alex petralia

2018-07-23

the paradox of social status


There’s a bit of a paradox when it comes to social status.

Social status is an incredibly important heuristic for people when evaluating one another. We’d like to believe in the idyllic notion that status, labels and identities don’t matter - but they do.

That’s because the relationships you have with people are not one-shot games. They are long-term, repeated games: in other words, you interact with them more than once.

And that’s a good thing: in one shot-games, you have an incentive to cheat because you will never see the other person again. But if you will be interacting with them again in the future, then how they behaved in the past becomes incredibly relevant - that is, their reputation. You both now have an incentive to play honestly; to “keep your reputation.”

Social status therefore conveys some set of qualities over a long-term, repeated game. Are you normal? Safe? Intelligent? Wealthy? Respected? Successful? Social status is like a “score” or “grade” - a concise, summary measure in whatever social game(s) you happen to be playing.

Is social status perfect? No, but heuristics aren’t meant to be perfect: they are meant to be quick and approximative.

Signaling - or observably showing people that you are high-status - does come with its benefits. People listen to you more and believe what you say more. They often like you and respect you more. And they may implicitly trade their time, effort or money today in the hopes of receiving some of your status in the future - one form of value for another.

Signaling high-status is like flashing a social hall pass: “just take my word for it: the value is there.”

Of course, there are some particularly insidious downsides to being high-status that we’re all familiar with:

On the other hand, being low-status confers clear benefits:

Of course, appearing low-status carries the exact the opposite of the benefits of being high-status. It is demoralizing, thankless, lonely, costly and stifling. Despite its romantic literary appeal, it’s not something one should strive for when seeking a content or fulfilling life.

The optimal solution here should by now be obvious: you want to look high-status, but be low-status.

You want the signaling benefits of being high-status: the efficiency, the value, the influence, the respect and the opportunities. But you don’t want it to go to your head.

Nature enjoys cyclicality: in one’s ascent are sowed the seeds of one’s own destruction. A rising social status should then give us pause. We must take a deep breath, peer over the horizon, recognize the folly of hubris and embrace the humility of lower status.

:wq