Right are otherwise bright and competent.

Mere stupidity doesn't explain it, as it would cause people to assume themselves mistaken as often as they assume the employee is. As clearly demonstrated, there's a gigantic bias blind spot regarding who's at fault (one capable of instantly switching around memories), which I expect isn't there (as much) when these people are dealing with peers or superiors. Or to take another example, I can't find the reference: a famous (former?) con man said that one key to keeping the mark from thinking clearly is getting them to think they're getting the advantage of someone dumber or otherwise lower status. Obviously, all anecdotal, but strong enough, and not paired with corresponding evidence in the other direction.
None of the bright and competent people I know would ever do something as ridiculous as the stories on Not Always Right. Some of the dumber people I know would, though.
True. But maybe their delusion of status caused them to act even dumber than they would have in a situation where they felt the status gradient leaning in the other direction. We'd need studies to be carried out to be sure. Anyone know of any?
Wouldn't the blog be a very poor source of evidence given it's highly selective sample? At best it would illustrate what sort of events happen in the most annoying cases (for employees).

Related: When people feel powerful, they ignore new opinions.

Don’t bother trying to persuade your boss of a new idea while he’s feeling the power of his position – new research suggests he’s not listening to you. “Powerful people have confidence in what they are thinking. Whether their thoughts are positive or negative toward an idea, that position is going to be hard to change,” said Richard Petty, co-author of the study and professor of psychology at Ohio State University.

The best way to get leaders to consider new ideas is to put them in a situation where they don’t feel as powerful, the research suggests.

“If you temporarily make a powerful person feel less powerful, you have a better chance of getting them to pay attention,” said Pablo Briñol, lead author of the study and a social psychologist at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid in Spain. Briñol is a former postdoctoral fellow at Ohio State.

Interesting. How do I make my boss feel less powerful without having him get insecure and threatened by a rival? I have sometimes had more success making bosses feel completely secure in their power and position. They can then STFU and let me do what I tell them without their egos feeling vulnerable. I guess this depends somewhat on the personality type of the boss.
Hmm, an equivalent of a PUA "neg" for your boss.

I can think of at least two high status individuals I've met in the corporate world that displayed a wide range of intelligence depending on their audience.

To some people they would be very direct, ask the right questions, give the right advice, and be generally intelligent.

To others they would display less competence, ask obvious or stupid questions, and generally seem less intelligent.

I always supposed the latter cases were either:

  • A display of "Such minor details are of no concern to me; I will play dumb to assert my status"

  • "Let's see who will challenge me when I say something stupid, and then I'll know who the smart/bold ones are in this group"

What is actually said, word choice, etc. should never be assumed to be 100 % indicative of the speaker's actual motivations in asking a question or making a statement. I play dumb all the time, for a variety of reasons. The majority of those reasons have to do with making the other person comfortable and/or seeking information that would otherwise not come my way.
I propose a further hypothesis: high-status people have internalized Laws 4, 5, and 46 of the 48 Laws of Power, but especially Law 1: Never Outshine the Master. After years of practice in switching between seeming competent relative to underlings and less so relative to superiors, they develop the ability to segregate audiences as you described.
Which audiences elicited which behaviors? From your hypotheses, it sounds like they were smarter in front of higher status people. But Technologos's hypothesis is opposite.
I don't think they acted smarter around higher status people or dumber around low status people. Smarter around people who were already convinced of their high status and authority, perhaps. And dumber around people whom they knew less well or who knew them less well. ETA: I never observed them when they were trying to impress their bosses, though.

Unfortunately, it isn't possible to upvote the whole discussion of an article, but I appreciate the way people are kicking the hypothesis around to see whether it makes sense.

Data point, praising the group gets the group to praise or up-vote you and is a good way to gain status, contra http://www.overcomingbias.com/2010/01/status-audit.html#more-21415 Important for people to remember this for future use.
I'm one of the people who upvoted that, and I didn't upvote it for praise (also, I haven't been involved in the conversation in question, so the praise wasn't directed at me). I upvoted it for giving useful feedback and supporting a dynamic I want to see more of.
Data point: Insulting the group gets the group to praise or up-vote you approximately 25 times as many karma points. Data point framed differently: It is possible to get the group to up-vote you despite praising the group but it still isn't a good way to gain status, you are still better off copy and pasting quotes into the quote thread.
That occurred to me, but I did like the thread, and possibly getting status points just because people like getting praised didn't seem like a good enough reason not to do it. I was surprised at how long it took for the points to accumulate. At this point, I have enough upvotes that I don't feel a need to work the system to get more of them. On the other hand, I've noticed that I'm less apt to follow a whole discussion once I've commented-- I get too interested in checking my comment for votes and replies.
In general people get status for doing good things and they SHOULD in general do things that they get status for and are praised for. Even if the above correlation is far from perfect, people's own knowledge of what's good may not be better than the rules within a good community for assigning status so they should at least try doing high status things to find out first hand whether those things are actually good.

Here's my hypothesis: once you achieve high status, a part of your mind makes you lose interest in the thing that you achieved high status with in the first place. You might feel obligated to maintain an appearance of interest, and defend your position from time to time, but you no longer feel a burning need to know the truth.

One solution that might work (and I think has worked for me, although I didn't consciously choose it) is to periodically start over. Once you've achieved recognition in some area, and no longer have as much interest in it as you used to, go into a different community focused on a different topic, and start over from a low-status (or at least not very high status) position. Of course this doesn't work unless there are several things that you can work on whose marginal utilities aren't too far apart. (It probably doesn't apply to Eliezer for example.)

I refuse to conform to people's expectations of a wise sage who always speaks with kindness and sober deliberation, of which I have said: "I am not bloody Gandalf."

I'm not sure the benefit of this one is higher than the cost.

High status people tend to be significantly busier, and their attention is faced with consistently higher demands. As such, they have developed much more complicated filters to remove distractions, which you will have to navigate before you can have an intelligent conversation with them.

"Did I miss anything important?"

Yeah. Maybe the observation is false to begin with. I doubt high status people are less intelligent. We just expect more from them because we are supposed to be able to look up to them. They are probably intelligent people who are no more intelligent than other low status intelligent people. They disappoint us because they are only as smart, not more smart, when compared to others of the same IQ level.

3Eliezer Yudkowsky
I've met enough high-status people to get over the initial shock about some of them being stupid. So I don't think that my remaining disappointment is a contrast with my expectations; I think it is a genuine contrast with grad students.

What about some concrete examples of people who have lost their edge because they achieved high status? Or some counter examples?

If I am thinking of some people of high status in different intellectual fields, say, scientists like Richard Feynman, Albert Einstein, Richard Dawkins, Bertrand Russel or even technologists like Linus Torvalds, Paul Graham; I'm not sure I can see the kind of "High Status Stupidity" there. Or did I just pick the wrong examples?

5Eliezer Yudkowsky
I have a mysterious feeling that it would have been much, much easier for me to have a smart conversation about the intelligence explosion with Douglas Hofstadter if I'd talked to him before Godel, Escher, Bach was published. People here have been questioning what we think we know and how we think we know it, which is right and proper; but does anyone really think this is not true?
It seems surprising to me that Hofstadter would have difficulty having such a conversation today (even with a grad student), but maybe you've tried. (And, of course, I was surprised when you recounted that he thought Einstein belonged in the transhuman end of the intelligence spectrum.)
Did he think that? Or was it that Einstein was close to an upper bound on intelligence for any mind, artificial or otherwise? ETA: Someone here once linked to a Usenet conversation in which Greg Egan expressed a similar view.
Well, either way, it's surprising.
A great example would be Arthur Conan Doyle. When it came to Sherlock Holmes, he was a brilliant writer but failed when he tried anything else, including his belief in spiritualism and the supernatural.

Why should he have succeeded at anything else? You don't need "high status stupidity" to explain his failures. Regression toward the mean would suffice, just like with "one hit wonders" in music.

If we're going to allow examples from the arts we can also list the Wachowski siblings and George Lucas. ETA : Actually, now I think both of those were due to the fact that successful writers/directors/etc are given less oversight by financiers.
Yet less oversight still might lead them to behave less intelligently. Another item for the list?
Albert Einstein might actually have been a good example. He did his most important work being a patent clerk and having no status. Later in his life you could call his refusal of quantum dynamics "High Status Stupidity".
What do you mean by that? the dice line? EPR shows that he was quite willing to think about QM.
Einstein was not that great a scientist in his later years.

Some support for hypothesis 4 (assuming a correlation between status and age):

Not only do studies show that fluid intelligence decreases with age but the psychological trait Openness to experience also declines with age. Openness is related to characteristics like curiosity, independence of mind and broad interests, which should facilitate the possibility of having an "intelligent conversation".

How about "high status individuals face larger opportunity costs to their time, reducing the relative hedonic value of increasing understanding. The instrumental value of understanding increases more than linearly with opportunity costs for them, but the instrumental value of understanding is systematically undervalued by people at all status levels because it can't be clearly visualized and so it isn't very affect laden. The net consequence is to increase the normal bias towards underinvestment in information.

High status individuals, being older, tend to rely on memory more than creativity to solve problems. As a result, their first response to a given situation is often slightly mistuned; the first answer they remember was appropriate to a similar situation but often slightly inappropriate to the current situation.

I think the overjustification effect might be at play.

The overjustification effect occurs when an external incentive such as money or prizes decreases a person's intrinsic motivation to perform a task. According to self-perception theory, people pay more attention to the incentive, and less attention to the enjoyment and satisfaction that they receive from performing the activity. The overall effect is a shift in motivation to extrinsic factors and the undermining of pre-existing intrinsic motivation.

In this case, the reward is status. It's important ... (read more)

High status allows one to blow off what one finds ridiculous instead of saying "yes, that is interesting. Have you considered the counter argument...." The moderate risk of the idea not being ridiculous is out-weighed by not having to suffer fools. See Bill Gates famous "That's the most stupid thing I have ever heard" as the prime example.

Thus, it's easier to have good conversations with grad students than faculty even if faculty is smarter.

Google 'that's the most stupid thing I have ever heard bill gates' didn't seem to return anything relevant, can you be more specific?
Sorry, should have added a link, but I have heard it/read it multiple times: """In his younger years, Gates' gimlet-eyed idealism manifested itself in stubbornness and self-righteousness, an unusual boldness, and a tendency not to suffer fools. Most people who have worked closely with him can recall more than one instance in which he reacted to a comment or idea by standing up and hissing, "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard in my life."""" http://money.cnn.com/2008/06/20/technology/gates_after_microsoft.fortune/index.htm
Thank you.
I do get hits on google. For example: https://www.businessinsider.com/bill-gates-hilarious-response-when-engineer-compared-windows-to-a-toilet-2012-3

"I consistently refuse to be drawn into running the Singularity Institute. I have an overwhelming sense of doom about what happens if I start going down that road."

This strikes me as pretty strange. I would like to hear more about it.

Certainly, one can obtain status by other means, such as by posting at OB and LW, and presenting at conferences, etc. Are there other reasons why you don't want to "run" the Singularity Institute?

I assume Eliezer thinks that his energy is much better spent on doing the things he does, not dealing with that specific leadership position.
But why/how is it better spent that way?

Add to your list "High status allows people to speak/write for the purpose of influence, where lower status forces them to stick to more objective truths".

Submitting to the social rules of rationality (as with rules in general) is low-status; claiming the right to believe (or generally do) whatever you want is high-status.

Apparent counterexample: high status (at least nominally) assigned to religious elites subject to strict rules of behavior.


It seems like you missed one hypothesis: maybe you're mistaken about the people in question, and they actually never were all that intelligent. They achieved their status via other means. It's an especially plausible error because they have high status--surely they must have got where they are by dint of great intellect!

It is dangerously tempting to think that way - "He is high status because he is good at seeking status, rather than being intelligent" which sort of implies "I am low status because I am intelligent, rather than being good at seeking status". cf. Nietzsche's master/slave morality.
The only dangerous part there is including the 'because I am intelligent' part, which is obviously fallacious. It would be useful to think "I am (perhaps) low status because I am not good at seeking status". This gives you the necessary information to make your self development decisions. It would be dangerously naive to continue to have a belief "they have high status because they have high intelligence". This would cause you to continue to develop innapropriate skills if your intention was to gain status. You could, for example, focus on improving rational thought rather than rhetorical flair. Not a status optimising decision.
Or the two are fairly independent - you can be good or bad at seeking status, intelligent or not-so intelligent, and it is possible to have any combination of those, including that of being unintelligent and yet still good at obtaining status.
Some people seem to or claim to gain status from intelligence, especially academics. Aside from that I believe (though I don't really have evidence) that it is in evidence that high status and intelligence correlate somewhat, though this correlation breaks down at very high levels of intelligence (but not at high levels of status as far as I know).
  1. High status individuals face more demands on their time/attention, and have less time to update themselves regarding important issues. If they attempt to comment on issues on which they have insufficient information, they may very well appear to be stupid.

(I try very hard to avoid commenting on things about which I know that I know too little.)

4Eliezer Yudkowsky
My perceptions of high-status stupidity arose from responses that were erroneous, not refusals to comment.
Enlarging on one facet of Kobayashi's append: In a hierarchical organization, those with high status in the sense of high formal rank "face more demands on their time/attention" and may simply not have the cpu cycles needed to adequately evaluate a complex issue. Spread someone thin enough across enough disparate issues and, even if they have adequate information, they may lack adequate thinking time on any given one of the issues.

Another hypothesis: high status people attract crackpots and then develop mental habits to protect themselves. When you talk to a high status person under most circumstances, you're not talking to the person -- you're talking to the spam filter. It's built out of brain, but using a small fraction of attention, so it's not really sentient.

This predicts that if you can get past the spam filter (with the right introduction, or by saying or doing something unfakably interesting), the effect should go away. And quite suddenly.

There's also what one could call the "baroni effect". I'm pretty sure that Robin Hanson has linked to this article. The gist is that, e.g., Italian academics esconced in high status positions will intentionally signal their (academic) incompetence in order to make it more credible that they will viciously defend their perks - because an incompetent could not profit by doing anything else.

Anyway, the question is: why do you tend to get the impression from high status people that they're dumber than they ought to be, given everything else you know ... (read more)

I don't completely understand the original post: What do you mean by "high status"?

  • Lot of money?
  • Lot of political influence?
  • High academic reputation?
  • ???

It is a completely different question why is it hard to have a good conversation with a congressman or with a famous string theorist.

I don't have much experience with the first categories (economically, politically influential people) but with scientific people (in natural sciences, mathematics and engineering) my experience has been that high status individuals (university professors, rese... (read more)

Answered here.
I don't completely understand that comment either. Does it mean that the question is whether the belief in one's own high status would influence the person to behave stupidly in some sense?
Belief in own status, or changed circumstances from people respecting the person.

Fascinating hypothesis for sure. I would be interested in seeing how this intersects with the Dunning–Kruger Effect.

Maybe the Peter's principle? High status people are given more and more responsibilities, which are not the things that they were initially good at, so they end up being functionally stupid for a lot of the time?

I've seen this happening with many math professors diverted into administration. Which is one of the big reasons math professors don't normally want to go into adminstration and power.


I think your premise is false, there's weak positive correlation between being smart and status, and you make a mistake most likely by comparing unusually smart low status individuals (grad students are not anywhere close to being typical low status people!!!) with random high status individuals.

Some of your arguments, especially #4, might very well be true, but I don't think they're anywhere near reversing the smartness-status correlation.

You assume the wrong premise. The premise is not "there is a negative correlation between status and intelligence". That is false and obviously so. The premise is "high status makes you less intelligent". Causation does not imply correlation.
8Eliezer Yudkowsky
For example, high tax payments are correlated with high income, but make you poorer.
Still, what kind of evidence do we have for this? This was the only bit of evidence offered, it's obviously just biased sampling:
No it isn't. Eliezer isn't talking about comparing grad students with hollywood stars and football players. He is comparing grad students to high status people that used to be grad students (with a probable bias towards high status academics and intellectuals.) Given a positive correlation between intelligence and status Eliezer should actually observe the opposite sample bias to the one you suggest. He would miss all the grad students who barely scraped through or were unable to make a name for themselves in academic communities. I would be interested in some more evidence for this too. It certainly matches my observations and it is also what I would expect given what I know about psychology (as related to status) but a more objective quantification would be useful.
I think he's thinking of unusually smart high status individuals. If he isn't, I certainly am. I'm very careful to anticipate regressions to the mean, though most people seem to make that mistake regularly however much they endorse efforts to be rational.

How about ritualizing admiting your own mistakes? One day every month find as much instances as possible where you were wrong in the month that passed. Then you can feel bad about finding not finding enough ideas where you were wrong and signal to your brain that it better updates beliefs more often to be a good rationalist and therefore increase status.

4Eliezer Yudkowsky
My brain is pretty bad at that sort of episodic-memory SQL query, so I have to admit it at the time and quickly, which is a good policy in any case.
Being bad at remembering times when you were wrong is not independent from stupidity through higher status. It's the problem. The fact that you can't remember how often you are wrong might be part of the reason why you generally underestimate the chance of being wrong in the future. Admitting stuff directly when it happens is good, but it doesn't help when you afterwards forget that you made a mistake. Our brain can be very clever at editing our own mistakes out of our awareness. Reviewing all the mistakes you did on a regular basis would be a way to counteract the effect.
Not necessarily. My episodic memory is also bad in the way that Eliezer describes - if I don't semi-consciously take note of an event as it happens, trying to recall the details of that event later is difficult, and gets more difficult as more time passes. However, 'the last time I discovered that I made a mistake was [time] ago' and 'I've made mistakes at a rate of [frequency] in [context] recently/in general' and similar simple facts aren't subject to that effect - they're in the realm of semantic, not episodic, memory.

How about a combination of 1 and 7. It isn't the high status itself that raises the cost of losing face, it is the status disparity between the high status person and the low status interlocutor. Listening to and accepting the interlocutor's arguments means reducing (to some extent) the disparity. But high status people can engage in intelligent conversation with their equals.

Would it be helpful if we occasionally mocked, berated and told you how low-status you really are in the scheme of things? (Only half kidding).

4Eliezer Yudkowsky
No. If you were going to try something like that, and you shouldn't, you would try expecting more from me in the areas I was already good at. EDIT: So as to keep me in a state of status-seeking, rather than status-having - low status isn't necessarily good either.

High-Status relative to what/whom?

3Eliezer Yudkowsky
High status in this case is a state of mind, possibly even a matter of raw neurochemistry. So for our purposes it's an absolute state of self-perception, not a relative state that would be computed differently if we changed other people but held the local neurochemistry constant.
Are you saying that a High-Status person necessarily thinks that they are high-status? Or, that a low status person may delude themselves in a high-status position? One of the things I was thinking was that you, Eliezer, are very much a high-status person in regards to many others in the Singularity Crowd. You may not be high-status in terms of wealth, or power, yet you are definitely a person to whom others seek to curry favor from (Just look at the crowds you draw at the events where I have seen you). I've made it a matter of personal interest to investigate how status influences our actions and reactions, and I would say that you get a high amount of deference from others. That tends to make you a person of high-status. Now, you may not have the raw-neurochemistry of a person who is a born leader, yet there you are, with a number of people looking to you for advice, conversation and opinion.
0Paul Crowley
If you're saying that people are less smart when thinking of themselves as high status, it sounds like there will already be experiments on that.
This should not be underestimated as an issue. Status as we use it here and at overcoming bias tends to be simplified into something not unlike a monetary model. It is possible to try to treat things like status reductively, but in the current discussion it will hopefully suffice to characterize it with more nuance than "social wealth".

I would like to add another reason why we might perceive high status individuals as being less intelligent (or talented) than they originally seemed. The effect under consideration is reversion to the mean. Often, a person gains high status (or, at least meaningfully begins the climb to having high status) as a result of one exceptional act or creation or work. If our average skill level is X, we may often produce works that require skill close to X, but occasionally produce works that require much greater or much less skill than X (due to natural variabil... (read more)

To save a wikipedia redirect, google "Regression to the Mean". Or search the existing comments on this post.

High status people are usually trusted with status because their methods/opinions match those who follow them. The pace of change-of-opinion will be slow for followers who have too-high a dependence on the authority of status.

High status people need only to be "effectively" stupid: you are compelled (whether or not you are stupid) to match the pace of change of those who uphold your status, as long as you value your status. Others who are more "effectively" stupid will usurp your status, if you exercise your intelligence and publicly abandon those who are dependent on your authority.

Thanks for doing those things, Eliezer.

Likely just higher visibility. High status individuals are, almost by definition, more visible than others, or than they were previously, so their "stupid moments" are more likely to be noticed.

The fact that they are high status and you are low status is evidence that they're right, reducing their incentive to listen.

Worse, if they listen and are convinced, this is evidence that they are low status, and you're high status.

Perhaps you would find it easier to have intelligent conversations with high-status people if you had equal status. They may just not be paying full attention.

That was proposal number 7.

When my brain begins thinking something that generates a sense of high status within the tribe, I stop thinking that thought.

How do you know that your desire for preserving your intelligence (by ignoring thoughts that give a sense of high status) is not a status-seeking desire itself? Maybe it gives you feelings of high status to think you can dodge status-seeking feelings.

Status-seeking is not the same as high status.
6Eliezer Yudkowsky
Precisely. I don't want to avoid the bad awful sinful behavior of status-seeking. I want to keep my brain in a productive, creative, open state that I suspect is associated with status-seeking, not a closed conventional conservative state that I suspect is associated with status-having.
2Wei Dai
I suspect that if you stay in the "status-seeking" state long enough without making apparent progress in actually obtaining status, you'll probably get bored with what you're doing and stop being productive anyway. The trick might be to feed your brain enough status signals to keep it going on your project, without giving it so much that it decides it has enough.
Doesn't make sense that you can keep yourself in a status-seeking state without gaining status. Otherwise you wouldn't be status seeking, and therefore, not reaping the benefits you suspect are associated with it. Unless you're ready to delude yourself to having low status whenever you gain status.
5Eliezer Yudkowsky
This is a brain we're talking about, not a truth. The question is just whether I can successfully put my brain into a certain state.
So you don't think there is an actual fact of the matter in regards to your status (or anyone else's presumably). This is consistent with your stance on the usefulness of self-delusion -- you wouldn't try to manipulate your brain state by seeking to believe false things. But it does raise the question of what it is exactly that Robin Hanson is always going on about.
I don't think so. But the state of "status-seeking" is not a belief. Also, many different brain states can embody the same accurate belief. Eliezer probably wants to have an accurate belief about his status-level. He just doesn't want his brain to "implement" that belief in a certain way that he suspects would impair his intelligence.

Vasar's hypothesis could have another outcome: raising the status of a low-status person without necessarily lowering the status of a high-status person.

The measures you propose sound good, but bear in mind that the original proposition hasn't been properly proven.


I reckon you've reversed the causation. Stupidity causes high status. Consider the case of Kevin here and here

I like you list of hypotheses as to why high status people may be effectively stupid. I think an interesting exercise is to turn the assumption around and find reasons why high status people are not effectively stupid. Comparing between the two sets of hypotheses could reveal both structural issues to the problem and biases to your thinking.

good idea!

Given that Eliezer Yudkowsky could be defined as a high-status person does provoke a few questions. Is one able to have intelligent conversations with Eliezer Yudkowsky? Is Eliezer Yudkowsky, given his high-status, able to judge other high-status people who may very well perceive him to be of equal or high-status? In other words, given his high profile, intelligence and personality, is his perception regarding status and the nature of intelligent conversations biased?

Is there any data supporting the assertion that high-status people are more stupid? It's a testable hypothesis.