Are we just status-seeking monkeys?

Trichotomy of Control

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We live everyday for ourselves, family, and friends. Or at least that’s how I have come to interpret it after 20-something years of life. Until recently, I haven’t fully taken the time to consider the role status-seeking plays into this. The Elephant in the Brain, by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson, makes the argument that most of our everyday actions can be traced back to some form of status-seeking or signalling.

In behavioural psychology, there exists a Status Hypothesis. It states that the desire for status is a fundamental motive. The examples of status given include respect, admiration, and voluntary deference. It is, however, distinct from human belongingness and financial success. At least according to the paper reference in this podcast episode.

An example of status-seeking or signalling could be buying the most expensive item in a bakery, a decadent truffle chocolate cake. A more conspicuous example is the flaunting a certain designer belt. In the bakery example, the signal is to the store-person and perhaps anyone else in the vicinity, that you are wealthy enough to purchase to the most expensive product. If you flaunt a designer belt, the signal is to anyone that sees you that you are wealth enough to afford it.

Now I say perceived social standing because there is no objective way to validate whether the signalling has the desired effect. If you buy the truffle chocolate cake, the signal may be received as intended, but it could also be misinterpreted. The storeperson will perhaps view you as a wealthy person. The other patrons, however, could think that you must really enjoy truffle to buy a cake that expensive.

It is worth acknowledging that perhaps a person buys a truffle chocolate cake because they really do enjoy it. Moreover, flaunting a designer belt could have pure motivations. Perhaps the person just really LOVES the design of it and is proud of it. Therefore, there could could be no intention to signal. The Elephant in the Brain’s other argument is that our brains deliberately hide our status-seeking intentions in a form of self-deception.

It is, therefore, difficult to differentiate between activities that garner status as a by-product versus activities where status-seeking is the primary motivator. Once we finish school, we need to find jobs. Why shouldn’t we aim for a good job that we enjoy and pays well? A better job likely nets you more status, but it is probably not your primary motivator. Unless you brain is decieving you like Simler and Hanson claimed. Regardless, you can make arguments either way.

Now that we have learnt the vocabulary, what then is the value of acknowledging such status-seeking behaviour? Probably very little. If we actually do practice self-deception, then we would always think that our motivations are pure and continue to practice the same behaviours. It does, however, give us more ammunition to try and be true with ourselves. We can better investigate why do we do the things that we do? It might make you change one or two decisions a week, but it will add up.

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