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That other kind of status

72 Post author: Yvain 29 December 2009 02:45AM

"Human nature 101.  Once they've staked their identity on being part of the defiant elect who know the Hidden Truth, there's no way it'll occur to them that they're our catspaws." - Mysterious Conspirator A

This sentence sums up a very large category of human experience and motivation. Informally we talk about this all the time; formally it usually gets ignored in favor of a simple ladder model of status.

In the ladder model, status is a one-dimensional line from low to high. Every person occupies a certain rung on the ladder determined by other people's respect. When people take status-seeking actions, their goal is to to change other people's opinions of themselves and move up the ladder.

But many, maybe most human actions are counterproductive at moving up the status ladder. 9-11 Conspiracy Theories are a case in point. They're a quick and easy way to have most of society think you're stupid and crazy. So is serious interest in the paranormal or any extremist political or religious belief. So why do these stay popular?

Could these just be the conclusions reached by honest (but presumably mistaken) truth-seekers unmotivated by status? It's possible, but many people not only hold these beliefs, but flaunt them out of proportion to any good they could do. And there are also cases of people pursuing low-status roles where there is no "fact of the matter". People take great efforts to identify themselves as Goths or Juggalos or whatever even when it's a quick status hit.

Classically people in these subcultures are low status in normal society. Since subcultures are smaller and use different criteria for high status, maybe they just want to be a big fish in a small pond, or rule in Hell rather than serve in Heaven, or be first in a village instead of second in Rome. The sheer number of idioms for the idea in the English language suggests that somebody somewhere must have thought along those lines.

But sometimes it's a subculture of one. That Time Cube guy, for example. He's not in it to gain cred with all the other Time Cube guys. And there are 9-11 Truthers who don't know any other Truthers in real life and may not even correspond with others online besides reading a few websites.

Which brings us back to Eliezer's explanation: the Truthers have "staked their identity on being part of the defiant elect who know the Hidden Truth". But what does that mean?

A biologist can make a rat feel full by stimulating its ventromedial hypothalamus. Such a rat will have no interest in food even if it hasn't eaten for days and its organs are all wasting away from starvation. But stimulate the ventrolateral hypothalamus, and the rat will feel famished and eat everything in sight, even if it's full to bursting. A rat isn't exactly seeking an optimum level of food, it's seeking an optimum ratio of ventromedial to ventrolateral hypothalamic stimulation, or, in rat terms, a nice, well-fed feeling.

And humans aren't seeking status per se, we're seeking a certain pattern of brain activation that corresponds to a self-assessment of having high status (possibly increased levels of dopamine in the limbic system). In human terms, this is something like self-esteem. This equation of self esteem with internal measurement of social status is a summary of sociometer theory.

So already, we see a way in which overestimating status might be a very primitive form of wireheading. Having high status makes you feel good. Not having high status, but thinking you do, also makes you feel good. One would expect evolution to put a brake on this sort of behavior, and it does, but there may be an evolutionary incentive not to arrest it completely.

If self esteem is really a measuring tool, it is a biased one. Ability to convince others you are high status gains you a selective advantage, and the easiest way to convince others of something is to believe it yourself. So there is pressure to adjust the sociometer a bit upward.

So a person trying to estimate zir social status must balance two conflicting goals. First, ze must try to get as accurate an assessment of status as possible in order to plan a social life and predict others' reactions. Second, ze must construct a narrative that allows them to present zir social status as as high as possible, in order to reap the benefits of appearing high status.

The corresponding mind model1 looks a lot like an apologist and a revolutionary2: one drive working to convince you you're great (and fitting all data to that theory), and another acting as a brake and making sure you don't depart so far from reality that people start laughing.

In this model, people aren't just seeking status, they're (also? instead?) seeking a state of affairs that allows them to believe they have status. Genuinely having high status lets them assign themselves high status, but so do lots of other things. Being a 9-11 Truther works for exactly the reason mentioned in the original quote: they've figured out a deep and important secret that the rest of the world is too complacent to realize.

It explains a lot. Maybe too much. A model that can explain anything explains nothing. I'm not a 9-11 Truther. Why not? Because my reality-brake is too strong, and it wouldn't let me get away with it? Because I compensate by gaining status from telling myself how smart I am for not being a gullible fool like those Truthers are? Both explanations accord with my introspective experience, but at this level they do permit a certain level of mixing and matching that could explain any person holding or not holding any opinion.

In future posts in this sequence, I'll try to present some more specifics, especially with regard to the behavior of contrarians.



1. I wrote this before reading Wei Dai's interesting post on the master-slave model, but it seems to have implications for this sort of question.

2. One point that weakly supports this model: schizophrenics and other people who lose touch with reality sometimes suffer so-called delusions of grandeur. When the mind becomes detached from reality (loses its 'brake'), it is free to assign itself as high a status as it can imagine, and ends up assuming it's Napoleon or Jesus or something like that.

Comments (109)

Comment author: Psychohistorian 29 December 2009 05:54:32AM *  14 points [-]

This is an excellent post. You miss a significant upside to this delusion in general: status is zero-sum, so divergent status creates new winners. In a large society, you need divergent status mechanisms because there's only so much status to go around if everyone totally agrees on the rules. By splitting into subgroups, it's possible to have many more high-status folk. Indeed, I'd expect a moderately advanced AI-genie to design a utopia fragmented enough that most people can be at least somewhat high status.

Comment author: Emile 29 December 2009 09:29:12AM 9 points [-]

We already have a lot of that going on in our society. Is "success" measured by how much money you win? how much money you show off? how much money you save? how famous you are? how hard-working you are? How creative you are? How good-looking you are? How high in a formal hierarchy you are? How many people are under your supervision? How many women you sleep with? How few men you sleep with? How loyal to your country you are? How skillful a lover you are? How good-looking your wife is? How rich and powerful your husband is? How many people visit your website? How many people read your book? How much critics praise your book? How smart you are? How open minded you are? How compassionate you are? How sincere you are? How original you are? How many friends you have? How many levels at World of Warcraft you are? How strong you are? How good a fighter you are?

So many scales to judge people, you're bound to find one or several on which you're better than most people.

A big part of the gap between left-wing and right-wing is caused by two groups with different standards trying to establish their standard as the right one, that's the most worthy of praise.

Comment author: RobinHanson 29 December 2009 05:05:57AM 12 points [-]

Your story makes sense, but you are missing the strong human urge to split into tribes. We want to show our people we are committed especially to them, and we can do that by putting effort into symbols of status that work much better for them than for other groups. Investing in generic status symbols does not signal loyalty to one's group.

Comment author: MichaelVassar 29 December 2009 06:25:14PM *  4 points [-]

Yes, signaling loyalty to whatever categories you belong to looks to me like a slightly stronger motivation for most people than signaling status. Related to both is signaling conformity to people's stereotypes regarding the categories you fit into, e.g. fitting in.

Relevantly, in American culture fitting in and narrow in group loyalties are denegrated by popular culture while the attempt go succeed, e.g. to gain status especially in contests, is strongly promoted. How many heroes of American stories fit in? How many succeed against all odds? Contrast to medieval or ancient stories where trying to raise one's status might be hubris or invite the evil eye.

Comment author: orthonormal 30 December 2009 01:39:14AM *  3 points [-]

A neat example of this point was the instantaneous display of American flags after 9/11 in most comunities. As David Foster Wallace's article at the time illustrates, the people couldn't effectively articulate why the urge to participate in this way was so strong, but the explanation of "showing you identify with and support a particular group over and above other loyalties" makes perfect sense of it all.

(Of course, once flag-displaying reaches a critical mass within a community, the pressures of conformity suffice as an explanation; but the speed with which communities ubiquitously reached that threshold has to be explained otherwise.)

Comment author: Risto_Saarelma 29 December 2009 10:41:12AM 40 points [-]

I suppose it would be futile to attempt to convince you to use singular 'they' as a gender-neutral pronoun that wouldn't completely derail my train of thought from the actual (interesting) subject matter when encountered two-thirds into the article?

Comment author: Nanani 04 January 2010 04:23:57AM 7 points [-]

Singluar they is strongly attested all up and down the language. See: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1601
and the rest of Language Log in general for wonderfully informative linguistic commentary.

Enough with the nonce pronouns.

Comment author: GuySrinivasan 29 December 2009 06:11:07PM 5 points [-]

When I read that paragraph my first reaction was "what, is this some sort of tricky joke about Yvain's own status-seeking? I'm not sure I get it."

Comment deleted 29 December 2009 02:20:40PM [-]
Comment author: jm000 29 December 2009 04:06:58PM 2 points [-]

I thought it was a reference to a Dutch obsession with status.

Comment author: Pfft 29 December 2009 06:01:22PM 2 points [-]

Ah, but surely Yvain has high enough status in this particular community that we can consider him (her? zim? zer? What z-pronoun goes here?) as a groundbreaking visionary instead?

Comment author: whpearson 29 December 2009 06:20:52PM *  0 points [-]

Zir or hir. According to wikipedia

I prefer Ve, because that was the first one I came across. I forget which one Eliezer uses, but I have seen him use one, so we are ground breaking in a number of different directions. I'd like to standardise if possible and they (sing) is not sufficient.

Comment author: Yvain 29 December 2009 06:42:31PM 2 points [-]

I always thought ve was limited to transhumans.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 29 December 2009 10:54:25PM 17 points [-]

"Ve" was supposed to be for actual gender-neutral entities, transhuman or otherwise. In any case I gave up and started using "they" or "it".

Comment author: Zack_M_Davis 29 December 2009 11:07:22PM *  0 points [-]

In my book, ey/em/eir is the only semifeasible option, because it's memorable.

Comment author: Unnamed 29 December 2009 10:46:47PM 0 points [-]

Upvoted out of agreement. Could we have a top-level post for debating & voting on the house style for singular pronouns?

Comment author: [deleted] 01 January 2010 04:18:18AM 0 points [-]

Thank you for being our canary.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 29 December 2009 02:14:10PM 9 points [-]

An example of status wire-heading-- Razib discovers that incoherent moralistic ranting feels really good.

Comment author: orthonormal 30 December 2009 02:35:34AM *  2 points [-]

Brilliant find! This and Yvain's post suggest the outlines for an analysis of trolling...

Comment author: Document 20 October 2016 05:06:03AM 1 point [-]

Initial reaction: "That's news?".

That said, your link seems to be dead, with no archive. Do you have it saved?

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 20 October 2016 12:23:22PM 2 points [-]

Thanks for letting me know.

Here's the correct link: http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp/2006/07/06/stupid-feels-might-good-am-i-i/

Fortunately, I didn't need an archive, I just made a good guess about the correct title of the article and searched.

I have no idea where that php in the original link came from.

I still recommend the article-- Razib does irrational ranting for fun and offers a vivid description of how much fun it is.

Comment author: Mitchell_Porter 29 December 2009 03:01:45AM *  7 points [-]

I would think that status motivations are only a minor element in what makes a person a Truther. It has far more to do with purely cognitive factors, such as a prior conception of the world as being governed by a clique of sociopathic criminal masterminds.

Comment author: pwno 29 December 2009 04:55:15AM 1 point [-]

And what was the motivation for that prior conception?

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 29 December 2009 07:22:25AM 3 points [-]

Experiences, personality traits, noise.

Comment author: MichaelVassar 29 December 2009 06:29:55PM 4 points [-]

Also low status, not fitting in, and a desire to justify this in terms of the illegitimacy of the existing social order.

Comment author: Mitchell_Porter 29 December 2009 07:06:35AM 3 points [-]

Occam's Razor, perhaps.

Comment author: MichaelVassar 29 December 2009 06:30:16PM 10 points [-]

Also the strong human tendency to project agency on the world.

Comment author: Jack 29 December 2009 08:41:33AM 5 points [-]

Some might find that conception more comforting than the truth-- no one governs the world.

Comment author: pjeby 29 December 2009 05:05:14AM 19 points [-]

Here's a piece that I think you're missing: identity and status are related, but not equivalent.

Identity is about living up to a social standard or ideal for a role that defines your place in the tribe. Living up to "your" ideals (i.e., the tribe's standard for the role) produces good feelings.

Let's say that a tribe has hunters, gatherers, warriors, shamans, and healers. Each subgroup (subculture?) has a set of practices, sayings, beliefs, values, etc. that are unique to that subgroup role. In order for an individual to occupy a productive specialization, they have to learn (and be motivated to embody) these standards and practices.

Also notice that what's high-status behavior for each subgroup is different; behavior that's honored when done by a shaman would be laughed at (or worse) in a hunter.

Thus, we get the all-too-human phenomena of conforming non-conformists, status-seeking behavior by people who claim that all status is beneath them, etc.

So, I think you're on the right general track, but missing a more specific mechanism that more closely explains why this type of behavior is rewarded. It's not status-seeking per se, it's "living up to ideals". Conspiracy theorists are emulating the ideal of a revolutionary truthseeker... and so, perhaps are most of us here. ;-)

Thing is, it's not the specific behaviors or results that are rewarded by this mechanism; it's attitudes, emotions, and other fuzzy stuff like that. So, you can be a really fuzzy thinker and still pride yourself on being a brilliant seeker of truth... in attitude. (Presumably, in the ancestral environment, your actual skill calibration would occur via real-world feedback and the not-so-gentle correction of your peers or mentors; but the motivation to persist in the learning would come via the pride-of-identity mechanism.)

Priming research, btw, shows that when we're reminded of the subgroups we belong to, our behaviors tend to conform to ideals or stereotypes of those subgroups -- IOW, identity, not status, is the key to stereotypical behavior. (And incidentally, it's a mild refutation of the idea that status needs drive everything. Human beings do have other motivators.)

Comment author: Yvain 29 December 2009 12:54:06PM *  13 points [-]

Either "identity" is too vague or I don't understand how you're using it. There's no explanation of what an identity is, why or how people seek an identity, or why they would seek one instead of others. "Village idiot" is an identity and "brilliant seeker of truth" is an identity, but most people, given the choice, would try to conform to the latter.

"Living up to ideals" is a very human-level thought. Where's the mental circuitry behind it? Why would people want to live up to ideals, or even have ideals? What's my motivation?

I think you're entirely right about identity, but that identity is a high-level process that emerges out of the search for status. Exactly how is a whole other post, but I think a lot of the research you mention is in the fields of contingencies of self-worth, ie how our self-esteem comes from lots of different sources. We then value or devalue those sources in order to maximize our own self-esteem. I'm pretty smart but not too strong, so I come up with a worldview in which intellect is much more important than physical strength, and my identities, like "rationalist" and "leftist with a side of libertarianism" develop partly out of what helps me affirm that story that leads to my high status and high self-worth.

I disagree about the attitude versus results thing. One of the posts I still have to make in this sequence argues that this mechanism is what drives so many people into roles that can't receive feedback. For example, you won't find many poor people priding themselves on how rich they are, or too many stupid people priding themselves on how book-smart and well-educated they are, but anyone can pride themselves on how moral they are and how correct their political beliefs are, and most people do. Likewise, the 9-11 Truther example and other conspiracies of fact tend to form around questions that are hard to resolve.

Also, although you use the example of "shaman", there weren't that many roles in the EEA, shamans are probably a pretty late development (first ceremonial burial isn't until 100,000 BC or so), and everything else came even later.

Summary: I think you're right about roles and identity, but the goal of this post is to deconstruct "identity" into moving parts.

Comment author: pjeby 30 December 2009 12:15:01AM 5 points [-]

Either "identity" is too vague or I don't understand how you're using it. There's no explanation of what an identity is, why or how people seek an identity, or why they would seek one instead of others.

An "identity" is a label attached to a set of personal attributes that signify membership in a subgroup, e.g. "A Spartan comes back with his shield or on it".

The subgroup can be political, familial, or other: "A Smith never backs down", "A Scout is always prepared", and "Big boys don't cry".

People seek to emulate identities they are attracted to -- i.e., ones with whom they feel they already have something in common, and which offer them something in return. (This latter bit is vague: the something in return could be the admiration of allies or the annoyance of enemies. E.g., being a punk rocker to piss off your parents.)

(And of course, these feelings of attraction aren't any more consciously thought out than sexual attraction is.)

"Village idiot" is an identity and "brilliant seeker of truth" is an identity, but most people, given the choice, would try to conform to the latter.

But not all people. A person whose natural talents are reinforced in that direction will likely end up there... see for example the "class clown".

Human beings tend to be different from one another because reinforcement leads to a positive feedback loop of increasing "talent" (i.e. skill) in being a particular personality type. People then try to "fit in" somewhere, even if the fit is a minority role of one.

"Living up to ideals" is a very human-level thought. Where's the mental circuitry behind it? Why would people want to live up to ideals, or even have ideals? What's my motivation?

I don't understand whether you mean "why" in an evolutionary sense, or "why" in the sense of "what causes it" (i.e. how).

I think you're entirely right about identity, but that identity is a high-level process that emerges out of the search for status. Exactly how is a whole other post, but I think a lot of the research you mention is in the fields of contingencies of self-worth, ie how our self-esteem comes from lots of different sources. We then value or devalue those sources in order to maximize our own self-esteem.

I think it's a mistake to use "status" as a single lump term for all these things. We don't directly perceive our "status" in an absolute sense, and status is in any case relative. I think the emotion that's relevant in this case is the one that some researchers refer to as "elevation" -- the opposite of disgust. We aspire to be like those who inspire us, and we feel pride in having an identity as a worthy member of a subgroup.

This is not the same thing as feeling that we have a high status within a subgroup, or within a larger group. Beware the Big Hammer. ;-)

While "self-esteem" certainly mirrors one's actual status feedback in part, it is not a direct measurement, nor is it exclusively based on status.

Comment author: Yvain 30 December 2009 12:17:30AM 1 point [-]

I think we more or less agree except on semantic issues, then. If I ever manage to continue this sequence, it'll become clearer whether we do or don't.

Comment author: MichaelVassar 29 December 2009 06:40:00PM 1 point [-]

Some of my recent tweets hint at a theory of where identity comes from, but a write-up will take some time. I think I agree with you regarding contingencies of self worth and the desire for no feedback.

Comment author: Yvain 29 December 2009 06:44:22PM *  2 points [-]

I look forward to a day when all great philosophical systems can be expressed in 140 or fewer characters (no, really, I just found your Twitter feed and really like it)

Comment author: thomblake 29 December 2009 07:44:26PM *  0 points [-]

All worthwhile philosophy is already published to Twitter. Observe John Basl's list of philosophers on Twitter

Comment author: Steve_Rayhawk 01 January 2010 03:41:45AM *  1 point [-]

One way to think about these ideas about identity and roles is in the context of a more general theory I want to suggest: that there is a recurring set of conditions under which of games of costly signaling of the ability to resemble prototypes of a category tend to evolve convergently.

Such a theory might be consistent with the results from experiments on attractiveness of facial symmetry and facial averageness.

It might also be consistent with some observations I make by introspecting on intuitions which predict social penalties for unusual but morally harmless behavior. (E.g. the penalties one would receive if one were to wear, without explanation, a formal business suit with details somehow precisely matching the accidents of fashion of a randomly and fairly drawn alternate history from 200 years ago, instead of a formal business suit with details precisely matching the accidents of fashion of our own local history.)

Such a theory would predict that there would be literature on a cognitive bias to prefer prototypical and central members of a category to non-prototypical and peripheral members of the category. But as far as I know, there is not very much specific literature on this question. The only specific literature I know of is work by Jamin Halberstadt of the University of Otago (NZ) and co-authors about visual attractiveness. A summary from 2006 is "The generality and ultimate origins of the attractiveness of prototypes". "Prototypes are attractive because they are easy on the mind" is an ungated paper from 2006 that reports an experiment controlling for the effect of preference for fluently processed stimuli, because prototypical stimuli are processed more fluently. (One possible interpretation of the result is that there may be a reason to prefer stimuli which aren't confusing, because confusing stimuli may hide defects better.) "The face of fluency: Semantic coherence automatically elicits a specific pattern of facial muscle reactions" generalizes part of this effect to non-visual stimuli, and "Uniting the tribes of fluency to form a metacognitive nation" argues that fluency experiences affect many dimensions of social judgement.

Comment author: MichaelVassar 29 December 2009 06:27:44PM 0 points [-]

OK, this a very good statement of precisely what I was trying to convey.

Comment author: Emile 29 December 2009 09:33:25AM 0 points [-]

Interesting, I wonder how the tendancy to split between "specializations" fits with the tendancy to split between "tribes" (as Robin said). I would naively expect that each tribe would require some of each specialization, but I know very little about anthropology. The indian castes seem to fit with both models - castes are seperate "tribes" (not necessarily in direct competition) that also have different roles.

Comment author: byrnema 30 December 2009 06:17:17AM *  5 points [-]

To what extent has there been a discussion on the effect of gender on the prevalence and importance of status-seeking behavior? If it hasn't been discussed, may I suggest this thread to begin one?

I would probably have nothing to contribute, since I find the literature difficult to sift through, but it strikes me that much of what I'm reading (tendency to be over-confident, status as a primary motivation, etc.) would apply asymmetrically more to men than women.

(For example, in response to pjeby's comment distinguishing identity and status, I think I recall reading an argument that women tend to be more concerned with identity than status. Also -- if this is related -- in conversations women are more likely to non-competitively try to elevate or maintain the status of the person they're speaking with, and are more likely to choose behaviors that maintain the status of people in a group. Disclaimer: I don't assert any of this, but recall hearing these arguments.)

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 30 December 2009 05:44:15PM 10 points [-]

I haven't read any literature on this issue specifically, but I suggest that most such literature would have a high tendency to be biased by societal pressures.

My experience is that women in certain kinds of overtly female-centric social situations (e.g. feminism communities, fat acceptance communities, some subsections of the disability community) are just as concerned with status as men are in normal circumstances. Women in mixed-gender social situations seem to tend to automatically assume that they're considered outsiders, and react to that by defending each other and deferring to authority. They also seem to assume that attempting to gain status in such situations is futile, or can only be achieved by playing to the stereotypes of how women are supposed to behave, depending on the situation. (These assumptions may, in fact, be correct in most situations.) That assumption of outsider-ness seems to me like it would also manifest as a heightened awareness of identity, as identity is an important part of the situation at hand.

Comment author: MichaelVassar 29 December 2009 06:09:12PM 9 points [-]

Regarding the second half, We did some experiments with cold water in ears in SIAI house last Summer. Discovered a) that there was a much simpler explanation than the apologist and the revolutionary for the phenomenon discussed in that post, and b) that we should do more experiments/be more empirical, as they really do yield info out of proportion to the time required to do them if you don't feel obliged to write them up as papers and go through the rituals of modern science.

Comment author: Cyan 29 December 2009 06:32:53PM *  8 points [-]

...that there was a much simpler explanation than the apologist and the revolutionary for the phenomenon discussed in that post...

You can't just say there's a simpler explanation and then not give it!

...Well, you can, but it's rather cruel.

Comment author: MichaelVassar 29 December 2009 06:46:37PM 13 points [-]

The cold water interferes with proprioception. You cease to directly perceive the arm through that modality and its apparent relationship to you so you are more receptive to other information which contradicts the hypothesis that it isn't paralyzed. When you can trivially directly feel that you can move your arm and that it is doing what you want it to, if you aren't very materialistic you don't question why you want your arm to stay still when you have incentives to move it.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 31 December 2009 09:00:50PM 1 point [-]

What are you talking about? How does this connect to the post?

Comment author: MichaelVassar 03 January 2010 03:46:46PM 2 points [-]

Talking about the apologist and the revolutionary. Someone, maybe Yvain, suggested this model to explain agnosognosia experiments but I did the experiments myself and saw a much simpler explanation after doing so.

Comment author: MaxNanasy 10 December 2016 06:37:16AM 0 points [-]

Michael's referencing this other post linked from this post

Comment author: CronoDAS 29 December 2009 06:42:13PM 3 points [-]

So what did you find?

Comment author: multifoliaterose 13 June 2010 08:58:16AM 7 points [-]

Eliezer has said that "it seems pretty obvious to me that some point in the not-too-distant future we're going to build an AI [...] it will be a superintelligence relative to us [...] in one to ten decades and probably on the lower side of that." ---- http://bloggingheads.tv/diavlogs/21857

The vast majority of very smart and accomplished people (e.g. Nobel prize winners in sciences, Fields medalists, founders of large tech corporations) do not subscribe to the view that the "singularity is near." This raises a strong possibility that people like Eliezer who think that it's pretty obvious that "the singularity is near" are deluded for the same reason that the 9-11 Truthers are. As Yvain says, it's a boost to one's self esteem to feel that one has "figured out a deep and important secret that the rest of the world is too complacent to realize."

Has there been any discussion of this matter in the Less Wrong archives?

Comment author: ciphergoth 13 June 2010 10:21:51AM *  8 points [-]

Most unpopular beliefs are false. However, if everyone subscribed to strict majoritarianism and never took up unpopular beliefs, intellectual progress would cease completely. There must come a point at which cost we pay in wasted effort because of false unpopular beliefs is worth the payoff in progress through new ideas, which of course all start off unpopular. So while I'd like 9-11 truthers to see the error of their beliefs, I'd like to achieve that through argument based on fact, rather than through simply pointing out that everyone disagrees with them.

Also, of course, strict majoritarianism is self-defeating, since it's a pretty unpopular stance in itself.

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 13 June 2010 12:48:40PM 3 points [-]

People could (at least in principle) entertain and advocate for unpopular beliefs without actually believing them. (I think Robin Hanson wrote a post about this in the early days of OB.)

Also, of course, strict majoritarianism is self-defeating, since it's a pretty unpopular stance in itself.


Comment author: Mitchell_Porter 13 June 2010 10:03:26AM 6 points [-]

Variations on this theme have certainly come up. This site says it's about rationality, yet the local consensus is weird or deviant, what if that's being produced by the very same irrationality mechanisms that you all write about? Lots of people have posed that question.

With respect to your comparison: The idea that this will be the century of artificial intelligence is commonplace now. Silicon Valley has not quite become Singularity Valley, but it is extremely common for people who work in the computer industry, even very senior ones, to now anticipate a future that is radically science-fictional in character. It would only be a small number of your "very smart and accomplished people" who even have a considered opinion, pro or con, on Eliezer's specific philosophy, but I don't think his statement that you quote is especially unusual or anomalous for its time.

You could say something similar about the 9-11 Truthers too - that they are part of the zeitgeist - though in locating their social support base, you'll find it's identifiably different to the culture in which singularity ideas are most potent. The generalization is far from universal, but I would say that singularity believers tend to be people from technical or scientific subcultures who feel personally empowered by the rise of technology, whereas 9-11 conspiracy believers are politically and socially minded and feel disempowered by the state of the world.

Comment author: multifoliaterose 13 June 2010 06:54:01PM *  4 points [-]

I should clarify. I did not mean to insult Eliezer - I think that he's a well intentioned and very brilliant guy. I also was not attempting to advocate majoritarian epistemology. Also, I acknowledge that even if Eliezer is misguided about in his beliefs about his future, there are clearly other possible explanations besides "that other kind of status."

To refine my question: When one adopts a view which

(a) Deviates from mainstream beliefs

(b) Is flattering to oneself

(c) Is comprehensive in scope and implications

one should be vigilant about the possibility that one is being influenced by desire for "that other kind of status."

Eliezer's views about the expected value of SIAI's activities seem to meet each of criteria (a), (b) and (c) fairly strongly. This does not mean that his views are wrong, but it does make me reluctant to take them very seriously without evidence that he (and others who hold such views) have exhibited a high level of vigilance about being influenced for desire for "that other kind of status" in connection with these views.

Is there anywhere where I can find evidence that Eliezer and others who share his views have exhibited such a high level of vigilance toward possibility of being influenced by a desire for "that other kind of status" in connection with their views about the expected value of SIAI's activities?

[Edited for formatting.]

Comment author: Blueberry 13 June 2010 05:24:41PM 0 points [-]

Eliezer may well be off on the time scale. I would guess he's an order of magnitude off. But an incorrect guess about the timescale of a future event does not give rise to a strong possibility that he's deluded, like the 9-11 Truthers, for ego reasons. Downvoted, because this reads more like an insult than a reasoned question.

Comment author: teageegeepea 29 December 2009 08:43:18PM 3 points [-]

Speaking of self-esteem, check out Roy Baumeister, Laura Smart and Joseph M. Boden's "Relation of Threatened Egotism to Violence and Aggression: The Dark Side of High Self-Esteem".

Bryan Caplan uses the fact that people rarely have delusions of mediocrity or obscurity to argue for a Szaszian conception of mental illness.

Comment author: MichaelVassar 31 December 2009 06:49:03PM *  6 points [-]

I had delusions of relative mediocrity for years, though I don't see them as mental illness, just morality tinged former belief, my equivalent of having been a theist perhaps. OTOH, it might be more accurate to say that such delusions also have an element of laziness and of desire to avoid responsibility. Arguably I didn't think that I was less capable than I was. More like I didn't see the opportunities to take risks, work harder, seek diverse experiences, challenge assumptions and take on more responsibility, etc that I now do see and which lead to more ability growth.

Nick Bostrom, seems to me to still be held back by similar delusions, and I see them as his major weakness.

Comment author: Cyan 31 December 2009 07:08:32PM 0 points [-]

Are there any specific things you did to overcome your delusions of mediocrity, or was it more of an undirected change over time (or something else again)?

Comment author: CronoDAS 30 December 2009 02:44:55AM 4 points [-]

If a person has delusions of mediocrity or obscurity, how would we know? Most people aren't Extremely Impressive, and someone who actually is Extremely Impressive but insists otherwise is "just being modest".

Comment author: Alicorn 30 December 2009 03:13:25AM 6 points [-]

Well, there's also this.

Comment author: Unknowns 30 December 2009 08:24:37AM 4 points [-]

"Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they were more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be."

I would say it is common for people to think this for the simple reason that it is commonly true. I know it is true about myself.

Comment author: teageegeepea 30 December 2009 04:58:36AM 1 point [-]

I'd never heard of that, thanks for the pointer. Something seems suspicious about it being found most "among graduate students". Aren't grad students a major source for psych experiment data due to availability?

Comment author: orthonormal 30 December 2009 05:27:35AM 6 points [-]

Anecdotally, the high prevalence among grad students strikes me as quite correct; about half of the grad students I know have these worries, while my friends outside of academia seem to feel good about their performance when praised and reserve their self-doubt for actual occasions of criticism.

In my own case, I started getting those feelings in college, almost exactly when (for the first time I know of) I met someone indisputably smarter than me.

Comment author: byrnema 30 December 2009 05:49:41AM 2 points [-]

about half of the grad students I know have these worries,

Yes, seconded. Especially among women.

Comment author: Alicorn 30 December 2009 03:05:54PM 4 points [-]

Aren't grad students a major source for psych experiment data due to availability?

I think it's more undergrads, actually, who are a) more numerous and b) very likely to take an intro psych course no matter their major, in which courses it's possible to issue a requirement: either participation in a psych study, or a long paper nobody wants to write. (They can't outright require study participation, but they can make the alternative very unappealing.)

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 30 December 2009 03:35:33AM 7 points [-]

It is a sad fact about this world that most people are mediocre and obscure, so how can they be deluded about that?

Comment author: aausch 30 December 2009 04:46:49AM 4 points [-]

Funny, I always thought of delusions of mediocrity as self-fulfilling prophecies.

Comment author: Technologos 30 December 2009 05:45:32AM 0 points [-]

Both interpretations could be simultaneously true...

Comment author: PhilGoetz 31 December 2009 08:59:32PM 1 point [-]

The non-mediocre may be.

Comment author: ChristianKl 29 December 2009 01:04:22PM 3 points [-]

When we say that humans are evoled to seek status we are saying that they are evolved to seek status in a small tribe. From a evolutionary perspective the amount of recognition of the 100 closed human beings is more important thann the amount of recognition by the billions of people who life on this earth.

Comment author: pwno 30 December 2009 12:16:56AM 4 points [-]

More specifically, we're evolved to seek experiences that correlate with going up in status.

Comment author: ChristianKl 03 January 2010 04:41:54AM 2 points [-]

Going up in status in a hunter gather society. We aren't evolved to seek experiences that correlate with going up in status in today's world.

Comment author: pdf23ds 03 January 2010 04:49:09AM *  0 points [-]

Parent should link to Robin Hanson's recent post on the subject. —

Comment author: Will_Newsome 30 July 2011 01:52:44PM 6 points [-]

schizophrenics and other people who lose touch with reality sometimes suffer so-called delusions of grandeur.

If I start to suffer delusions of grandeur I hope I retain the ability to go meta by having my delusions of grandeur be about how grand and delusional my delusions of grandeur are. If I start to hear voices I hope the voices talk about how they're hearing voices too---either mine, their own, or some other entities'.

Comment author: rrostrom 03 January 2010 09:50:25PM 2 points [-]

What about expectations? A lot of "outsider" groups and movements assert that Come The Revolution. their superior wisdom/intellect/knowledge will be recognized and they will then have great wealth/status/power.

It's worked sometimes. And those who "get in on the ground floor" sometimes benefit extravagantly.

Comment author: pwno 29 December 2009 03:39:15AM 1 point [-]

I see you realized why WoW is so popular.

Comment author: happyseaurchin 29 December 2009 03:11:20PM 0 points [-]

Nice post, thanks.

"In this model, people aren't just seeking status, they're (also? instead?) seeking a state of affairs that allows them to believe they have status."

  1. Replace also or instead with rather. That is, the default state of mind is that individuals believe they have status. This might be through the regular strategy of seeking social wealth (icons, respect, position, possessions), as well as through invisibles (A Big Idea, the truth, The Secret). The status is always self-assigned; think of those who do do not accept the status conferred upon them. Which leads to...

  2. I am specifically interested in individuals who are not playing the status game, who consider themselves end-nodes, nobody's, or self-less. Consider Mother Teresa as an example perhaps. How does your model deal with this? (This line of thinking might parallel altruistic behaviour, which might be a useful space to connect up.)

  3. More needs to be said about relative scale, that is cultures and subcultures, families and tribes. There are multiple superimposed groupings going on in any specific individual's life (daughter, sister, wife, mother, colleague, friend, consumer, etc), and I look forward to reading this.

Comment author: MichaelVassar 29 December 2009 06:20:24PM 10 points [-]

Mother Teresa had lots of status as a consequence of successful and effective self-promotion, which is precisely why she came to mind as an example of a non-status seeking person rather than failing to come to mind becaus you had never heard of her.

Comment author: happyseaurchin 29 December 2009 09:09:27PM 0 points [-]

Does this mean that every well-known person that impinges upon my/your reality must have been exercising self-promotion? Given the second-order subtlety of Yvain's original post, namely "seeking a state of affairs that allows them to believe they have status", the emphasis seems to be on creating conditions that enable a status-engagement with others. That is, it is not self-orientated but condition-enabling. (But I may be departing from Yvain's distinctions and model here. I might then also flag the word "seeking".)

Comment author: Yvain 29 December 2009 06:51:46PM 2 points [-]

Mother Teresa isn't hard to explain on this model. She could be gaining normal status covertly, like Michael Vassar says. She could be feeling good about herself and her status because she thinks that her altruism makes her a better person than others. Or she could feel good about herself and her status because she's serving God, which makes her a better person than others.

Comment author: happyseaurchin 29 December 2009 08:58:29PM -2 points [-]

hmmm... this seems shallow... i still look forward to the development of your model :)

Comment author: Oscar_Cunningham 29 December 2009 01:07:04PM *  0 points [-]

"A rat isn't exactly seeking an optimum level of food, it's seeking an optimum ratio of ventromedial to ventrolateral hypothalamic stimulation, or, in rat terms, a nice, well-fed feeling."

So if I move my hand away from a hot pan, am I actually seeking to: "move my hand away from a hot pan" or

"avoid touching the pan" or

"avoid being burnt" or

"avoid pain receptors in my hand being activated" or

"avoid neural signals in my brain that correspond to pain" or

"avoid the feeling of pain"?

Someone needs to do some buck-stopping or else the master-slave model will turn into a master-slave1-slave2-slave3... model. Although come to think of it, that might me more correct. (EDIT: Note to self, line spacing is weird, I'm off to look in the wiki)

Comment author: Yvain 29 December 2009 03:45:14PM 3 points [-]

Moving away from a hot pan is a reflex action. You're not seeking anything, it's done before "you" even enter the picture. But in the general case, it's a combination of consciously avoiding bodily damage (you don't want your skin burnt off), and avoiding pain, which is a correlate of bodily damage.

Avoiding pain is probably the stronger motive, since lower animals who can't think far enough to worry about long-term bodily damage will do the same and since something that causes pain but not damage (that Bene Gesserit box in Dune Paul had to stick his hand in, for example) will cause the same effect.

The buck-stopping problem is a confusion of levels. On the conscious, human level, goal is to minimize pain (the human doesn't even know there's such a thing as pain receptors unless ze knows some neuroscience). On the unconscious inhuman level, "goal" is meaningless, and it would be better to talk about transmitters moving down electrochemical gradients and such.

Comment author: happyseaurchin 29 December 2009 02:53:05PM 0 points [-]

I like this, actually. I think this is very much the model: fractal at different levels of scale. A more integrated person has alignment of the master-slave decisioning at all levels, whereas a discontinuous person may have confusion at different levels which might be expressed as eg unco-ordinated. This applies to the physical, emotional, and other levels of the human condition.

Comment author: Unnamed 29 December 2009 10:44:09PM *  1 point [-]

Parts of this post that deal with positive illusions could apply to any goal that people have, not just the goal to seek status. A classic social psychology article on that topic is Ziva Kunda's The Case for Motivated Reasoning (pdf). Several aspects of this post are present in her (zir?) paper, including:

  • the existence of "accuracy goals" which benefit from reaching a correct conclusion and "directional" goals which benefit from reaching a particular conclusion (typically one that casts oneself in a pleasing light)
  • "reality constraints" which prevent a person from reaching conclusions that are too divergent from reality, or the need to maintain an "illusion of objectivity"
Comment author: LauraABJ 29 December 2009 04:44:23PM 1 point [-]

Well put! To add some anecdotal evidence to your model, an older psychiatrist friend of mine described an increasing prevalence of the delusion that a person was the only real thing in the world, and everything else was either an illusion like the matrix or that everyone else was a type of p-zombie. I suggested that the movie The Matrix might be the source of these delusions, but he said the delusion seemed to be gaining in popularity even now, much after the movie's release. I guess the idea is just generally floating around our culture, and it appeals to people as an explanation for their feelings of being an outsider. It's much nicer to think you are privy to deep truth no one else is capable of than that you are mentally ill.

Comment author: dansmith 29 December 2009 10:28:38AM 1 point [-]

In this model, people aren't just seeking status, they're (also? instead?) seeking a state of affairs that allows them to believe they have status.

It seems like most situations that this theory covers are already explained by either: (a) people seek status not only in the context of society at large but also in the context of small groups (b) for the cases where no one else knows, ego -- people seek to feel good about themselves (including that they are smart)

Perhaps the (b) cases are explained better by the "seeking plausible belief in own status" model, but I'm not sure that that's clear, at least from what's been written so far.

Comment author: dclayh 29 December 2009 05:34:07AM 1 point [-]

This reminds me of some of the comments on Do Fandoms Need Awfulness (including mine).

Comment author: MatthewB 29 December 2009 09:23:37PM 0 points [-]

I beg to differ about the Time Cube Guy (Pardon the lack of a link... You all know where to find him), but he does have followers now who hope to gain credibility with him. On the Richard Dawkins site in the last two years, there have been three others who have been promoting his "theory"...

Otherwise... I get the point of the post... (And I see from the comments below that I was not the only one to wonder about or question the use of ze - it took me a few moments to get that it was a genderless pronoun.

Comment author: MichaelVassar 29 December 2009 06:18:45PM 0 points [-]

Regarding the first half of this post, I have been waiting a long time for someone to make the point that people aren't usually trying to climb a status ladder. Good arguments. I don't think that people always need to claim that their sort of person is "great" though in order to feel good about themselves. They only need to feel that they are a good exemplar of their sort of person and that their sort of person isn't too despised and isn't loosing status.

Comment author: djcb 29 December 2009 04:17:39PM 0 points [-]

Yvain, this is an interesting model, but, as you mention yourself, maybe it explains a bit too much. Do you have some testable prediction based on this?

One difficulty may be to distinguish (1) seeking status and (2) seeking a state of affairs that allows you to believe you have status... These two things have substantial overlap, which makes it hard to study them independently. They are not the same though; a good example of something that is only (2) but not (1) would help.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 29 December 2009 05:56:24PM *  4 points [-]

Trolling might be a junkfood equivalent of seeking status.

Does real status have to include material rewards, or is just making other people feel bad enough?

Actually, that could explain the junkfood nature of trolling. In most of human experience, being able to hurt people without risk of retaliation is proof of status.

Comment author: pwno 30 December 2009 12:14:11AM 3 points [-]

Status is just power over people. When you illicit a reaction from someone, it's proof that you have some power over them - whether the person does or does not retaliate. Only when they are indifferent to your attacks is it proof you don't have power over them.

Comment author: djcb 30 December 2009 12:17:22AM *  1 point [-]

That's an interesting way to look at it, but aren't trolls usually (semi-)anonymous? It's hard to gain status that way. People with highly controversial opinions that aren't anonymous usually consider themselves to be contrarians rather than trolls,or?

Using the Wikipedia definition of (social) status:

the honor or prestige attached to one's position in society (one's social position).

I think we'd need a different word for the thing trolls and other pyromaniacs are seeking.

(edit: s/Wiki/Wikipedia/, small clarification in third line)

Comment author: CronoDAS 30 December 2009 02:47:29AM 2 points [-]

We could call them "lulz".

Anyway, I don't know why trolling is fun, but it is.

Comment author: kpreid 30 December 2009 02:05:23AM 2 points [-]

Wikipedia has that definition. “Wiki” is a category of software, and does not. Please don't confuse the two.

Comment author: Bo102010 30 December 2009 02:51:07AM *  0 points [-]

I think I disagree with your rebuke. I see "Wiki definition" as similar to Stephen Colbert's wikiality concept.

Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister 30 December 2009 04:16:01AM 1 point [-]

I could see using "wiki definition" (without the capital "W") to mean a definition with too many anonymous authors to be useful. But djcb evidently didn't mean it that way.

Comment author: orthonormal 30 December 2009 02:43:27AM 1 point [-]

ISTM that people feel "freedom from retribution" on a visceral level, but not the "pseudonymous status doesn't count" concept. It's outside the scope of the ancestral environment, so we shouldn't expect our emotions to be fully coherent here.

Comment author: Alicorn 29 December 2009 03:10:33AM 0 points [-]

and wouldn't get away with me get away with it?

I suspect that this is supposed to be "and wouldn't let me get away with it?"

Comment author: Yvain 29 December 2009 03:30:19AM *  0 points [-]

Ah, the perils of partial editing. Thanks and fixed.