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.