Social Status Follow-up Thoughts

Some follow-up thoughts to this essay.


On cooperation:

  • Here's a provocative hypothesis: Without prestige status, group-level cooperation may be literally impossible. It's the (informal) currency that keeps the (informal) economy running. Without it, favor-trading grinds to a halt.
  • Put another way: wherever you find some kind of superorganism acting in pursuit of shared goals, prestige status must be coursing through its veins.
  • Corollary: Every animal that does purposeful things in groups — in the parlance of my previous essay, "hives" rather than mere "swarms" — uses some amount of prestige status (however insignificant compared to its use of dominance). Wolves and lions hunt in packs, for example, and therefore need a modicum of prestige status to overcome the free-rider problem.
  • According to this view of cooperation, reciprocal altruism — favor-trading between two partners — is just a degenerate (N = 2) case of prestige-seeking or competitive altruism.


Cultural outgrowths of the prestige system:

  • Money and art (construed broadly to include, e.g., performance art) are two of the most significant cultural outgrowths of prestige status. Charity is another.
  • Perhaps most provocatively, Dessalles' thesis is that talking — voluntarily offering information to others — is ultimately incentivized by prestige status. Even something as simple as pointing (declaratively) requires prestige status to get off the ground. We talk (and evolved to do so) in order to advertise to others our ability to produce relevant insight on demand, which makes us good allies for cooperative endeavors.



  • One thing that makes prestige and dominance tricky to untangle is that they often lead to the same behaviors — but for very different reasons. In fact the same behavior can have three different meanings, depending on which status agenda is in play. Consider how, when dining together, we often let other people eat first. This might be the behavior of (1) a submissive trying to appease a dominant, (2) an admirer deferring to a prestigious individual, or (3) someone vying for prestige by putting others' interests first. Without context, it's impossible to know what's actually going on. But the participants themselves typically understand the status implications of their actions, intuitively if not explicitly.
  • Once we've distinguished dominance and prestige, we might also want to distinguish a third analytically-distinct form of (pseudo-)status: sexual attractiveness, which we might also call sexual status or sexual prestige. Much of what makes people prestigious, status-wise, also makes them desirable as mates: musical skill, intelligence, athleticism, etc. Sexual attractiveness also has a logic similar to prestige status, insofar as the perks of being attractive rely on the favors paid by admirers. The main differences is that sexual status, unlike the other two forms, plays out on a bipartite graph; one's admirers and one's rivals are drawn from two separate populations. An interesting set of questions: Does having a pretty face contribute at all to a person's (non-sexual) prestige? Do men admire and defer to pretty men (in a way similar to how they admire and defer to brave men), and do women admire and defer to pretty women? Even just a bit? And if so, why?
Last updated October 13, 2015.