[Epistemic status: My best guess.]

Following a conversation on a previous post, I decided to do some research into the community’s thoughts on status. The community talks about status a lot and I spent a few happy hours sifting through everything I could find.

I came up with a status model based on the posts and comments which I read:

Essentially, status-related mental adaptations are executed which lead to certain status behaviours. These behaviours determine our social standing which, at least in the ancestral environment, tended to affect out fitness.

I don’t think there’s anything ground breaking here (a similar model would probably apply to any adaptation execution vs fitness maximising effect) but I haven’t seen it sketched out specifically for status before.

The word "status" gets used to refer to items on all 4 levels and this can lead to confusion where two people are referring to different levels.

For instance, what is status and how can I measure it? One way is to look directly at row 2 (status rating): who respects whom and how much? Maybe I could give everyone a questionnaire to rate each other’s status. Or I can look at row 3 (status behaviours): who acts like they have high status? Or row 1 (status benefits): who has the most social control etc.? Whoever gets the most benefits probably has the most status.

Each option has its advantages and disadvantages e.g. accuracy, ease of assessment but it is important to know which level is being referred to.

Probably the most commonly debated issue on this topic is whether status is zero-sum.

If we consider status in row 2 then status is probably going to be relatively zero-sum, although you can maybe get around this a bit by splitting into smaller sub-cultures.

If we consider row 1, insofar as the status rating determines the benefits, they are close to zero-sum. However, the benefits are also controlled by things other than status (how good are we at getting food, how well coordinated are we as a group?) and so are able to be positive sum.

Row 4 is where it gets really interesting - our adaptations which implement status behaviour are not zero-sum. We can feel more self-esteem without increasing our status rating (see That Other Kind Of Status). These mental adaptations are the things which we care about on a gut level and give plenty of scope for positive sum behaviours (e.g. give praise).

I don't pretend that this answers the zero-sum question completely but I think it does put it in a helpful frame.

The model is incomplete in a number of ways.

The “status rating” row is a massive simplification. In reality there are all of the different ways which humans judge status, how status changes depending on group and circumstances and the effects of social allies. I only listed two kinds of status to simplify visually.

The status benefits and status adaptations listed are also only a subset of the actual benefits and adaptations.

The relationships between the rows are leaky. The status adaptations lead to behaviours which aren’t necessarily related to status and the status benefits can be affected by things other than status rating.

Despite the model's limitations, I hope it is a useful simplification.


Ben Pace suggested I add a list of the posts which I looked at and how I think they relate to my model. I’ve done this below – apologies to any of the contributors if I’m misinterpreting their work.

That Other Kind Of Status: Link between status rating and status adaptations.

The Many Faces of Status: Morendil's own investigation into status. Covers all areas of the model.

The Red Paperclip Theory of Status: Trading within and between status ratings and status benefits plus some discussion of related behaviours.

Status: Is it what we think it is?: Discussion of prestige and dominance status. Diegocaleiro gives the academic names of the status types and links to google scholar for more info.

Actors see status: Quotes from Impro, focusing on status behaviour and status rating.

The Economics of Social Status: Inspired by Red Paperclip and goes into significant detail.

Status: Map and Territory: Discussion of how some status adaptations attempt to enforce the integrity of the links between other adaptations and status behaviours.

Making yourself small: How status rating plays into status benefits, specifically freedom of action. Low status rating can make it hard to make yourself big. High status rating allows you to make yourself big or small.

What if status is a terminal value for most people: This seems to me to be a different model, where status rating is a direct adaptation. Some commenters (e.g. someonewrongonthenet) suggest that separating status from adaptation works better.

The conversation which started my research – To predict status behaviours, should we go backwards from status rating (zero-sum) or is there a better way (e.g. working forwards from status adaptations)?

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7 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 9:39 AM

Have you read impro? I was under the impression that the common status model came from that book. Or also status anxiety the book.

Robin Hanson also has also written many articles referencing status on Overcoming Bias

It's on my Christmas list!

It's quoted/referenced extensively on a few posts. The impression I got is that he focuses on rows 2 & 3 but maybe that's just the focus of those posts rather than Johnstone himself?

Thanks for the post, I really like the diagram.

One thing that would be useful (if it's easy for you) would be to link back to a bunch of the posts you read (if you thought they were any good) and say quickly which part of the diagram they're talking about.

Done, thanks for the suggestion. Fortunately I kept a list as originally I was writing something much longer before realising that the model was probably the most interesting bit.

Nice!!! I appreciate the guide to older stuff, very useful.

This model makes it easier to point out when people are using circular reasoning around status. E.g. "Bob has mates because he's high-status" -What do you mean by high-status?-"He's obviously high status because he has mates!"