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What is Social Status?
Understanding dominance, prestige, and power
Today marks the return of regular Sunday posting. Here is an in-depth discussion of the psychology of social status. Enjoy.
A question that has long occupied philosophers, social scientists, advertising executives, and curious people more generally is, “What motivates people?”1
A popular answer is money. Money is the root of all evil. Follow the money. Money makes the world go round. I’m skeptical of this answer. No doubt money is a powerful incentive. But people will often pay a financial cost in order to obtain something even more valuable, something immaterial, something that exists only in the minds of other people: Social status.
What is status? The term seems to be growing in popularity. You’ll hear people say things like, so-and-so is high status, or this person has lost status, or all that person cares about is status. We talk about people feeling seen, and validated, and represented.
The nineteenth-century sociologist Max Weber defined status as “an effective claim to social esteem in terms of positive or negative privileges.” He characterized it as a form of social access.
In A Theory of Human Motivation, the twentieth century psychologist Abraham Maslow defined status as “reputation or prestige, recognition, attention, importance, or appreciation.”
The economist Chaim Fershtman defined status as “the ranking of individuals, or groups of individuals, based on attributes, actions, occupations, or group affiliations.” This is a modern definition, referencing occupation.
And here is a more recent description from the social and personality psychologist Cameron Anderson, “Status is defined as the respect, admiration, and voluntary deference individuals are afforded by others.”
Lastly, a straightforward definition of status from the philosopher Agnes Callard: “How much value other people accord you.”
The neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga has suggested that “When you get up in the morning, you think about status. You think about where you are in relation to your peers.”
Research indicates that our brains spend about 50% of the time mind wandering. Researchers find that the areas of the brain that are active during mind wandering overlap with the areas of the brain that concentrate on our social lives and ourselves. Left to your own devices, with no task demanding your immediate concentration, you tend to spend a good deal of time thinking about other people—your judgments of them; their evaluations of you.
Many people resist the idea that status is so important. But they don’t resist roughly equivalent terms. If you say you want a job promotion for the status, you might be judged harshly. But if you say you want to be promoted because you want respect, that’s often regarded as an appropriate desire.
Evolutionary psychology helps to understand status. A definition from Dr. Tania Reynolds: “Evolutionary psychology examines how the mind has been shaped to solve recurring problems faced by human ancestors. It contends that natural selection has produced mental adaptations that enhanced our ancestors’ ability to survive and reproduce.”
Evolutionary psychology doesn’t tell us what is adaptive today. Rather, it investigates what was adaptive when humans were nomadic hunter gatherers roughly spanning 300,000 years ago up until about 12,000 years ago before the agricultural revolution. This was the environment that our ancestors evolved in and where our species spent most of their time in.
The currency of evolution is reproduction. Every one of your ancestors managed to reproduce. They form an unbroken chain dating back billions of years. The drive to reproduce is fundamental. And for humans, status is a core concern because it has reproductive relevance.
Evolution doesn’t “care” that much about survival. It “cares” mostly about reproduction. A trait that damages survival can still spread if it aids in reproduction. Risk-taking, for example, might put an animal in increased physical danger and thus greater odds of death. But if risk-taking is also, on average, associated with obtaining access to reproductive partners, or impressing reproductive partners, then this trait may still spread.
So what did status get our human ancestors? Resources, allies, territory, mates, and, most importantly, offspring. The idea is that humans who cared a lot about status were more likely to win romantic partners and thus had children who also cared a lot about status. It’s possible that there were early humans who didn’t care much about status or reproduction. They might’ve only cared about safety, survival, and didn’t concentrate on attracting mates or having children. They didn’t reproduce. Those early humans are not our ancestors.
Although it is immaterial, and exists only in the minds of humans, status is a resource as real as oxygen or water. People will trade material goods for immaterial status.
I once met an untenured lecturer at Yale. His pay was relatively low. He was offered a job at a mid-tier university in the midwest. I asked if he was going to accept. He said, “No way!” This other university offered him a tenure-track professorship, job security, and higher pay. Despite this, he chose to remain at Yale as a part-time lecturer in a financially precarious position. Why? He quietly explained that the name brand was just too valuable to him.
Recently, scholars have suggested that there are in fact two different types of social status.
The first is dominance. It is evolutionarily older and more widespread in the animal kingdom.
Dominance in humans is associated with narcissism, aggression, and disagreeableness. Under the dominance framework, status is attained by instilling fear in others through coercion, intimidation, and displays of brute force.
People (and animals) confer status to dominant individuals because of what the individuals can do to them. Inflict costs, pain, humiliation, injuries, disfigurement, violence, reputation destruction, and so on. Joseph Stalin obtained status through dominance.
The second type of status: Prestige. It is more evolutionarily recent and pervasive among humans.
Prestige is associated with stable self-esteem, social acceptance, being well-liked, and the personality trait of conscientiousness.
Prestige is freely conferred to individuals based on their knowledge, skills, or success. We confer status to prestigious individuals because of what these individuals can do for us. Provide benefits, teach useful things, grant access to resources, bolster our own status by being associated with them, and so on. Stephen Hawking obtained status through prestige.
To be clear, dominance and prestige are not always entirely separable. In some cases the two can be combined. Military members are often seen as both dominant and prestigious. Police officers, depending on the time of year and the political climate, are often seen as both dominant and prestigious.
People often incorrectly conflate the two. Some people see prestigious individuals who obtained their positions through skill, competence, and hard work and claim that these individuals seized their status through the use of dominant or deceptive strategies.
Let’s discuss the evolution of dominance. You can see dominance and submission strategies among animals. Chimpanzees have dominant leaders, though it is not always overtly physical in nature. Chimps engage in political behavior, recruiting allies and currying favor from other chimps on their path to leadership. Chickens famously have a pecking order, in which an emergent order arises in groups of chickens such that some chickens can peck others, but can’t be pecked themselves. Wolf packs tend to have dominant leaders, and during conflicts the losing wolf will engage in submissive displays. The loser bares its neck to the victor to signal that it acknowledges its triumph.
Among humans, responses to dominant individuals tend to be focused on avoid rather than approach motives. Rather than getting close and currying favor, people respond to dominant individuals by doing what they say for fear of retaliation.
Dominants inflict costs. Subordinates have strategies to deal with dominants they dislike. Some examples among animals include withholding grooming, food-sharing, cooperation, political alliances, and so on. Dominant individuals run the risk of losing followers to other leaders who may treat subordinates better.
When people think of dominance, they often think of hierarchies. What is the purpose of hierarchies? Some animal researchers suggest that they in fact store useful information that reduces instability. Jessica Flack and her colleagues published a fascinating study about macaque monkeys. These researchers systematically removed leaders from the top of the hierarchy in this monkey community and what they found was that it gave rise to utter chaos. Once there was no accepted leader, monkeys became vicious, brutally attacking each other in their quest to rise up. Each time the researchers removed a leader, this brutal process was re-ignited.
High rank in a dominance hierarchy isn’t without costs. A 2021 study found that dominant chimpanzees, for example, have elevated glucocorticoid levels, which are a biomarker for stress.
There are costs for humans, too. The personality psychologist Jessica Tracy, who writes in her illuminating book on pride:
“Dominant people pay for their less kindly road to status by incurring the dislike, and even hatred, of their fellow group members, and for many of us this price is simply too high; we’d rather be low on the totem pole than be perceived as arrogant and domineering.”
There is a lot of variation in terms of how much humans pursue status, which avenues they take, whether dominance or prestige, and so on.
What about prestige?
Some other great apes, notably chimpanzees, have some signs of prestige but it is most pervasive among humans.
It is based on admiration rather than submission. And unlike with dominant individuals, we approach prestigious individuals rather than avoid them. We seek out contact with those we admire, and avoid those we fear.
Under a prestigious framework, social rank is based on differences in skills in valued domains. Among hunter-gatherers, these would include activities such as hunting, warfare, tool making, navigation, storytelling ability, child-rearing, and so on. Because not everyone is equally talented in all valued domains, status disparities emerge.
Most humans prefer status hierarchies based on prestige rather than dominance. This seems to have originated in our evolutionary past, as the anthropologist Christopher Boehm has written in his masterpiece Hierarchy in the Forest. Boehm compiles evidence from the anthropological record, along with accounts of modern hunter-gatherers, to show that most hunter-gatherer societies have been relatively egalitarian. That is, status equivalency has prevailed in these small-scale societies. And this is what humans have come to prefer.
Most of our primate relatives have dominance hierarchies, with some rudimentary elements of prestige. For humans, we tend to have prestige hierarchies based on competence. But Boehm notes that humans have this dominance impulse too—humans tend to want higher status for themselves, relative to other people. And because everyone has this impulse, the idea is that status equivalency among hunter-gatherers prevailed as a kind of compromise solution. To be clear, most of the research suggests that this kind of egalitarianism among hunter-gatherers in a diverse array of societies has existed primarily among adult males. Women and children have been relegated to a subordinate role. It is true that these small-scale societies sometimes have leaders, or chiefs, or what are sometimes referred to as “big men.” These men are not dominant. Rather, they are accorded status due to prestige. Hunting ability, skills in warfare, medicine making, and so on. But these men tend to be very careful to avoid bragging, or boasting, and often give away a lot of their material possessions and tend to be very generous. For most of human history and prehistory, homo sapiens have lived in egalitarian societies where men have been granted roughly equal status.
How did this happen? There appear to be three key reasons.
First, the invention of hunting weapons. Once humans were able to use weapons to quickly kill animals, they learned they could use these instruments to kill one another as well with little risk of injury to themselves.
Second, and relatedly, the advent of large-game hunting. Humans learned to unite to take out large-bodied mammals, and gradually learned to use the same techniques to kill unwanted humans as well.
Finally there’s the development of our large brains and associated cognitive and linguistic capacities. Language enabled humans to spread rumors, form whisper networks, build consensus, and so on in order to target other individuals.
Who were the targets of these organized attacks? Mostly, bullies. Men who attempted to assert unwanted dominance were the targets of organized attacks by their hunter-gatherer peers.
This brings us to the self-domestication hypothesis, discussed at length by the Harvard evolutionary biologist in his book The Goodness Paradox. Wrangham asks a question: Why are humans so much more cooperative and peaceful compared with our nearest evolutionary relatives? Comparing within-group physical aggression among chimpanzees to human hunter-gatherer communities, chimps are 150 to 550 times more likely than humans to inflict violence against their peers.
We tamed ourselves by weeding out bullies and domineering males throughout our evolutionary history. Humans organized egalitarian societies, and any male that violated this too much was subsequently the victim of a targeted killing. Slowly humans eliminated overt aggression and hostility, and we shaped ourselves into being relatively calm, docile, cooperative, and so on, relative to other great apes.
Ironically, we humans killed our way out of dominance hierarchies.
But humans are also capable of immense cruelty.
Relative to other primates, humans are extremely agreeable and cooperative. Yet we also are the only species who can commit murder on a horrific scale. Wrangham explains this contradiction with the idea of “coalitionary proactive aggression.” In short, humans domesticated themselves to be kind, loyal, and cooperative with their in-group. And absolutely vicious to outsiders, to the out-group.
Humans evolved in relatively small societies of about 150 people, and competed with other groups for resources, territory, reproductive partners, and so on. Between this and the self-domestication practices, a unique psychology has arisen. Humans make good friends and horrible enemies.
Coalitionary proactive aggression stands in contrast to coalitionary reactive aggression. Reactive aggression is immediate, impulsive, unthinking, instinctive. Someone upsets you, you blow a fuse and immediately start attacking them. Most humans aren’t like this. Proactive aggression, the kind that characterizes humans, is different. It’s calculating, deliberate, and strategic. Someone upsets you, you immediately start planning ways to get revenge without them knowing. This is how warfare is conducted. The enemy does something to you. And rather than impulsively retaliating, you plan, you consider your options, you think it through.
Humans don’t like bullies. Early humans formed relatively egalitarian societies that based status on prestige, on knowledge, skills, and so on. Of course, there was a protracted period of dominance with the rise of agriculture. But the past 12,000 years or so have been a blip in human evolutionary history, and most humans today, given the chance, seem to prefer status equivalence to being subordinated.
Prestige is interesting, because rather than status being taken as in a dominance hierarchy, it is freely conferred to prestigious individuals.
Here’s the sociologist Ashley Mears in her terrific book Very Important People:
"Free things are a clear marker of status in the VIP world. Free entry, drinks, and dinners signal recognition of a person’s social worth. ‘I always said, in nightlife it’s not what you spend, it’s what you get for free. That’s real power.’”
Power has a specific definition in psychology which we’ll get to later, but this quote gets at something interesting. Achieving prestige opens doors to you that you didn’t ask to have opened. If you do something free and kind for a prestigious person, you hope they might do something nice for you back. You hope they’ll return the favor. And this requires foresight. With dominance, you give someone status simply because you don’t want them to hurt you. That doesn’t require much deep thought. But with prestige, you give them status and consider alternative futures where they might give you something back in exchange.
People defer to prestigious individuals because they want to, and defer to dominant individuals because they have to.
About ten years ago, Angelina Jolie wrote a viral op-ed in the New York Times documenting her decision to get screened for breast cancer. Some researchers found that this led to a nationwide increase in breast cancer screenings, and they dubbed this the “Angelina Effect.” If a prestigious person wears something or recommends something, people are likely to imitate them with no coercion necessary.
Status isn’t grabbed but rather granted under a prestige framework. Now is a good time to explore why status is not the same thing as power.
Psychologists define power as “control over access to resources.” A person has power if they can determine whether you get a paycheck, or whether you can move into a certain neighborhood, or a join a certain organization. It is about access to material resources rather than about esteem or regard that lives in the minds of people. Power is evolutionarily novel. In small-scale hunter-gatherer societies, no single human gets to control access to resources.
But in the modern era, humans now have the ability to stockpile resources, command large militaries, win the favor of large numbers of allies, and use organized force. Power necessarily entails violence or the threat of violence. If someone tried to control access to critical resources without the backing of violence, others would simply take what they have.
Mao Zedong famously said that “Power grows from the barrel of a gun.”
Olympic athletes have high status; they are prestigious and generally well-regarded. But they don’t control access to resources. They don’t have power.
Nightclub bouncers and doormen have power; they control access to who goes in and out of nightclubs. But people do not generally tend to confer high status to them, at least not voluntarily.
Here’s a story. I enlisted in the U.S. Air Force when I was 17. I learned about the formal enlisted rank structure. Each time you get promoted, you earned another stripe. The stripe was sown on your sleeve, and it was a visible symbol of your rank in the hierarchy. I had to attend a “First-Term Airmen” orientation at my first duty station. The class leader outranked all of the others in the group (he had 3 stripes, the rest of us had 1 or 2). He had power, because he could technically file reports and issue disciplinary measures. He could get us demoted or kicked out. But none of us respected him. He was a goofball, he wasn’t very smart, he wasn’t in good physical shape. He had power, but not status. Perhaps you’ve had a boss who you didn’t respect, who you thought was incompetent, who you begrudgingly listened to simply because he or she signed your paychecks.
Another finding which helps to understand the difference between status and power is that men want power more than women do, whereas women want status more than men do.
Status in modern environments is prestige-oriented and depends on being well-liked. Women tend to be more agreeable than men and tend to want social approval more than men.
In contrast, power actually allows you to escape from personal relationships. Men are more individualistic and disagreeable than women. Power—access to and control of resources—allows men to exist without having to rely on social connections and relationships. This is not to say that men don’t care about status, they care a lot about it. In fact, men desire status just as much as they desire power. But women don’t seem to have a strong craving for power. Perhaps because obtaining power entails the risk of being disliked, and, unlike status, power has few social payoffs.
We’ll now turn to research with infants and children to understand the adult desire for status.
A 2013 study found that 5-year-olds are “selective copiers.” They are more likely to imitate their head teacher rather than an equally familiar person of the same age and gender. They prefer to copy high-status people. A 2015 study found that 5-year-olds assume that an individual who imitates another person is relatively lower in status, suggesting they have an intuitive understanding that the person being copied has higher status.
Even babies seem to understand status. In developmental psychology, researchers study infants through a variety of clever means. One way involves looking time studies. The idea is that babies (and adults) tend to stare longer at novel or unexpected events. When they habituate, or get bored, with something, they lose interest and look away.
For instance, if you show a baby a to sitting on a table, they might stare for a few seconds and then their eyes start to wander. But if you show a baby a toy that appears to be floating in mid-air, they will stare for a very long time. They don’t lose interest as quickly. It’s as if they are asking themselves, “Is that thing really just floating?” This implies that infants have an intuitive understanding of physics. They understand that objects can’t defy gravity without some kind of explanation.
So here is an interesting looking time study from 2017.
First, they showed babies two puppets in different scenarios. In one scenario, each puppet received an equal number of treats. In another scenario, one puppet received a lot of treats, and the other received a lot less. Babies looked longer at this second scenario. This suggests that they expect resources to be evenly divided, and when they are not, this surprises them, and they stare longer at this unexpected twist of events.
However, no information was given about the puppets. Babies just saw resources being divided to two puppets. What happens when babies learn who has more status?
In a follow-up study, a different set of babies were presented with a different scenario. First, they saw a chair next to a small box. Then they saw two puppets get into a physical conflict over who would sit in the nice chair. One puppet prevails, the other relents. The victor sits in the chair, and the loser sits on the little box.
Then babies watched as treats were either evenly divided between the puppets, or if the victorious puppet received more.
The babies stared longer when the treats were evenly divided, suggesting they were surprised by this. They didn’t stare as long when the victor received more treats. This indicates that they expected this to be the outcome. Babies expected that the winner would get a greater share, rather than an equal share, of the resources.
This study suggests that the default for babies is that resources should be evenly split. But once they learn that someone has more status, then they believe that person should receive more resources.
Is status a fundamental motive?
Sociometric status (respect and admiration from peers) is a stronger predictor of self-esteem and well-being than socioeconomic status.
Relatedly, people are more likely to report envying individuals with high sociometric status compared with economically rich individuals. In other words, social advantage sparks more envy than material advantage. This is an interesting finding because sociometric status is literally quantified on social media.
What does it mean for something to be a fundamental psychological motive?
There seem to be 4 key criteria.
First, the motive must shape long term psychological adjustment, health, and well-being.
Second, it must induce a wide range of goal-oriented behavior designed to satisfy its associated aims. Fulfillment of these aims is pleasurable, and failure is unpleasant.
Third, it must be non-derivative. This means that the motive serves as an end goal that is rewarding in and of itself. A simple example: Hunger. At a psychological level, eating is its own reward, it feels good to eat and it is not done for other purposes.
Fourth, it is universal and observed across people regardless of cultural background, age, gender, personality, and so on.
Does status fit these four criteria?
Status does shape adjustment, health, and well-being. There is a high correlation between well-being and sociometric status. People with high status tend to have fewer mental and physical illnesses. In contrast, low status is linked to depressive symptoms as well as anxiety. Remember, though that while prestige might be good for health, dominance might impose some costs. Relatedly, self-esteem is tightly linked with social status.
The pursuit of status propels behavior. People vigilantly monitor their status. A classic study from 1959 looked at executives working at a bank. They found that at first, each executive had only one expensive fountain pen on their desk. One of the executives put two pens on his desk, and the other soon followed. Then one put three, and so on. This became a visible arbitrary marker of status.
People also have strong emotional reactions to status gains. You feel pride, honor, jubilation, and so on. And you feel strongly about losses to status as well, with shame, humiliation, embarrassment, and so on.
And status feels good in and of itself, suggesting it is a non-derivative goal. It’s a primary as opposed to a secondary reward. Primary rewards are linked directly to survival—food, warmth, and shelter are examples. A secondary, or derivative, reward is something you can use to obtain a primary reward to enhance survival or reproduction. Money is an example; it has no intrinsic value. It’s only worth something insofar as you can use to purchase primary rewards.
People will pay for social media followers, they’ll pay to have books published, they’ll pay and go into debt for an expensive university degree. People will forego food to look attractive. They’ll forego sleep to obtain a promotion.
Finally, status appears to be universal. It is a concept that exists cross-culturally, and is something people everywhere seem to pursue. In hunter-gatherer societies, talented hunters and gifted medicine men receive more respect. They are also hyper-conscious of status disparities and will mock one another to prevent people from thinking too highly of themselves.
Interestingly, the domains of status are different based on culture. In individualistic cultures, leadership ability is highly valued. And people tend to overestimate their abilities as leaders. In collectivistic cultures, the ability to listen to others is valued. And in these cultures, people overestimate their ability to listen. The pursuit of status is universal, but what confers status varies based on time and place and culture.
Another clue that status is fundamental comes from research indicating that people experience social exclusion—that is, the loss of status—as unpleasant and even painful.
Perhaps the most widely used design to get people to feel excluded is this classic game called Cyberball. Researchers have participants play this computer game with what they think are two other players sitting in another room. But in fact these two players are simply part of the computer program. In one condition, the participant plays a ball-tossing game with two other “players,” and is included throughout the game. They receive the ball and get to toss it to the others.
But in the other condition, the participant receives the ball once, and spends the next couple of minutes watching as the other two toss the ball back and forth between one another. Then people are asked about how they felt during the game. And what researchers, including me, have consistently found is that people report massive losses in self-esteem, meaning, belonging, and so on. These feelings all track one’s self-conception of their own status.
This is a silly computer game, and yet people feel awful if they are excluded in it. The researcher who designed this game described how he came up with it. Many years ago, he was sitting in a park reading a book. Suddenly a frisbee landed by him. He picked it up and tossed it back to the two people who were playing with it. They tossed it to one another, and then back to the professor. After a couple of rounds, the two players then wandered off with their frisbee, leaving the professor alone once again. The professor suddenly felt awful about himself as they walked away, thinking “Do they not like me? Why are they excluding me?” Despite the fact that he hadn’t even exchanged a single word with the two strangers. Thus, the idea of Cyberball was born.
Other studies have found that even when personality traits are controlled, being excluded in Cyberball still feels bad. Highly disagreeable people still report thwarted self-esteem and a loss of fundamental social needs when they are excluded in this game.
Why is this the case?
Humans evolved in small-scale societies where “one-shot” interactions didn’t exist. For our ancestors, every social interaction was important. Relationships were iterative rather than isolated to a one time exchange. This is why, today, you can still feel embarrassed around people you’ll never see again and why being insulted by a complete stranger can upset you.
Our sensitivity to social interactions has upsides and downsides. It keeps us honest when dealing with strangers. But it also can give rise to intense social anxiety in low stakes encounters with anonymous individuals.
I mentioned before that even when controlling for personality, people still have a powerful negative response to social exclusion. This suggests that status loss is a “strong situation.”
In social psychology, there a concept called “situational strength.” The idea is that in relatively weak situations, individual differences are more pronounced. But in strong situations, individual differences are compressed, and people generally respond in the same way.
As an example, yellow lights are weak situations. There is no protocol for how exactly to respond to them. So some people will slow down, and others will hit the gas, and try to zoom through the light. These different responses reflect differing profiles for risk taking, impulse control, conscientiousness, and so on.
Red lights are strong situations. Just about everyone, regardless of their individual traits, will stop at a red light.
Being socially devalued seems to be like a red light. The loss of status is a strong situation, people generally have a similar response to it, suggesting status is indeed a fundamental human need.
The psychologist Mark Leary and his colleagues have proposed that humans have a “sociometer.” This is a psychological mechanism that evolved to maintain self-esteem and social belonging. Everyone has a sociometer, and its purpose is to unconsciously monitor the social environment for signs of acceptance or rejection.
If our sociometer detects disapproval, you react with feelings that get us to correct our behavior and restore our esteem. Thus, you have feelings of foolishness, awkwardness, inadequacy, embarrassment, humiliation, and so on. These are unpleasant feelings. The experience of them or the prospect of potentially feeling them lead us to act in ways that increase our social acceptance and uphold our standing among our peers.
It's not quite the same thing as status. The sociometer is focused on communion, on getting along with others.
Then there’s the “hierometer.” This is a related but distinct psychological self-regulatory mechanism that tracks status. The hierometer’s function is to monitor our status and help us to navigate status hierarchies.
The hierometer is about agency (getting ahead), as opposed to communion (getting along).
This brings us to an interesting puzzle: Sometimes people will conceal their high-status accomplishments. People will give up signaling status in order to enhance feelings of belonging. Sometimes we want to avoid the envy of others, and downplay our achievements in order to better get along with the group. This isn’t the case for narcissists, though, who generally have no issue boasting about their achievements at the expense of feelings of belonging. Narcissists have an overactive hierometer and an underactive sociometer.
The hierometer tracks status, which is indexed by self-esteem and narcissism. It motivates us to be assertive to obtain social esteem. The goal is to boost our status.
The sociometer tracks inclusion, or belonging. This is indexed mostly by self-esteem, which regulates our affiliative behavior. The goal is to get along with others.
I mentioned before how people will sometimes conceal high status identities in order to better get along with others. This is expressed by humility, and the goal is to avoid envy and increase social acceptance.
There are two interesting examples from the book The Great Gatsby.
The narrator is Nick Carraway. He tells the reader, “I graduated from New Haven in 1915.” New Haven is a city, not a university. The reader is meant to infer that Carraway attended Yale. But he is too modest to boast about his educational pedigree, thus helping to win the reader’s trust.
Then there’s Jay Gatsby. He tells Carraway, “I was brought up in America but educated at Oxford.” Gatsby is insecure about his social position and tells people about his fraudulent educational credentials in a bid to bolster his status.
Carraway wants to increase social acceptance, and Gatsby wants to increase his social status.
Here we come to what some studies have called the “Big Two”: Communion and Agency. They have been described as the “cardinal axes along which we chart the course of our social lives.”
Communion is about getting along with others. Being understanding, cooperative, helpful, and so on.
Agency is about getting ahead of others. Being assertive, confrontational, direct, imposing, and so on.
People want to fit in and stand out. These two concepts capture these motivations.
Two related concepts are morality and competence. Roughly, morality is similar to communion, or the willingness to suppress selfishness and promote social cohesion. Competence is similar to agency, or the desire and ability to achieve.
Interestingly, these two concepts of morality and competence account for most of the variation in our impressions of people. But moral character accounts for more. When we evaluate others, we implicitly ask ourselves, “Will this person help or hurt me?” and “Is this person capable of carrying out their goals?” We wonder how communal and agentic they are.
Because these two concepts form the bulk of our impressions, these are also where insults tend to be directed.
A 2021 study found that frequent insults directed at men include: worthless, weak, poor, pussy, dumb, useless, scared. These attack their competence. And shithead, controlling, asshole, self-absorbed, and liar. These attack their moral character.
For women, insults included worthless, poor, needy, disgusting, and annoying (attacking their competence). And slut, skank, gold digger, and shallow (attacking their moral character).
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This is a transcript of a lecture I recently delivered in Miami for a Peterson Academy course.