Friday, August 3, 2012

How to Game Status Hierarchies

At Meteuphoric, Katja Grace recently wrote about the fragmentation of status hierarchies.  Briefly:  because humans want to protect and expand their status, they do strange things, i.e., every shooting by a disgruntled employee in the process of being let go.  Status is a positional good - every move you make up the ladder is a move down for everyone else - so one strategy to game the system is to split off into a new hierarchy.

Ever notice that most people don't spend extra time in the company of their work colleagues?   (Unless, oddly enough, they're at or near the top.)  And ever wonder why CEOs and department chairs are less frequently involved in "extracurricular" hobby-type groups?  Well, why would they?  They already have all the status they need!  They LIKE being at work for that very reason.  Once they retire of course, that's a different story.

One interesting thing about living in a modern wealthy society is that status is for sale - we can now buy our way into status hierarchies.  Hence Harley Davidson-types, and brand-crazy shop-aholic women, and beer enthusiasts, and young people who define themselves by what genre of music they listen to. The down-side is that in this wealthy society, we can define ourselves by what we consume rather than what we produce. Whatever happened to people saying, "I'm a plumber" or "I'm the assistant manager" and taking that seriously and proudly?   What happened is we now define ourselves by what we consume, rather than what we produce, because that's the best way for us to maintain status.  This makes it less mystifying that people signal these kinds of things with bumper stickers, T-shirts, etc. Thanks for telling me you run marathons with your clever 26.2 sticker, I would've died if I didn't know that!

Two asides:  the single thing about the country of Japan that impresses me most is people continuing to take their responsibilities seriously and defining themselves by their production activities, regardless of their positions in status hierarchies.  Second, as a nontraditional medical student, I'm often struck by certain strangenesses of medical culture.  For isntance, it's striking how completely most physicians and medical students are socially absorbed into the world of medicine, with no friends outside that hierarchy - mention your significant other,  and the next question is always, "Is s/he a doctor/medical student too?"  (Does this happen with librarians?  Mechanics?  Publicists?)  In fact, maybe I'm paranoid, but I often feel I'm regarded as arrogant and/or clueless for having the majority of my social life outside of medicine, since for my sanity I choose to remain as active as I can in all the realms of my pre-med school life.  Maybe that's another way of saying that I'm older and my ego is fully formed so I'm not as worried about what the faculty and other students think of me, which is maybe another way of saying I don't want the status demotion entailed in going from a successful professional in another field to the bottom of the totem pole - so I spend all that time with all those people outside my profession to preserve my status.  (While I'm on my rotations, I intentionally spend time thinking about who I'm going to see and what I'm going to do when I get away from the hospital.  When I forget to do this I seem to get irritable and depressed.)

People have offensive and defensive strategies to protect and improve their status.  Offensive ones are actively cultivating social circles where our comparative advantages are valued and give us status as mentioned above, although it doesn't have to be consumerist as I've described here.  There's also the defensive approach of being part of multiple status hierarchies, in order to spread social risk across them.  Have a falling out with your poker buddies?  Fine, spend more time with work or your bird-watching friends!  This is what Jaron Lanier and Stephen Pinker were discussing when they suggested that the decrease in global violence could be the result of multiple overlapping status hierarchies.

Finally, there's probably also an element of trying to keep social circles manageable based on our hunter-gatherer hardware.  I personally find it more gratifying to work at companies that are at or under the Dunbar Number, than I do at the Toyotas and Googles of the world.

One final speculation:  in general, it's a good idea to stay out of zero-sum games.  In my experience, it seems that the smarter people are, the less interested they are in playing status games, almost in an instinctive way.

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