The Game of Acquiring Status

Be careful what you reward for

Robin Hanson writes,

Status is respect, shared at a distance. And one of our main ways to create shared distant respect estimates is to accept the gossip-shared judgements of high status people, especially on who else to respect. Furthermore, as we all judge those who are most closely connected to high status people as being higher status themselves, we often try to create closer connections to high status people by blindly trusting them.

Hanson is concerned about the trust that we place in elites. I think the problem is not that we trust too much, as if trust were a dial that we turn one way to be more trusting and the other way to be less trusting. I think that the problem is to make sure that the game that determines who is considered elite works well at sorting the wise from the fools.

Humans are social learners. We have to trust other people in order to gain knowledge and to make decisions. Our social epistemology will not get better by simply showing less deference to people who have a reputation for expertise.

I believe that the fundamental issue in social epistemology is the process by which people climb the status hierarchy. If the process is meritocratic, as in a chess tournament, it is a good idea to trust the people at the top. If the process is corrupted, by rules that are unfair or easily gamed. then the high-status people are not so worthy of our trust. But the solution to corruption is to improve the process, not (just) to belittle high-status people.

As I have written before, the whole point of the Fantasy Intellectual Teams project was to try to create a different reward system for public intellectuals. Instead of rewarding tribalism, the idea was to reward rational discourse.

There is no perfect system for creating a hierarchy. The system for chess works as well as it does because of the way that skill determines results and cheating is relatively easy to prevent. In other realms, it becomes more difficult.

How do I determine that you are knowledgeable in a field? If I knew enough to independently verify your knowledge, then I would not need your expertise. Since I cannot personally evaluate your knowledge, I rely on a signal. The fundamental social challenge is to make sure that these signals are accurate.

Incumbents with high status in a field usually participate in setting up and operating the signaling system in their field. To at least some degree, this is desirable. You want doctors involved in the system that decides the qualification for who becomes a doctor.

But you also need a system that is open to innovation and capable of discarding conventional views that turn out to be wrong. If there is insufficient competition, an entire field can decay. I saw this happen in macroeconomics in the 1980s, as Stanley Fischer all but monopolized the placement at prestige universities of young macroeconomic specialists. Students who did not want to conform to Fischer’s approach ended up avoiding macroeconomics and/or accepting low-status placements. The result, in my opinion, was the atrophy of macroeconomics. See my memoir of a would-be macroeconomist.

Recently, to get into certain elite circles you have to signal that you are “woke.” I see this as a most unfortunate development. People who are good at signaling woke values are not necessarily experts in their fields. And people who refuse to get good at are not necessarily lacking in expertise. Wokeness is a game that I think is rotting the institution of higher education.

One response to the corruption of the elite signaling game is to follow Hanson’s suggestion and trust elites less. But a more powerful response would be to try to reconfigure the game.