Hanson on Status

I’ve been thinking about status a lot lately. Status is to life what popularity was to high school. Everyone wants to be high status and to have high-status friends, their claims to the contrary notwithstanding. But what is status? Here is a nice explanation from Robin Hanson:

Imagine that status in a firm was a proxy for one’s usefulness as an ally within that firm, summarizing the threats one could credibly make, the people one could fire, the favors one could plausibly call in, etc. And imagine that the current equilibrium was that opponents of change together held more of these useful resources – they successfully blocked change.

Now imagine that the CEO hires an outside consultant who writes a report recommending change. It should be clear to everyone that this outside firm has no direct power within the firm. It cannot fire anyone, go slow on a project, etc. So if status was just a proxy for relevant local abilities, then this consultant should have little status. Thus if a consultant actually does help the CEO by lending status to the CEO’s side, status must be something else.

So I’m led to consider a sticky-feature concept of status. Long ago coalition politics was important, and foragers had to estimate how useful each person would be if they joined a coalition. So our distant ancestors considered a standard set of features, such as strength, intelligence, charisma, etc., that tended then to indicate that someone would be a useful ally. Humans evolved specialized mental modules for making such estimates, and for estimating common perceptions of such estimates.

Today we have inherited such mental modules, and often use them to estimate which side will win a contest of coalitions. And even though relevant abilities have changed somewhat, our inherited expectations about who will win a coalition contest are somewhat self-reinforcing. For example, if we expect that coalitions of taller people tend to win, then we will be reluctant to cross such a coalition, which will tend to make them win. This can be a self-reinforcing focal equilibrium of the coordination game that is coalition politics.

This doesn’t tell us what features are actually relevant, but it is a potentially useful framework for thinking about status.

Happiness and Genetics

A friend forwarded an article from the Economist summarizing some evidence that happiness is genetic.

THE idea that the human personality is a blank slate, to be written upon only by experience, prevailed for most of the second half of the 20th century. Over the past two decades, however, that notion has been undermined. Studies comparing identical with non-identical twins have helped to establish the heritability of many aspects of behaviour, and examination of DNA has uncovered some of the genes responsible. Recent work on both these fronts suggests that happiness is highly heritable.

As any human being knows, many factors govern whether people are happy or unhappy. External circumstances are important: employed people are happier than unemployed ones and better-off people than poor ones. Age has a role, too: the young and the old are happier than the middle-aged. But personality is the single biggest determinant: extroverts are happier than introverts, and confident people happier than anxious ones.

Surely there is a strong genetic component to happiness. However, I’m mostly interested in the environmental components of happiness.

In my experience, people react negatively toward displays of unhappiness. This suggests that happiness signals something desirable about an individual, perhaps success or social status. If unhappy people are unsuccessful or undesirable, it’s best not to invest too heavily in them. If happiness didn’t signal, then why avoid unhappy people?

One problem with looking for simple genetic determinants of happiness: success and social status have genetic factors too. Twin studies won’t eliminate this complication, and I’m not sure how easy status should be to control for – status within a local social network, rather than within society, seems more likely to be important.