High Status and Stupidity: Why?

Michael Vas­sar once sug­gested: “Sta­tus makes peo­ple effec­tively stupid, as it makes it harder for them to up­date their pub­lic po­si­tions with­out feel­ing that they are los­ing face.”

To the ex­tent that sta­tus does, in fact, make peo­ple stupid, this is a rather im­por­tant phe­nomenon for a so­ciety like ours in which prac­ti­cally all de­ci­sions and be­liefs pass through the hands of very-high-sta­tus in­di­vi­d­u­als (a high “cog­ni­tive Gini co­effi­cient”).

Does sta­tus ac­tu­ally make peo­ple stupid? It’s hard to say be­cause I haven’t tracked many ca­reers over time. I do have a definite and strong im­pres­sion, with re­spect to many high-sta­tus in­di­vi­d­u­als, that it would have been a lot eas­ier to have an in­tel­li­gent con­ver­sa­tion with them, if I’d ap­proached them be­fore they made it big. But where does that im­pres­sion come from, since I haven’t ac­tu­ally tracked them over time? (Fun­da­men­tal ques­tion of ra­tio­nal­ity: What do you think you know and how do you think you know it?) My best guess for why my brain seems to be­lieve this: I know it’s pos­si­ble to have in­tel­li­gent con­ver­sa­tions with smart grad stu­dents, and I get the strong im­pres­sion that high-sta­tus peo­ple used to be those grad stu­dents, but now it’s much harder to have in­tel­li­gent con­ver­sa­tions with them than with smart grad stu­dents.


  1. Vas­sar’s hy­poth­e­sis: Higher sta­tus in­creases the amount of face you lose when you change your mind, or in­creases the cost of los­ing face.

  2. The open-mind­ed­ness needed to con­sider in­ter­est­ing new ideas is (was) only an evolu­tion­ary ad­van­tage for low-sta­tus in­di­vi­d­u­als seek­ing a good idea to ride to high sta­tus. Once high sta­tus is achieved, new ideas are high-risk gam­bles with less rel­a­tive pay­off—the op­ti­mal strat­egy is to be main­stream. I think Robin Han­son had a post about this but I can’t re­call the ti­tle.

  3. In­tel­li­gence as such is a high-cost fea­ture which is no longer nec­es­sary once sta­tus is achieved. We can call this the Lli­nas Hy­poth­e­sis.

  4. High-sta­tus in­di­vi­d­u­als were in­tel­li­gent when they were young; the ob­served dis­par­ity is due solely to the stan­dard de­clines of ag­ing.

  5. High-sta­tus in­di­vi­d­u­als spend more time on din­ners and poli­tics, and less time on prob­lem-solv­ing and read­ing; they ex­er­cise their minds less.

  6. High-sta­tus in­di­vi­d­u­als are un­der less pres­sure to perform, in gen­eral.

  7. High-sta­tus in­di­vi­d­u­als are just as smart as they ever were, but when you or I try to ap­proach them, the sta­tus dis­par­ity makes it harder to con­verse with them—they would sound just as in­tel­li­gent if we had higher sta­tus our­selves.

  8. High-sta­tus in­di­vi­d­u­als feel less so­cial pres­sure to listen to your ar­gu­ments, re­spond ar­tic­u­lately to them, or change their minds when their own ar­gu­ments are in­ad­e­quate, which de­creases their ap­par­ent or real in­tel­li­gence.

  9. High-sta­tus in­di­vi­d­u­als be­come more con­vinced of their ideas’ right­ness or of their own com­pe­tence.

  10. High-sta­tus in­di­vi­d­u­als get less hon­est ad­vice from their friends, es­pe­cially about their own failings.

Did I miss any­thing im­por­tant?

Hav­ing achieved some small de­gree of sta­tus in cer­tain very limited cir­cles, here’s what I do to try to avoid the sta­tus-makes-you-stupid effect:

  • I try to feel a small flash of self-satis­fac­tion when­ever I pub­li­cly ad­mit that I am wrong, over what a good ra­tio­nal­ist I am be­ing and what a good im­pres­sion I am mak­ing. Not so much satis­fac­tion that I for­get that it’s bet­ter to be cor­rect in the first place, but enough to be a counter-force to the fear of los­ing face.

  • I con­sis­tently re­fuse to be drawn into run­ning the Sin­gu­lar­ity In­sti­tute. I have an over­whelming sense of doom about what hap­pens if I start go­ing down that road.

  • I try in gen­eral to avoid send­ing my brain sig­nals which tell it that I am high-sta­tus, just in case that causes my brain to de­cide it is no longer nec­es­sary. In fact I try to avoid send­ing my brain sig­nals which tell it that I have achieved ac­cep­tance in my tribe. When my brain be­gins think­ing some­thing that gen­er­ates a sense of high sta­tus within the tribe, I stop think­ing that thought.

  • I re­mem­ber my low-pres­tige roots—for ex­am­ple, I re­mem­ber what it was like to be a child squeezed through the hor­rors of the el­e­men­tary school sys­tem. I haven’t switched sides to de­clare that chil­dren are stupid and need to be over­rid­den for their own good (as would sig­nal my own adult­hood and ma­tu­rity). I re­mem­ber the bat­tles I fought then, and would still fight them now on be­half of an­other child if a tar­get of op­por­tu­nity arose. That is sup­port­ing and iden­ti­fy­ing with the down­trod­den—not to be con­fused with the high-pres­tige ac­tivity of sup­port­ing trendy minor­ity causes that other celebri­ties sup­port. The vast ma­jor­ity of celebri­ties who “sup­port the down­trod­den” don’t go so far as to sup­port chil­dren against adults. (David Deutsch is a no­table ex­cep­tion to this, and earned a huge amount of re­spect from me for it.)

  • I re­fuse to con­form to peo­ple’s ex­pec­ta­tions of a wise sage who always speaks with kind­ness and sober de­liber­a­tion, of which I have said: “I am not bloody Gan­dalf.”