A Cold Compress for Status Fever

In the August 30 New York Times, Cornell economist Robert Frank writes about The Great Gatsby and happiness research. Frank worries a lot more about status-seeking than I think is warranted by the evidence. And I see this topic has caught fire on the blogowebs. So, here’s a few points that I make in a piece on positional competition I wrote that is coming out later this month in the Australian Center for Independent Studies’ Policy magazine. 

In his books, Frank provides evolutionary arguments about why you should expect us to be status obsessed. I don’t deny that we are motivated by status. The evolutionary logic makes sense. But I do deny that the status-seeking game is globally zero-sum. Frank overestimates the importance of evidence from non-human primate deference-dominance hierarchies and, as far as I can tell, pretty much ignores the profound effects the unique human cultural capacity has on the pursuit of status. These are:

Culturally mediated variability. Like other built-in behavioral dispositions, the expression of status-seeking will be mediated by cultural norms. I eat with a knife and fork, and I don’t feel like I need to ask a young lady’s parents if I can have a sexual relationship with her. In other places, you eat with your hands, and you’ll be killed if you don’t get dad’s permission. Like chimps, we all eat, and young males will seek to have sex with young females. Unlike chimps, these behavioral patterns are strongly culturally shaped, and can be very different from group to group. Status-seeking is no different. Wealth probably correlates fairly strongly with status in most human populations. But humans confer status on each other for many reasons–for being a good athlete, for being funny, for being a good leader, for being smart, for being a charismatic performer, for having an impressive skill, for being spiritually profound–and most of the reasons status is conferred have nothing to do with command of material resources.

Status as payment. Crudely, the point of a cultural capacity is to gain an advantage for yourself and your offspring by accumulating and transmitting adaptive information and abilities in cultural (fast) rather than biological (slow) time. But everybody has an incentive to free-ride–to receive valuable information and skills, but never invest in gaining them for transmission. One way to solve the free-rider problem is to subsidize the acquisition of excellence by freely conferring praise, prestige, status, and fame on those who go through the trouble to learn something useful. In this case, the conferral of status is part of a profound positive-sum exchange–it is what makes the benefits of human culture possible. Positional status competition on any given dimension is zero-sum. There can only be one best jazz guitarist in Tucson. But the motivation to be the best flows from the status-benefits of being the best. And the status-benefits for cultural creatures are not based primarily in dominance-based access to scarce resources, as in other primate status hierarchies, but are freely granted by other cultural creatures as an incentive and reward. Winning on a particular status dimension creates a kind of positional externality for those who didn’t win. But if the benefits of status competition do not usually outweigh the costs, then we wouldn’t be disposed to so happily heap praise and status on bravura performers, and we would therefore get few bravura performances. Indeed, we would likely have no culture at all.

I wrote a long post on this a while back. Check it out. And I encourage everyone interested in all the hullabaloo about relative position to read the paper I discuss there by  Joe Henrich and Franscisco Gil-White: “The Evolution of Prestige: freely conferred status as a mechanism for enhancing the benefits of cultural transmission.” (Evolution and Human Behavior, 22, 1-32).

The multidimensionality of status. Cultural mediation plus status-as-payment not only enables but encourages specialization in the pursuit of status. I find it truly weird how people like Brad DeLong, who are themselves high status individuals for reasons almost totally unrelated to income, fixate on income and wealth as if it is the preeminent dimension of status, and as if we have no choice but to care about it. 

I think if most people thought hard about it, they would find that they have jumped from one dimension of positional competition to another, looking for a race in which they can place, if not outright win. I know that’s the case for me. A little autobiography… I was for a very short time a musical theater major in college. I quit pretty quickly because, although I absolutely loved singing, I realized I wasn’t good enough to rate high in the musical theater game. So I concentrated on my art major. I thought I was good enough, but found I wasn’t motivated enough to seriously compete on the art scene. So I took a big chance and moved into philosophy. I found that I was really pretty good at that, but, again, found that I wasn’t motivated to compete according to the rules of academia. Now I’m working on a career as a public intellectual, because I’m highly motivated, and I think my prospects are decent. In a few years, I might find myself disappointed in my inability to get far in this field (stiff competition!), and shift to something I might have a better chance of succeeding at. Now, I know I would like to make a lot more money, since there a lot of things I would like to be able to buy, but I have simply never related the size of my income, or my net worth, to my  sense of status. It has been pretty much irrelevant to what I care about status-wise. I don’t think I’m that different from many or most people. I think that there are lots of pastors, PTA presidents, police chiefs, local scenesters, small town newspaper editors, and competitive Scrabble champions who are pretty pleased with their high relative standing within the circle they care about. Back where I come from, a single blue ribbon for a strawberry rhubarb pie at the State Fair could carry a small-town lady for years.

The “cultural fragmentation” of liberal market societies that allows everybody to be relatively high status on some dimension or other is an immense egalitarian triumph. The other way markets are leveling, through equalization of quality all along the price range for various kinds of consumer goods, makes material status-signaling more difficult, which does indeed bid up the price for certain kinds of positional goods, like houses in Manhattan, or spots at Harvard. But this is a problem only if you are determined to compete in that status race. If you are so determined, and you’re having a hard time of it, that’s your problem. You are not suffering from inequality; you are suffering from your preferences, and, within fairly broad limits, our preferences are under our control. I certainly don’t mind if you choose not to opt out of a positional competition you are losing. But I do mind if you expect to be subsidized for your choice.