Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Imaginary Status and the Tendency to Externalize

[A] remarkable fraction of female journalistic output, at least the most heartfelt stuff, consists of demands for society to change so that that particular female journalist would be considered hotter looking.

—Steve Sailer, in "Female Journalism"

Humans all want high status, but we can't all have it. Some portion of our happiness, likely large, is determined by status; therefore some people are structurally guaranteed to be unhappy. While non-status transactions may make everyone better off, status transactions must make someone worse off. Status, I argue, is zero-sum (at best).

Salem of Why I Am Not... argues that status need not be a zero-sum game. For one thing, status is "obscure" - it's hard to measure, and we tend to overrate ourselves, resulting, presumably, in extra utility for everyone. However, even if we overrate ourselves, a large number of people still correctly rate themselves as being of low status, and suffer as a consequence. We are biased about status, but far from blind.

For another, says Salem, there are multiple statuses, not just one - multiple, overlapping groups among whom to achieve and display status, and multiple domains within which to achieve and display status. To some degree, these groups and domains even compete for status - which shows us that there is some kind of "background" status that exists outside of the group or domain within which status is sought. Status exists only in the minds of other humans, and in our own models of those minds. It is not merely context-dependent, but attempts to broaden itself over all contexts.

What I find to be the most fascinating objection to the "status is zero-sum" claim is that there may be imaginary status - i.e., status may be measured against others who aren't really in the game, and can't perceive their own relatively low status - non-playing characters in computer games, animals, those outside of and unaware of the existence of a given status domain, etc. As Salem puts it, "This also gives a different perspective on animal welfare. Perhaps little boys picking the wings off flies aren't so bad after all." As Chip Smith puts it, "If trivial inequalities that nevertheless satisfy discrete human desires for status welfare can be distinguished from consequential inequalities that satisfy the same end, then maybe there is a net benefit in the former. I'm sure market forces promote both."

Imagine an unattractive female journalist. She has a few choices available to her:

  • Be sad about her low status in the mating domain (zero-sum)
  • Focus on her high status in other domains (scholarship, etc.) and forget about the mating domain (potentially not zero-sum)
  • Change relevant mating groups so that she may gain high status in the mating domain within some group, even if it's not the wider group (potentially not zero-sum)

Indeed, she might, to some extent, engage in all three. However, there is a fourth option that is almost universally pursued by those of low status:

  • Try to persuade her group that she is more attractive, OR that the forms of status she possesses are more "real" or "important" than the forms of status she does not possess.

That is, humans desire high status, and attempt to externalize their conceptions of status. What it means to compete for status is not just that the agent must perceive himself as having high status, but that others must perceive the agent as having high status.

Imaginary status ("subjective" status) may be a substitute for others-perceived status ("objective" status) in the same way that pornography is a substitute for sex - an inferior substitute. We still try to get the real thing.


  1. I agree with you, but consider the way she externalises her status. She will try and persuade her in-group, but her in-group is determined by affinity and status. In other words, she will get together with a lot of other fat, brainy girls, and they will try and persuade each other that they're not fat, they're full-figured and that brains are more important than looks anyway. And guess what, they'll all find the arguments brilliantly persuasive! High status all round.

    The only trouble she may have is with her cute, dumb sister (who moves in a bubble of cute, dumb girls), because her sister is fixed in her in-group. That's why status-games are so destructive in closed environments like families, schools and prisons, but benign in open societies and markets. Therefore I suggest that the solution is not radical equality, but differentiation - that in this context social welfare doesn't mean benefit payments, it means helping people form relationships.

  2. Politely chatting (or politely writing newspaper articles) is only one way in which people seek to externalize their status. More effective ways include making laws and using force. To the person on the low-status end of the transaction, it makes little difference whether the force is applied by a government (as with a prisoner) or by a private security firm.

  3. Excellent points. However, basing them on the work of a bigot who cloaks his prejudice in scientific jargon makes them appear... less excellent.

  4. Humans all want high status, but we can't all have it. Some portion of our happiness, likely large, is determined by status; therefore some people are structurally guaranteed to be unhappy. While non-status transactions may make everyone better off, status transactions must make someone worse off. Status, I argue, is zero-sum (at best).

    As someone once said "the kingdom of heaven is within". The sense of status, like the sense of identity is vague and actually quite plastic. One's status is to a large extent determined by what one feels/thinks one's status to be and others have a tendency to agree with one's internal measure (i.e. the perception of status is plastic). Of course some of it is external, but there is a potential for greater control internally.

  5. It occurs to me that the female journalists that Sailer observes are tilting against deep-rooted windmills, but not all efforts to externalize or objectify preferred status criteria are so quixotic. I further suspect that some such efforts do not entail comparative disadvantage in any morally relevant sense, especially not when status externalization seeks to normalize an observable imbalance. For example, in most Western countries gay people now enjoy higher social status than they did in the past, and this is due, to whatever arguable extent, to the concerted efforts of status molders to normalize a fairly entrenched low-status category. If this process is viewed in transactional terms under your view, who are the losers? And how are they deprived?

    I'm also inclined to agree with Salem's point that markets are better suited for channeling residual imbalances in diverse directions. The long tail is alive with options -- options that can and do promote comparative well-being at little or no cost to distant "losers." I doubt that closed systems, however justly conceived, can provide similar escape strategies while minimizing the sting.

  6. I think they're dangerous to the extent that they're NOT quixotic.

    Just because we can't identify the losers in the transaction raising the status of gays doesn't mean they don't exist. We can even write them off because they're now low status. Rednecks. Good old boys. Church ladies.

    It doesn't matter what the category is. There will always be one. How about "gingers"?

    I'm bisexual and very pro-gay, but I doubt gay liberation really raised the welfare of the entire world.

    If imaginary/chosen status really accounted for an acceptably high fraction of status . . . why do herbal penis enlargement supplements sell so well?

  7. And CM - I tend to choose the nastiest possible analogies and examples for pedagogical purposes.

  8. But who/what are people comparing themselves to if they feel their penis is too small? Doesn't this go exactly to the point of imaginary/chosen status? I have no idea how large or small is the next guy's erect penis. I imagine that the majority of people who buy such supplements do so not because they have actually compared themselves to their peers and found themselves wanting, but because they are falling short of imaginary standards that exist only in their own heads, or are not representative of the population as a whole.

    Moreover, let's suppose that these supplements work. Is the effect of them really to raise the customer's actual status with other people, or their internal perceived status? If I take herbal supplements, does that make my neighbour feel worse about his penis?

  9. Nearly a non sequitur, but it has to be said, re: penii/change of status through different subgroups: Maybe a huge penis makes you feel like the biggest man in the men's locker room, but in a room full of women with smaller than average equipment, you may as well be a horse. Ugh. Go away.

  10. It sounds like you mean that to be dismissive, but I think the dynamics of status and mate choice are FASCINATING.

    To get less misogynist than my usual shtick for a while, let me present:

    Sister Y's Law of Male Sexual Oversupply:
    For any given level of female attractiveness (interpreted broadly), there will be an oversupply of males with higher attractiveness willing to provide sexual services.

    This can be combined with well-known observations of oversupply, specifically: the more drastic the oversupply of labor, the more consumers of labor can discriminate using arbitrary criteria (e.g., labor unions using race as a criterion for membership).

    Penis size is pretty arbitrary in terms of mate value, but it is (a) easily objectively verifiable and (b) has SOME value in sexual satisfaction (even for those, like myself, with below-average-sized relevant anatomy). In addition, it's widely perceived by men themselves as a status criterion. Objective mating index informs subjective mating index in status-conscious humans, and vice versa.

    As a partially-heterosexual female, I am a beneficiary of male sexual oversupply. Perhaps I only point it out to revel in this because I am a bitch, but subjectively, I do feel bad about most men not being able to get as much sex as they (have evolved to) want. I also feel bad about monogamous women not being able to get the lifetime mutual sexuality output contracts that they (have evolved to) want.

    I think it's important to realize there's no solution to this problem. It's a limitation on human happiness.

  11. Try to persuade her group that she is more attractive, OR that the forms of status she possesses are more "real" or "important" than the forms of status she does not possess.

    You forgot one, Sister Y :D

    OR ... Create your own garden and tend to it. Don't worry about status at all. This reminds me of something I ran across not too long ago.

    We work hard and long hours in order to afford to by a bunch of crap we don't really need in order to impress people we don't really like.

    IOW, the drive for status (no doubt sex-linked) is just another way nature GAMES you! Sometimes to protect your social interaction, sometimes for sexual opportunities, sometimes for mere ego aggrandizement. As the JOSHUA computer in Wargames said. "What a strange game. The only winning move is not to play"


  12. "lifetime mutual sexuality output contracts that they (have evolved to) want."

    Are you saying women dont want to be monogamous?

  13. "Women" is a broad class within which to assume homogeneity, but what I am saying is that both men and women have evolved to want their partners to be monogamous. Few humans actually want to BE monogamous themselves, because being monogamous is boring and lame.

  14. Just wanted to add here that the status game becomes non-zero-sum when you add virtual status stimuli such as dominance over non-sentient NPCs.

  15. (Oops, overlooked that part in the original post...)


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