The strongest status signals

bypwno9y6th Mar 201047 comments


The community’s awareness and strong understanding of status-motivated behavior in humans is clearly evident. However, I still believe the community focuses too much on a small subset of observable status transactions; namely, status transactions that occur between people of approximately the same status level. My goal is to bring attention to the rest of the status game.

Because your attention is a limited resource and carries an opportunity cost, your mind is evolved to constantly be on the look-out for stimuli that may affect your survival and reproductive success and ignore stimuli that doesn’t. Of course, the stimulus doesn’t really have to affect your fitness, it just needs some experienceable property that correlates with an experience in the ancestral environment that did. But when our reaction to stimuli proves to be non-threatening, through repeated exposure, we eventually become desensitized and stop reacting. Much like how first time drivers are more reactive to stimuli than experienced drivers: the majority of past mental processes are demoted from executive functions and become automated. So it’s safe to posit a sort of adaptive mechanism that filters sensory input to keep your attention-resources spent efficiently. This attention-conserving mechanism is the crux of status transactions.

When someone is constantly surrounded by people who don’t have power i.e. status over them, their attention-conserving mechanism goes to work. In this case, the stimulus they’re filtering out is “people who share experienceable characteristics with low status people they’re constantly surrounded by.” The stimulus, over time, proved it’s not worthy of being paid attention to. And just like an experienced driver, the person devotes substantially less attention-resources towards the uninteresting stimuli.

The important thing to note is the behavior that’s a function of how much attention-resources are used. These behaviors can be interpreted as evidence of the relative status levels in an interaction. And because it’s evolutionarily advantageous to recognize your own status level, we’ve evolved a mechanism that detects these behaviors in order to assist us in figuring out our status level. [Notice how this isn’t a chicken or the egg problem].

This behavior manifests itself in all sorts of ways in humans. Instead of enumerating all the behaviors, think of such behaviors like this:

Assume an individual optimizes for their comfort in a given experienceable environment. If an additional stimulus (In terms of status, the relevant stimulus is other people) enters their environment and causes them to change their previous behavior, that stimulus has non-zero expected power over the individual. Why else would they change their most comfortable state if the stimulus presented nothing of value or no threat? Of course every stimulus will cause some change in behavior (at least initially) so the interesting question is how much behavior changed. The greater the reactivity from the stimulus, the more expected power the stimulus has over the individual.

The strongest status signal is observable reactivity; not only because we naturally react to interesting stimuli, but also because we’re evolved to interpret reactivity as evidence for status.

Most status signaling discussed on Lesswrong is about certain stuff people wear, say, associate with, argue about, etc. What Lesswrongers may not realize is how bothering to change your behavior at all towards other people is inherently status lowering. For instance, if you just engage in an argument with someone you’re telling them they’re important enough to use so much of your attention and effort—even if you “act” high status the whole time. If a rock star simply gazes at their biggest fan, the fan will feel higher status. That’s because just getting the rock star’s attention is an accomplishment.

By engaging in a high-involvement activity with others, like having a conversation, participants assume a plausible upper and lower bound status level for each other. The fact they both care enough to engage in an activity together is evidence they’re approximately the same status level. Because of this, they can’t do any signals that reliably indicate they’re much higher status the other. So most status signaling they’ll be doing to each other won’t influence their status much.

The behavior induced by indifference and reactivity to stimuli is where the strong evidence resides. Everything else merely budges what’s already been proven by indifference and reactivity. In short, the sort of status signaling Lesswrong has been concerned with is only the tip of the iceberg.