Status—is it what we think it is?
I was re-reading the chapter on status in Impro (excerpt), and I noticed that Johnstone seemed to be implying that different people are comfortable at different levels of status: some prefer being high status and others prefer being low status. I found this peculiar, because the prevailing notion in the rationalistsphere seems to be that everyone’s constantly engaged in status games aiming to achieve higher status. I’ve even seen arguments to the effect that a true post-scarcity society is impossible, because status is zero-sum and there will always be people at the bottom of the status hierarchy.
But if some people preferred to have low status, this whole dilemma might be avoided, if a mix of statuses could be find that left everyone happy.
First question—is Johnstone’s “status” talking about the same thing as our “status”? He famously claimed that “status is something you do, not something that you are”, and that
I should really talk about dominance and submission, but I’d create a resistance. Students who will agree readily to raising or lowering their status may object if asked to ‘dominate’ or ‘submit’.
Viewed via this lens, it makes sense that some people would prefer being in a low status role: if you try to take control of the group, you become subject to various status challenges, and may be held responsible for the decisions you make. It’s often easier to remain low status and let others make the decisions.
But there’s still something odd about saying that one would “prefer to be low status”, at least in the sense in which we usually use the term. Intuitively, a person may be happy being low status in the sense of not being dominant, but most people are still likely to desire something that feels kind of like status in order to be happy. Something like respect, and the feeling that others like them. And a lot of the classical “status-seeking behaviors” seem to be about securing the respect of others. In that sense, there seems to be something intuitive true in the “everyone is engaged in status games and wants to be higher-status” claim.
So I think that there are two different things that we call “status” which are related, but worth distinguishing.
1) General respect and liking. This is “something you have”, and is not inherently zero-sum. You can achieve it by doing things that are zero-sum, like being the best fan fiction writer in the country, but you can also do it by things like being considered generally friendly and pleasant to be around. One of the lessons that I picked up from The Charisma Myth was that you can be likable by just being interested in the other person and displaying body language that signals your interest in the other person.
Basically, this is “do other people get warm fuzzies from being around you / hearing about you / consuming your work”, and is not zero-sum because e.g. two people who both have great social skills and show interest in you can both produce the same amount of warm fuzzies, independent of each other’s existence.
But again, specific sources of this can be zero-sum: if you respect someone a lot for their art, but then run across into even better art and realize that the person you previously admired is pretty poor in comparison, that can reduce the respect you feel for them. It’s just that there are also other sources of liking which aren’t necessarily zero-sum.
2) Dominance and control of the group. It’s inherently zero-sum because at most one person can have absolute say on the decisions of the group. This is “something you do”: having the respect and liking of the people in the group (see above) makes it easier for you to assert dominance and makes the others more willing to let you do so, but you can also voluntarily abstain from using that power and leave the decisions to others. (Interestingly, in some cases this can even increase the extent to which you are liked, which translates to a further boost in the ability to control the group, if you so desired.)
Morendil and I previously suggested a definition of status as “the general purpose ability to influence a group”, but I think that definition was somewhat off in conflating the two senses above.
I’ve always had the vague feeling that the “everyone can’t always be happy because status is zero-sum” claim felt off in some sense that I was unable to properly articulate, but this seems to resolve the issue. If this model were true, it would also make me happy, because it would imply that we can avoid zero-sum status fights while still making everybody content.