How Prestige Ru[i]ns Our World, Part 5

This is Part 5 of a series on prestige competition and its broader contemporary effects. For other parts, click below.

Part 1: From Agonistic Behavior to Dominance Hierarchy: An Evolutionary Parable

Part 2: From Dominance Hierarchy to Prestige Hierarchy

Part 3: From Hierarchy to Egalitarianism to Hierarchy Again

Part 4: The Prestige Complex

Part 6: Taking Stock and Looking Ahead

Dr. Praiselove or: How I Learned to Start Worrying and Loathe the Internet


Having now characterized the Prestige Complex in some detail, we can begin to wonder about how it may be interfacing and interacting with the novel social environments afforded by the Internet and new media technologies. One notable feature of these environments is that the groups that form within them may now be as nonlocalized, geographically speaking, as its members can tolerate. Distance is today no barrier to regular, effortless communicative contact, and these globe-spanning groups can now be formed and dissolved relatively on the fly. The psychosocial consequences of this are, I think, a lot more profound than we’ve hitherto appreciated.

It’s crucial to realize that despite the geographic distribution of their members, these online assemblies function, psychologically speaking, very much like “local groups” insofar as they permit interaction and affiliation in something at least close to real time. Now, for the vast majority of human history, our local group (and thus our comparison group) was simply our hunter-gatherer band. After the appearance of agriculture and the emergence of larger sedentary, segmental societies, our immediate neighborhoods likely fulfilled this role (thanks, local dominance effect!). In either situation, if our ancestors wished to change groups, they’d have needed to physically relocate and make substantive contributions to the new group into which they desired admittance. This was a risky gambit, as Boehm noted (1999, pp. 72-73), and would have probably been only a last resort for individuals who felt they couldn’t attain satisfactory prestige within their previous groups.

In the online world, on the other hand, joining or even founding a new group/subgroup is a comparatively trivial affair, particularly in the age of social media. One likely consequence of this is that people online will exhibit decreased resilience to intragroup prestige competition. There will simply be more and more circumstances under which more and more people can increase their prestige by switching groups rather than making meaningful contributions to their current groups. There will also likely be less egalitarian policing within these groups because (1) it is now much more feasible for the individuals ordinarily kept in check by egalitarian policing to simply leave the group and pursue prestige elsewhere, and (2) it is likewise easier for the would-be policers themselves to simply switch groups in the face of prestige monopolization by another group member.

Now, this might seem like a net good insofar as easier group proliferation seems to grant people greater negotiating power vis-à-vis the hierarchies to which they ally themselves. But this greater ease of group migration and allegiance switching is a good that flows to everyone with an Internet connection—an increasingly large number of people—and the result is that intragroup prestige competition will tend to intensify everywhere. The pool of talent and dedication available to any group now spans the literal world and includes a huge and ever expanding chunk of the entire human population. Thus, one is apt face an increasingly tough fight for prestige regardless of the reference group(s) with which one affiliates. Wherever we go online, we’ll be confronted with a growing number of upward comparison targets.

Social media has exacerbated both the perception and the reality of this intensified prestige competition in a number of ways. For one, these sites allows users to curate their profiles, photos, status updates, and other content so as to present the most positive possible images of themselves. This, of course, creates more opportunities for upward social comparison (we’re comparing ourselves, warts and all, to the highlight reels of everyone else). Social media sites also have a number of features which render many of these comparisons—particularly along social dimensions—a good deal less ambiguous than they would be in “meatspace.” Likes, Shares, Votes, Views, Subscribes, Retweets and the like now provide starkly quantitative, and very public, community feedback on the (sometimes quite personal) content we put out online. And, of course, these platforms likewise provide this feedback on the content produced by others within one’s reference group, allowing for unprecedentedly stark self-other prestige comparisons.

As a further consequence of the great number of people involved in this online global prestige free-for-all and the rapidity with which content can be offered up for evaluation, prestige has become a highly ephemeral resource in these spaces. Someone can Tweet a spicy political zinger in the morning, see it widely Retweeted and shared across other platforms by early afternoon, and yet find scarcely any trace of its existence by evening. Memes now die within hours of their birth (remember “dat boi”? Me neither). Never has the phrase “15 minutes of fame” been quite so appropriate.

And yet, we have unprecedentedly easy access to examples of individuals who did manage to attain more lasting celebrity. We’ve watched people rise from anonymity to stardom on nothing but the viral appeal of a sex tape or the vicarious pleasures of video game spectating. Never before have celebrities seemed so like us, and, consequently, never before has their status and influence seemed so attainable, a perception radically belied by the ever growing pool of aspirants.

All this is apt to fuel more desperate prestige-seeking behavior and declines in happiness and self-esteem when this behavior fails, as it almost always will, to yield satisfying results. So-called “Facebook envy” and “Facebook depression” are now highly active areas of psychological research. Early investigations into the relationship between social media use and these negative affective outcomes were primarily correlational in nature; they did not permit discernment as to whether social media use was causing negative outcomes or whether those with lower self-esteem and higher incidences of depression were simply more disposed to use social media. Subsequent research, however, has made the relationship considerably less ambiguous (note: three different hyperlinks here).

But depression is not the only possible consequence of this dramatically increased exposure to upward comparison targets. We do not always respond to status threats with sadness, internalized shame, and timidity. Much of the research on social media use and negative affective outcomes has focused specifically on comparisons along dimensions of attractiveness, wealth, and popularity, but prestige is often—and particularly for men—conditional upon the possession of a valued skill or the performance of a valued action, and competitive failure in these arenas may yield a variety of outcomes with much farther ranging consequences than depression.

Picture an adolescent male of your morphological choosing. He’s shy and nerdy. In school he must contend daily and inescapably with a social hierarchy founded on values he’s never shared and stands little hope of actualizing. Now, with the advent of the Internet, he would be able to ensconce himself in communities more congenial to his interests and skills. These communities no longer have to be spatially discrete, but they can also, by the same token, seem nearly infinitely large, and here is the rose’s thorn. Suppose he has a talent for video games. It’ll now take only a quick YouTube or Twitch search to make him acutely aware of a vast number of players better than he could ever dream of being. More dispiriting still, he will find a large number of less talented people receiving attention that ought, on a purely meritocratic basis, to be his. He will see their feats praised and shared, and though he may try to get a channel of his own off the ground, there will probably seem very little he can do to get himself comparably (or even fractionally) noticed. Likewise for just about any skill one might cultivate. There’s always someone better, more appreciated, somewhere out there, and that someone is now easier than ever to find. We are all now in competition with the world’s very best.

I’m growing to suspect that all those fanciful existential maladies—ennui and angst and a sense of meaninglessness—may be little more than poetic and faintly ennobling glosses on what is, at root, a feeling of being hopelessly outcompeted in the community of one’s choosing. Of being left behind, neglected by those whose approval one finds most valuable, denied the same social ROI of one’s labor as one’s peers have received.

Now, what would a man who endured being a small fish all throughout his schooling only to find that he couldn’t even make a splash among the people who share his interests do to finally get himself noticed? To finally make his mark and prove his importance? Here are a few possibilities (with inspiration from Hornsey & Jetten’s taxonomy of strategies for optimal distinctiveness satisfaction):

(1). He can simply withdraw from prestige competition in these spaces. This is really only a viable option if he has sources of prestige in meatspace (admiring friends, an illustrious job, colleagues among whom he’s well-liked, etc.). In such cases, this move may actually yield meaningful increases in wellbeing as the LDE reorients him to a more favorable prestige arena. If he doesn’t have these resources, however, the result is likely to be shame and depression.

(2). He can adopt contrarian stances within his focal group. This is usually less an attempt to sway the entire group toward his view than an attempt to birth or join a new group/subgroup in which he’d have comparatively higher status. The contrarian abandons direct prestige competition for an approach aimed at undermining the very basis on which prestige in his old group was doled out. That group’s high status individuals hence are rebranded charlatans and those who have elevated them derided as sheep. Those willing to throw some prestige to this rabble-rouser, on the other hand, are invited thereby to fancy (and advertise) themselves enlightened, independent, questioning of a corrupt and ossified establishment, and brave enough to speak truth to illegitimate power. Expect to see more and more of this maneuver in smaller and smaller social groups as prestige competition intensifies (this will, incidentally, pose an increasingly annoying problem for large-scale political organization).

(3). He can gravitate toward groups in which acceptance and status are based primarily on features of his identity. Three subtypes of identity group merit particular mention here: (a) nativistic groups, in which his acceptance will be a matter of possessing some feature merely in virtue of his genes or upbringing (e.g., his skin color, culture, chromosomal make-up, etc.), (b) class-based groups, in which his acceptance will be a matter of his socioeconomic status or other salient social position or circumstance within the broader group his state or nation comprises, and (c) interest or ideological groups, in which his acceptance will be primarily a matter of having the right beliefs.

Often there will be overlap between these group types. What makes all of them appealing to one desperate for prestige is that they appear to demand little in the way of substantive contribution. While stable acceptance within more traditional groups like those of our hunter-gatherer ancestors might have required hard work, useful skills, and demonstrable altruism, acceptance into identity groups may require only the possession of a certain background or allegiance to a certain perspective.

It should be noted that many of these groups are perfectly innocuous; groups centered on support for a particular sports team, ownership of a certain model of car, appreciation for a certain genre of music, or even affliction by a shared illness are all, technically speaking, identity groups. Clearly, though, some of them are not so harmless. One general limitation of these groups, from the perspective of their members, is that while they make acceptance easy (for those with the right trait, that is), they make the attainment of excellence rather less straightforward. In Brewer’s terminology, they satisfy our need for inclusion but not our need for distinction, and in our terminology, we might say that while their prestige floor is high, their prestige ceiling is rather low. They are “safe spaces” but not, in and of themselves, powerful spaces. Consequently, this strategy is often accompanied by one or both of the following two.

(4). He can present himself as an especially committed or normative member of his group. This behavior will be most commonly seen, of course, in ideological identity groups, and may take such varied forms as getting an expensive tattoo of the logo of one’s favorite band or blowing people up (oneself included) in the name of the caliphate. In each case, the goal is to present oneself as more devoted to the group’s central cause than other members. Expect to see from those pursuing this strategy a good deal of virtue/edge signaling, purity testing, and calling out of other group members or aspirants. Now, most of you are probably thinking about Tumblr or other SJW spaces right now, but these behaviors are endemic to the far Right as well. The phenomenon is a general one.

Pursued widely, of course, this strategy will intensify competition within the group and incentivize increasingly radical displays of commitment. Within politically-oriented groups in particular, this may drive individuals to adopt stances seen as increasingly controversial within the group’s broader social context, a conspicuous advertisement of the risks and wider social costs one is willing to incur in defense of the group or furtherance of its aims (this phenomenon was touched on by Scott Alexander in his excellent “The Toxoplasma of Rage”).

(5). He can subsume his identity into that of his focal group and seek prestige via inter– rather than intragroup competition. In this situation, his reference group is effectively expanded to include all those groups with which he wishes to contrast his own. When in this perceptual mode, the local successes of one’s groupmates cease to be threatening to the self because these individuals are now seen, more or less, as extensions of the self. What matters, then, are the prestige differentials between one’s group and those groups one considers to be rivals. As mentioned in Part 4, this identity inflation is most likely under conditions of high assimilation, and so I suspect this sort of prestige competition will be particularly prevalent among nativistic groups, whose members are likely to be most visibly similar to each other.

Of course, one may compete for prestige at the inter- and intragroup levels simultaneously. When this strategy is undertaken jointly with the fourth, the result can be an intensifying antagonization of rival groups, for it is by such acts that the antagonizer will seek to prove his superlative commitment to his own group. Expect to see from such individuals conspicuous attempts to troll and “trigger” people from rival groups, sometimes escalating to physical violence when the clash spills over into the offline world.

(6). He can abstract his reference group into some imagined future or heaven. This is tantamount to a bet that his actions—and by extension his self—will be valued by some group in a better position (thanks to historical hindsight) than any extant group to accurately assess them. The thought that one will be vindicated and validated by a wiser future community can be a great comfort to those unable to achieve or hold on to satisfactory levels of prestige in the present, but it can also be dangerous.

One gets no feedback from the future, and so bids for prestige from such hypothetical communities are essentially one-shot, and will thus tend to err in the direction of really grand gestures. Many of these, of course, will be harmless, even benevolent, but—again—others won’t be. And haven’t been. The most extreme cases involve the suicidal slaughter of people one assumes the petitioned future group will regard as bad guys. What, after all, could be a greater testament to one’s devotion to a group’s animating cause than a proven willingness to both kill and die for it?

Talk of “leaving one’s mark” often romanticizes the impulse as a quixotic grab at immortality, but it is better understood as an attempt to elicit prestige from future (or eternal) communities. And the more varied the hypothetical groups from which prestige might be feasibly sought, the greater the variety of forms (including immoral forms) this petitioning mark can take. The Columbine massacre, for example, was not solely about revenge or aggrieved entitlement. Like so many other mass attacks, it was a performance. In their “basement tapes,” Klebold and Harris fancied themselves the spearhead of a revolution and even speculated as to which famous director would dramatize their perverse “heroism” in film.

I trust that many, if not all, of the above behaviors will be familiar to you. I stress again: These prestige-hunting strategies are not mutually exclusive. A suicide bomber may with a single act be performing for his god, for the head honchos in Daesh, for the boys in the soccer club or private online forum in which he was radicalized, and for any number of unknown others whom he hopes to “inspire” by his example.

These are the lengths to which runaway prestige competition can drive people. This a problem, and it’s probably going to get worse. Let me say that again: It’s probably going to get worse. We are more interconnected than we have ever been before, and the felt need to distinguish ourselves from our fellows (or our group from their groups) has consequently never been more intense. And we all face an increasingly global, increasingly merciless competition for this distinction, a competition that incentivizes increasingly radical attention-capturing gestures.

We need to acknowledge the problem, but just as importantly, we need to characterize and approach it correctly. To do this, we will need to take sober stock of a few uncomfortable truths. Each of the following undoubtedly deserves much lengthier treatment (and each may ultimately get it, as my schedule permits), but for now, here’s a CliffNotes®-esque summary:

(1). This is bigger than our partisan grudges. The problem is both structural and deeply psychological in nature, and we must tackle it at both these levels. This means abstracting away from the issues, groups, and people that really push our buttons. Let us admit that there are no clean hands here; we’ve all poured into this jackpot in one way or another, and trying to foist sole blame on some hated other is at this stage deeply counterproductive.

Now, the dual character of the problem suggests two distinct loci of intervention: the Prestige Complex itself (and the status anxieties with which it provisions us), and the incentive structure that leads us, by these anxieties, into increasingly extreme behavior. We’ll discuss this in more detail in the final Part of this series.

(2). Online groups are like offline groups in troubling ways and unlike offline groups in equally troubling ways. It may be tempting to suppose that the lack of face-to-face communicative contact in online groups renders the competition taking place within and between these groups somehow less real or immediate. This doesn’t seem to be the case, as any victim of cyberbullying or Facebook envy can likely tell you. The truth may, in fact, be quite the opposite, for one thing the absence of face-to-face communication does do is deprive us of some important triggers of empathy. This means that it may be much easier to dehumanize our competitors and to “use” them (via trolling, bullying, calling out, etc.) in more dramatically Machiavellian ways in furtherance of our prestige-seeking.

(3). The problem is fueled at least as much by intragroup competition as by intergroup competition. This is not obvious, even to those enmeshed in such competition, because intragroup competition is more delicate and emotionally complex. One’s groupmates are simultaneously one’s allies against rival groups, one’s prestige competitors, and the judges from whom prestige must be elicited. One’s feelings toward them are therefore rather more complicated than one’s feelings toward members of rival groups, and one may consequently be less inclined to recognize them as contributors to one’s low self-esteem and other status-related malaise. But the friendlier face of intragroup competition belies the tremendous pressure it can place on its participants. The local dominance effect must be taken seriously.

(4). Socialism (by itself) won’t fix it. Now, I think reducing material inequality and having a strong social safety net are worthy goals (and will probably prove essential in the age of mass automation), but since the 2016 American election I’ve seen quite a few writers (examples: 123) boldly argue that a new or revitalized socialism will heal all what ails those on both the Left and the Right and bring a working class polarized by toxic identity politics back together. This is very naïve, and it risks widespread disillusionment toward progressive economic and social policies when those policies fail (despite whatever goods they realize) to be the political peacemakers they were sold as.

We must acknowledge that we’re dealing with a species of capital far older and more powerful than money (quick test: Would you prefer to be rich but regarded everywhere as a coward or poor but regarded everywhere as a hero?). Our status anxieties can’t all be blamed on capitalism, for material inequality is not—by a long shot—the only kind that matters to us. But the distribution of prestige is a much thornier problem than the distribution of wealth. Nomadic hunter-gatherers may have been able to implement something like a socialist solution to it, but, as we’ve seen, this solution reliably fails as group size and complexity increases and the LDE and UCDE work their blinkering perceptual voodoo on us.

(5). Ethno-isolationism won’t fix it. If the previous was a PSA to the far Left, consider this a PSA to the far Right. Geographic and political hermitism will not remove the status anxieties currently plaguing us—plaguing people of all ethnic groups. Even compartmentalizing the Internet would only be a stopgap measure. Soon enough, the victors would refocus, steered by the LDE and even more keenly activated differentiation needs, self-segregate along religious, ideological, subcultural, or simply narrowly tribal lines, and shortly find themselves again embroiled in cultural clashes no less heated than those that presently preoccupy them. The only real buffer against this would be some form of intense, deindividuating conflict with outside groups. Either path would quickly put the lie to the claim that ethnonationalism offers a peaceful solution to the challenges of globalization and multiculturalism.

(6). We may not be able to fix it at all. By “we,” of course, I mean current generations. To the extent that the solution to runaway prestige competition depends upon substantial changes to our psychologies, we—adults—may only be able to do so much for ourselves. It may be that the greatest contribution we can make at this point is raising our children or grandchildren to be less vulnerable to status anxieties—or at least to the more destructive strategies for allaying those anxieties. We should not, of course, abandon the search for more immediate solutions, but we should be prepared to play a long game as well. #diversityoftactics, and all that.

(7). The really extreme, destructive behavior isn’t the only issue of moral concern. Those driven to violence by their status anxieties may always only constitute a small minority. Countless others, as the literature on envy-mediated Facebook depression suggests, will suffer in silence.

Psychologist Paul Gilbert’s “biopsychosocial” model of shame posits two broad response types to signals of devaluation by others (what he calls “external shame”). The “humiliation” response involves rejecting this devaluation as unjust, devaluing the devaluer, and retaliating (or displacing that aggression onto someone else). Alternatively, the devalued individual can internalize that external shame, resulting in self-devaluation, depression, and social withdrawal. Internalizers are much less likely to hurt others, but may, of course, harm themselves. Regardless, their problem, though less visible, deserves our attention and troubleshooting as well.

(8). Fixing it won’t end political conflict. Hopefully this goes without saying, but in an era of growing desperation for easy and universal solutions, the point merits emphasis. Contests for prestige frequently play out in political arenas, but none of the above is intended to dissolve or sideline the substantive questions raised in such clashes. The realm of causes is not the realm of reasons (so don’t go around trying to win political arguments by simply accusing your opponents of seeking prestige; the charge might be true, but it’s unlikely to be the whole truth).

Most political grievances are not, in fact, simply manufactured for the performance of outrage and in-group solidarity, though they may be exaggerated in service to this end. And contrarians are not always wrong, even when their motives aren’t as noble as we’d like them to be. A certain amount of contrarianism can be a healthy check against groupthink and the calcification of belief into what J. S. Mill called “dead dogma.” Prestige competition is not the cause of all political conflict, but it is a noxious overlay that incentivizes conspicuous disagreement on increasingly trivial issues, dehumanizes opponents, and infuses such conflict with the intoxicating promise of personal heroism. It threatens to make political narcissists of us all.

Thus, understanding and effectively modulating the dynamics of prestige seeking will not prove a political panacea. However, reigning in the worst of this sort of behavior ought to allow us all to approach these weighty issues with cooler heads, calmer nerves, and a great willingness to work together.

If I accomplish nothing else with this series, I hope to have persuaded you to take these matters seriously. With smartphones, smartwatches, and ever more intricate integration of the Internet into traditional social spaces (vocational, avocational, and educational), the boundary between the online and offline worlds grows increasingly porous. The idea that the affective and behavioral consequences of intensified prestige competition will be confined only to the particular arenas in which that intensification originally occurred is dangerously naïve.

But enough doomsaying for now. In the next—and final!—Part of this series, we’ll make a few tentative forays into the realm of possible solutions (and in the process hopefully jumpstart your own troubleshooting endeavors).


Leave a Comment