Status signaling

Of the subtle things in life, status signaling is one of the subtlest. It is mostly a delicate art refined in the forging fires of one-upmanship (and perhaps envy), but it can become quite unpleasant in the hands of brutes.

So what is status signaling? Well if I am earning a lot more than you, or went to a better school than you, or perhaps can stake some claim to professional success, I will need to signal that in some way, lest you think you’re better than me.

There are a couple of things about status that one needs to carefully consider before we get into status signaling. Status in a varied society is not a completely ordered set. There is not just one parameter by which you can compare the statuses of two people. For example, a rich person is not necessarily better than an MIT professor. However, an MIT professor in a particular field may be considered to be “better” than a professor at a lesser known school who works in the same field.

This, too, is not the complete picture. Some communities do give greater importance to some parameters over others. For instance, my own community in India gives much more importance to wealth than academic achievement. Hence, status may be thought of as a weighted sum of all parameters, and these weights vary amongst communities and cultures.

Secondly, status signaling is mostly a defensive strategy, and not an offensive strategy. If my social group already accords my a high social status for my unique talents and personality, and I do not feel that another person has been accorded a higher social status than me, I will mostly be comfortable, and will not feel the need to compete with another person for status. However, if my group accords me a lower status than someone else, or if someone slights me and hence challenges me to a status duel, I will feel a need to somehow pull myself up (or maybe pull them down) in order to gain higher status than them.

As an adult, I spend a lot of my time watching other people signaling their status, or perhaps doing some signaling of my own. Such signaling is mostly subtle. If I went to reputed school for my education, I cannot just bring it up right away. I’ll need to find the right opportunity to bring it up: maybe when the conversation meanders to the topic of education, I can casually talk about how I had a terrible time in college. This of course would lead to “where did you go for college?”, in which instance I would bring it up. Some people may casually slip in where they went for vacation, what senior administrative managerial position they occupy in their company, how they once beat the odds and got that very coveted job, etc.

The delicate art of signaling, however, can get less subtle in the hands of brutes. I once saw two math professors compete for status by comparing the scores they got on some standardized exams two decades ago. I’ve seen multiple students from reputed institutes in India bring up their entrance exam ranks in their very first conversations with me (I’ve seen profs do that too). I’m sure that brutes may also signal wealth and professional achievement in a similar manner, although I do not have real life examples of these sort.

What is perhaps even more interesting is not status signaling, but status slapping. What is status slapping, you ask? I’d thought of a similar concept myself a couple of months back, but then I came across Eliezer Yudkowsky’s comment on slatestarcodex that perhaps expressed it much better. If society thinks that you have a status S, and you try to convey that your status is S+2, people around you will push you down/make fun of you, etc until you begin to accept that your status is indeed S. Consider the following example: someone in my college cohort did very well on a standardized exam in India. Everyone was suitably impressed. Then she said something to the effect of “I think I have the potential to become a tech genius like Ironman”. Predictably, this led to a lot of derision until that person accepted their lower “true” status.

Another aspect of status slapping/signaling is status by association. If you signal that you have higher status than me, I can remind you that there are people who have even higher status than you, so that you don’t feel all high and mighty. For instance, if you casually let slip that you went to Berkeley for grad school, I might bring up the fact that I had a close friend who went to Harvard last year. Hence, I know people that “are better than you”. Why is this a successful form of status slapping? Even though I know someone who went to Harvard, I myself remain where I am! Why does bringing up this overachieving friend reduce our mutual status gap? Maybe status can also be earned by association. Although going to Harvard/being rich/being athletic may give me direct social status, being a spouse/friend/family member of someone with high status may also accord some secondary status to me. This feels weird in our supposedly individualistic societies. However, it exposes the fact that we still possess monkey brains, and status by association is a real thing.

It is important to note that status signaling is a lost battle for most people. If you are rich/well educated/etc, you are likely to socialize with people who enjoy the same status as you, if not more. For instance, if I went to Yale and joined a law firm right after, I am likely to work with other well educated college graduates, perhaps some from Harvard, who may go on to do much better than me. Hence, status signaling will mostly be a lost battle for me in the long run. However, status signaling does not affect those people (as much) who accept their status. If I accept my position in the status hierarchy and do not try to compete with another for status, I will mostly be left alone. Everyone I know who refuses to status signal actually has a much better time socializing, fitting in, etc.

So what should be the best strategy for life, as far as social signaling is concerned? Should I just stop signaling status? Sure. That plan should work for most people…..until the next jerk who comes along and signals their superior status. Faced with such a situation, we may feel an irresistible urge to either challenge them to a status duel, or perhaps pull off a “status by association” move. I would perhaps give some zen advice on how not to care about status, and that we’re all stupid mortals anyway, etc…but this would run directly opposed to our fundamentally simian brains that have been hardwired to indulge in status challenges for literally millions of years. Can we subdue our monkey brains? Can we not care when someone of a supposedly higher social status slights us? Can we just keep learning and growing forever, exploring our fascinating universe and ourselves, and not competing for status? Thus ends my status signaling post on status signaling.

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Graduate student

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