How Prestige Ru[i]ns Our World, Part 6

This is Part 6 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 5: Dr. Praiselove or: How I Learned to Start Worrying and Loathe the Internet

Taking Stock and Looking Ahead


There is a great deal of hand-wringing today about the growing political radicalism seen in the United States, Western Europe, India, and many other parts of the world. Common targets of blame for this increasingly volatile state of affairs include neoliberalism, structural racism, identity politics, multiculturalism, and, of course, Russian meddling. As explanations for the behavior of individual voters, demonstrators, and sundry troublemakers, all of these have a markedly top-down quality; they causally yoke individuals exclusively to the larger structures in which they’re embedded.

The explanation I’m proposing is different in that it has both a bottom-up component (our Prestige Complex) and a top-down component (the proliferation of social groups, abetted by the Internet, with ever-growing numbers of upward comparison targets). Now, I don’t take this to be a complete explanation or to be in necessary conflict with any of the others hitherto proposed. I do think, however, that prestige competition is playing a significant role in political radicalization and polarization (and in human misery more generally), and that this role has not as of yet been sufficiently appreciated.

I began this series with an evolutionary parable about pre-adaptation and with a pledge to refrain from hyper-adaptationistic just-so storytelling in my attempts to illuminate the natural history of the Prestige Complex. Strictly speaking, the evolutionary trappings of my account aren’t really necessary, since I appealed in my final characterization of the Prestige Complex only to components already established (inequity aversion, hedonic adaptation, the LDE, the sociometer), or at least suggested (the UCDE) in the psychological literature. I did, however, think that being able to connect these components to pre-adaptations likely to be found among our pre-hominin ancestors would provide vivifying context and evidence that we are not just dealing with a collection of culture-specific artifacts but with a real, universal, psychological feature.

Our detour into the dynamic between hierarchy and egalitarianism was intended not just to close the historical gap between our paleoanthropological explorations in Part 2 and the modern cybersocial world discussed in Part 5, but to illustrate the necessity of the dual-aspect explanatory strategy I’ve adopted for this project. If we want to understand (and helpfully change) a pattern of behavior, we need to properly characterize both the psychological systems that proximately cause the behavior and the environmental inputs to those systems (and, by extension, the larger ecological, political, and economic factors that structure those inputs).

Additionally, I hope readers will absorb an important moral lesson from Parts 3 and 4. Our sense of fairness—arguably the centerpiece of our intuitive “folk morality”—is only as good and justice-conducive as are the accuracy and comprehensiveness of the cues upon which it operates. As we’ve seen, the LDE and UCDE can bias this cue-feed in quite dramatic ways, and so we need to start being a little more critical and self-reflective when our inequity aversion switch gets flipped. Our moral intuitions are not friends to be trusted unconditionally; they are beasts to be tamed, trained, and put to farther-seeing work.

As I said before, my characterization of the Prestige Complex is undoubtedly only partial. My aim here has been more pragmatic than academic—viz., to isolate and describe some of the system’s core levers and pulleys sufficiently well to enable us to at least start making productive interventions into it.

So, where do we go from here? As I mentioned in Part 5, we have two broad avenues of influence on our prestige-competitive behavior: the components of the Prestige Complex itself and the larger system of cues and incentives on which it operates. Let’s examine each of these in turn.


Intervening in the Prestige Complex


One thing we’ll need to assess at the outset is whether, how, and under what conditions the various components of the Prestige Complex may be differently parameterized among different people. Thus far, apart from a brief aside in Part 2, I’ve largely avoided the issue of gender differences in prestige-competitive behavior, but we must, on pain of incompleteness, address this topic now.

Recall Gilbert’s model of shame processing. Anecdotally, men seem far likelier to respond to external shame with humiliation and retaliation while women seem much more prone to internalization. General differences in aggression-proneness (perhaps mediated by testosterone) may explain some of this variation, but I suspect a good deal of it may actually derive from historico-cultural trends.

Think back to the Prestige Complex’s original social context. Hunter-gathers of both sexes emigrate out of their natal groups and must therefore persuade members of other groups to admit them despite the increased competition for resources such admittance would mean. If extant hunter-gatherers are any guide, then ancestral men and women made importantly different contributions to their groups and were likewise evaluated for admission on different bases. Both men and women acquire food, but the game meat procured by men tends to be widely shared while the food gathered by women is usually reserved for family and perhaps a few close friends. I say this not to diminish the importance of hunter-gatherer womens’ economic contributions, which can be considerable, but only to note that the majority of group members will have less of a personal stake in a woman’s gathering ability than in a man’s hunting ability.

On the other hand, women are a much more limiting reproductive resource than men. We might, then, expect that while prestige for men might have ancestrally been gated primarily by actions and demonstrable skill, prestige for women might have been gated primarily by more straightforwardly biological qualities—e.g., youth, beauty, and fertility. If this pattern of gender-biased appraisal has persisted into the contemporary developed West—as it seems to have done—it may well explain Vandello & Bosson’s findings re: the widely perceived biological contingency of womanhood and social contingency of manhood.

Returning to Gilbert’s model, if social evaluations focus less on one’s actions or cultivable skills and more on one’s body or physiology, then it may be harder to resist internalizing signals of disvalue. It seems evident to me that the humiliation response involves inequity aversion in a pretty central way—we feel humiliated (and not just ashamed) by a social judgment when we feel that judgment is in some sense unfair. It may be that it’s by default easier to feel this way with respect to our actions or skills because they have a baseline value to us in terms of the time and labor we’ve poured into them. When our efforts return social capital of lesser aggregate value, we are apt to feel cheated and grow resentful—a fortiori if we see others in our community getting consistently better ROI.

Needless to say, this selective focus on men’s work and skills in public life has been fairly consistent across social organizations, from hunter-gatherer bands to modern nation-states. Thus, the greater proneness of men to humiliation and of women to internalized shame may not reflect an innate biopsychological difference so much as a historical separation of the arenas in which women and men have been allowed to seek prestige. The more general lesson here, however, is that whether one is more likely to internalize shame or to lash out in humiliation may depend to a large extent on the domain within which the devaluing signal was issued. We should keep this in mind so that we can ensure any solutions we propose are domain- and demographic-appropriate.

Now, what about other components of the Prestige Complex? It’s almost certain that individuals vary along such dimensions as sensitivity to inequity, rate of hedonic adaptation, susceptibility to the local dominance effect, and strength of the upward comparison dominance effect. Understanding the sources of variation in these components will likely be crucial to successfully intervening in them. Now, mounting a detailed examination of each of these is beyond my current knowledge (and probably beyond your current patience), but I want to focus in on one of the components and see if I can’t at least model in a decent enough way how to think about solutions targeted to it.

Additionally, since I’ve been doing an awful lot of hypothesizing about broad swaths of people, I’ll pick on myself here as a case study. Help yourself to as many grains of salt as you feel appropriate.

I’ve had powerful—often crippling—perfectionistic tendencies for as long as I can remember (who hasn’t, am I right?). Looking back now, the root of this perfectionism, I think, was a sort of hyper-susceptibility to the upward comparison dominance effect. I’ve never been able to stand not being the best among my peers at any activity I valued—or, put another way, I’ve never been able to value any activity at which I couldn’t be the best among my peers. That sounds terribly arrogant, but the phenomenological correlate of this thought has most often been anxiety, not pride. It has always simply felt as though perfection was the necessary level of performance to earn my keep in the world.

In the language of Optimal Distinctiveness Theory, I suspect that this kind of perfectionism corresponds to a highly activated need for differentiation. Indeed, anonymity has constantly been for me an even greater existential fear than death. As an aside, it’s possible that race may play some role in this, at least in certain contexts, as ODTheorists have consistently found that membership in majority groups is associated with differentiation need activation. Now, simply being in a demographic majority can to some extent insulate one from group consciousness and assimilation, but there are at least two sectors of society in which that’s not really possible. The first, of course, is composed of the identitarian far Right. The second is composed of the white “allies” on the far Left, those who’ve become “woke” to, among many other things, the insidious harm of colorblindness. It is within these two communities, I suspect, that sensitivity to intragroup upward comparison will be highest and the need for distinction most keenly felt. Not surprisingly, these two groups—and in particular the men among them—seem especially prone to extreme political behavior.

Now, two possible loci of variation with respect to the UCDE are: (1) the number of upward comparison targets in a reference group one can tolerate; and (2) the extent to which upward comparisons (relative to downward comparisons) influence self-perceptions of one’s social standing. Obviously, these are not completely independent—if one is less prone to base one’s subjective social standing on upward comparisons alone, then, ceteris paribus, one will probably tolerate a larger number of upward comparison targets—but the two are conceptually distinct and may be calibrated by different variables.

Possible ways of lessening susceptibility to the UCDE, then, include (1) finding ways to make people more tolerant of upward comparisons, and (2) reorienting people away from upward comparisons in their self-assessments. Now, the first intervention requires some context sensitivity, for we don’t want to make people tolerant of inequities and other inequalities that really ought to be challenged. We also, though, don’t want people becoming self-loathing, motivationally paralyzed, or irrationally resentful over differences in skill or deserved success, so our solution ought to focus on these domains of prestige competition in particular.

Carol Dweck has argued for the motivational importance of a an “incremental theory” (or, more colloquially, “growth mindset)—a view that abilities can be developed and that success is largely a matter of effort—over an “entity theory” (“fixed mindset”)—a view that performance depends upon, and thus reflects, capacities that are largely set in stone. According to Dweck and other researchers working in this area, individuals with a growth mindset are far less fearful of the prospect of failure and far more tolerant of it when it happens because they believe that with more work they can always improve themselves (e.g., Yeager & Dweck, 2012).

I’m a little reluctant at this point to get fully on board the growth mindset hype train. Though many studies have shown promising results (see Burnette, et al., 2013 for a lengthy review), the theory is premised upon some findings that have recently been called into question by the replication crisis. I discuss the work here only as an approach prima facie worth considering. The reason should be obvious: If a growth mindset can make one more tolerant of failure, it can perhaps make one more tolerant of upward comparisons.

It should be noted, though, that a growth or fixed mindset is not necessarily all-encompassing or domain-general. When I first encountered this literature several years ago, my immediate thought with respect to my perfectionism was “Ah, that’s the source of my problem. I’ve always had a fixed mindset.” But a little critical reflection soon revealed that this wasn’t true across the board. When I was in elementary school, I’d frequently play chess against adults. I often got clobbered, unsurprisingly, but I wasn’t discouraged by these defeats. The gaps in age and experience between my opponents and me made it easy to adopt a growth mindset in this particular arena. I could still get a lot better, while they, presumably, were already close to their performance ceilings. It was much harder for me to achieve this outlook in contests with same-age peers (e.g., most athletic contests), about which my thought process tended toward something like: “Sure, I can improve with practice, but so can they. Any of them who are better than me now will probably always be one step ahead.”

I’m not sure whether this merely reveals a quirk of my personal psychology or suggests a more general limitation to any growth mindset intervention in the UCDE. If the latter, then this may additionally mean that a growth mindset becomes harder to cultivate or maintain—at least in many domains—once one has entered adulthood. This may thus be one of those solutions that is more viably applied to our children than to ourselves.

What is a clear limitation of this approach is that it really only applies to domains of social comparison that have a central performative aspect. It is unclear whether and how a growth mindset could help one anxious about, e.g., upward comparisons regarding non-exercise-mediated contributors to physical attractiveness.

Those caveats aside, growth mindset interventions represent one possible way of conditioning people toward tolerance of more upward comparison targets in at least some domains of social comparison. For this reason, it at least merits some consideration. Now, what about the second locus of intervention? How might we make people less prone to relying disproportionately on upward comparisons in their self-assessments?

Research conducted under the broad mantle of “positive psychology” has suggested that gratitude interventions can upregulate affect and subjective well-being. Most interestingly, some of this research even suggests a connection between gratitude and self-esteem in particular.

It is possible that regular gratitude exercises can help perceptually reorient us away from upward social comparisons, thereby diminishing the UCDE. To my knowledge, no studies have yet addressed this question specifically, but it’s very much worth looking into. For those who want to see for themselves whether gratitude interventions can help allay their status anxieties, the usual protocol is to list three things for which one is grateful and why. If the goal is specifically to downregulate the UCDE, then you might want to focus on things particular to the domains in which your status anxieties are the most acute (e.g., if you’re especially anxious about your job performance, then you’ll probably get more benefit out of directing your gratitude toward times when you did your job really well rather than, say, times when you ate a really good meal or enjoyed a really pleasant vacation).

The potential benefits of gratitude practice may reach beyond the personal as well. To the extent that gratitude interventions curtail obsession over our own social status and perhaps even make us more aware of those less fortunate than we are, they may upregulate empathy as well as self-esteem. Nevertheless, there are limitations here too. Some studies have found evidence of habituation to the salutary effects of these interventions, resulting in diminishing returns. Spacing these interventions further apart (e.g., doing them weekly as opposed to daily) seems to at least delay (and perhaps prevent) this process (see Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, & Schkade, 2005 or discussion).

Research in both these areas—growth mindset and gratitude practice—is still quite young and controversial. But these interventions represent at least the kind of thing I think we’re after here (at least until we state messing with peoples’ brains or genes directly).

In addition to limitations, we must also be mindful of unintended side effects, whether they manifest at the personal or social level. We need to bear in mind, per Gilbert, that social disvalue can be processed in two distinct ways, and we must therefore ensure that our solutions aren’t just shuttling shame from one system to another. One way we could reduce internalized shame, of course, is to make everyone more indignant and prone to humiliation, but this really is no help in the long run; we’d be effectively just offshoring the pain of that shame onto the humiliated individual’s targets.


Intervening in the Incentive Structure


Now, the second major target of intervention is, as I said, the external system of incentives and cues that continually feeds our prestige anxieties. Interventions in this system will probably be more difficult to make because they require sufficient social, economic, or political will. Additionally, because they stand to affect the welfare of an increasingly large number of people, they raise a lot of pressing ethical questions. We must, therefore, tread carefully here and be ever mindful of moral trade-offs.

For example, one way we might try to tamp down on mass shootings and other suicidal attacks—some of the most extreme escalations of prestige-seeking behavior—is by refusing to release the perpetrators’ names and faces or to otherwise give them any post-mortem publicity (some outlets have adopted this strategy in relation to jihadist terrorism). This is problematic for a few reasons. For one, it rather clearly conflicts with the interests of citizens in being informed about the world around them. For two, it’s probably simply impracticable in the age of social media and “citizen journalism.” It certainly would be impossible to get all independent private news agencies on board without some draconian law; as soon as it became common enough practice, you’d see a rush of rival presses posturing to be the providers of “news the other organizations don’t want you to know!”

The general problem is this: We crave social information of the sort that social media sites are particularly good at providing, but strong perceptual biases like the LDE and UCDE make it difficult to metabolize this greater information into greater rationality. Selectively limiting this information could, in principle, moderate our behavior in morally beneficial ways, but I suspect there will be very little support for this kind of intervention (can you imagine the response if Facebook decided to do away with Likes and other reactions?).

The bigger moral question, of course, is whether the aggregate harm of these intensifying status pressures outweighs the aggregate benefit of this improved access to information. I don’t know the answer to this, and so perhaps we’d be best served, at least for the time being, by looking for solutions elsewhere.

Maybe all top-down attempts to disincentivize prestige-competitive behavior involve intolerable trade-offs, at least presently (if you can think of one that clearly doesn’t, then please let me know). Maybe the more promising route is to simply attempt to channel that behavior in more useful directions. This was my primary aim in Far Right Politics and the Scourge of Honor (the inspiration for which was Kwame Anthony Appiah’s The Honor Code), and perhaps the strategy merits wider application.

I’ve long wondered whether the Effective Altruism movement could be a viable alternative to some of the more radical and toxic spaces in which the young and insecure presently clamor for prestige. Indeed, EA seems particularly well-suited to restoring a broadly meritocratic dynamic to prestige competition, for while prestige was originally granted on the basis of helpfulness to the local group, under EA, it is granted on the basis of helpfulness to all creatures capable of suffering. It orients our status squabbles in a much more universal moral direction.

Nevertheless, I have some concerns. Though I’m a consequentialist like the practitioners of EA, I worry about how prestige competition within this particular moral arena might escalate, about the lengths to which people would go to prove themselves exemplary. Not everyone is going to be able to donate huge sums of money to charity; some will have to find other ways to prove their utilitarian bona fides. I worry that for many in this category that may mean performing or supporting acts with dramatically high initial moral costs (but allegedly long term net benefits). The signal sent by these acts would be essentially: “Look how much (or how many) I’d be willing to sacrifice in service to this greater good! What an amazing consequentialist I am that I could stand so heroically against even my own knee-jerk moral intuitions!” Now, some might be right and their actions really could prove moral on balance (I’m resisting the temptation to digress on the Doctrine of Double Effect here), but as desperation for prestige increases as more and more devote themselves to EA, people will get sloppier, they’ll fail to take into account all the relevant nodes in the causal networks in which they hope to intervene, and some real moral catastrophes could result.

In fact, we can already see this kind of hasty, self-consciously radical thinking within the EA movement. So if we’re going to direct those desperate to make a difference into the arms of EA, we’d better come up with ways of minimizing the risks of runaway devotional signaling. The point generalizes. If we’re going to seek to channel our prestige-competitive impulses in more morally salutary directions, we need to be mindful of the extremes toward which competitors could be driven in that new arena.

Another possible structural intervention might seek to reduce the zero-sum character of prestige. Recall that one of Hornsey & Jetten’s (2004) strategies for satisfying differentiation needs was role specialization. Individuals pursuing this strategy seek to provide highly particular services to their local groups in ways that may not necessarily compete with the services and prestige aspirations of other group members. Groups with a lot of role specialization—with each individual occupying a uniquely useful niche—ought therefore to be much more cohesive, stable, and peaceful (at least internally); their members will be less inclined to see their groupmates as potential or actual upward comparison targets.

Of course, not all groups lend themselves to extensive role specialization, and so the applicability of this intervention is limited. It also can’t guarantee people won’t find their particular roles insufficiently appreciated relative to the roles of other group members, but I do suspect it will tend to decrease intragroup tensions (and increase average self-esteem) on the whole in the spaces in which it can be broadly applied, something proponents of tactical diversity within activist spaces have no doubt intuited or learned. I think the Effective Altruism movement in particular could benefit greatly (and so, via that movement’s efforts, could the world) from a more concerted application of role specialization.

I wish I had more ideas about effective structural interventions, but there are a great number of unknowns, particularly with respect to future variables and contexts. What opportunities will the advent of AI open up, and what might it foreclose? Could our best hopes for a peaceful de-escalation of prestige competition involve some form of mass deception—say immersion into personalized virtual worlds in which we can have as much (perceived) status as we want? Or will bioengineering or neurocybernetics obviate this by allowing us to make more direct interventions in the Prestige Complex itself?

I’d love to read some of your own prognostications and prescriptions. Even if you think runaway prestige competition is less pressing than, say, global climate change or the risks of hostile AI, I submit it’s worth addressing not just as an under-recognized source of human misery, but as a source of social noise and volatility which may dramatically impair our ability to accurately model likely futures.

Let me be clear: I don’t want to condemn prestige competition per se. Ancestrally, it motivated complete genetic strangers to share food and cooperate in hunts, childcare, group defense, and numerous other important and life-conducive activities. In more contemporary settings, it has spurred sublime achievements in art, science, activism, and philanthropy. Over and over, across social arrangements as diverse as the small egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers and the steep but fluid hierarchies of the world’s modern technocracies, it has brought out the very best in us…

…but also the very worst. Alas, there are more ways of breaking the world than of mending it. My worry is that as prestige competition intensifies and the diversity of potential audiences for our prestige-eliciting behavior increases, the harmful performances will come at a faster rate than the beneficial ones. And, of course, advancements in the technologies through and by which such havoc may be wreaked can dramatically increase its potential impacts.

To the extent to which we can do something to prevent or ameliorate this, we must.

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