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Sunday, October 11, 2009

Status seeking behavior, an economic metaphor

When I was young, I read a book called the Celestine Prophesy. It's mostly mystical new-age pseudo-philosophy in a fiction-wrapper, but it does offer an interesting perspective on how people use tactics to manipulate their social status with regard to others. In the story, this was visualized by unconsciously stealing "energy" from people by being aloof, argumentative, needy, and a few other behaviors.

Mysticism aside, I think those behaviors can be recast in terms of tactics for stealing "status" from others. There's no "aura-energy" involved, just the regard of others towards ourselves and our perception of their regard. These unconscious practices are (rightly) derided in the book as negative-sum games, downward spirals where everyone ends up poorer. This is true of status-seeking behavior also: if the only source of social status one has is leeching it from others, eventually all the "energy" (or status) gets gets burned up.

The Celestine Prophecy's solution, naturally for an Age of Aquarius type book, is love. Just love people for what they are. Instead of leeching energy, people will exchange energy positively with each other and the total energy will grow rather than shrink. Very cozy imagery.

But in all seriousness, I'd like to make an analogy to economic processes. When people support themselves through predation, they can last only as long as there are productive non-predators in the population. These "doves" create value, and without them the "hawks" will end up consuming each other and finally themselves. When predation is suppressed, peaceful producers can multiply the value they produce through specialization and voluntary exchange.

I think a similar set of rules applies to individual-level interpersonal dynamics as well. People whose only source of status comes from robbing others of it can only last as high-status individuals as long as there are productive individuals around. What are "productive" individuals in terms of status? People who attain status through accomplishment, by improving themselves relative to their own former selves or creating new value for others to use.

An irony: a high-status predator may be able survive merely because of their high-status, since humans seek to affiliate themselves with other high-status individuals and rarely question the source of their status. Thus, a person could continuously roll through their attract and burn up new people in order to maintain themselves. I suspect this is what gossip is all about, though totally unconsciously.

But returning to the positive side of the economic metaphor: positive-sum status relationships can be built where each productive member supports the others by vouching for the validity of what the other members say. The support of legitimately high-status individuals for an idea gives it a much greater likelihood of consideration and acceptance, and thereby increasing the status of all involved. Think of this as voluntary association and trade, the result of which in the economic world is more wealth for all.

Snow Leopard

I've just finished installing Snow Leopard, and so far everything seems pretty much exactly the same. Which is good news, since it was already working nicely. It's as they said: painless install, nothing really visually different, but the geeky satisfaction of knowing that its now all 64 bit.