The red paperclip theory of status

Followup to: The Many Faces of Status (This post co-authored by Morendil and Kaj Sotala—see note at end of post.)

In brief: status is a measure of general purpose optimization power in complex social domains, mediated by “power conversions” or “status conversions”.

What is status?

Kaj previously proposed a definition of status as “the ability to control (or influence) the group”, but several people pointed out shortcomings in that. One can influence a group without having status, or have status without having influence. As a glaring counterexample, planting a bomb is definitely a way of influencing a group’s behavior, but few would consider it to be a sign of status.

But the argument of status as optimization power can be made to work with a couple of additional assumptions. By “optimization power”, recall that we mean “the ability to steer the future in a preferred direction”. In general, we recognize optimization power after the fact by looking at outcomes. Improbable outcomes that rank high in an agent’s preferences attest to that agent’s power. For the purposes of this post, we can in fact use “status” and “power” interchangeably.

In the most general sense, status is the general purpose ability to influence a group. An analogy to intelligence is useful here. A chess computer is very skilled at the domain of chess, but has no skill in any other domain. Intuitively, we feel like a chess computer is not intelligent, because it has no cross-domain intelligence. Likewise, while planting bombs is a very effective way of causing certain kinds of behavior in groups, intuitively it doesn’t feel like status because it can only be effectively applied to a very narrow set of goals. In contrast, someone with high status in a social group can push the group towards a variety of different goals. We call a certain type of general purpose optimization power “intelligence”, and another type of general purpose optimization power “status”. Yet the ability to make excellent chess moves is still a form of intelligence, but only a very narrow one.

A power conversion framework

The framework that (provisionally) makes the most sense to us is the following, based on the idea of power conversions.

  1. There are a great many forms of status, and a great many forms of power. (Earlier discussion hinted to the “godshatteriness” of status.) Dominance is one, but so are wealth, prestige, sex appeal, conceptual clarity, and so on.

  2. All such forms of power are evidenced by the ability to steer the future into a preferred direction, with respect to the form considered: sex appeal consists of the ability to reliably cause arousal in others.

  3. Any given form of power will have limited usefulness in isolation. This is why planting bombs does not equate to “high status”—detonating a bomb is a dead-end use of one’s power to bring about certain outcomes.

  4. Greater optimization power accrues to those who have the crucial ability to convert one form into another. For instance, causing bombs to be planted, so that you can credibly threaten to blow people up, may be converted into other forms of power (for instance political).

  5. Neither the claim “status is something you have” nor “status is something you do” is fully correct. Status emerges as an interaction between the two: a fancy title is meaningless if nobody in the group respects you, but even if you have the respect of the group, you can act to elevate the status of others and try not to have an disproportionate influence on the group.

  6. The difference between intelligence and status is that intelligence is the general ability to notice and predict patterns and take advantage of them. Even if you were the only person in the world, it would still be meaningful to talk about your intelligence. In contrast, your status is undefined outside the context of a specific social group.

In the story of the “red paperclip”, Kyle MacDonald started out with having just a single paperclip, which he then traded for a pen, which he traded for a doorknob, until he eventually ended up with a two-story farmhouse. Humans are not normally much interested in paperclips, but if you happen to know someone who desires a red paperclip, and happen to be in possession of one, you may be able to trade it for some other item that has more value in your eyes, even while the other party also sees the trade as favorable. Value is complex!

The more forms of status/​power you are conversant with, and the greater your ability to convert one into another, the more you will be able to bring about desirable outcomes through a chain of similar trades.

Because we are social animals, these chain of conversions predictably start with primitives such as dominance, grooming and courting. However, in and of themselves skills in these domains do not constitute “having status”, and are not sufficient to “raise your status”, both expressions this framework exposes as meaningless. The name of the game is to convert the temporary power gained from (say) a dominance behaviour into something further, bringing you closer to something you desire: reproduction, money, a particular social position...


In fact (this is a somewhat subtle point) some conversions may require successfully conveying less power than you actually have, because an excess of power in one domain may hinder your opportunities for conversion in another. One example is the PUA technique consisting of pretending that “you only have five minutes” when engaging a group in conversation. This ostensibly limits your power to choose the topic of conversation, but at the same time allows you to more effectively create rapport, a slightly different form of relational power. Gaining the group’s trust is what you are after, which is easier to convert into knowledge about the group, which is yet another kind of power to be converted later. This is a more subtle play than creating the impression that you are barging into the group.

Another example can be found in Keith Johnstone’s Impro. Johnstone has an exercise where an angry person is blaming another for having read his letters without permission. The person under attack reacts by debasing himself: “Yes, I did it. I always do things like that. I’m a horrible person...” As the conversation continues, it becomes harder and harder for the angry person to continue without making himself feel like a complete jerk. Johnstone describes this as lowering your own status in order to defend yourself, which would make no sense if we had a theory where status was simply the ability to influence someone. You can’t influence someone by reducing your ability to influence them! But with the concept of power conversion, we can see this as converting general-purpose influence to a very narrow form of influence. The person debasing themselves will have a hard time of getting the other to agree on any other concessions for a while.

A similar argument can be made in the case of a needy person, who controls somebody that cares about them by being generally incompetent and needing a lot of help. The needy, clingy person is low-status is because he has converted his ability to influence people in general to the ability to influence a specific person.


Relational, short-term forms of power (what has been discussed under the heading of “status-related behaviours”) are only the beginning of a long chain. People who are good at “corporate politics” are, in fact, skilled at converting such social advantages as rapport, trust or approval into positional power. This in turn can readily be converted into wealth, which can in turn be converted into yet other kinds of power, and so on. Individuals widely recognized as high-status are “wild capitalists” performing in social groups the same kind of efficient trades as the hero of the red paperclip story. (This framework can also help make sense of high-performing individual’s careers in other domains, such as science: see the essay at the link just previous.)

This way of thinking about status gives us a better handle on reconciling status-related intuitions that appear contradictory, e.g. “it’s all about primate dominance” vs “it’s all about wielding influence”. When we see status as a web of power conversions, spanning a number of different forms of power, we see how to integrate these diverse intuitions without either denying any one of them or giving any one primacy over all others.

Authorship note

(This is a co-authored post. Morendil first applied the concept of power transfers to status and wrote most of this article. Kaj re-wrote the beginning and suggested the analogy to intelligence, supplying points V and VI of the framework as well as the examples of the self-debasing and the needy person.)