Selfishness Signals Status

The “sta­tus” hy­poth­e­sis sim­ply claims that we as­so­ci­ate one an­other with a one-di­men­sional quan­tity: the per­ceived de­gree to which oth­ers’ be­hav­ior can af­fect our well-be­ing. And each of us be­haves to­ward our peers ac­cord­ing to our in­ter­nally rep­re­sented sta­tus map­ping.

Imag­ine that, within your group, you’re in a po­si­tion where ev­ery­one wants to please you and no one can af­ford to challenge you. What does this mean for your be­hav­ior? It means you get to act self­ish—fo­cus­ing on what makes you most pleased, and be­com­ing less sen­si­tive to lower-grade plea­sure stim­uli.

Now let’s say you meet an out­sider. They want to es­ti­mate your sta­tus, be­cause it’s a use­ful and effi­cient value to re­mem­ber. And when they see you act­ing self­ishly in front of oth­ers in your group, they will in­fer the lop­sided bal­ance of power.

In your own life, when you in­ter­act with some­one who could af­fect your well-be­ing, you do your best to act in a way that is valuable to them, hop­ing they will be mo­ti­vated to re­cip­ro­cate. The thing is, if an ob­server wit­nesses your un­selfish be­hav­ior, it’s a tel­l­tale sign of your lower sta­tus. And this sce­nario is so gen­eral, and so com­mon, that most peo­ple learn to be very ob­ser­vant of oth­ers’ de­vi­a­tions from self­ish­ness.

On Less Wrong, we already un­der­stand the phe­nomenon of sta­tus sig­nal­ing—the causal link from sta­tus to be­hav­ior, and the in­fer­en­tial link from be­hav­ior to sta­tus. If we also rec­og­nize the role of self­ish­ness as a re­li­able sta­tus sig­nal, we can gain a lot of pre­dic­tive power about which spe­cific be­hav­ioral man­ner­isms are high- and low-sta­tus.

Are each of the fol­low­ing high- or low-sta­tus?

1. Stand­ing up straight

2. Say­ing what’s on your mind, with­out think­ing it through

3. Mak­ing an effort to have a pleas­ant conversation

4. Wear­ing the most com­fortable pos­si­ble clothes

5. Apol­o­giz­ing to some­one you’ve wronged

6. Blow­ing your nose in front of people

7. Ask­ing for permission

8. Show­ing off


    1. Stand­ing up straight is low-sta­tus, be­cause you’re ob­vi­ously do­ing it to make an im­pres­sion on oth­ers—there’s no first-or­der benefit to your­self.

    2. Say­ing what’s on your mind is high-sta­tus, be­cause you’re do­ing some­thing plea­surable. This sig­nal is most re­li­able when what you say doesn’t have any in­tel­lec­tual merit.

    3. Mak­ing an effort to have a pleas­ant con­ver­sa­tion is low-sta­tus. It’s high-sta­tus to talk about what you care about.

    4. Wear­ing the most com­fortable pos­si­ble clothes is high-sta­tus, be­cause you’re clearly benefit­ing your­self. (Dress­ing in fash­ion­able clothes is also high-sta­tus, through a differ­ent in­fer­en­tial path­way.)

    5. Apol­o­giz­ing is low-sta­tus be­cause you’re ob­vi­ously not do­ing it for your­self.

    6. Blow­ing your nose is high-sta­tus be­cause it’s plea­surable and shows that you aren’t af­fected enough by oth­ers to stop.

    7. Ask­ing for per­mis­sion is low-sta­tus. Com­pare: rec­og­niz­ing that pro­ceed­ing would be plea­surable, and be­liev­ing that you are im­mune to any nega­tive con­se­quences.

    8. Show­ing off is low-sta­tus, be­cause it re­veals that the prospect of im­press­ing your peers drives you to do things which aren’t first-or­der self­ish. (Of course, the thing you are show­ing off might le­gi­t­i­mately sig­nal sta­tus.)

      Pwno’s post makes a good re­lated point: The most re­li­able high-sta­tus sig­nal is in­differ­ence. If you’re in­differ­ent to a per­son, it means their be­hav­ior doesn’t even fac­tor into your ex­pec­ta­tion of well-be­ing. It means your com­pu­ta­tional re­sources are too limited to al­lo­cate them their own vari­able, since its value mat­ters so lit­tle. How could you act in­differ­ent if you weren’t high-sta­tus?