You can’t understand human value without understanding status

Thoughts towards my quest to understand the fundamental drivers of human value -


Better status is a core desire that drives much of human value. Its definition is simple: relative standing within a hierarchy.

A hierarchy is formed around a community of people that share some social value, which can be anything people decide to attribute meaning to. All that is required for a hierarchy to form is some mechanism to rank people along that value - a legible metric. For example, some people value physical symmetry. Among these people, some hierarchy forms that places the most symmetric at the top of that hierarchy. These people are now “high status” in that hierarchy. And maybe they are then called “models” and paid a lot of money to just stand around and look symmetrical.

Of course, while the judgers must agree with the underlying social value, the judgees do not (out-group status - maybe the model couldn’t care less about looks, and is just there for the money). But the judgers do have to agree on the general measuring mechanisms of that value. And it is the shared unspoken agreement to judge on common criteria that forms in-groups and a sense of relatedness or community - one of the deepest emotions known to man.

Because status is based on underlying social values, to map status you merely need to map social values. Here is a non-exhaustive list of values held by groups of people: money (Forbes billionaire list), intelligence (Fields medal), eloquence (public speakers), wittiness (British Parliament), humor (stand up comedians), empathy (therapists), confidence (startup funding), social awareness (politics), knowledgeableness (trivia nights), loyalty (in romance), physical markers of fitness (in the dating market), likeability (in friendship), humility (in church).

The interesting bit is that most people are primed to value status over any one underlying value. This means that once some minority establishes a legible ranking system, things can snowball into a hierarchy that operates almost independently. For example, a group of people decide that they value being good at chess because they love the game. But as soon as the hierarchy is made clear, hundreds of kids across the country decide they want to become the best (get high status in chess) and put effort into that dream. Their desire to be high status may be stronger than their desire to be good at chess.

This is most apparent in absolute vs. relative standing. Maybe the original minority decided they wanted to be able to beat the chess AI on level hard (an absolute standard). But once the chess community at their school kicked off, what really mattered turned into becoming the person who was the best player (a relative standard).

In this sense, most drive for status is by nature mimetic (mimicking other people and what they want), because our instinct for status can only be directed towards endeavors that others are also competing in. So the drive for relatedness and community gels hierarchies based on some underlying value, then the drive for status pushes people to get to the top of the hierarchy.

Not everyone wants to be high-status - although most people don’t want to be low status. The drive for status is most clearly seen at the very top and the very bottom. People go to insane lengths to be the best (think professional athletes who literally sacrifice decades of their lives to a sport). These people either had a strong inborn desire for status, or one that was nurtured from a young age by other status-conscious community members.

But people also intrinsically know that it’s bad to be at the bottom of a hierarchy (there is ample research that relative poverty has a stronger negative psychological effect on health than absolute poverty). Here is a brilliant Malcom Gladwell talk on the topic, and what he calls relative deprivation theory.

Watch it yourself, or skim these notes from the talk instead.

In starting his talk (given at Google Zeitgeist), Gladwell tries to answer the simple question: why come to Google and present his talk? As he humorously reveals, he is not being paid to attend and derives little marginal benefit from being there, and that his behavior seems somewhat irrational. However, he frankly admits that he made his decision based on a simple fact: Google is one of the most prestigious companies in the world. In doing do, he begins to address an unspoken motivator of human nature: status, or one's relative standing in a hierarchy.

The rest of his talk is filled with insightful research to back this up. First, he compares STEM drop-out rates, which are constant across institutions (and are clearly not a function of student ability). In fact, the odds of graduating with a STEM major fall by 2% for every 10 point increase in the average SAT score of your peers. Then, he hones in on economics PhD programs, and compares rates of publication, weighted by prestige of the publisher. Surprisingly, these rates (arguably the best indicator of academic success at this level) are also constant across institutions.

Gladwell calls this phenomenon relative deprivation theory: we do not form our self-assessment based on our standing in the world, but on our relative standing in our immediate environment. And we vastly underestimate the power of being at the bottom (or top) of a hierarchy. He ends with a few practical conclusions: companies should hire on the basis of class rank, regardless of institution, because that is a better indicator of success. And in choosing an institution, you should avoid the most elite institutions and instead choose the one where you are guaranteed to be top of your class. In simpler terms, if you want to get a STEM degree, don't go to Harvard.

There is a silver lining to this: high-status is zero-sum, because only one person can ever be at the absolute top of a hierarchy, which requires a true winner to form in the first place. But hierarchies don’t need clear losers. Therefore, decreasing the number of low-status people has a net positive impact. One can live a meaningful life anywhere on the hierarchy, to be clear, but there are considerable negative health effects of being on the absolute bottom.

But status still has implications for society, which is really just an overlapping series of hierarchies. For example, a hierarchy with a smaller spread and higher mobility is usually more stable, because there is less of a need to bend the rules in order to fulfill the drive for status. More entrenched hierarchies are more likely to breed revolution and violence, as those at the bottom realize that is their only option to get to the top. Additionally, conflict is more likely to occur when there is a lack of clarity around status - two warring lions will fight longer if they are similarly sized. Meanwhile, arrogance is the overestimation of one’s status, and the lion that thinks it is stronger than it really is will likely suffer the most in the long run.

A danger in hierarchies can come from assuming that everyone agrees with your underlying values, when that might not be the case. For example, I often find that students at elite universities in the US assume that the financial hierarchy is the most important, and that it is a hierarchy that everyone cares about just as much as they do. In reality, many Americans are very content to be in the bottom of the middle class, because their income or status matters less than their lifestyle (which is a tradeoff many of those same students make when they agree to 100-workweeks at Morgan Stanley or Mckinsey).

There are a number of other conclusions from status analysis. For example, the specialization of our economy might actually just be the result of people’s drive for status - more hierarchies means more people can be high status (and maybe elite universities do a disservice by aggregating the best students instead of keeping them spread out). Or the different religious approaches to status, revolving around the underlying principle that, in the face of a perfect God, we are all low-status (but then equally low-status among humans).

The point of this essay is the frame the idea-generator of status in the context of human value. With that at the core, what can we understand about why our world turned out this way? And, more importantly, how can then go on to design and create new human value accordingly?