More on status-based motivation

People frequently speak of social status like it’s something virtuous people aren’t supposed to be super concerned about: caring a lot about how others see you is for shallow people, while respectable people do things “for their own sake”, driven by “genuine passion”. Still, when investigated further – according to the most cynical interpretations at least – most of these supposedly noble urges, such as caring about the suffering of distant people or devoting one’s time to scientific research, are in fact also best explained by the motivation to increase and signal one’s social status: many of the states that the human brain recognizes as rewarding are probably triggered by social cues, and the rest by things that traditionally are closely associated with them, which according to the cynical view means that what other people think about us is in fact effectively the only motivation we have (though it sometimes is coded in values that inherently feel important regardless of social benefits, precisely due to their long history of being tightly coupled with status).

I basically agree with the gist of this view, though I guess its concrete empirical basis is currently a bit too thin to justify extremely high confidence – anyway, most of my quibbles are about the frequently implied moral implications of status-based motivation. Even after people understand how much of human motivation is actually based on pursuing status and how crucial one’s social standing can be to their happiness and mental health, the vague disapproval surrounding status-seeking behaviour seems to persist. Anecdotally at least, it’s common even for reasonable people to simultaneously (1) acknowledge that everyone is motivated to a great extent by social status, (2) admit that alternative, inherently prosocial incentive structures don’t seem to be feasible at all, and (3) view status as a morally reprehensible source of motivation, something good people should basically be ashamed to be motivated by. This introduces a feeling of dissonance that I think is needless.

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Social status is a versatile good with many different sources, effects, uses and forms. When judging whether it is in some sense virtuous to strive for it, we tend to lump all of these forms together just because there’s a convenient word we can use when we mean any of them. So when good is done in order to gain status, the deed has a negative connotational load, because seeking status is more often talked of in contexts where people act in harmful,  pretentious, and frivolous ways (such as buying bigger cars, or whatever the current universal status-seeking caricature is at the moment); but this kind of otherwise reasonable conceptual connection doesn’t mean these things are morally equivalent or comparable, it just means they are similar in some ways crucial enough for our languages to have developed a broad term for all of them.

Compare seeking status with seeking material wealth (which of course can ultimately be seen as another way to gain status, but let’s roll with it for now). It doesn’t matter much where your money comes from or how you acquire it: it’s always the same, more or less, and owning it has roughly the same effects to you no matter its source. Contrary to this, there are countless different kinds of social status, only some of which usually are experienced as rewarding by any given person with certain goals and values, and only some of which should be seen as shallow or useless, and some of which we should hope more people to seek – the positive attention received by giving to charity, the admiration gained by doing or teaching valuable research, the reputation of an honest and trustworthy person. Most importantly, people seek status selectively and very often only feel good about some aspects of social status aligned with their values: a physicist might expend considerable effort to gain respect in their research group while getting little out of other superficial and morally irrelevant status sources. To be consequentially virtuous, then, doesn’t need to include being motivated by some pure morals completely decoupled from status, the virtues themselves: it can also mean being reliably motivated by the right kind of status while ignoring the more frivolous pursuits. It feels absurd to suggest that a person who has high status in an altruistic community due to their consistent charitable donations and effective outreach work could just as well have invested more in expensive clothes and hairstyles; the status gained by the latter actions would probably not have felt meaningful or worth it to the person in question, even if they could plausibly have resulted in more absolute admiration in some other social groups.

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Humans are a cooperative species, and the fact that our survival and wellbeing is determined by whether our peers want us around or not is the force behind this cooperativeness. Even if we are just a bunch of genes trying to replicate, the dynamics of social status make us adopt being useful to each other as a part of our value systems, resulting in things like wishing to avoid hurting others, wanting to make people happy, and baking vegan cheesecakes. The mechanisms with which we judge a person’s status are (from a very roughly sketched evo-psych perspective that should be taken as non-literally as possible) concerned with how powerful and benevolent an ally they would be, and to what extent we can expect them to be good to us; likewise, when we want to increase our own status, we strive to prove ourselves more valuable and more beneficial to others than we would otherwise be. Status-seeking isn’t something that undermines human morality, it’s part of the foundation on which it is originally built.

The system isn’t perfect, of course. When we optimize for status (instead of the good things we pretend to directly, often human-impossibly optimize for), we easily get stuck in counterproductive signalling competitions, and in many environments with weird social structures there are ways to increase status effectively by actively harming others (fear-based dominance, “evil is sexy”, super misguided charity work that mostly gets in the way of everyone trying to improve things) or yourself. When people complain about other people being motivated by status-seeking, this sort of things are usually what they are picking up on, and quite rightly too – but I wish the complaints were directed at seeking the wrong kinds of status, instead of pretending that it’s virtuous and good or indeed possible at all to be a human who doesn’t care about status. When people are reluctant to admit that they seek status rewards instead of something pure, or condemn other people who do so because it doesn’t fit their idea of good motives, they approach the issue from the wrong angle, and end up impairing their perfectly functional motivational systems. Understanding and accepting the principle of status-motivated behaviour, on the other hand, can be tremendously useful. Accepting status games as an okay thing for humans to be involved in lets us assess them more honestly and tie them more closely to positive externalities, so that status games become more about generating lasting value to morally relevant entities, less to senseless negative-to-zero-sum races.

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