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Rob Henderson lectures on Status
why we want it, how we get it
The currency of evolution is reproduction. Every one of your ancestors managed to reproduce. They form an unbroken chain dating back billions of years. The drive to reproduce is fundamental. And for humans, status is a core concern because it has reproductive relevance.
…So what did status get our human ancestors? Resources, allies, territory, mates, and, most importantly, offspring. The idea is that humans who cared a lot about status were more likely to win romantic partners and thus had children who also cared a lot about status.
He talked about the differences between dominance and prestige.
People (and animals) confer status to dominant individuals because of what the individuals can do to them. Inflict costs, pain, humiliation, injuries, disfigurement, violence, reputation destruction, and so on.
We confer status to prestigious individuals because of what these individuals can do for us. Provide benefits, teach useful things, grant access to resources, bolster our own status by being associated with them, and so on.
egalitarianism among hunter-gatherers in a diverse array of societies has existed primarily among adult males. Women and children have been relegated to a subordinate role.
…Men who attempted to assert unwanted dominance were the targets of organized attacks by their hunter-gatherer peers.
He cited Richard Wrangham.
Humans organized egalitarian societies, and any male that violated this too much was subsequently the victim of a targeted killing. Slowly humans eliminated overt aggression and hostility, and we shaped ourselves into being relatively calm, docile, cooperative, and so on, relative to other great apes.
…humans domesticated themselves to be kind, loyal, and cooperative with their in-group. And absolutely vicious to outsiders, to the out-group.
Henderson moves on to discuss power, another concept related to status.
Psychologists define power as “control over access to resources.” …
Power necessarily entails violence or the threat of violence. If someone tried to control access to critical resources without the backing of violence, others would simply take what they have.
I would point out that there is a bit more to say about these issues. See political science and economics.
Another finding which helps to understand the difference between status and power is that men want power more than women do, whereas women want status more than men do….Perhaps because obtaining power entails the risk of being disliked, and, unlike status, power has few social payoffs.
Status is socially constructed. This is obvious if you think about it. A movie star can have status only in a society where people watch movies.
In individualistic cultures, leadership ability is highly valued. And people tend to overestimate their abilities as leaders. In collectivistic cultures, the ability to listen to others is valued. And in these cultures, people overestimate their ability to listen.
Next, Henderson looks at how people monitor their status.
The psychologist Mark Leary and his colleagues have proposed that humans have a “sociometer.” …its purpose is to unconsciously monitor the social environment for signs of acceptance or rejection.
Then there’s the “hierometer.” … about agency (getting ahead), as opposed to communion (getting along).
I see this as somewhat related to Kurt Gray and Daniel Wegner’s The Mind Club. We see other humans as having the capacity to feel and the capacity to act. I can think of the sociometer as estimating how much others care about how I feel. I can think of the hierometer as estimating how well others regard my ability to act.
But I may be stretching things. Henderson says,
The hierometer tracks status, which is indexed by self-esteem and narcissism. It motivates us to be assertive to obtain social esteem. The goal is to boost our status.
The sociometer tracks inclusion, or belonging. This is indexed mostly by self-esteem, which regulates our affiliative behavior. The goal is to get along with others.
Communion is about getting along with others. Being understanding, cooperative, helpful, and so on.
Agency is about getting ahead of others. Being assertive, confrontational, direct, imposing, and so on.
People want to fit in and stand out.
When we evaluate others, we implicitly ask ourselves, “Will this person help or hurt me?” and “Is this person capable of carrying out their goals?”
I think of these as the two dimensions of trust: moral values and skill. You cannot trust a smart mortgage loan officer, because he may be trying to rip you off. You cannot trust a stupid mortgage loan officer, because his incompetence may cause your loan to fall through.
Overall, these are interesting observations. I would like to see them put in the context of game theory. The object of the game is to gain advantage in reproduction. Various strategies can be successful. They differ based on gender, genetic makeup, the strategies used by potential mates and likely competitors, and cultural context. Some strategies are mostly individual in nature, and other strategies involve working in coalitions.
This essay is part of a series on human interdependence.
Substacks referenced above: