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Parallel Status Hierarchies

May 22nd, 2018
ideas, status  [html]

A standard view of status is that it's fundamentally zero sum: we're all on one continuum, and what matters is our rank order. Switching into a more prestigious occupation can be good for you as an individual by raising your status, but all the people you're now higher status then are very slightly worse off such that it's neutral for society overall.

Status works because of consensus: if there are a hundred people in a village each one can't think they're the highest status villager. But it only requires local consensus: if the villagers have a model of status that goes:

  highest status villager
  > lowest status villager
  > outsiders
that's more or less going to work fine for them. And every other village can have the same view, which means everyone can be near the top of the status hierarchy that's salient to them.

Similarly, this works for subcultures. Consider:

  highest status birder
  > lowest status birder
  > non-birders
Or:
  highest status contra dancer
  > lowest status contra dancer
  > non-dancers
These status hierarchies aren't the only way people view the world; even someone who spends their whole social life immersed in birding or contra dancing will still think of a senator or movie star as being pretty high status. They seem to act like an overlay on top of the global status system. For example, if I'm at a contra dance then status from my perspective might be global status + contra status while if I'm talking about EA online it might be global status + EA status. [1]

I and people I'm close to all have our status boosted by membership in these various subgroups, while another random person has, in their perspective, the status of them and their friends boosted by similar means. This is like the paradox of most people thinking they're above-average drivers: if different drivers are going for different things (speed, safety, considerateness, ...) then it's quite possible for most drivers to be above average by their own evaluation of what counts.

In general, feeling higher status is pretty good for you: it makes you healthier, happier, and you live longer. [2] So the ability of subcultures to produce new status opportunities out of nowhere seems really valuable, and something we should try to have more of.


[1] Sadly they don't seem to just stack. I can't have status from my perspective be the sum of global, contra, Google, and EA statuses unless I'm in a group of contra dancing Googler EAs (though I think N>5 for that particular category).

[2] Probably, though all the studies on this are correlational and they have trouble distinguishing things like "feeling higher status makes you healthier" and "your higher status gets you better medical treatment" etc.

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