In The Futility of Emergence Eliezer names a current theory which is as flawed as the theories of flogiston and vitalism. Theories that give mysterious answers which just appears to explain the phenomena while not actually resolving the confusion.

I think I can name another one. A theory which also happen to have much more influence in LessWrong agecent communities than emergence. Status seeking and signalling as an explanation for human behavior. 


When I first heard about signalling it felt as a useful concept. Indeed some people seem to do things not because they actually believe that this is the best course of action but because they want to appear as someone who does. Because some sort of behaviour is associated with highter status and they want to be high status. 

But on a reflection and due to seeing how people actually use this concept I noticed that it's extremely unhelpful. When people talk about signalling they do not distinguish between true signalling - when a signal actually correspond to the belief, and a false signalling - when it doesn't. Both of these very different cases are just put in the same category which creates more confusion instead of resolving it. 

Similarly with status seeking. At first it felt, dare I say, reductive. Now we can explain all kind of different behaviours by the same intrinsic drive. But then I noticed that we can explain literally any behaviour by this same intrinsic drive. People who spend money on luxury items are doing it for the sake of status signalling. People who do not... well they do it for counter signalling reasons, they are still seeking status they just associate it with not having luxury items. At this point this is just like with phlogiston that saturated the air thus the fire ceased. We can make all kind of post-hoc explanations. But can we actually predict anything?


At best, these theories just do not bring much new to the table. At worst they are actively misleading. Knowledge about them can make it even harder to communicate about objective level problems, derailing the conversation to the meta level. I've seen the examples of it multiple times. 

  1. Person A claims that we should do some policy X.
  2. Person B accuses A of virtue signalling.
  3. And now the conversation shifted to the nature of signalling, despite the fact that it's completely irrelivant to the objective question of whether X is a good policy.


  1. Person A talks about a problem in Person B reasoning.
  2. Person B accuses A of doing it for the status reasons.
  3. And now the conversation is shifted towards the nature of status games, regardless of whether there was a problem in Person B reasoning or not.

It's irritating that Person B accusation is, in some sense, always correct. Every public action is a signal, and people who participate in public arguments probably do associate being right with highter status. It's all just completely irrelevant. There is nothing to argue about. And yet it can be very hard to switch the topic back to the objective level. 

What was supposed to be a tool for making the conversations clearer and allowing people to communicate what they actually mean while exposing bad actors who say things for different reasons, is used as a tool to obfuscate conversations and accuse anybody of arguing in bad faith. 


I've wanted to write about it for quite some time, but today I finally got an extra bump of motivation due to reading comments to this post. It turned out that a lot of commenters were discomforted by this statement.

Right now, I think the best course of action is for us—and I mean all of us, anyone who has any sort of a public platform—to make clear that we don't support fraud done in the service of effective altruism.

As far as I understand, everyone agreed on the objective level that we do not support fraud done in the service of EA. Neither there were disagreements on whether it's a good idea to make this true belief to be publicly known. Yet this still felt wrong for many people.

I think this can be an important case study on Why Our Kind Can't Cooperate. We want LessWrong to be a place where people can clearly communicate about ideas on the objective level. As a result we do not want LessWrong to be just like social media, where, as it is well known people are playing their meaningful status games and doing false signalling on a high simulacrum level. And to achieve that, some of us have created a heuristic of not doing stuff that feels... too "signalingly" or "statusy". If something looks like it's from social media it can't be on LessWrong. 

This seems like an obvious mistake to me. It leads to being able to communicate about even less things on objective level. And I think people make it because of how confusing and unhelpful categories of status seeking and signaling are. Where there is no clear cut way to distinguish false signalling from true one we have to default to our intuitions. And they seem to be quite flawed.

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I completely disagree, stating that a person has status-seeking as a motivation makes some very clear predictions. For instance, we'd expect such a person to care very much about having their contributions recognized in front of their work peers, and we'd expect an event like a manager mentioning their idea in a meeting without giving them due credit to be very annoying to them. Conversely, if you observe someone who doesn't seem too bothered by not having their contributions recognized, you can state with high certainty that they are not seeking status. You'd also expect a status-seeking person to mention their accomplishments on occasion, if you see someone who never mentions any of their accomplishments to anyone, that is evidence that they are not seeking status. 

In general "status among humans" is very low-entropy, you don't have much status in most possible worlds, and you need to exert optimization pressure to steer the future towards the world where you do. I think the mistake you're making is equating "status = a human's value function", in which case the statement "humans maximize status" is equivalent to "humans behave according to their value function", which becomes tautological. But status does not capture the entirety of a human's value function, for instance, I care about being happy independently of having high status, I'd prefer both, but status is not enough.

When people talk about status seeking they can mean either boring idea, that it's one of the motivations people have and some people are more obsessed with status than others, or new and exciting idea that all human behaviour is essentially status seeking. I agree that the boring idea of status seeking has its predictive power. What I wanted to talk about, and I'm sorry that I failed to specify it good enough, is that the new and exciting idea of status seeking just gives mysterious answer while trying to look as if it's the same idea. And their conflation is where the problems come from.

There is this whole framework of looking at human behaviour from the status seeking perspective and seeing only status games. Something akin always searching for highter simulacrum level meaning of a statement. It's not immediately clear that using it is a bad idea. After all people do seem to seek status. And people who believe there is a lion on the other side of the river do tend not to want to go there, and tend to be part of not-going-accross-the-river group. But applying this framework ruins our ability to talk about objective level questions and this is a problem.

I agree that generic and vague ideas of status have an high ratio of abusability and passive distortion effects to insight—partly due to Strange Loop effects in which symbols around “status-seeking” themselves have status effects, as you describe in section III.

I also suspect that doing more of that sort of pontificating without more specifics can stop providing useful predictive power fast, but I wonder how much of this is due to the degree to which it's wound up “in the water supply” much like how SSC has described happening to CBT. The phenomena he describes as happening to CBT with lack of efficacy, and the way context of presentation matters, feel similar to the situation with status-based explanations in a way I don't have a good immediate description for.

(Update: after reading your contextualizing comment elsewhere I think this may be at a more skew angle to your post's intended topic than I originally thought, though I think the comparison I bring up may still be useful.)

Disagree that "[a]t best, these theories just do not bring much new to the table" but agree that the over-emphasis on these theories is "extremely unhelpful." That is, they provide good insights and explanatory power, and even substantial explanatory power on the margin sometimes, but having non-zero  is not the same as being the explanation with the highest . Assuming the latter is often not accurate. Ironically, I find myself mostly agreeing with a post that Razied disagrees with while also mostly agreeing with Razied - the human value function is not solely, or even primarily, status seeking.

Likewise, I also disagree with "[on social media], it is well known people are playing their meaningful status games and doing false signalling on a high simulacrum level' because Ape in the coat is doing exactly what they are complaining about. Certainly this happens, and in some cases dominates any other reasons for people's behavior on social media, but again, most of why people engage on social media is likely not to be about obtaining status, unless status is to be so broadly defined as to include things like "personal satisfaction."

Getting meta, here I find myself engaging in a social medium that even has a very clear social approval mechanism. Yes, I want lots of yummy upvotes (is it because they accord me status somehow, or because the social approval provides peer review for the validity of my hopefully-rational take?), but mainly I'm posting because I think my opinion is right, worthwhile to share, and hopefully conveyed in a way that can, if not persuade, update.