Prestige, Status, and Culture

A number of works I've seen on the importance of social comparison extrapolate in a fairly simple way from the existence of non-human dominance hierarchies to human status. (Frank, for instance, motivates his view of status by citing the general logic of competition for mates.)  Many go further and identify human status largely with position in the income distribution. Both moves are mistaken.

It's fair enough to point out that humans are primates, and so we should see some continuity. But humans also have language, higher cognitive abilities, and complex, cumulative cultural transmission and evolution. Humans, like other primates, eat. But human eating takes place in a rich cultural context, and the expression of human eating behavior is thickly culturally mediated. Like chimps, we like meat. Unlike chimps, we worry about eating it with the "correct" hand, or utensil, etc. Some of us won't eat certain foods because of culturally transmitted dietary taboos. One should expect that human social comparison and positional competition, even if it is universal, will also be thickly mediated by culture, and will be expressed in different ways in different cultures.

Furthermore, human status need not be a homologous to dominance. Here is anthropologist Joe Henrich in his paper with 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):

Although nonhuman status is still poorly understood, a single process appears at least strongly predominant: agonism (aggression, intimidation, violence, etc. — that is, force or force threat). The resulting social assymetries are referred to as "dominance hierarchies" in the ethological and behavioral ecology literatures. The privileges that accrue to dominant individuals are (1) in males, preferential reproductive access to females, food, and spaces, as well as disproportionate amount of grooming from others; (2) in females, preferential access to food and spaces, and disproportionate grooming. Despite some controversy, the evidence suggests that dominance correlates with fitness. (Cowlishaw & Dunbar, 1991; Ellis, 1995). The stability of dominance is often reinforced through "reminders": submissive behaviors (e.g., grooming, submissive displays, yielding space, etc.) from subordinate to superior, whether or not induced through intimidation by the latter.

In humans, in contrast, status and its perquisites often come from nonagonistic sources—in particular, from excellence in valued domains of activity, even without any credible claim to superior force. For example, paraplegic physicist Stephen Hawking—widely regarded as Einstein's heir, and current occupant of Newton's chair at Cambridge University—certainly enjoys high status throughout the world. Those who, like Hawking, achieve status by excelling in valued domains are often said to have "prestige."

Henrich's argument is that prestige is a feature of the human cultural capacity, which is adaptive because it saves the cost of having to learn everything yourself. I'm going to just continue to quote as at length because this really makes sense to me:

Once some cultural transmission capacities exist, natural selection favors improved learning efficiencies, such as abilities to identify and preferentially copy models who are likely to possess better-than-average information. Moreover, selection will favor behaviors in the learner that lead to better learning environments, e.g., gaining greater frequency and intimacy of interaction with the model, plus his/her cooperation. Copiers thus evolve to provide all sorts of benefits (i.e., "deference") to targeted models in order to induce preferred models to grant greater access and cooperation. Such preferred models may be said to have prestige with respect to their "clients" (copiers).

The above implies that the most skilled/knowledgeable models will, on-average, end up with the biggest and most lavish clienteles, so the size and lavishness of a given model's clientele (the prestige) provides a convenient and reliable proxy for that person's information quality. Thus, selection favors clients who initially pick their models on the basis of the current deference distribution, refining their assessments of relative model worth as information becomes available through both social and individual learning. This strategy confers a potentially dramatic adaptive savings in the start-up costs of rank-biased social learning. Finally, because high-quality information ("expertise," "performative skills," "wisdom," "knowledge") brings fitness-enhancing deferential clients, models have an extra incentive to outexcel each other. 

Because status-as-prestige isn't agonistic, there are clearly market-like gains from positional competition in a domain. There may be a fixed number of clients, and so competition for clientele may be zero-sum. But clients adopt models and defer to them because that makes them better off, not because of a threat. And insofar as reputation tends to tracks information quality, deference will be deserved.  

(The adaptive advantages of cultural transmission necessarily include  the danger of the success of maladaptive ideas. Boyd and Richerson explain why this must be the case in detail in Not By Gene's Alone. On Tuesday, I heard a good talk by Bob Subrick on how witch doctors in Botswana have successfully undermined WHO education efforts to contain HIV/AIDS by promoting widely believed false folk theories about the cause and transmission of the disease. This clearly involves a maladaptive allocation of prestige.)

So, the fact that we have a cultural capacity at all makes space for non-agonistic comparative advantage-based prestige/status. It would seem to me to follow that market systems, by promoting the refinement of the division of labor, promotes the multiplication of dimensions of excellence and therefore prestige. It is possible in market systems to gain the benefits of prestige and clientele from becoming a highly desired graphic designer, marketing consultant, or musician. 

Additionally, the fact that we have a cultural capacity is going to imply that, unlike other primates, status competition is going to be highly mediated by culture. It is possible to gain status among Mormons by being a good Mormon. There may be heated competition, even bitterness, over who is the best Mormon in the ward ("She's not really that good a mother!" "I paid my tithing plus five percent!" ), but such positional competition may serve on the whole to reinforce generally socially constructive norms. Indeed, it seems likely that one of the ways we judge the quality of a culture is by the way it mediates and channels potentially harmful universal human dispositions, such as status-seeking and tribalism. Mormon culture mediates status-seeking in generally beneficial ways. Redneck and ghetto culture doesn't.

The degree to which our place in the distribution of income/wealth is going to correlate with our status depends on culture. Some cultures and sub-cultures are more materialistic than others. Some are pointedly anti-materialistic. It's worth pointing out that comparative excellence style prestige is pretty clearly going to correlate with greater earnings in general. The higher the prestige in a domain, the fiercer the bidding from clients for access. That doesn't have to mean higher incomes, but on the whole it will. In this kind of case, higher relative position in the income/wealth distribution will be tracking, more or less loosely, excellence/prestige on some other dimension. Our high relative position on that dimension may make us both happy and high on the income/wealth distribution. But that doesn't imply we care much at all about the income/wealth distribution. (The world's best guitarist may have a lot of guitars, but he's getting more out of his status as the best guitarist, not as a guy who has a hell of a lot guitars.)

What is going to count as a positional externality is going to depend on what kind of position people care about. That's a matter of the kind of culture they're embedded in. It strikes me that policy types ought to take a step back and be willing to think about whether cultures and sub-cultures are in general peaceful, healthy, stable, and mutually beneficial. My colleague Jude Blanchette today gave me Alesina and Fuchs-Schundeln's paper on the effects of communism on people's preferences. They find that the longer people spent in communism, the more they prefer a heavily intervening state. What are we to make of that? Give them what they want because that's what they prefer? Or ask whether a system that leads people to want that is a good one to have? Similarly with cultures and subcultures. If a culture mediates status-seeking in such a way that certain acts of aspiration, success, and upward mobility might plausibly be understood as a kind of negative externality, should we plunge in and attempt to "rectify" the externality and push for efficiency relative to those culturally laden preferences? Or should we stop and ask if there is anything we can do to ensure that a culture that engenders these preferences does not long survive? 

[Cross-posted to Happiness & Public Policy.]

  • IOZ

    Yes, I also note as the internet’s official holder of the Michael Bérubé Honorary Chair of the Department of Being the Son of a Medical CEO™, when a patient has “cancer and heart disease” the doctor does not simultaneously split open his sternum and irradiate him.

  • Freddie

    Well, while I’m clearly unqualified to say, I think that the plan is to buy up bad assets, provide direct cash infusions to attempt to unfreeze the credit markets, and then change regulations to prevent this kind of thing from happening in the future, by limiting the amount of leveraging banks and insurers can do, and putting strict limitations on securitization and similar tomfoolery.

    The Keynesians would say that the additional investments into health care, transportation, infrastructure, energy and other places are the necessary kind of stimulative practices that you need in any recession, as well as satisfying genuine public needs as well.

    • Paul G. Brown

      I think that the plan is to buy up bad assets, provide direct cash infusions to attempt to unfreeze the credit markets,

      I rather think the plan is to muddle along for a while until nationalizing The Big Four Banks (Citi, JP Morgan, Bank of America and AIG) becomes politically palatable. Or perhaps – until we’ve thought through, in considerable detail, what is to be the design of the next great regulatory era.

  • Professor Coldheart

    I think that the plan is to buy up bad assets, provide direct cash infusions to attempt to unfreeze the credit markets, and then change regulations to prevent this kind of thing from happening in the future

    Prevent what “kind of thing”? The inevitable results of direct cash infusions to credit markets – that is to say, wildly unlikely investments and bubble profits?

    I mean, chasing benzedrine with a couple ‘luudes is great fun in college but I expect better of the designated driver.

    (I know you’re not advancing this argument yourself, Freddie, but I had to comment)

    • Freddie

      In fairness, I think the idea is that you combine the cash infusion needed to open up traditional credit markets with a much more rigorous set of regulations that prevent all of those byzantine financial “products”– credit default swaps, collateralized/securitized mortgages, etc. Of course, easier said than done.

  • Ryan Noonan

    Um, yes, are you insane? There are multiple current crises – 14 million people without insurance, the ravages of climate change, and the fact that US is absolutely abysmal on virtually all health care or education indices – that demand those specific sets of policies.

    Your objection in the original post doesn’t even make sense. Matt and Ezra weren’t mocking the metaphor; they were mocking the facts underlying it. If Social Security were a problem on the scale of Medicare – and it manifestly isn’t, even in psychotic libertarian fantasy land where facts are irrelevant to truth – there would be nothing to mock.