The term "status" gets used on LessWrong a lot. Google finds 316 instances; the aggregate total for the phrases "low status" and "high status" (which suggest more precision than "status" by itself) is 170. By way of comparison, "many worlds", an important topic here, yields 164 instances.

We find the term used as an explanation, for instance, "to give offense is to imply that a person or group has or should have low status". In this community I would expect that a term used often, with authoritative connotations, and offered as an explanation could be tabooed readily, for instance when someone confused by this or that use asks for clarification: previous discussions of "high status" or "low status" behaviours seemed to flounder in the particular way that definitional arguments often do.

Somewhat to my surprise, there turned out not to be a commonly understood way of tabooing "status". Lacking a satisfactory unpacking of the "status" terms and how they should control anticipation, I decided to explore the topic on my own, and my intention here is to report back and provide a basis for further discussion.

The "Status" chapter of Keith Johnstone's 1979 book "Impro", previously discussed here and on OB, is often cited as a reference on the topic (follow this link for an excerpt); I'll refer to it throughout as simply "Johnstone". Also, I plan to entirely avoid the related but distinct concept of "signaling" in this post, reserving it for later examination.

Dominance hierarchies

My initial impression was that "status" had some relation to the theory of dominance hierarchies. Section 3 of Johnstone starts with:

Social animals have inbuilt rules which prevent them killing each other for food, mates, and so on.  Such animals confront each other, and often fight, until a hierarchy is established, after which there is no fighting unless an attempt is made to change the ‘pecking order’. This system is found in animals as diverse as humans, chickens, and woodlice.

This reinforced an impression I had previously acquired: that the term "alpha male", often used in certain circles synonymously with "high status male", indicated an explicit link between the theoretical underpinnings of the term "status" and some sort of dominance theory.

However, substantiating this link turned out a more frustrating task than I had expected. For instance, I looked for primary sources I could turn to for a formal theoretical explanation of what explanatory work the term "alpha male" is supposed to carry out.

It seems that the term was originally coined by David Mech, who studied wolf packs in the 70's. Interestingly, Mech himself now claims the term was misunderstood and used improperly. Here is what David Mech says in a recent (2000) article:

The way in which alpha status has been viewed historically can be seen in studies in which an attempt is made to distinguish future alphas in litters of captive wolf pups [...] This view implies that rank is innate or formed early, and that some wolves are destined to rule the pack, while others are not.

Contrary to this view, I propose that all young wolves are potential breeders and that when they do breed they automatically become alphas (Mech 1970). [...] Thus, calling a wolf an alpha is usually no more appropriate than referring to a human parent or a doe deer as an alpha. Any parent is dominant to its young offspring, so "alpha" adds no information.

An informal survey of other literature suggests that "alpha male", referring specifically to the pack behaviour disowned by Mech, entered the popular vocabulary by way of dog trainer lore. My personal hunch is that it became entrenched thereafter because it had both a "sciencey" sound, and the appropriate connotations for people who adhered to certain views on gender relationships.

Stepping back to look at dominance theory as a whole, I found that they are not without problems. Pecking order may apply to chickens, but primates vary widely in social organization, lending little support to the thesis that dominance displays, dominance-submission behaviours and so on are as universal as Johnstone suggests and can therefore be thought to shed much light on the complex social organization of humans.

An often discussed example is the Bonobo chimpanzee, where females are dominant over males, and do not establish a dominance hierarchy among themselves, whereas males do; where the behaviours that tend to mediate social stratification is reconciliation rather than conflict, something that is also observed in other animal species, contrary to the prevailing view of dominance hierarchies.

This informal survey was interesting and turned up many surprises, but mostly it convinced me that dominance hierarchies were not a fruitful line of research if I was after a crisp meaning of "status" terms and explanations: either "status" was itself a muddle, or I needed to look for its underpinnings in other disciplines.


Social stratification

Early on in Johnstone there is an interesting discussion of status by way of his recollection of three very different school teachers. At various other points in the chapter he also refers to the stratification of human societies specifically, for instance when he discusses the master-servant relationship.

The teacher example was particularly interesting for me, because one of the uses I might have for status hypotheses is in investigating the Hansonian thesis "Schools aren't about education but about status", and what can possibly be done about that. But to think clearly about such issues one must, in the first place, clarify how the hypothesis "X is about status" controls anticipation about X!

I came across Max Weber (who I must say I hadn't heard of previously), described as one of the founders of modern sociology; and Weber's "three component theory of social stratification", which helped me quite a bit in making sense of some claims about status.

What I got from the Wikipedia summary is that Weber identifies three major dimensions of social stratification:

  • class or wealth status, that is, a person's economic situation
  • power status, or a person's ability to achieve their goals in the face of other's opposition
  • prestige status, or how well a person is regarded by others

This list is interesting because of its predictive power: for instance, class and wealth tend to be properties of an individual that change slowly over time, and so when Johnstone refers to ways of elevating one's status within the short time span of a social interaction, we can predict that he isn't talking about class or wealth status.

Power status is more subject to sudden changes, but not usually as a result of informal social interactions: again, power status cannot be what is referred to in the phrase "high status behaviours". Power is very often positional, for instance getting elected President of a powerful country brings a lot of power suddenly, but requires vetting by an elaborate ritual. (Class status can often go hand in hand with power status, but that is not necessarily or systematically the case.)

Prestige status can be expected to depend on both long-term and short-term characteristics. Certain professions are seen as inherently prestigious, often independently of wealth: firemen, for instance. But within a given social stratum, defined by class and power, individuals can acquire prestige through their actions.This is applicable for wide ranges of group sizes. Scientists acquire prestige by working on important topics and publishing important results. Participants in an online community acquire prestige by posting influential articles which shape subsequent discussion, and so on.

But, while it struck me as conceivable to unpack terms like "high status behaviours" as referring to such changes in prestige status, it didn't seem entirely satisfactory. So I kept looking for clues.


Self-esteem and the seesaw

Johnstone refers to status "the see-saw": he sees status transactions as a zero-sum game. To increase your status, he says, is necessarily to lower that of your interlocutor.

This seems at odds with seeing most references to status as meaning "prestige status", since you can acquire prestige without necessarily lower someone else's; also, you can acquire prestige without entering into an interactive social situation. (Think of how a mountaineer's prestige can rise upon the news that they have reached some difficult summit, ahead of their coming back to enjoy the attention.)

However, most of what Johnstone discusses seemed to make sense to me if analyzed instead as self-esteem transactions: interactive behaviour which raises or lowers another's self-esteem or yours.

There is lots of relevant theory to turn to. Some old and possibly discredited - I'm thinking here of "transactional analysis" which I came across years and years ago, which had the interesting concept of a "stroke", a behaviour whereby one raises another's self-esteem; this could also be relevant to analyzing the PUA theory of "negging". (Fun fact: TA is also the origin of the phrase "warm fuzzies".) Some newer and perhaps more solidly based on ev-psych, such as the recently mentioned sociometer theory.

Self-esteem is at any rate an important idea, whether or not we are clear on the underlying causal mechanisms. John Rawls notes that self-esteem is among the "primary social goods" (defined as "the things it is rational to want, whatever else you want", in other words the most widely applicable instrumental values that can help further a wide range of terminal values). It is very difficult to be luminous, to collaborate effectively or to conquer akrasia without some explicit attention to self-esteem.

So here, perhaps, is a fourth status component: the more temporary and more local "self-esteem status".


Positive sum self-esteem transactions?

Where I part company with Johnstone is in seeing self-esteem transactions as a purely zero-sum game. And in fact his early discussion of the three teachers contradicts his own "see-saw" image, painting instead a quite different picture of "status".

He describes one of the teachers as a "low status player", one who couldn't keep discipline, twitched, went red at the slightest provocation: in other words, one with generally low self-esteem. The second he describes as a "compulsive high status player": he terrorized students, "stabbing people with his eyes", walked "with fixity of purpose". In my terms, this would be someone whose behaviours communicated low regard for others' self-esteem, but not necessarily high self-esteem. The third teacher he describes as "a status expert":

Much loved, never punished but kept excellent discipline, while remaining very human. He would joke with us, and then impose a mysterious stillness. In the street he looked upright, but relaxed, and he smiled easily.

To me, this looks like the description of someone with high self-esteem generally, who is able to temporarily affect his own and others' self-esteem, lowering (to establish authority) or raising (to encourage participation) as appropriate. When done expertly, this isn't manipulative, but rather a game of trust and rapport that people play in all social situations where safety and intimacy allow, and it feels like a positive sum game.

(These transactions, BTW, can be mediated even by relatively low-bandwidth interactions, such as text conversations. I find it fascinating how people can make each other feel various emotions just with words: anger, shame, pride. A forum such as Less Wrong isn't just a place for debate and argument, it is also very much a locus of social interaction. Keeping that in mind is important.)

Detailed analysis of how these transactions work, distilled into practical advice that people can use in everyday settings, is a worthwhile goal, and one that would also advance the cause of effective collaboration among people dedicated to thinking more clearly about the world they inhabit.

Let the discussion stick to that spirit.

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One thing that Johnstone emphasizes, and which I was a bit surprised you didn't explicitly mention, is that status isn't something you have, it's something you do. For instance, the "status expert" teacher would alternatively raise and lower his own status in relation to that of the students, thereby maintaining an atmosphere that was maximally conductive to learning. The low and high status teachers tried to stuck into just one mode of status, regardless of what was most appropriate to the situation.

I thought about these teachers a lot, but I couldn't understand the forces operating on us. I would now say that the incompetent teacher was a low-status player: he twitched, he made many unnecessary movements, he went red at the slightest annoyance, and he always seemed like an intruder in the classroom. The one who filled us with terror was a compulsive high-status player. The third was a status expert, raising and lowering his status with great skill. The pleasure attached to misbehaving comes partly from the status changes you make in your teacher. All those jokes on teacher are to make him drop in status. The third teacher could cope easily with any situation by changi

... (read more)
Good point. I felt some regret as I posted that I hadn't mentioned this, but it seemed to me that the notion of "self-esteem transactions" I introduced did direct attention to status as something people do. You can find the relevant quotes about the three teachers in the excerpt I linked to. This can be in part a matter of positional power. In my secret identity I am sometimes called on to work with a group as a facilitator: pretty much by definition, my job description is then to control the group (or more precisely the group's process). Granted, It's not all about the position. I know how to build trust and rapport, and I can even articulate some of how I do that. I suspect that if I was clueless about these things I'd have a hard time facilitating group meetings.
"status as the ability to control the group" Since I haven't seen anyone say it explicitly, this type of status is not zero sum. Members of a cooperative group have more ability to influence it then members of an uncooperative group or members of a group lacking confidence to propose actions.

One component of the way I use the word "status" myself is one's perception of influence or importance within a group.

One's self-perceived influence reflects one's expectation regarding whether one will be treated with respect, listened to or ignored, taken seriously or patronized, appreciated or taken for granted, treated fairly or unfairly, and so on.

I think, that if you taboo "self-esteem", this is a good unpacking of the Status aspect of self-esteem. Prestige, wealth, and all those other things are simply inputs to one's expectations about how one will be treated -- which is why people can have those things and still not act like they have high status. Status in a behavioral sense is a set of emotion-backed high-level predictions about how others will treat us in response to our action.

Johnstone portrayed of status as being zero sum, but it wasn't a zero-sum game where each person always tried to maximise their status. Sometimes they'd lower it deliberately. And since he wasn't using it in the self-esteem sense, they might even be having fun while lowering it. So I think it could be a positive sum game in terms of utility while being zero sum in terms of (this type of) status.

This is an interesting subject for me as I kind of enjoy playful teasing but don't feel like I've really got the hang of doing it myself. Sometimes I manage it and then I'm half-surprised I managed it without upsetting the other person.

But it makes sense since this type of conversational status isn't the same as the status people get most worried about.

Thanks for the post. I feel that status is not difficult (for me) to assess in a group, but I appreciate your pointing out the lack of a solid and predictive definition.

I think that PJ Eby's comment has been closest so far, but that it could be more specific. My best definition so far is:

"The ability to determine the social interaction". (Excluding physical interactions, those having additional complexity). By "determine the interaction" I refer roughly to the ability to control the topic of conversation, and plans of the group.

Everything else discussed feeds into this, and this in turn often feeds into those same things. I.e. Having self-esteem or wealth may help you with this, and having this may help you gain self-esteem and wealth. Extrication is difficult.

At the same time, none of the other factors are required in all interactions. You may have someone who has very low self-esteem, at least generally, yet is the expert on the original Transformers show on a web forum, and has sway there (and acts confidently with sub-communications). You can have a wealthy and famous scientist, who in a group of "regular folks" is extremely diffident. Having t... (read more)

There is an interesting party game played with cards that for some reason I only remembered just now. Here is how I recall it.

You take a group of people and assign each of them a card from the deck, Ace high, deuces low. You give everyone a headband so that they can carry the card around on their foreheads, where others can see it but they can't. You have the group mill around talking to each other, instructing them to take into account the rank of the person they're talking to. After some time you ask people to pocket their cards, mill around some more, then line up in what they think is the order corresponding to their rank.

To the extent that this order reflects the card ranks, we can conclude that social interactions act as a carrier for information that allows people to sense a linear hierarchy. (I can't remember, when I played it, how close the match was.)

What you're describing is a canonical warm up game in improv acting.
Ooooh, thanks. I'm not surprised to find out about the status-improv link, with Johnstone as the point of departure in my investigation. But follow the hyperlinked term "Status" in the page you linked to, and what do I read?
I always felt that LW/OB in general were/are using "status" in different ways than I understood it from studying improv acting. pjeby's highly voted comment best sums how I always thought about "status". On the dominance hierarchy theory: We should taboo "dominance", and "submission" for that matter. What do we mean then?

Thanks for writing this. I've noticed that it's tempting (and all too easy) to construct just-so stories explaining any behaviour in terms of whatever status we are already assuming the actor holds (one illustration of this: Eliezer's list of hypotheses for why high-status people seem stupider, versus thomblake's response listing some equally reasonable-sounding hypotheses for why high-status people seem smarter). And if we see someone behaving in a way that contradicts our perception of their status and some popular signaling hypothesis, we can call it countersignaling and have that feel like an explanation even though we failed to anticipate it. Hopefully, formalizing what we mean by "status" will be a good step toward making status/signaling hypotheses testable and falsifiable.

What about when we know exactly what we are doing, predict it in others based on context and personality and find it the simplest way to explain what is going on?

Another face of status is the concept of "social stimulus value," which basically means how positively others respond and evaluate you. Social stimulus value could be a measure of "bottom up" status granted by others, as opposed to "top down" status claimed by oneself, and it seems to be consistent.. The introduction to this study talks more about social stimulus value.

Interesting, thanks. This is behind a paywall so I'll defer closer examination for the time being, do you have more information? Does "social stimulus value" include things such as physical attractiveness?

the Bonobo chimpanzee, where not establish a dominance hierarchy among themselves

Where do you get these beliefs?

Speculation: from a network of opinions and research that, while credentialed and credible, is ultimately motivated by feminism's delight in debunking any kind of dominance other than that of the patriarchy over its victims. I don't mean that the work he used is poor; only that it was preferentially rewarded and promulgated by such a desire. Anyway, who cares if dominance is overblown in other primates? We can and should study human behavior directly - while some aspects of it may be close to our cousins, different aspects evolve at different rates.
I'm not going to answer that, as you have access to the same tools for research that I do, and are welcome to post pointers to better evidence if you have them. I will note that the way you framed this question is a wonderful example of what I refer to in the post as "self-esteem transactions" over text channels. Whether intentional or not, this comes across as a query crafted to lower the addressee's self-esteem ever so slightly. "What planet are you from?" is the same sort of line, a little blunter.
I have no comment on the status issues in this exchange but I am a little confused about the question of dominance hierarchy among Bonobo females. Wikipedia says This article HughRistik linked me to refers to an Alpha female. Here is an abstract on the issue. In addition to the bolded, this suggests that dominance theory is a useful lens even for studying Bonobos; even if Bonobo hierarchies aren't linear, they're still hierarchies. And then this This is just from googling "Bonobo female hierarchy". So it does seem reasonable for Doug to ask for a cite.
My source is this article, the very first Google hit for "bonobo dominance hierarchy", which (apparently citing de Waal), states bluntly "There is no true dominance hierarchy for females; rather they are called 'influential' females." Do note how you obtain better results if you know to ask nicely. My main point is that the Bonobo social organization puts, to say the least, a very different set of connotations on the term "alpha" than it carries in everyday discourse or in PUA lore, and that we should look with at least some caution at our theories of dominance as applied to the human animal.
I think "You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar" should be a rationalism quote. Taking facts about primate dominance hierarchies and just assuming they map onto humans is certainly epistemologically irresponsible. But given that dominance hierarchies appear, in one form or another, throughout the rest of the primate kingdom, I would be quite surprised if there weren't similar features in human social organization. Pick up artist literature, the successes of the movement aside, is certainly not a serious scientific attempt to assert a theory of dominance hierarchies in humans. But since dominance hierarchies play an incredibly significant role in mate selection among primates, one way to detect dominance hierarchies among humans, I think, is to pay attention to who has their pick of the opposite sex. So I find it highly plausible that who PUA/every day discourse would refer to as "alpha" is approximately who a socio-biological analysis of human groups would refer to as "alpha". One of the reasons the dominance theory perspective on status appeals to people here, I suspect, is that it happens to do a pretty good job reflecting how status plays out in our lives. There is a reason "alpha" talk was adopted in the first place. Traits that are like the behavior of bottom of the hierarchy primates indicates low status in humans (small size, passivity, few if any mating prospects) and traits that are like that of top of the hierarchy primates indicates high status (size, aggression, mates the most). All else being equal, that is. Obviously this is all complicated in humans by wealth, governments, class, culture etc. But it makes a lot of sense to look to dominance hierarchies as the evolutionary source of human status. We can test this hypothesis: What I listed above as the traits associated with the different ends of status hierarchies in primates is all I know and mostly based on recollection and common knowledge. Assuming there are primatologist accounts
Most people employing heuristics and strategies for becoming better-liked or more-influential (PUA included) ultimately get their views from observation of human behavior (or some guru-regurgitated version thereof). That they sometimes make wooly arguments by analogy to some story about a pack of wolves, or paleolithic man, is indeed shameful, but I'm sure that they aren't actually studying animals and then using those conclusions to guide their interactions with people.
That did not seem particularly impolite to me. Isn't it ordinary to expect a rationalist to have some idea where their beliefs come from, especially for empirical generalizations?
I didn't say it was impolite. I do assert that it was a putdown. You can try a few variants: "What is your source for this assertion?" - more formal, clear and exact. "Where do you get this" - the brisker, more informal version, still acceptable. The chosen phrasing conveys incredulity and a subtext that I'm making things up: the connotationally active term is "belief" instead of "information" - the latter would convey a presumption that I'm in fact well informed, and would be a more charitable interpretation. There is an additional charge of contempt carried by the word "these" instead of "that", since the quoted passage about which the question was asked contained a single assertion of fact. The image that comes up is a hand waved at the context of the quoted passage, as if the latter was just one particularly outrageous example picked among others. "These beliefs strike me as odd" would be a more respectful phrasing; the presumption of imaginings vs information is still there, but the locutor at least owns up to that presumption: "strikes me" is a useful phrase for doing that. With "where do you get" added to the mix, you have a triple whammy. The "you" form generally puts the interlocutor on the defensive, it easily comes off as an accusation. So "where do you get these beliefs" carries the following connotations: * you are making shit up * the above is just one example, I had to start somewhere * you should know better than to try that on me The tone is technically polite, but that only adds to the insult. There are usually many, many ways to choose how to say any given thing, so the particular way you pick is never innocent. Whoever masters the skill of the artful putdown wields great power indeed... ...especially if they also know the next ploy: to accuse the offended party of "reading too much" into an "innocent" remark, meant "in good humor". That one is a mainstay of the verbal bully.
Thanks for the thorough reply! I'm often in the position of making comments like "where do you get these beliefs" (at least, judging by the responses I get) and (honestly) responding that the offended party was reading too much into an innocent remark meant in good humor. I usually try to dissect the thing after to figure out what went wrong. It didn't occur to me that 'belief' might have weird connotations since I usually mean it in the purely epistemic sense; a different phrasing might be 'putative knowledge' which sounds much less nice to me. It seems someone dubious about your assertion's value might even have to call it 'putative information' rather than 'information', so I'm not sure that helps much. Also, 'you' didn't strike me as odd since it was directed at you, and the question certainly wasn't about where some other person got their beliefs. That said, my wife complains about my use of pronouns like that regularly. For example, I might say "your car", "my car", or "our car" interchangeably with no particular intent since they unambiguously refer to the same car, but she will read something into particularly "your car" so I've been on my guard about the pronoun "you" lately. On even more of a tangent, I wonder if this relates to uncomfortableness about the various pronouns for 'you' in Japanese language. Did you study how to unpack these things, or is this one of those things that goes with being neurotypical?
Reminds me of the constant teasing my wife and I trade about "your kids" and "my kids". Denotationally the same, but the connotations of the possessive are quite strong. Study - no, at least no more than you could say I've studied language in general and how we do things with words. Maybe more sensitive to "these things" than is typical.
One of my mentors once suggested "So, what led you to that conclusion?" as a relatively neutral way to probe the origin of a belief, without connoting disbelief or disagreement.
[citation needed]
I will note that as Douglas's question carried a status transaction it gave you an excuse to reply with your own far more powerful status message, which in many cases leaves even important questions unanswered. (I myself prefer to ignore all "Where is your evidence!" demands when I think the question is mostly social rhetoric.) Fortunately Jack ignored both transactions and gave a well thought out position on the topic in this instance. I was quite uncomfortable myself with the conclusion that Bonobo social behaviours were being used to support but I think Jack gave a far more complete response that I would have.
Your post also contains a pretty nice status transaction. God I love recursion.
Two. I'd like to think they were both positive sum.
Flattery will get you anywhere with me. Kidding aside, don't you think the very fact that we are using purely linguistic interactions as a medium for those transactions is evidence that they may have little to do with our primate inheritance?
There is a large variation in the types of signals used for status tractions among primates, from violence and sex through to posture and vocalisations. By going linguistic with we have merely spiralled our primate status transactions off towards an extreme.
You'll show him yours if he'll show you his?

Status is one of those cases where it's easy to mix up concepts that're related by levels of indirection. A person's status is (A) the amount of power and accomplishment they have, (B) other peoples' perception of A, (C) their own perception of A and B, and (D) the signals they give off based on C. When people talk about status, they're referring to some subset of A,B,C,D. Except that B, C, and D are all based in psychology, which means that they can be severed from their nominal definitions by implementation details. But the relations between the definitions mean that usually, statements involving one also involve the others.

How do you interpret Mrs X's complaint in light of the above theory?
They're executing adaptations that're supposed to make them compete over status (as others' perception), but they hit a corner case which flips the sign of the link between status (as others' perception) and status (as actual worth). This makes the conversation funny, and also makes all the participants very low status in the eyes of an outside observer, to whom the flipped sign does not apply.

Stepping back to look at dominance theory as a whole, I found that they are not without problems. Pecking order may apply to chickens, but primates vary widely in social organization, lending little support to the thesis that dominance displays, dominance-submission behaviours and so on are as universal as Johnstone suggests and can therefore be thought to shed much light on the complex social organization of humans.

I'm just googling around but it looks like the default for multi-male, multi-female primate societies is a linear dominance hierarchy. The ... (read more)

Interestingly, it seems that bonobos do have what primatologists call "alpha males".

I find I have a better grasp on the meaning of 'status' than I do on the meaning of 'self-esteem'. Status is clearly a complex phenomenon and somewhat hard to define but it is somewhat objectively visible (people can generally agree on who has high status and who has low status in a given situation). 'Self-esteem' seems a much woollier concept and more subjective. I found your overview of status quite interesting but you lost me a bit when you tried to explain 'status' (which I feel I have a pretty good 'I know it when I see it' understanding of) in terms of 'self-esteem' (which I don't feel I have a very good grasp of as a concept and am not sure I fully understand your usage of).

Thanks, that's useful feedback. Here is a suggestion. I might agree that "people can generally agree on who has high status and who has low status in a given situation". A useful question is, once you correct for class, power and prestige, do you expect that anything remains to be explained about people's ability to agree on who has high status? In other words, if we somehow accounted for all discernible hints of class, power and prestige, would you expect that people's judgements of "X has higher status than Y here" would still be correlated with something? If yes, what do you think that "something" would be? Johnstone suggests that we would see correlations between such judgements and things like "moving your head while speaking". My hypothesis is that (barring pathological conditions such as Parkinson's disease), if there is anything to Johnstone's observations, moving your head while speaking should be correlated with positive answers to questions such as the following: "Do you think of yourself as a person of high value? Do you think you can achieve pretty much anything you set your mind to? Do you think you deserve to lead a happy, successful life?", etc. That is, I do not deny that Johnstone, by profession (and by admiration for Desmond Morris) a keen observer of the human animal, had insightful observations. I do think that "status" is a confusing term to use to label his observations, because it is too easily conflated with "class, power, prestige".
I think my qualification about agreements on status in a given situation is important and somewhat independent of class, power and prestige. Wealth, class, power and prestige are all factors in status but within a given social situation where these are fairly evenly matched they are not the deciding factors in who comes out on top in any status games. In social situations where there is incomplete information about the relative levels of these things status moves are a complex game which are partly attempts to signal these qualities and figure out relative rankings. I would expect that if you took a group of strangers and placed them in a social situation together you could find agreement within the group and from observers over what relative status was achieved that could not be fully explained by wealth, class, power or prestige. It is interesting to observe people in situations where they do not have the pre-qualification of status normally granted by wealth, power, class or prestige. There's a fairly run of the mill reality show on TV at the moment called Undercover Boss, the premise of which is that a CEO goes undercover at his own company and works entry-level jobs. I've caught a few episodes and found it quite interesting to observe how some of the participants seem to maintain status even without anyone knowing who they are while others cannot without the benefit of the external factors that usually grant them status.
0Alex Flint
I'm going to use "CPP" to refer to "class, power, and prestige". I agree that CPP is by itself insufficient to predict consensus about a person's status. However, consider the following. Suppose we put a group of strangers in a room, and one person (call them S) had an excellent ability to act as if they had high CPP. So S convinces the others that he/she is a fortune 500 CEO or a world-champion boxer or a Nobel laureate or something appropriate. I hypothesize that, all other things equal, group consensus will be that S has highest status and I further conjecture that this can be explained by the following evo-psych argument. Each person in the room has ancestors who were served well by gaining the favour of others with high CPP, and, on average, their assessments of who had high CPP were accurate enough to be useful. Therefore the strangers in the room are predisposed to trust their own assessments of who has high CPP and try to gain their favour, hence explaining the group's consensus that S has high status. Notice that the actual characteristics of S (i.e. his bank account balance, current job, physical prestige, past achievements, etc) is insufficient to predict his status among the group -- rather it is his acting ability that provides the final causal link -- yet the CPP characteristics plays a central explanatory role since their relationship to evolutionary fitness explains the predisposition of the group to react in a certain way to the excellent acting by S. In particular, CPP explains why S would have received lower status if he/she used his/her acting ability to, say, convince others that he had very long toenails, or that his digestive tract was unnaturally long -- these things suggest no evolutionary fitness to those who gain the favour of S. My point is that the factors at the end of the evo-psych explanation (CPP in this example, in reality I suspect there are more that we haven't thought of) are distinct from those that provide the causal links a
A surefire way to provoke anger in people is to 'cheat' in status games. Claiming status that you do not really 'deserve' tends to trigger righteous fury. This is the main force that restricts the degree to which people claim status beyond their CPP in social interactions. In the modern world it is possible for people to get away with cheating at status games for much longer than it was for most of human history and the consequences of being found out are less fatal so it is adaptive to push further than it was in the past.
Actually, cheating in any social games angers people. Note that telling bad jokes provokes violence.
Did anyone else actually find the joke in the article really funny? P.S. Don't hurt me.
I found the joke funny the first time I heard it. When it was "What did the banana say to the elephant"!
Interesting. I'd argue that to a first approximation all social games are status games however.
Yes, I'm pretty sure that's the case made by that researcher regarding the jokes, anyway.
Just going undercover might not correct for all hints about class, to single out but one of the components - think Pygmalion and things like language, accent, body posture. On the other hand, I suspect you're partly right, to the extent that you could put people in an IRC chatroom, really stripping everyone of nearly all observable properties, and some of them would still come out as being "on top". But that's also grist for my mill: I'd expect those to be the more skilled at manipulating perceptions of self-esteem through subtle use of language.
I'm still struggling with exactly what you mean when you talk about 'self-esteem'. You seem to be saying something like this: There is a somewhat objective property called 'status' that we can observe people having more or less of in a given situation. Many social interactions serve to raise or lower relative status positions. There is a hidden variable called 'self-esteem' which is the thing that is actually being manipulated in social interactions and it is more fundamental than status. Is that roughly what you are saying or am I misunderstanding?
That feels close, yes. I might quibble over the "somewhat objective".
By somewhat objective I pretty much just mean what I suggested earlier: you could ask a group of observers or participants in a social situation to rank people by status and there would be broad agreement. You indicated you might agree with that. I think this property would correlate with things like wealth, class, physical attractiveness, power and achievements but I don't think they are sufficient on their own to explain it - there are other factors. I also think the issue is complicated by the fact that some of these 'other factors' are things that assist people in acquiring money, power and recognition for their achievements. It seems like you might be using 'self-esteem' as a catch all term for the factors that explain status that are not covered by wealth, class, power and achievement. I don't find that a useful application of the term. If you mean something narrower than that then I think you're missing out on other important explanatory factors.
Not a catch-all, but a specific disposition, which would show up in, say, psychometric tests asking people questions such as the ones I mentioned above. Again, I don't really care whether we name a particular variable "status" or "self-esteem" - just so long as we're not mistaking it for another variable (e.g. class, power, prestige), and "status" does have the unfortunate ambiguity with these others. But my inquiry is more into how many variables are in play, what the causal relationships between them might be, and so on.
Well 'status' seems to me to be somewhat like 'intelligence' - most people have an intuitive conception of what it means and could rank order others in a way that would tend to match the rank ordering of other observers. It also correlates to some extent with a number of other traits such as wealth, power and prestige. It is not clear however to what extent a unitary g) exists for intelligence and similarly it is not clear whether a unitary 's' might exist for status. My understanding of 'self-esteem' is a factor that probably correlates with status but it is not clear which direction causation works. In other words reducing discussion of status to discussion of self-esteem is a bit like reducing discussion of intelligence to discussion of logic puzzles. Focusing too narrowly on this one factor ignores many other important factors that contribute to the broader idea of status.
Individual power in society is such a broad concept as to entirely encompass status. So you must have had some more specific meaning in mind. I'd guess you meant explicit organizational authority (I'm an airline security screener; I'm an assistant to the CEO). If that's what you meant, then what remains is less formal roles and precedents in established social groups, and in forming groups, physical attractiveness combined with (behavioral) signals of belief/confidence in a person's chance to earn consent in controlling or at least being accepted by the group.
Yep, positional power. I don't think that individual optimization power (ability to steer the future in regions which maximally advance that individual's preferences, even when these outcomes are detrimental to other's preferences) encompasses all of what is referred to as "status" in Johnstone. It doesn't explain, for instance, why keeping your head in a fixed position while speaking should convey high status. What do you make of the assertion that two strangers who've never met can assess each other's status?
Agreed. The question seems ill-posed. After all, how much influence they have over each other is negotiable. What they'll be able to judge is only the observable status-bidding and status-associated signals. Say they're simultaneously interacting with some group - then they'd start to see what each others' status is in that group only in the tautological sense that they'd see how much influence and deference they command.
You can guess the status of someone (in their own little tribe(s)) in much the same sense that you can guess their occupation, and based off comparable indicators.
Yeah, I guess I can predict a large part of it from just their physical appearance and their "out in public" mannerisms. But it's only by seeing their actions+consequences in a context that I know their status there.

Calvin and Hobbes on status

Thank you for identifying this collective lack of understanding. Before reading this I hadn't even realised that I didn't know what "status" really was.

I actually find the "social stratification" more compelling than the last two sections. I'm not sure that "self-esteem" is any more substantive than "status". In the case of the mountain climber and the teachers, "self-esteem" is recognised by others, so it's just not just something that one identifies in themself, it's also identified between people and (p... (read more)

I think an attempt to unpack what the LessWrong community means when it talks about "status" is highly useful, and am glad that Morendil started this discussion. I tend to agree with those who have said that that self-esteem might not be the most useful avenue of exploration and that we shouldn't discard the idea of dominance so quickly.

On a lighter note, I highly recommend to anyone who has not read it Class by Paul Fussell for its highly amusing, possibly somewhat offensive, now quite dated, but still recognizable description of the class struc... (read more)


As an aside I'm really surprised someone as well read as you could have not heard of Max Weber until now.

The more I learn, the more my ignorance seems to expand. ;)
I wonder how often stuff like this happens. My father mispronounced "sword" until college. Somehow things just get missed in education (formal and self)-- I have to wonder what is that one fact or event that everyone around me knows about but I don't! Anyone else have examples of things educated people are supposed to know of that they somehow never learned about until surprisingly late?
Until a few months ago, I didn't realize The Beatles purposely misspelled their name as a musical pun.
I just realized today why they chose the name "GATTACA" for the eponymous movie.
I just, moments ago, realized that a "farm team" (e.g. a minor league baseball team) does not refer to the players, but to the function of the team. (I thought that a "farm team" consisted of not-good-enough-for-the-majors players who came from small, perhaps farm towns. In reality, it's a "farm" for the major league team.)
I don't know whether most educated people know this, but I just found out that herring and sardines are the same fish. They're herring when they're alive and sardines when they're food.
I didn't know this either, yet it does seem like something I should have known.
Not only that, but it's probably wrong. Sardines and herring are related species, assuming that I can trust wikipedia. And pickled herring does come from fish which are larger than sardines. Perhaps the thing I learned is that you can't trust the fact-checking at NPR.
I got three karma points for a statement which is almost certainly wrong, and no points for correcting it?
I'm also thinking that my "does this make sense?" circuit wasn't active enough. I had a feeling that herring were larger than sardines, but it got overridden by the authoritative-sounding claim that they were two names for the same fish. In fact, I've eaten both canned sardines and pickled herring,. It's obvious that the latter is slices of meat which are bigger than whole sardines-- and I completely forgot sensory experience in favor of the words.
According to both the articles on sardines and herrings, herrings are sometimes labeled as "sardines" when sold. Sounds like that could be the source of the error.
I really like Bill Brysons: short history of almost everything Which does a great job in introducing science and the neverending about of repeated mistakes on its way. Even my mom read it - and this thing has 600 pages. For the non-fact oriented part of eductaion there is a nice book in germany called 'Was man alles wissen muß' from Dietrich Schwanitz. (engl:'what one should know'). He does a great job at explaining many of the areas counted as 'education' while also explaining the influence on status and how to fake it. I am sure similar books are widely available also for engl based cultures. as for actually knowledge, I still learn new english words almost every day (which is to be expected, since its not my first language.) And i also learn about now tools for my field regularly. It might make sense to read a good introduction book on the own field at times. But I also dont really expect anyone to know everything there is. Fun fact: i used to think that one of the pronunciations of 'issue' is just plainly wrong.
I got interested when I read about this. The book doesn't seem to have been translated into English and I can't really read German, but turned out there was a Finnish translation, 'Sivistyksen käsikirja'. I read that one, and it was nice enough overview though a bit idiosyncratic and obviously rather German-centric. People who actually know something about the stuff the author is writing about will probably have complaints though. The author carefully keeps most of the science bits vague and handwavy, but still managed to stumble occasionally when going for something more detailed. The part about relating to other cultures had an amusing bit. The original book had apparently had a bunch of statements in the lines of "Unlike us Germans...", and it looked like the translator had just replaced this with "Unlike us Finns...". No idea if the rest of the statements had been translated verbatim, but I'm rather afraid they were. I was also a bit surprised at Douglas Hofstadter being mentioned several times, as he's pretty much completely unknown in Finland for example, and the reasonably positive attitude towards modern IQ research, which seems to be something of a taboo in western humanities academia.
I would expect an english book to exist that serves a similar purpose. One thing I got from the book was the concept of using 'education' as status signaling. And the whole chapter on 'what one shouldn't know' - makes me not talk about some of my favorite TV shows in the wrong place. (side not: the pure version of Big Brother serves as a decent experiment for social interaction) Maybe the next generation of scientists will have fewer trouble quoting Anime, or Mainstream movies in their work, than the one before. They do.
I'm guessing the second half of the text in the first quote block is a reply that should have been unquoted. Movies have been cultural currency for around 50 years now, and some TV shows from the last decade like Sopranos and The Wire also seem to be considered reasonably respectable, unlike pretty almost all mainstream TV drama up until 2000. Anime is still low status, and seems to be a bit worse now than it was in the 90s. The shows that aren't mostly shallow and formulaic are obscure. There aren't any similar widely recognized quality shows as there have been in TV recently, and the perception of anime has shifted from innovative and exotic popular culture into escapist entertainment for socially maladjusted shut-ins. The shows are quick to latch into exploitation patterns that reflect this.
Yes, i got the quote function wrong - already corrected. According to Schwanitz there is a canon of art that is considered worth knowing. An educated person picks and can talk about some subset of it to show off his educational status. Modern art forms are not yet part of that. The canon is of course dependent on culture and subculture.
I suspect you mean "contemporary" or "current", not "modern". Unfortunately, "modern art" (at least for painting) got co-opted for Picasso and such, and it's been a while since him. I have a notion that canons aren't an inevitable part of art, but appear if people happen to build them. Part of this is that I lived through a transition (I'd put it sometimes in the 80s) when it was no longer possible to keep up with print science fiction. Before that, it was possible to have a shared knowledge base of both the second rate stuff and the first rate. At least for the Western canon, part of what was going was the contradictory belief that there was universal art that people had to be educated to appreciate. At the point, the quantity and availability of art has gone so high (and both are likely to increase), that I think it's going to be harder and harder for any group to act as gatekeepers to say that liking some art is proof of worthiness.
These people are trying to build a new one.

A few thoughts…

  1. I take status to be an index of social efficacy.

  2. Humans are social creatures and identify with social groups. If this is the source of status then it could be attained by dominating the group but it could also be attained by benefiting the group.

  3. Because status is a group dynamic it is also relevant between groups. You could take this to mean that groups accord varying measures of status to other groups but also that high status in one group does not automatically translate into other groups. In this regards status is the esteem of a gro

... (read more)

Pending a new post Kaj Sotala and I are planning to collaborate on, add this blog post to the list of sources for interesting claims about status. (Through HN.)

Item: "status is regulated through dopamine levels". This may be a reference to this study.

An interesting find (for me) was learning how the study measured status: they used the "Barratt Simplified Measure of Social Status" as well as the "Multidimensional Scale of Perceived Social Support".

The former is clearly a measure of what I called social class in the above: it i... (read more)

I think it is worth breaking down status into wealth, political power and popularity.

The last can be seen as zero sum in some situations. Consider a party there are N people you could try and talk to, but only time to speak to N/2. So you have to decide which half to talk to. If you had a strange mash up party of functional programmers and 16 year old girls. I doubt you would find a linear ordering of who people wanted to talk to. You would do better to separate it into two groups, and you might find orderings there.

People want to be talked to at parties/in general because it opens up more business/research opportunities.

These transactions, BTW, can be mediated even by relatively low-bandwidth interactions, such as text conversations. I find it fascinating how people can make each other feel various emotions just with words: anger, shame, pride. A forum such as Less Wrong isn't just a place for debate and argument, it is also very much a locus of social interaction. Keeping that in mind is important.

Sometimes I wish I could get that out of my mind. (*Mutters about the epistemic inefficiency of primate communication.*)

Sorry, status isn't about self-esteem. Status is about who you feel can beat you up and who you feel you can beat up. Two people meeting for the first time can instantly establish relative status by using body language that you'll find pretty hard to tie to self-esteem.

Virtually everyone could probably beat me up, including my little sister, and I find this irrelevant to my judgments of status.

Being dismissive of things you're not good at is beneficial to your status.
If status was always about one particular skill or trait (for example, the ability to beat people up), this strategy wouldn't work.
Status is relative to a group, and each group values different skills and traits. We gravitate towards groups where we have value.
But calling attention to things you're not good at is bad for your status.
Yes. But if the topic of something you're not good at comes up, what are you going to do? Various strategies: a) Downplay the importance of the thing that you're not good at. b) Change the subject. c) Make a joke about totally sucking at that thing (while keeping the literal subject the same, it changes the implicit subject to the social ability of making other people laugh). d) Mention a close relative, friend, or partner who's really good at that thing (increasing status by affiliation). I think I may even do e) which is to show enthusiastic appreciation for the thing I'm not good at, possibly sprinkled with demonstrating surprising knowledge of the thing I'm expected to not know about. UPDATE: f) Riffing on 'c', liken yourself to a low status group. HT Barack Obama
Are you serious? You missed g) Make an honest attempt at grasping the subject matter. I'm not sure if this is what you intended e) to cover, but if I meet a topic I'm completely unfamiliar with, my first instinct isn't to destroy the conversation.
I voted this up because it raises a useful background theory that many people might have lurking subconsciously in their head (and which they want not to be true and so they instinctively down vote to drive people who make the claim out of the community - the post was at -3 before I wrote this and voted it up). (ETA: The comment being responded to appears to have been edited to be more abstract and less colorful. Other than adding this note, my text has not been correspondingly edited.) In practice, I think this status formula is true in certain communities that assign prestige in certain ways but it is not true in others. Alicorn pointed out that it didn't apply to her, but the point is worth making that it doesn't apply to me for similar reasons. This is largely because because we are female, educated, and live in the first world. There are different communities that have different implicit bases for prestige... and some of them do work on physical violence and the treatment of females as something vaguely like chattel slaves and others operate only a few symbolic steps away from this model. (In these communities, you'll notice that female status and its processes are largely ignored.) As cousin_it pointed out in a response to a different comment: Directly and simply, this is clearly not the basis of the status of: * Oprah Winfrey * Warren Buffet * Lady Gaga * Nelson Mandela * Stephanie Meyer * John Stewart * Robin Hanson (in the world and dramatically here) * Alicorn (primarily within this community, so far) The people enmeshed in communities whose prestige works (for men) on this basis of capacity physical violence are tragic and deserve (where feasible) offers to help them up out of the poverty of "baseline monkeyhood". The standards for women in such communities are different than for men (and frequently invisible to them), but they are similarly primitive and lead to women to spend the bulk of their lives thinking that their best years are behin
I didn't vote it down, but those that did voted it down because it is wrong. What you describe here I agree with. (At least I agree with the description of circumstance not necessarily the normative claims or predictions of emotional impact on those in question.) But for all 'capacity to beat you up' is highly relevant to status it is not the same thing, even in tribes where primitive status competition mechanisms are in place. Coalitions and rights to getting resources or mates without the tribe expelling you are too important even then.
I claim that "capacity to beat you up" is more relevant to status than self-esteem is. To understand the causality here, let's do some counterfactual surgery on graphs. While you try to modify node A by sitting around for three months trying to raise your self-esteem, I modify node B by hitting the gym and taking boxing lessons for the same time. Then we meet and ascertain which node was more causally relevant! Of course there's no need to actually try this experiment because a lot of people have tried it already. For example, I can compare different versions of me at different times, before and after I learned to hold my own in a fight. Coalitions, mate rights etc. are important, but they have causes too. The ultimate factor that determines your coalition-worthiness or mating-priority is often your projected chance of winning a conflict.
This doesn't seem to cover all uses of "status" in the Johnstonian sense; one of his first examples is a small group of men and women competing over who has the most interesting and debilitating physical difficulties.
I'll be pretty disappointed if our community accepts the idea that humiliating other people has less to do with status than comparing Pokemon collections. Which situation makes you more conscious of status: when your Pokemon collection is smaller than Bob's, or when Bob beats you up and takes your girlfriend? To really feel the concept, you have to be close to the monkey life.
This is true, but status still isn't about who can beat up who.
In particular, the fact that armies are typically controlled by older men (in rare situations, by older women, and in one unique situation (Joan of Arc) a young woman) implies that status among humans isn't about who can personally beat up who. Football players take orders from managers and team owners.
That sounds like an allusion to dominance hierarchy theory, which my informal survey suggests is a muddle. Do you have pointers to solid, recent research on dominance hierarchy theory that could plausibly apply to humans? People do sometimes react strongly to things we think weird, like not having the bigger Pokemon collection.
Well, there's anecdotes.
Mrs X: "I had a nasty turn last week [...] I thought I should faint or something." Johnstone comments: "Mrs X is attempting to raise her status." My anaysis would be: Mrs X is fishing for a "stroke", the way you'd fish for compliments. It is a ploy to manipulate others in her group into a particular self-esteem transation, namely commiseration. She expects something like "Oh, you poor thing. What happened, did you have to go to the hospital?" Mrs Y: "You're lucky to have been going to a cinema." Johnstone analyzes Mrs Y as "blocking" Mrs X, and I'd tend to agree - this move denies the request for a stroke. There's a subtext, too, that Mrs X is something of a spoiled child: that she has an inflated estimation of herself. I could go on to analyze the rest of the dialogue in that vein, but for me there's little value in saying the same thing except using "self-esteem" instead of "status", that's just fighting over definitions. More interesting is the idea that everything Johnstone refers to are fleeting components of status, whereas there are attested long-lasting components (class, power, prestige) and the connotations of the term "status" tend to conflate all these components.
Do you mean "physically capable of beating up (regardless of the consequences)" or "beat up and get away with" or something else?
I agree that status facts aren't facts about self-esteem. But (1) only in a few communities is status about physical conflict. Obviously, this isn't the relevant criterion for women or middle class and higher adults. (2) Status isn't about self-esteem but the two affect each other in important ways. If people around you can detect low self-esteem it very often lowers your status. Moreover, having low status can lower your self-esteem. High status can raise self-esteem and high self-esteem can signal high status. This circular relationship means that status and self-esteem are (a) nearly coextensive so it isn't surprising that we might confuse the two and (b) causally connected in a way that makes it worth our time to pay attention to self-esteem in exactly the way Morendil suggests.
One of Johnstone's stories is about strangers passing in the street, so you might have a point there. At any rate it makes a good test case. (This could be a fun topic for empirical study. Station yourself with a video camera at a street corner, interview people afterwards with a psychometric instrument.) On the other hand, based on what evidence can we confidently rule out ties to self-esteem? It seems to me, on the contrary, that a diffident person would reliably make way for a more confident person. And if two self-assured people are passing in the street, each with a strong policy of "let other people make way for me", you'd get exactly the kind of dance we do see.
Hello - I was web-browsing and came across your message about "status." Without having time to read through all responses, I felt I'd send you this quick message to relate a sociological definition for the term. (I have taught the subject at a community college level, while still proceeding through graduate studies at a major university.) Status, for sociologists, properly refers merely to one's position in some social arrangement, which could either be a very clear-cut position (as in a bureaucracy) or a less clear-cut position that nevertheless has some sort of recognition by others who interact with the person. The terms "high status" and "low status" are in common popular use, but should more properly refer to high and low "prestige." Prestige refers to the extent to which a person (or a category of persons) tends to receive favorable recognition from others, and this recognition may or may not be connected with the person's status. For example, each U.S. president may automatically be granted great prestige by some persons, merely by virtue of having that particular status as president. But there are many cases where various persons have great prestige without necessarily occupying specific positions (having a particular status). There are many ways in which such apparent mismatch becomes rectified, as prestige tends to be supplemented by the granting of various honors that bestow particular statuses that reflect and formalize the prestigiousness of the person. Examples include honorary degrees or credentials, nominal leadership positions generated by new organizations dedicated to causes or values shared by the individual who is prestigious in that group. It is true that the concepts of status and prestige (although confused by persons use of the phrase "high status") are related to social stratification, and Max Weber was indeed an important early theorist in this subject (sociology being a pretty young discipline, writings of 100 years ago are considered e
Thanks for posting this. It's always interesting to see how what seem like obvious concepts actually have histories and are disputed. Education, income, and occupation strikes me as a classification that's destructively over-simplified. How does it handle power and respect relationships which are outside the mainstream? I'm thinking of children, street gangs, and terrorist groups. I don't think it can even generate an adequate description of families. I'm going to file it under "prime example of drunk and lamp post fallacy". You might be interested in this description of how status is handled in the SCA-- it argues that having a system of three types of honor (for service, research, and heavy fighting) contribute greatly to the success of the organization.