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I'm trying to like Beethoven's Great Fugue.
"This piece alone completely changed my life and how I perceive and appreciate music."
"Those that claim to love Beethoven but not this are fakers, frauds, wannabees, but most of all are people who are incapable of stopping everything for 10 minutes and reveling in absolute beauty, absolute perfection. Beethoven at his finest."
"This is the absolute peak of Beethoven."
"It's now my favorite piece by Beethoven."
These are some of the comments on the page. Articulate music lovers with excellent taste praise this piece to heaven. Plus, it was written by Beethoven.
It bores me.
Followup to: The Many Faces of Status (This post co-authored by Morendil and Kaj Sotala - see note at end of post.)
In brief: status is a measure of general purpose optimization power in complex social domains, mediated by "power conversions" or "status conversions".
What is status?
Kaj previously proposed a definition of status as "the ability to control (or influence) the group", but several people pointed out shortcomings in that. One can influence a group without having status, or have status without having influence. As a glaring counterexample, planting a bomb is definitely a way of influencing a group's behavior, but few would consider it to be a sign of status.
But the argument of status as optimization power can be made to work with a couple of additional assumptions. By "optimization power", recall that we mean "the ability to steer the future in a preferred direction". In general, we recognize optimization power after the fact by looking at outcomes. Improbable outcomes that rank high in an agent's preferences attest to that agent's power. For the purposes of this post, we can in fact use "status" and "power" interchangeably.
In the most general sense, status is the general purpose ability to influence a group. An analogy to intelligence is useful here. A chess computer is very skilled at the domain of chess, but has no skill in any other domain. Intuitively, we feel like a chess computer is not intelligent, because it has no cross-domain intelligence. Likewise, while planting bombs is a very effective way of causing certain kinds of behavior in groups, intuitively it doesn't feel like status because it can only be effectively applied to a very narrow set of goals. In contrast, someone with high status in a social group can push the group towards a variety of different goals. We call a certain type of general purpose optimization power "intelligence", and another type of general purpose optimization power "status". Yet the ability to make excellent chess moves is still a form of intelligence, but only a very narrow one.
The term "status" gets used on LessWrong a lot. Google finds 316 instances; the aggregate total for the phrases "low status" and "high status" (which suggest more precision than "status" by itself) is 170. By way of comparison, "many worlds", an important topic here, yields 164 instances.
We find the term used as an explanation, for instance, "to give offense is to imply that a person or group has or should have low status". In this community I would expect that a term used often, with authoritative connotations, and offered as an explanation could be tabooed readily, for instance when someone confused by this or that use asks for clarification: previous discussions of "high status" or "low status" behaviours seemed to flounder in the particular way that definitional arguments often do.
Somewhat to my surprise, there turned out not to be a commonly understood way of tabooing "status". Lacking a satisfactory unpacking of the "status" terms and how they should control anticipation, I decided to explore the topic on my own, and my intention here is to report back and provide a basis for further discussion.
Communication fails when the participants in a conversation aren't talking about the same thing. This can be something as subtle as having slightly differing mappings of verbal space to conceptual space, or it can be a question of being on entirely different levels of conversation. There are at least four such levels: the level of facts, the level of status, the level of values, and the level of socialization. I suspect that many people with rationalist tendencies tend to operate primarily on the fact level and assume others to be doing so as well, which might lead to plenty of frustration.
The level of facts. This is the most straightforward one. When everyone is operating on the level of facts, they are detachedly trying to discover the truth about a certain subject. Pretty much nothing else than the facts matter.
The "status" hypothesis simply claims that we associate one another with a one-dimensional quantity: the perceived degree to which others' behavior can affect our well-being. And each of us behaves toward our peers according to our internally represented status mapping.
Imagine that, within your group, you're in a position where everyone wants to please you and no one can afford to challenge you. What does this mean for your behavior? It means you get to act selfish -- focusing on what makes you most pleased, and becoming less sensitive to lower-grade pleasure stimuli.
Now let's say you meet an outsider. They want to estimate your status, because it's a useful and efficient value to remember. And when they see you acting selfishly in front of others in your group, they will infer the lopsided balance of power.
In your own life, when you interact with someone who could affect your well-being, you do your best to act in a way that is valuable to them, hoping they will be motivated to reciprocate. The thing is, if an observer witnesses your unselfish behavior, it's a telltale sign of your lower status. And this scenario is so general, and so common, that most people learn to be very observant of others' deviations from selfishness.
Michael Vassar once suggested: "Status makes people effectively stupid, as it makes it harder for them to update their public positions without feeling that they are losing face."
To the extent that status does, in fact, make people stupid, this is a rather important phenomenon for a society like ours in which practically all decisions and beliefs pass through the hands of very-high-status individuals (a high "cognitive Gini coefficient").
Does status actually make people stupid? It's hard to say because I haven't tracked many careers over time. I do have a definite and strong impression, with respect to many high-status individuals, that it would have been a lot easier to have an intelligent conversation with them, if I'd approached them before they made it big. But where does that impression come from, since I haven't actually tracked them over time? (Fundamental question of rationality: What do you think you know and how do you think you know it?) My best guess for why my brain seems to believe this: I know it's possible to have intelligent conversations with smart grad students, and I get the strong impression that high-status people used to be those grad students, but now it's much harder to have intelligent conversations with them than with smart grad students.
- Vassar's hypothesis: Higher status increases the amount of face you lose when you change your mind, or increases the cost of losing face.
- The open-mindedness needed to consider interesting new ideas is (was) only an evolutionary advantage for low-status individuals seeking a good idea to ride to high status. Once high status is achieved, new ideas are high-risk gambles with less relative payoff - the optimal strategy is to be mainstream. I think Robin Hanson had a post about this but I can't recall the title.
- Intelligence as such is a high-cost feature which is no longer necessary once status is achieved. We can call this the Llinas Hypothesis.
- High-status individuals were intelligent when they were young; the observed disparity is due solely to the standard declines of aging.
It used to puzzle me that Scott Aaronson still hasn't come to terms with the obvious absurdity of attempts to make quantum mechanics yield a single world.
I should have realized what was going on when I read Scott's blog post "The bullet-swallowers" in which Scott compares many-worlds to libertarianism. But light didn't dawn until my recent diavlog with Scott, where, at 50 minutes and 20 seconds, Scott says:
"What you've forced me to realize, Eliezer, and I thank you for this: What I'm uncomfortable with is not the many-worlds interpretation itself, it's the air of satisfaction that often comes with it."
-- Scott Aaronson, 50:20 in our Bloggingheads dialogue.
It doesn't show on my face (I need to learn to reveal my expressions more, people complain that I'm eerily motionless during these diavlogs) but at this point I'm thinking, Didn't Scott just outright concede the argument? (He didn't; I checked.) I mean, to me this sounds an awful lot like:
Sure, many-worlds is the simplest explanation that fits the facts, but I don't like the people who believe it.
And I strongly suspect that a lot of people out there who would refuse to identify themselves as "atheists" would say almost exactly the same thing:
What I'm uncomfortable with isn't the idea of a god-free physical universe, it's the air of satisfaction that atheists give off.
There's a contrarian theory presented by Robin that people go to highly reputable schools, visit highly reputable hospitals, buy highly reputable brands etc. to affiliate with high status individuals and institutions.
But what would a person who completely didn't care about such affiliations do? Pretty much the same thing. Unless you know a lot about schools, hospitals, and everything else, you're better off simply following prestige as proxy for quality (in addition to price and all the other usual criteria). There's no denying that prestige is better indicator of quality than random chance - the question is - is it the best we can do?
It's possible to come up with alternative measures, which might correlate with quality too, like operation success rates for hospitals, graduation rates for schools etc. But if they really indicated quality that well, wouldn't they be simply included in institution's prestige, and lose their predictive status? The argument is highly analogous to one for efficient market hypothesis (or to some extent with Bayesian beauty contest with schools, as prestige might indicate quality of other students). Very often there are severe faults with alternative measures, like with operation success rates without correcting for patient demographics.
If you postulate that you have better indicator of quality than prestige, you need to do some explaining. Why is it not included in prestige already? I don't propose any magical thinking about prestige, but we shouldn't be as eager to throw it away completely as some seem to be.
Recently, an extended discussion has taken place over the fact that a portion of comments here were found to be offensive by some members of this community, while others denied their offensive nature or professed to be puzzled by why they are considered offensive. Several possible explanations for why the comments are offensive have been advanced, and solutions offered based on them:
- to be thought of, talked about as, or treated like a non-person (Alicorn)
- analysis of behavior that puts the reader in the group being analyzed, and the speaker outside it (orthonormal)
- exclusion from the intended audience (Eliezer)
Each of these explanations seems to have an element of truth, and each solution seems to have a chance of ameliorating the problem. But even though the discussion has mostly died down, we appear far from reaching an agreement, and I think one reason may be the lack of a general theory of the phenomenon of "offense", in the sense of giving and taking offense, that we can use to explain what has happened, so all of the proposed explanations and solutions feel somewhat arbitrary and unfair.
Statistical analysis of terrorist groups' longevity, aims, methods and successes reveal that groups are self-contradictory and self-sabotaging, generally ineffective; common stereotypes like terrorists being poor or ultra-skilled are false. Superficially appealing counter-examples are discussed and rejected. Data on motivations and the dissolution of terrorist groups are brought into play and the surprising conclusion reached: terrorism is a form of socialization or status-seeking.
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