su3su2u1 challenged status/signaling theories of human behavior: can they make any real-life predictions? His example was a recent medical conference that threw together three groups of people – high-status top professors, medium-status established doctors, and low-status new residents. The women in one group (female doctors + male doctors’ wives/girlfriends) were wearing conspicuous fancy jewelery. The women in the other groups weren’t. Which group had the jewelery?
His point was that status/signaling theories don’t answer this question for us with any degree of confidence. Maybe the high-status top professors wear the jewelery to signal wealth and dominance. Maybe the low-status new residents wear it aspirationally and because they need to impress. Maybe the medium-status established doctors wear it, because the residents can’t afford it and the professors countersignal that they don’t need it.
Now, in fact su3su2u1 was a no-good sneaky sneak, because the residents had all just attended a wedding that gave out the fancy jewelery as gifts and this was probably all that was going on. But his point is well-taken. Status and signaling theories are hard to use in practice. So it’s always nice when people try to do some theoretical work on them and tease them apart into their different components. This is the task Kevin Simler takes on in Social Status: Down The Rabbit Hole.
His theory (which he adopts from various psychologists and animal behaviorists) is that status separates neatly into two systems: dominance and prestige. Dominance is “respect me because I’ll kill you if you don’t.” Prestige is “Respect me because I’m awesome”. The two systems have different origins and different behavioral effects; conflate the two and you’ll end up very confused.
If you hate your boss, but you do what she says anyway because she’ll fire you if you don’t, that’s dominance. If you’re very respectful to a police officer because he has a gun and you don’t, that’s dominance too. Principals have dominance, parents have dominance, psychiatrists keeping you in a hospital against your will have dominance. Prestige is different. A rock star has prestige. He can’t hurt you. You don’t necessarily need anything from him. But you still want his autograph, want to meet him, maybe want to sleep with him. Star athletes have prestige. Actors and actresses. Good bosses who you work hard for not because you’re afraid of them but because you don’t want to let them down. Your parents, if you do what they say out of respect/love and not out of fear of punishment. Heroic leaders like George Washington (except more alive).
Having prestige can be better than being dominant. If you’re dominant, your subordinates will do exactly as much as necessary to avoid your wrath; if you’re prestigious, they may go above and beyond to help you. On the other hand, sometimes good old-fashioned dominance does the trick; your boss can ask you to drop everything and spend a week of long nights on a sudden project, but if your favorite rock star asked you to spend a week doing his taxes for him you might politely decline.
Dominance has clear animal analogies (alpha chimps, chicken pecking orders, etc), and we can pretty well guess why it evolved. The evolutionary origins of prestige are murkier, and this is the focus of Simler’s piece.
First he flirts with the theory of a guy called Henrich, who says prestige comes from a desire to learn. I admire and flatter my favorite rock star because I’m hoping I can hang out around him, some of his genius will rub off on me, and I’ll be able to play a wicked guitar riff and win a couple of Grammies myself. This theory makes no sense to me. It’s not just that there’s zero chance of Bowie teaching me, or that I might not have the talent anyway. Maybe in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness that didn’t matter so much. It’s that I don’t want to be a rock star, and if Bowie offered to train me, I’d say I wasn’t interested.
Simler doesn’t like this much either, so he moves on to the theory of two guys named Zahavi and Dessalles. I’ll quote him at length:
Unlike Henrich, whose account of prestige is unique to our species, Zahavi and Dessalles find analogues among non-human animals — most vividly, in the Arabian babbler.
The Arabian babbler is a small brown bird found in the arid brush of the Sinai Desert and (you guessed it) the Arabian Peninsula. It spends most of its life in small groups of three to 20 members. These groups lay their eggs in a communal nest and defend a small territory of trees and shrubs that provide much-needed safety from predators.
When it’s living as part of a group, a babbler does fairly well for itself. But babblers who get kicked out of a group have much bleaker prospects. These “non-territorials” are typically badgered away from other territories and forced out into the open, where they often fall prey to hawks, falcons, and other raptors. So it really pays to be part of a group. (Keep this in mind; it’ll be crucial in a moment.)
Within a group, babblers assort themselves into a linear and fairly rigid dominance hierarchy, i.e., a pecking order. When push comes to shove, adult males always dominate adult females — but mostly males compete with males and females with females. Very occasionally, an intense “all-out” fight will erupt between two babblers of adjacent rank, typically the two highest-ranked males or the two highest-ranked females. This is the babblers’ version of a Wild West showdown, as if one babbler suddenly turns to the other and says, “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us.” A showdown always results in death or permanent exile for one of the combatants.
Most of the time, however, babblers get along pretty well with each other. In fact, they spend a lot of effort actively helping one another and taking risks for the benefit of the group. They’ll often donate food to other group members, for example, or to the communal nestlings. They’ll also attack foreign babblers and predators who have intruded on the group’s territory, assuming personal risk in an effort to keep others safe. One particularly helpful activity is “guard duty,” in which one babbler stands sentinel at the top of a tree, watching for predators while the rest of the group scrounges for food. The babbler on guard duty not only foregoes food, but also assumes a greater risk of being preyed upon, e.g., by a hawk or falcon.
Helpfulness, bravery, heroism: these birds seem like regular Boy Scouts. At least on the surface.
But here’s where things take a turn for the weird. Babblers don’t just passively or occasionally offer to help each other. Instead they compete intensely for the privilege of doing so.
Unlike chickens, who compete to secure more food and better roosting sites for themselves, babblers compete to give food away and to take the worst roosting sites. Each tries to be more helpful than the next. And because it’s a competition, higher-ranked (more dominant) babblers typically win, i.e., by using their dominance to interfere with the helpful activities of lower-ranked babblers. This competition is fiercest between babblers of adjacent rank. So the alpha male, for example, is especially eager to be more helpful than the beta male, but doesn’t compete nearly as much with the gamma male. Similar dynamics occur within the female ranks.
Now: what in Darwin’s name is going on here? Why are babblers so eager to help each other?
The naive answer is that they’re simply doing what’s best for the group — because when the group succeeds, everyone ends up better off. But this kind of straightforward altruism simply isn’t found in nature. It’s not game-theoretically stable, thanks to the free-rider problem. Also note that babblers actively interfere with the helpful behavior of their rivals. If their ultimate goal were the success of the group, interfering with others would be entirely counter-productive.
So the logic of natural selection compels us to ask, “What selfish motive does an individual babbler have to help others?”
The answer, in a word, is prestige. A second form of social status that lives alongside the babblers’ dominance hierarchy — a kind of “credit” reflecting the amount of good each individual has done for others. So when two babblers compete to stand guard duty, for example, they’re actually jockeying, selfishly, for prestige within the group.
And suddenly the intense competition makes sense.
But as in our species, so too in babblers: prestige means nothing without admiration. If other babblers weren’t willing to defer and pay respect to prestigious individuals, there’d be no incentive to compete for prestige.
But other babblers are willing to pay respect to prestigious individuals, in two main ways. The first is mating opportunities. Babblers are constantly trying to interfere with their rivals’ mating attempts — but when a babbler has high prestige, his or her rivals interfere less. Among males, this translates to more mating opportunities; among females, it translates to earlier mating opportunities (giving one’s offspring a head start in the communal nest)
The other perk of high prestige is a reduced risk of being challenged to an all-out showdown. The higher a babbler’s prestige, the less likely its rivals are to pick a fight — even if they stand a good chance of winning.
All of which brings us, finally, to the point. Why do other babblers voluntarily defer to prestigious ones? The answer is simply(!) that babblers with lots of prestige are useful to the group, and therefore useful to keep around. This is how it ends up being in the selfish interest of other babblers to defer to those with high prestige.
When a babbler is useful enough, in other words, it’s in the self-interest of others to “suck up” or pay respect to that babbler (by backing down from fights and interfering less in its mating attempts) in order to keep it happily in the group.
Bottom line: Prestige-seeking and admiration (deference) are complementary teaming instincts. They help babblers stay attached to a group, keep groupmates happy, and secure a larger share of the group’s reproductive “spoils.”
I hope this account of the babbler prestige system sounds familiar, because it’s more or less equivalent to the prestige system found in our own species; both are derived from the same Platonic form.
This is better. It sort of makes sense as an evolutionary explanation. But I think extending it from there to modern human prestige is a big stretch.
Take the rock star again. Let’s say David Bowie. When people admire Bowie, are they trying to get him to not leave the group? Is that why people scream and throw themselves at him? What would it even mean for Bowie to leave the group? If he doesn’t have enough groupies, will he defect to North Korea?
And don’t we sometimes admire people who we do want to leave the group? Suppose that for some reason I was stuck on a plane sitting next to the Koch Brothers – maybe all their private jets broke down at once. I would probably treat them in the classic way someone treats prestigious people. I’d feel really nervous striking up a conversation with them because they’re high-status and important. If I did strike up a conversation with them, I’d be really deferential and overthink everything they said. After the flight was over, I would immediately post to Twitter “I SPENT A WHOLE FLIGHT TALKING TO THE KOCH BROTHERS!” and then post the photo I’d roped them into taking with me. But none of this is because I don’t want them to leave the group. If the Koch Brothers defected to North Korea, that would be great.
And what about prestigious people who don’t bring any special talents to the group? Helen Keller, for example, can do less than most other people. We admire her not because we need to make use of her mad skillz, but because given all her handicaps it’s amazing that she can do anything at all.
We could potentially dismiss all of these by saying that evolved instincts don’t have to work in the present day. If there were no cavemen like David Bowie (probably a safe bet), then maybe our evolutionary instincts don’t apply to his case. But even in evolutionary time, admiration has a free-rider problem. Suppose that we want to make sure David Bowie stays in the West rather than North Korea, but he’ll defect unless at least three people flatter him per day. Assuming that flattering David Bowie involves some kind of cost – maybe you have to buy the t-shirt with his face on it – why should I pay the cost when there are millions of other Westerners invested in the same project? Should we be more impressed with the altruistic spirit of people who have sex with famous rock stars, seeing as they are sacrificing their bodies to the project of keeping their heroes out of Kim Jong-un’s clutches?
I think I might be straw-manning the babbler hypothesis here, so let’s skip down a few paragraphs to the next time Simler explains it:
The point is, we want to be friends, allies, and teammates with people who do good things for their friends, allies, and teammates. It’s in our self-interest to cultivate access to such people — which we do, in part, by paying them respect and granting them the perks of prestige.
More generally, however, we admire not only those who actually do good things for their teammates, but also those who show the potential to do good things, i.e., by demonstrating useful skills. The student who gets straight As from a good college, for example, is advertising her value to future employers, and her prestige makes her highly sought-after on the job market. She’ll be actively courted by hiring managers and given various perks (a better starting salary, more time to make her decision) that aren’t accorded to her less-impressive classmates.
Simler treats this as a summary of his previous point, but this is a very different theory!
The previous point was that prestigious people do good things for their community. The new point is that prestigious people do good things for their flatterers in particular. It’s a tit-for-tat relationship: show David Bowie your tits, and he gives you some tat. Money? Access to the best clubs? A copy of his latest album?
This makes sense except that it’s not the way most admiration-interactions actually work.
Forget David Bowie. Let’s talk about Justin Bieber. I see about a zillion teenage girls hanging posters of Justin Bieber in their room, fighting for the last ticket to Justin Bieber concerts, buying magazines with Justin Bieber on the cover. But the chance that Justin Bieber gives any tat for all of these tits is practically nil.
And we can’t dismiss this as a form of irrationality restricted to teenage girls. A lot of people I know geek out about Elon Musk; I’ve been to more than one party/meetup where the topic of conversation turns to how great Elon Musk is. I don’t hang posters on my wall, but if I did, they would probably have his face on them. But I don’t expect any repayment from him; I doubt he even knows about my flattery. What about all those Catholics who obsess over the Pope? What about people who obsess over J.K. Rowling or Neil Gaiman or LeBron James or Derek Jeter?
And what about me on that airplane with the Koch Brothers? Am I thinking to myself “If I ever need an entire field of science discredited, now I’ve got an in with some people who are really good at it”? What about Helen Keller? “If the world is plunged into eternal darkness, and also there’s some global super-loud hum that makes it impossible to hear anything, now I’ll have a friend who can operate regardless?” Even in evolutionary times, we should have some need to reflect on “can this person actually help me?”
I worry no one theory can completely explain prestige. It seems to me to be a combination of several different things:
1. Group signaling. The people I admire say a lot about me. If I admire Elon Musk, it means that I’m really into space, technology, and maybe the free market. If I admire the Pope, it means I’m really into Catholicism. If I admire David Bowie, it means I’m fabulous. Learning about these people, celebrating their accomplishments, and joining their Official Fan Clubs is an important method of bonding with other peopel.
2. Coattail riding. If a prestigious person becomes more prestigious, I might “look good” for having supported them “before they got big”. It suggests that I’m a good judge of character, or “hip” enough to know which acts will take off and which ones will never achieve broader appeal. Just as a fan feels good when his sports team wins the Superbowl, and a patriot feels good every time her country wins a war, so being a known Elon Musk fan means I get to feel a tiny fragment of the glory whenever Elon Musk invents a new rocket.
3. Prestige by association. Prestigious people hang out with other prestigious people. Nonprestigious people hang out with other nonprestigious people. If I have access to prestigious people, even in some boring trivial way, that makes me seem more prestigious. I think this is what’s going on with the hypothetical airplane conversation with the Koch brothers. Yes, in some sense it’s sheer coincidence that I run into them on a flight. In another sense it isn’t; at the very least, it probably means I was flying first class, and I must have had some rudimentary level of social skills to engage them in conversation. I’m signaling that I’m the sort of person who, at least when everything goes right, can shmooze with billionaires. Even if deep down people know that it was mostly a coincidence, on some gut level that’s kind of impressive.
4. Tit for tat. Yes, in some cases we will be close enough to prestigious people that we can expect rewards for our support. It’s probably easier to flatter my boss or my favorite teacher effectively than to flatter Justin Bieber or the Koch brothers, and you can reasonably expect special treatment. This is a good way of forging an alliance. If I praise my boss, she benefits from my elevation: having a nobody admire you is boring, but having a somebody admire you is both flattering practically useful. Therefore, the more I admire and support my boss, the more she is incentivized to help me become a somebody.
5. Virtuous cycles. Suppose that, for reasons 1 through 4, people want to be associated with prestigious people. Note that this is different from “associate with prestigious people” in the sense of meeting them directly; anything that gets their name linked to the prestigious person will work. In fact, suppose that specifically, there are a bunch of conservatives who are really into the Koch brothers and are jockeying for position as Koch brother fan #1. Some of these people might play the strategy of according me prestige for having met the Koch brothers as a way of better signaling their own respect for the Koch brothers to third parties. That gives me a separate incentive to seek such prestige by association.
This is still woefully incomplete, especially by “predict which of these doctors will wear jewelery”-level standards. Maybe prestige shouldn’t be treated as a single thing at all. Maybe the admiration I feel for my boss (a real person in my social circle who I interact with daily) comes from a totally different part of the brain and has totally different evolutionary origins from the admiration I feel for Elon Musk (who I expect never to meet).