I was re-reading the chapter on status in Impro (excerpt), and I noticed that Johnstone seemed to be implying that different people are comfortable at different levels of status: some prefer being high status and others prefer being low status. I found this peculiar, because the prevailing notion in the rationalistsphere seems to be that everyone's constantly engaged in status games aiming to achieve higher status. I've even seen arguments to the effect that a true post-scarcity society is impossible, because status is zero-sum and there will always be people at the bottom of the status hierarchy.

But if some people preferred to have low status, this whole dilemma might be avoided, if a mix of statuses could be find that left everyone happy.

First question - is Johnstone's "status" talking about the same thing as our "status"? He famously claimed that "status is something you do, not something that you are", and that

I should really talk about dominance and submission, but I'd create a resistance. Students who will agree readily to raising or lowering their status may object if asked to 'dominate' or 'submit'.

Viewed via this lens, it makes sense that some people would prefer being in a low status role: if you try to take control of the group, you become subject to various status challenges, and may be held responsible for the decisions you make. It's often easier to remain low status and let others make the decisions.

But there's still something odd about saying that one would "prefer to be low status", at least in the sense in which we usually use the term. Intuitively, a person may be happy being low status in the sense of not being dominant, but most people are still likely to desire something that feels kind of like status in order to be happy. Something like respect, and the feeling that others like them. And a lot of the classical "status-seeking behaviors" seem to be about securing the respect of others. In that sense, there seems to be something intuitive true in the "everyone is engaged in status games and wants to be higher-status" claim.

So I think that there are two different things that we call "status" which are related, but worth distinguishing.

1) General respect and liking. This is "something you have", and is not inherently zero-sum. You can achieve it by doing things that are zero-sum, like being the best fan fiction writer in the country, but you can also do it by things like being considered generally friendly and pleasant to be around. One of the lessons that I picked up from The Charisma Myth was that you can be likable by just being interested in the other person and displaying body language that signals your interest in the other person.

Basically, this is "do other people get warm fuzzies from being around you / hearing about you / consuming your work", and is not zero-sum because e.g. two people who both have great social skills and show interest in you can both produce the same amount of warm fuzzies, independent of each other's existence.

But again, specific sources of this can be zero-sum: if you respect someone a lot for their art, but then run across into even better art and realize that the person you previously admired is pretty poor in comparison, that can reduce the respect you feel for them. It's just that there are also other sources of liking which aren't necessarily zero-sum.

2) Dominance and control of the group. It's inherently zero-sum because at most one person can have absolute say on the decisions of the group. This is "something you do": having the respect and liking of the people in the group (see above) makes it easier for you to assert dominance and makes the others more willing to let you do so, but you can also voluntarily abstain from using that power and leave the decisions to others. (Interestingly, in some cases this can even increase the extent to which you are liked, which translates to a further boost in the ability to control the group, if you so desired.)


Morendil and I previously suggested a definition of status as "the general purpose ability to influence a group", but I think that definition was somewhat off in conflating the two senses above.

I've always had the vague feeling that the "everyone can't always be happy because status is zero-sum" claim felt off in some sense that I was unable to properly articulate, but this seems to resolve the issue. If this model were true, it would also make me happy, because it would imply that we can avoid zero-sum status fights while still making everybody content.

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Applying the universally applicable anthropological technique reductio ad MMORPG, one surmises that the real question might be, "does 'group' mean what we think it means?"

Subject A is very funny and thus popular in guild chat - perhaps even the most popular guild member. Subject B is the official guild leader so others defer to her in certain matters. Subject C almost completely neglects guild chat, but he's a skilled and well-equipped cleric and thus always desired in small quest groups. Subject D is a wizard who isn't very good in small groups of in guild chat but her services are always in demand for high-end raids.

Who is the highest status? A meaningless question, in my opinion. What we're looking at is a a multidimensional thing that we're trying to force into a single ranking. No group is fixed, and no status hierarchy is single-variable-dependent.

You might explicitly point out that status is in the mind. Perhaps in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness, everyone's maps of the group and hierarchy converged, but now with n ~= 7 billion, they diverge wildly. It's not unlike how hearts, lungs, and brains ceasing to function were once concurrent events, and now they are not and we often feel confused. There have been situations where I thought I was low status and turned out to be high status, and vice versa. What qualities correlate with status differ between individuals, but we do all seem to have an internal Status-O-Meter that causes us to make the single-variable-dependence error in the first place. Figuring out how to affect that meter as generally as possible and figuring out whether or not such efforts are necessarily zero-sum does seem useful.

I agree with those who feel as though we're lumping a lot into one word. I like shminux's description below of status as influence. Maybe you could define a high-status person as a person who makes all of the local maps converge on a map with the influencer at a high place in the hierarchy.

What you describe is skill not status (except for the leader of course). Skill is independent of status yes, but that's nothing new. Both are correlated of course. Skill can e.g. be used to gain status.

Indepenent of that I agree that status is/can be multidimensional esp. if you are in different groups.

The technical academic term for (1) Is prestige and (2) Is Dominance. Papers which distinguish the two are actually really interesting.

Can you give us some citations? I would love to read academic papers in this domain, but somehow I've been very bad at finding stuff that relates to the thing we call "status".

Usually dominance is related to a power that is maintained by agression, stress or fear.

The usual search route will lead you to some papers: https://scholar.google.com/scholar?q=prestige+dominance&btnG=&hl=en&as_sdt=0%2C5&as_ylo=2009

What I would do would be find some 2015 2014 papers and check their bibliography, or ask the principal investigator about which papers are more interesting on it.

I have a standing interest in other primates and cetaceans as well, so I'd look for attempts to show that others have or don't have prestige.

I second Creutzer's request for links to these papers.

This one seems especially relevant to ChristianKl's comments above, but can't hurt here.

If you are particularly interested in sexual status, I wrote about it before here, dispelling some of the myth.

Being uncertain about one's status in a group seems to be much more taxing than being sure about one status even if one isn't at the top of the group.

A group of 10 males where nobody plays status games will often start to play status games when a single woman enters the group. There seems to be strong evolutionary pressure for competing for the favor of women.

Not sure if people are aware, but there are a lot of studies backing up that claim. It is more taxing (to well-being, not to fitness, of course) What's more, the alpha is is most stressed member of groups with high status-uncertainty, and the least stressed in a group with low status-uncertainty.

there are a lot of studies backing up that claim

Post links to three?

Can't do. Search keywords as cortisol dominance rank status uncertainty.

A possible distinction between status and dominance: You are everybody's favourite sidekick. You don't dominate or control the group, nor do you want to, nor do you even voice any opinions about what the group should do. You find the idea of telling other people what to do to be unpleasant, and avoid doing so whenever you can. You would much rather be assigned complex tasks and then follow them through with diligence and pride. Everyone wants you in the group, they genuinely value your contribution, they care about your satisfaction with the project, and want you to be happy and well compensated.

By no means would I consider this role dominant, at least not in terms of controlling other people. (You might indeed be the decisive factor in the success of the group, or the least replaceable member). But it is certainly a high-status role; you are not deferred to but you are respected, and you are not treated as a replaceable cog. The president or boss knows your name, knows your family, and calls you first when something needs to be done.

I think many people aspire to this position and prefer it over a position of dominance.

A low-status person on this scale would be somebody ignored, disrespected, or treated as replaceable and irrelevant. You are unworthy of attention. When it is convenient others pretend you don't exist, and your needs, desires, and goals are ignored.

I think almost everyone desires high status by this measure. It is very different than dominance.

I'm not sure I see what "dominance" is here. If you mean something like the OP's "general purpose ability to influence a group", then my guess is that this person is only "not-dominant" to the extent that they choose not to overtly use it. For instance, I expect the answer to the following questions would be "yes":

When the group is uncertain about an outsider, or someone new, is this person's support more important than that of the average member of the group?

Regarding trivial choices, like ambient temperature or where to go for lunch, do this person's preferences count more than the average, or do they get their choice more than the average member of the group?

In times of change or crisis, would this person's voice carry more weight than the average voice?

To me status is how seriously a person is taken by others. It is about influence (not zero-sum) rather than dominance (zero-sum). Status is an ad hominem shortcut that avoids Pascal's Mugging by giving low weight to the arguments put forth by low-status people. Often status is highly domain-dependent: for example, I would take Eliezer seriously on rationality, on fiction writing or on AI research, but not on MWI advocacy. In an extreme case you discussed before, a generally low-status person turns into a high-status one when credibly threatening someone with a bomb.

If you want a formal definition, I suppose you have to select

  • a group of people,
  • a member of the group (or maybe a non-member),
  • a set of domains this group cares about,

and find a distribution of the prior given to the statements of this member in a given domain. If the distribution is localized enough, it makes sense to talk about that person's status in this domain for that group. If you find that for some person the distributions are similar across groups and/or domains, then you can talk about that person's status in a more general sense. In an extreme case, there are people whose opinion is taken as gospel on the wide variety of issues by diverse groups of people, e.g. Einstein on anything science-related. More examples: Reagan's quotes on anything policy-related among US conservatives, Krugman on politics/economics among US liberals, Kahneman on human thinking among LWers.

This definition allows one to actually calculate a person's status by polling group members for priors, implicitly or explicitly.

I just want to note here that Johnstone's book is amazing and I'm grateful to you for introducing me to it.

Very nice and illuminating conceptual analysis. Thanks!

These people who don't like to be in charge, what are they like, according to you and/or Johnstone? Less confident or just less ambitious? More commonly women, perhaps? I don't have a very clear model of their psychology.

I would expect there to be several different types. Less confident or less ambitious would certainly be one, another type that comes to mind would be people who were ambitious but whose ambition wasn't furthered by being in control of the group. E.g. someone who wants to be the best in the world at X where X is any task you typically do as part of a larger team with the others doing other tasks and you just want somebody else to be in charge of coordinating the team while you can focus on X. Being a leader requires specialized skills and a lot of people might simply not have time or interest to develop those skills.

Thanks. Those are good points.

Another relevant excerpt, from siderea's analysis of Watership Down:

One of the things about being the King for a people, is that you get blamed. Even for things that aren't your fault. Even for things beyond your control. Even for crappy-ass reasons like, "I'm scared and pissed off and you, you're in charge here, so I'll vent my feelings against you."
This is the challenging part of caring. If you demonstrate a concern for the wellbeing of the people in your people, they will start seeing their wellbeing as your concern. Start taking responsibility for how things go in a group, and people will start seeing you as responsible for how things go in a group.
This, right here, is what causes many people to back away from Kingship. Which is their right, of course. It's totally legitimate to look at that deal and say, "Oh, hell no."
Our society tells us that being King is awesome and everyone – well, everyone normal – wants to be one. "Every body wants to rule the world." No, actually, they don't. My experience tells me that most people are very reluctant to step into the job of King, and this consequence of the role is a primary reason why. People who, even knowing this consequence, are still willing to have authority rest on their shoulders are not at all that common.

For me, the enjoyment of getting to do things my way and having other people look up to me is outweighed by the stress of being responsible for getting it right, for all but the very smallest groups

I don't like to be in charge. Some relevant times when I particularly didn't like it:

  • When I was president of my university airsoft society, one of my exec team wasn't doing his job. That sucked for everyone in the society, and it was stressful for me, and I had to tell him off and he apologized; I don't remember if he started doing his job after that.

  • When I organized the HPMOR wrap party, for at least a week beforehand I was under pretty much constant low-level stress. I felt like I wasn't doing enough, but I wasn't sure what else I could be doing, and/or anything I could think of felt really ugh-y. At the end, a group of us went for a meal, and someone else was pretty clearly in charge for that part, which was great.

There's probably more I could say about this. Feel free to ask questions.

edit - I should note that although I didn't enjoy being in charge of the wrap party before it happened, it was rewarding afterwards, when it had turned out to be a really good evening. I definitely got something out of being in charge in that case, that I wouldn't have got from just participating. So it's probably oversimplistic of me to say that I don't like being in charge, but there is much that I dislike about it.

Interesting. I'm starting to believe some people might think that they want to be in charge but actually really don't. They have, so to speak, internalized society's expectations that people should want to be in charge. Because it is true that being in charge has serious drawbacks.

Status isn't an end in itself. There are benefits associated with status. Higher status has more benefits. On the other hand, it takes a lot of effort to increase one's status and the enterprise is fraught with uncertainty. Playing the status game has its own opportunity costs and trade-offs.

At the high end, one runs into the Sword of Damocles. Being king has its perks, but it is a high-risk, high-stress position. There's always someone gunning for your spot, lying in wait to pounce when you show weakness. It's not even certain that the benefits of the position are worth the risks involved and the high chance of failure when pursuing it.

It seems to me that most people are willing to settle for a certain status depending on how good the benefits are and the difficulties involved in getting there. Once settled, they'd be fine with improving their status if it can be done cheaply, but may not think it worth expending a lot of effort.

it seems to me that most people are willing to settle for a certain status depending on how good the benefits are and the difficulties involved in getting there.

It is also my impression that people who "prefer being low status" are actually just afraid of possible punishment for claiming too much status.

Suggested experiment: Select a group of people who "prefer being low status" and let them interact with each other for a long period of time. Prediction: Some members of the group will gradually become more comfortable with acting high-status within the group.

Status isn't strictly zero sum. Some large subset of sexual status is. Also humans have many different concomitant status hierarchies.

The way status works looks analogous to the way Schelling points work: members of the group expect the other members to act a certain way towards member X, and also expect that everyone will expect everyone else to expect that, and so on. This is clearly how authority works (each grunt obeys the boss because he expects the other grants to obey and punish him if he doesn't, which is what all of them are thinking), and I suspect it might be a special case of the general case of status.

The value of strength, wealth, talent and etc. for high status would then go beyond their inherent usefulness in influencing people, by also acting as salient features that are more likely to become Schelling points. At the other end, each person would know not to ally with a coward because "nobody follows a coward", which would be a pretty natural Schelling point, but a similar behavior can arise if "it is known" that people born under the full moon are unlucky, and therefore nobody expects anyone else to follow someone born under a full moon...

This accords well, I believe, with the common observation that acting as one who expects to be assigned high status is an effective way to indeed be assigned high status.

Maybe I'm missing something, but the mystery of people wanting to be low status appears to vanish if we don't think of binary high/low status, but as a continuum going from highest to lowest status. Then we can see people not wanting to go for highest status (including, perhaps, because they don't think they can manage it), but that doesn't mean they want to be low status.

I find it useful to see status as "fuzzily ordinal", in that it's often possible to identify one or some higher status members of a group, one or some lower status members (or maybe "would-be members"), as well as some in the middle, even if it's not possible to order them precisely.

I really like Venkat's illustration of this in his Gervais Principle (as in "it's interesting and aesthetically pleasing", not necessarily as in "I have high confidence in its accuracy"), especially in this post.

See also the recent OB post Advice Shows Status


I tried to ask a very similar question, ended up at -4 with 3 answers...


I just don't think there are many features human social organization that can be usefully described by a one-dimensional array, the alleged left-right political divide perhaps being the canonical example. Take two books I have on my Kindle: Sirens of Titan and Influx. While one can truly say the latter is a vastly more terrible book than the former, it would be absurd to say they--and every other book I've read--should be placed in a stack that uniquely ranks then against one another. And it's not a matter of comparing apples and oranges--because you can compare apples and oranges--it's that the comparison is not scalar, perhaps not even mathematically representable at all.

In terms of status, know one knows what the word means. If we base it on influence, then some people who had the most lasting impacts where despised in their day. Additionally, people who wield power over others are generally resented if not loathed by subalterns. As with economics, with social science you can pretty much get the result you want by choosing the slice that yields the results closest to the answer you are looking for.

"Status" is a... multifaceted word with many different (but related) meanings in different contexts.

I think my crude definition of status would be "respect that you get by default before the specifics of the situation come into play". Or, in LW terms, the prior for respect due to this person before the evidence becomes apparent.

This continues to be a puzzling topic...

My most recent explicit thought about this had to to with teamwork: it's become a commonplace that "conflict in a team isn't actually bad", and I was thinking that conflict per se may not be counterproductive, but I would certainly view engaging in dominance contests as a waste of time all around.

When I coach teams I often consciously adopt (and advocate for others in a similar position) a "low posture" - a cluster of heuristics, really, such as "I'm happy to help the group work through a problem but I'm not the one who makes the decision", or "invest significant time in hearing people out".

There can also be a question of perspective: some people are determined to view the world through dominance-tinted glasses, others to see it in tints of warm fuzzy.

In most scientific fields status is defined as access (or entitlement) to resources (i.e.: food and females, mostly). Period. And they tend to take this measure very seriously and stick to it (it has many advantages, easy to measure, evolutionary central, etc.). Both your definitions are only two accidental aspects of having status. Presumably, if you have - and in order to have - higher access to resources you have to be respected, liked, and have influence over your group. I think the definition is elegant exactly because all the things we perceive as status have as major consequences/goals higher access to resources.

Moreover, I don't think it is the case people can have warm fuzzies for everyone they meet. There's a limited amount of warm fuzzies to be spent. Of course, you can hack the warm-fuzzy system by using such and such body language, just like you could hack mating strategies using PUA techniques before everyone knew about it. But that's a zero-sum game.

Different people are comfortable with different levels of status; there are a lot of studies confirming that. If you put a regular gorilla as leader of a group of silverbacks he will freak out, because his trachea is most certainly to be lying on the floor in a few seconds. For very similar reasons, I will freak out if you give me a Jiu-Jitsu black belt and threw me into a dojo. This does not mean that same said regular gorilla will not fight with everything he has to achieve a higher status within certain safety boundaries. People are comfortable with different levels of status, and their current level is not one of them, nor is one too high to be safe. Nobody can be happy. That is the nature of status. (Also, there are limited resources - or so your brain thinks - so it is important to make other people miserable as well.)

This also reminded me of this study, which found that "wealthy individuals report that having three to four times as much money would give them a perfect "10" score on happiness--regardless of how much wealth they already have."

In most scientific fields status is defined as access (or entitlement) to resources (i.e.: food and females, mostly).

Which fields are these? This sounds to me a definition that could be useful in e.g. animal studies, but vastly insufficient when it comes to the complexities of status with regard to humans. E.g. according to this definition, an armed group such as occupiers or raiders who kept forcibly taking resources from the native population would be high status among the population, which seems clearly untrue.

Moreover, I don't think it is the case people can have warm fuzzies for everyone they meet. There's a limited amount of warm fuzzies to be spent. Of course, you can hack the warm-fuzzy system by using such and such body language, just like you could hack mating strategies using PUA techniques before everyone knew about it. But that's a zero-sum game.

What makes you say that?

an armed group such as occupiers or raiders who kept forcibly taking resources from the native population would be high status among the population, which seems clearly untrue.

Maybe that's still the same kind of status, but it is in regards to a different domain. Perhaps an effective understanding of status acknowledges that groups overlap and may be formed around different resources. In your example, there is group (raiders and natives) which forms around literal physical resources, perhaps food. In this group, status is determined by military might, so the raiders have a higher status-as-it-relates-to-food.

Within this group, there is another subgroup of just the villagers, which the raiders are either not a part of or are very low-status in. This group distributes social support or other nice things like that, as the resource to compete over. The group norms dictate that pro-social behavior is how you raise status. So you can be high-status in the group of natives, but low status in the group of (natives and raiders).

In our daily lives, we are all part of many different groups, which are all aligned along different resources. We constantly exchange status in some groups for status in others. For instance, suppose I'm a pretty tough guy, and I'm inserted into the previously discussed status system. I obviously want food, but I'm not stronger than the raiders. I am, however, stronger than most of the villagers, and could take some of the food that the raiders don't scavenge for. If strength was my biggest comparative advantage, and food was all I wanted, then this would definitely be the way to go.

Suppose though that I don't just want food, or I have an even larger comparative advantage in another area, such as basketweaving. I could join the group of the villagers and raise my status within the group. Other villagers would be willing to sacrifice their status in the (raiders and villagers) system in exchange for something they need, like my baskets. This would be me bartering my baskets for food. Here, we can see the primary resource of the (raiders and villagers) group thrown under the bus for other values.

If I raise my status in the group far enough by making good enough baskets, then in terms of the (raiders and villagers) system I will be getting a larger piece of a smaller pie, but it might still be larger than the amount I would get otherwise. Or maybe I'm not even too concerned about the (raiders and villagers) system, and view status within the village group as a terminal value. Or maybe I want to collect villager status to trade for something even more valuable.

tl;dr: There are a lot of different groups optimizing for different things. We can be part of many of these groups at once and trade status between them to further our own goals.

I am, however, stronger than most of the villagers, and could take some of the food that the raiders don't scavenge for.

You'd have to be stronger than the group of villagers.

I'd have to be stronger than the group in order to get more food than the entire group, but depending on their ability to cooperate I may be able to steal plenty for myself, an amount that would seem tiny compared to the large amount needed for the whole group.

The example I chose was a somewhat bad one I think though because the villagers would have a defender's advantage of protecting their food. You can substitute "food" for "abstract, uncontrolled resource" to clarify my point.

Which fields are these? This sounds to me a definition that could be useful in e.g. animal studies, but vastly insufficient when it comes to the complexities of status with regard to humans.

Yes, it came from animal studies; but they use in evolutionary psychology as well (and I think in cognitive psychology and biological anthropology too). Yes, it is vastly insufficient. However, I think it is the best we have. More importantly, it is the least biased one I have seen (exactly because it came from animal studies). I feel like most definitions of status are profoundly biased in order to give the author a higher status. Take yours. You are one of the top-5 friendly/likeable people I know, and you put friendless as a major criteria. (I think I nested an appeal to flattery inside an ad hominem here).

according to this definition, an armed group such as occupiers or raiders who kept forcibly taking resources from the native population would be high status among the population, which seems clearly untrue.

Yes, they would have high status (which would be disputed by the natives, probably). Don't you agree the Roman had a higher status than the tribes they invaded? And yes, Nazis invading, killing, torturing, pillaging and raping the French would also have higher status (at least temporally, until someone removed their trachea). That means status is a bad correlate of moral worthiness, but so is most of the things evolution has ever produced. I think this definition causes a bad emotional reaction (I had it too) because it's difficult to twist in order to increase your status, and is morally repugnant. It doesn't mean it is false, to the contrary.

What makes you say that?

It would seem that in a world where everyone is friendly, things would escalate and only the extremely friendly would cause warm fuzzies. Or, people would feel warm fuzzies so often it would be irrelevant. (I.e., I used my philosopher-contrafactual-epistemic-beam, scanned the possible worlds, and concluded that. I.e., I have no idea what I'm talking about.)