A Sense of Demotion

Since I read Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler’s book The Elephant in the Brain, I have become really interested in ideas and thoughts about status. We are social creatures living in an interconnected and social world. In order for us to move through this world we need friends, allies, and an ability to impress people around us with our valuable skills, abilities, and knowledge. These social pressures have created an evolutionary reason for why we desire status: the higher our status (historically and ancestrally) the better our chances of passing along our genes.

 

Hanson and Simler argue that as social creatures, direct efforts to raise our status generally don’t work, so we need to raise our status indirectly. When we directly set out to show our dominance by making a lot of money, when we go to the gym and make it explicit that we are doing so to attract the hottest mate, and if we were to admit that we made a large donation just to look good socially, we actually lose status. Instead of being direct about our self-interest and desire to increase our status, we hide our motives behind motives that sound legitimate and are far more admirable. We are making lots of money to provide for our children’s future, we go to the gym to be healthy (again possibly to help improve our children’s lives and not our own), and we made that big donation because we believe in the benefits it will have for other people in society.

 

It is clear from the argument that Hanson and Simler make that much of our behavior is status seeking behavior and that there can be many negative externalities stemming from our status seeking behavior. We will be depressed if we can’t buy a bigger house than our brother-in-law, we may get physically injured by overdoing it at the gym to show off for that hottie, and our large donation to that important sounding cause may be less effective than other less visible means of doing good with our financial resources.

 

These thoughts of status seeking behavior and the dangers of status seeking behavior came to mind this morning as I returned to a quote from Colin Wright in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be. Wright says the following about some of the angst we see in our country and across Europe as society changes:

 

“Some political scholars have chalked up contemporary support for crypto-authoritarians in the early 21st century as the consequence of older, nationalistic people realizing that in an increasingly interconnected, globalized world, young people and immigrants and people who don’t look like them suddenly have as many rights and privileges as they do. Lacking the advantages they’ve had over these other people for their entire lives, they feel as if they’ve been demoted, when in reality, everyone else has been promoted to a status closer to that which these people always enjoyed. This is a misinterpretation of what’s happening, but their feeling of demotion is still very real, and we’ve seen some very tangible consequences of that.”

 

I think that Wright’s analysis is clearly correct but it is hard to say that it is the only factor or the main factor in the world today. I certainly think people should make an effort to get beyond their own status desires, but the point of bringing this quote in is not to write about the evils of some out-group. What I am thinking about as I write this is the importance of recognizing that our own status seeking behavior can be negative for society and the world. We should make an effort to engage with the world in a way that solves problems, recognizing that addressing big problems will raise our status, but not making our status the main reason we are trying to tackle such large problems. We can also recognize that the people Wright criticizes are no different from us, they are looking to maintain and increase their status just a we are. We don’t need to concede to them, but we can better understand the pressures they face and acknowledge that we would likely feel the same way if we were in their shoes and if our own status was being leveled in the same way.

The Trouble with Labels

“The troubling thing about labels is that we very seldom have the exact same definitions for them,” Colin Wright writes in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be. I am disappointed by how frequently we use labels without giving them much thought. Labels are a necessity and a way to convey a lot of information without having to provide extensive background and definitions for every little thing. Labels are also things we use to signal something about ourselves and they are also something we use to make fun of other people and groups to which we don’t belong. If you are not aware of the labels you use, you are not aware of how frequently you are using them for signaling or just how insulting labels can be to the people you label.

 

Wright continues, “as soon as you decide to watch for them, you realize how many labels we use in every discussion, even beyond the exploratory ones. But it’s worth the effort if you really want to learn, understand, and communicate clearly.” When we use labels haphazardly, we end up talking about different things from our communication partner. My concept of any given label is going to be different from your concept of that label, and even if our ideas are just a little off, what I am saying may not make any sense to you at all. Our conversation could devolve into an argument where we are each trying to argue that something is or is not something else, not realizing that we are both arguing with a different set of definitions for the thing we are arguing about.

 

Beyond just confusing conversation, my biggest fear of labels is that they will become subtle digs and insults at our communication partners. We may throw in a label here or there that we don’t think our interlocutor will recognize, but that will be recognized by other people in our social group. This allows us to make subtle insults at individuals or groups and allows us to talk behind someone’s back, insulting them in a way where we feel superior because they did not even realize that we insulted them. This is typical of the types of arguments we see online, and it is something that has the ability to absolutely destroy productive conversation. It can ruin opportunities to learn and it actively drives us away from becoming a more cohesive society. Recognizing when use labels in this way will help us to have more clear and constructive conversations, and if we can help other people recognize how they use labels, then we can begin to have more productive and rational discussions about the direction our society should move.

Will We Lose Conversations?

With the internet social media world we live in, you can always find the perfect niche community for your interests. I love podcasts and like geology and there is a perfect show for me: The Don’t Panic Geocast. I enjoy stoicism and thoughts about overcoming obstacles and I can literally find forums on Reddit all about Ryan Holiday’s book The Obstacle is the Way. In many other areas of my life I am able to find the perfect group of strangers online who share my interests, want to talk about the things I want to talk about, and share the same general worldview and background as me. This is fantastic for me personally and I am very comfortable listening to the geology podcast and reading about stoicism, but if I only engage in these communities then I risk losing my ability to communicate beyond these small niches.

 

Colin Wright describes his fears of a world where conversation becomes impossible in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be. He writes, “One of the fundamental challenges we’ll face in the coming years, I think, will be figuring out how to have conversations … about anything and everything. How to have discussions about important things and relatively mundane things, and how we might have those conversations with a shared understanding that we’re trying to achieve the same thing, even if that might not immediately appear to be the case.”

 

The fear that Wright has is that we will become so accustomed to communicating within our own sub-communities that we won’t be able to have real conversations outside our groups. The words we use and the definitions we attach to those words will begin to shift and overtime will signify who is part of the group and who is not part of the group. Sometimes this will be obvious to both insiders and outsiders, but sometimes it won’t be obvious to either, and conversation will break down as each side fails to recognize that words are not being use in the same way. Similarly, certain things will become running jokes within a circle (like ice is a mineral in the Don’t Panic Geocast community) and we will make references that either intentionally or unintentionally leave other people out. This might help with bonding for our small group, but it can be alienating to people outside our group and can drive wedges further between our niche communities and the outside world.

 

If we end up in a world where we become so enclosed within our niche communities that we can’t have any real conversations beyond them, then we face a lot of negative consequences as a country and planet. Pragmatically working to solve problems may take a back seat to trying to enhance the status of ones community, or ones place within the community. Shared meaning could break down, preventing us from having real discussions about real values and priorities. If we cannot come together and step beyond our niche communities then we won’t be able to avoid identity politics and we will feel more isolated in the real world even if we feel deep connections with our online communities.

Balance and Dimensionality

In our society we like to talk about balance. Everyone seems to be on a quest to find the perfect balance between work, family life, and personal interests and hobbies. We talk about a work-life balance as if there is some absolutely perfect way for us to do all the things we want to do and to live a full life. This is an idea that I gave up long ago because it doesn’t really fit with the reality of the world we live in.

 

Instead of balance I like to think about packing a suitcase and leaning toward one item or another. We have a limited amount of time in a given day, and we must give priority to things we think are the most important. We must decide what we are for sure packing in our suitcase, and what things we are leaving out. Once we have identified those things that are the most important and valuable to us, we end up leaning heavily into one thing or another. We may lean heavily into our career, leaving little time or space for a significant other or for exercise. We may lean heavily into our family, making us less likely to put in extra hours on the job. Or we may live for a hobby and rearrange our lives to provide for more time and opportunity to focus on our personal interests.

 

A short section in Colin Wright’s book Becoming Who We Need To Be brought these thoughts of balance back to my mind. He writes, “There’s nothing inherently unhealthy about working long hours, or working hard on something you care about or think will benefit you in the long term. It only becomes potentially harmful when, in doing so, you neglect other aspects of your life that require attention. When you start to lose density and become less three-dimensional.” What Wright is saying is that there is no correct way to pack your suitcase, as long as you do it intentionally.

 

In the same way that we would be very thoughtful about everything we pack for a week long trip to Hawaii, we should be very thoughtful about what we decide to include in our lives on a daily and weekly basis. If we are going to put in extra hours at work then we should be thoughtful about how we spend the rest of our time so that we don’t just operate as a zombie and ignore family, friends, or our own health. We should recognize that we won’t ever be perfectly balanced if we chose to focus heavily on one thing, but we can at least be intentional with how we use the rest of our time. If we don’t, then we will find that our suitcase has haphazardly filled itself with things we don’t really need, like Facebook, Game of Thrones, and late night trips to Wendy’s. If we think about what we want to pack into our suitcase of life, we can make sure our lives are still dimensional and interesting, even if we are spending a majority of our time and focus on a single thing. We can give up activities that simply distract us in favor of activities that help us be more thoughtful, healthy, or engaged with our loved ones. We don’t have to completely cut out Facebook or TV, but we should be intentional about how much time those activities receive. Going through life on autopilot or trying to find a perfect balance will ultimately end up with us in a frustrated spot as we can’t seem to do everything we want and can’t seem to make our lives fulfilling.

Physical Conflict and Military Economies

I’m currently reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer. Shirer takes us on a journey from the rise of the Nazis in Germany through the Second World War to Hitler and Nazi Germany’s defeat. I’m only a couple of hundred pages in, and just finished a section about Nazi Germany’s economy in the period leading up to war. A question I had was how a downtrodden and economically distressed nation managed to become economically sufficient and even able to build itself up to host the Olympics in 1936.  A military-industrial complex turned out to be the answer. German rearmament “creatively” funded and controlled by the state pulled Germany out of its terrible recession to the great detriment of humanity.

 

We know what soon followed in Germany beginning in 1939 after their economic turnaround driven largely by war preparations. Wars and armies have given us many scientific advances and breakthroughs, but they also support dangerous world views that will limit us in a globalized world. “The sooner we start thinking globally, as a planet-spanning species, rather than as isolated warrens of very different creatures, the sooner we’ll be able to do away with physical conflict entirely, instead spending our valuable time, energy, and resources on productivity and progress,” writes Colin Wright in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be.

 

Nazi Germany, the United States, and other nations have at different times fueled their economies by building up their army and military capacities. Scientific advances, new technology, and better safety equipment have come from the research and development of modern armies. At the same time however, armies exist to protect us from a dangerous “them” and allow us to entrench the idea that we are different from someone else and will need to use our physical strength to defend ourselves against their dangerous attacks. There is certainly a threat out there and a potential loss of innocent life if we don’t have something to protect us, but I think Wright and others would argue that we direct a lot of resources toward defending ourselves when we could be directing resources toward fostering better connections and further development of all humans globally.

 

Wright and I seem to be on the side of “a rising tide lifts all boats.” The more we can do to improve everyone, from the most globally poor in desolate and devastated parts of the world to those who live in the most productive countries, the more our own lives will benefit. The alternative view is that the world is zero-sum, meaning that the pie is only so big and for anyone else to have more, we would have less. The zero-sum frame doesn’t see humanity as a global force but rather as collective groups of individuals who each have their own resources, skills, and abilities. Each pocket of humanity is responsible for its own well-being and advances, and each nation must do its own work to make itself great.

 

My argument is that approaching the world in this way will ultimately lead to fewer scientific advances, delayed development of the nations that need it the most, and instability that will breed resentment toward nations at the top and potential terrorism. That instability will create fear and further drive the need for a substantial military for protection, further driving a wedge between the nations that are successful and those who are not. What I want to see is a world that includes everyone, partly because we don’t know where the next genius to develop the next world changing technology will come from, and partly because each human should have their own chance to flourish and live a full life with reasonable living standards. This can only be done if we see ourselves globally as a single humanity and not as dangerous enemies.

Individual Circumstances

For many of us, things in our life and our mental states begin to break down when we look around and compare ourselves to others. We can be perfectly happy on our own, enjoying our own flow of life, but when we see the neighbors buy a new car, when a friend posts vacation pictures on Facebook, and when a family member gets a promotion, we suddenly feel inadequate. Conversely, when we have overcome obstacles it is easy to look at everyone else who has not been as successful as us and look down on them, criticizing them for not being as strong as us and for not making the smart decisions that we had to make to get to where we are.

 

In my first example of comparing ourselves to others, I am referring to jealousy and envy that we can feel relative to others. Our status in the world will always be relative, which means that as someone else does better, our status relative to  that person is in a worse position. There is no global status meter ranking us all, but we unconsciously rank our status against one another all the time. It is stressful, and it is also all made up. Recognizing our status comparing impulses and choosing not to allow these impulses to drive our lives will free up our mind, our goals, and what we feel we must do to show that we are just as successful as other people in our orbit.

 

The second example from the opening paragraph of comparing ourselves to others is something I have been thinking about more recently. Once we become successful, I would argue that we have an incentive to over-hype the obstacles we faced and to make it even more challenging for other people to follow in our footsteps. If I had come from nothing and succeeded, and a hundred thousand people after me also came from nothing and found success, then my achievements would look smaller. If, however, I came from nothing and achieved great success and suddenly found myself in a rare group of individuals with very few other people able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, then my accomplishments would look even more impressive. What I did to achieve success may not have changed, but how it is perceived will change based on how many others also become successful. We have plenty of incentives to build up our story, trump up the obstacles we had to overcome, and to then criticize those who don’t make it. We shouldn’t believe the story we tell ourselves, because it is probably and exaggeration and will likely make life unnecessarily challenging for others, just so we can hold a special place in our own minds and in the eyes of society.

 

In his book Becoming Who We Need To Be, Colin Wright writes the following, “Don’t compare your efforts to that of your peers. Everything you do should be customized for your individual circumstances.” We never know all of the challenges that another person faces. We never know what advantages another person has in life. And ultimately, for ourselves, neither of those things matter. What does matter is whether or not we are making efforts to be well-rounded individuals and whether we exist in society for ourselves or with the goal of making all of society better for everyone. Comparing ourselves to others in an attempt to monitor who is working hard, who is cheating, who deserves what they get, and who is high or low status will simply burn us out and lead to negative thinking and negative interactions with others.

A Harmful Sentiment

I am fascinated with tribalism. We all have a part of us that looks around at the world and recognizes who is like us, who is different from us, what people are part of our family, and how people in our group behave. Everyone in our in-group stands above the people in our out-groups. Those “others” seem to take on any negative qualities that we want to assign to them. People who are less wealthy than the people in our tribe are less intelligent or lazy, and that is why they are not as well off. People who are doing better than our tribe financially are greedy or privileged elites and don’t really understand what it is like to be a true American. Our tribe, however, is full of hard working, smart, and all around good people.

 

We all seem to share these tribal tendencies, and they can be harmful when we start to pull into our own group and ascribe negative qualities to all the other groups out there. Colin Wright addresses our tribal behaviors in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be by looking at “America First” from a tribal perspective. Wright describes the benefits of a globalized community and population. Using the insights, developments, and tools created around the world to raise the standard of living for everyone, and not just to use discoveries in one part of the world to improve that part of the world. He writes, “People in the US should be taken care of, certainly, but to paint our relationships in those terms [America First] implies that we have to be utterly selfish and introverted in our dealings with others, when in fact, being more open and generous will bear much greater fruit. That sharing our strengths and celebrating the strengths of others is somehow detrimental to our well-being is an ignorant idea easily sold to a mistrustful populace.”

 

Wright argues that America First trumps up some of the worst aspects of our tribal nature. It highlights who is in our tribe and who is outside of our tribe and focuses solely on increasing the status of those in our tribe. The sentiment abandons the idea that improving the lives of everyone will improve our own lives, and seeks only to expand the economy, fortunes, and standards of living within our own tribe. This may work and we may have great prosperity for the few who are part of our tribe, but putting ourselves ahead of others so openly and blatantly while also denigrating those outside our tribe may create extreme mistrust and anger. Stability, fairness, and long-term well-being may be sacrificed in our selfish quest to primarily enrich ourselves.

Getting Beyond Economic Success

In his book Becoming Who We Need To Be author Colin Wright examines the way we think about and operate as a society around money. He suggests that money has grown in importance and engulfed every aspect and function of our lives in ways that are damaging but often hidden from us. He writes, “As we grow into adults who care about things like self-actualization and happiness defined in ways other than the color-within-the-lines manuals we’ve been provided, we still often limit ourselves to defining happiness in economic terms. If I can make this much money each month, I can leave this soul-sucking job I hate. If I can reduce my expenses, I won’t need to work so much and can free up time to spend on that hobby I’ve been neglecting. If I invest properly now, I may be able to not work at all at some point in the distant future.”

 

Wright argues that money has become our default measurement of success and happiness.  The idea that we can be both happy or successful without large amounts of money does not align with the ways we actually live our lives. We see the story of people getting away from this mode of thinking in movies all the time, but we rarely live our lives with something other than money at the center of all that we do. As a result, our goals, daily routines, and attention are all focused on helping us make more money or use our money.

 

Money itself will not make us happy, but it does provide us with new opportunities. I recently listened (I think to an episode of Tyler Cowen’s podcast but I can’t remember) to an economist suggest that money does not make us more happy above a certain level, but that our level of life satisfaction does continue to increase as we have more money. Our overall happiness may not continue to increase as we have more money, but having more money seems to open up new possibilities in our lives and give us more ability to engage in the world in a satisfying manner.

 

A question we should think about, is whether there is a way to change how we approach life so that we can have a high level of satisfaction without needing ever more money. Does our satisfaction come from distinguishing ourselves from others by purchasing court side tickets to the game? Do we get satisfaction from displaying our status with a large RV? Is our satisfaction contingent upon fancy trips and traveling to exotic places? I don’t know if there is specific research around this idea, but perhaps we can shift what we use on an individual level as our default for success away from money and begin to find more satisfaction in our lives in things that are more meaningful than purchasing expensive and fancy items that show off to our Facebook friends and broadcast our status. Exactly what the alternate version of success will be for us will likely vary from person to person, but it will probably favor relationships and connections with others over material possessions and purchases.

A Critique of Our Current Markets

A lot of people today feel that capitalism is failing them. They feel left behind and they believe that the system is rigged against them. This will undoubtedly be a major driving factor in the next presidential election and there will be many candidates who offer their own diagnosis as to why people feel the way they do. A key reason, I believe, as to why people feel the system is failing them is highlighted by Colin Wright in his book Becoming Who We Need to Be. Wright addresses the way that many people seem to be creating businesses, making money, and becoming successful through trickery and rent-seeking behavior. He writes, “…this means that if we can find a clever way to extract money from the system, even if we don’t create anything of value, or we sap value from society in the process, we’re still doing it right.”

In a recent podcast episode for his show Against The Rules, Michael Lewis described the way that many financial companies exist not to serve customers better, but to operate in a way that makes money seemingly by fooling customers into making decisions that benefit the company without benefiting the consumer. I’m sure that for many of us, our healthcare or health insurance has felt that way. Also for a lot of us, we probably felt that we got a little ripped off on one of the first times we tried to purchase something on Ebay, and ended up not quite getting what we expected.

A lot of aspects within our economic system at the moment seem to reward people even if they don’t give us what we expected. There are incentives to create systems and products that sound clear, but end up being hard to access and ultimately don’t seem to make us or anyone except the seller any better off.

On our own, we all want to get the most money and reward from doing the least amount of work. At times it is true that we all want to bust our bums and do great work, but if we could just set something up where we made money no matter what and didn’t have to do any real work, on some level we would be happy. On an individual level this is not a big deal, but when it is combined, multiplied, and turned into a corporation it can become a problem for society, and that is what we are seeing in the national mood today. People sense that the system is not fair and doesn’t produce fair outcomes. The individual instance of being ripped off might not be the thing that makes them the most angry, but rather the fact that the system allows for people to pull out money and become successful without creating value makes people lose faith in institutions. At a certain level, no matter what our individual incentives are, we should recognize and accept that this is a bad way to operate long term, and we would be better off within a society that seemed to operate more fairly because it would create less anger and more stability on a societal level.

Aware of Your Feelings of Superiority

In my life I want to remain open to the world around me, try new things, and stretch myself in areas where I recognize I don’t have much experience. In order to successfully live an open and exploratory life, I will have to accept that I am not as great as my ego wants me to believe I am, and I will have to accept that I don’t already know everything I need to know about how to live a good life. If I begin approaching the world as though I already have it figured out and as if my way of life is superior to the way that other people live, then instead of branching out, I will likely turn inward, away from a changing world.

 

“No group ever decided to pull inward and cut off contact with the outside world because they believed their own group was inferior,” Colin Wright wrote in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be. It is hard to avoid judging other people, and even easier to judge other groups rather than just other individuals. “Moral superiority is probably some degree of confidence in their social group and their support of their social group. That is, people are especially willing to express moral superiority when they’re expressing the superiority, not of themselves individually, but of the group of people they’re within together,” Robin Hanson stated in an interview with Tyler Cowen for his podcast Conversations with Tyler.

 

Allowing ourselves to see ourselves and our groups as morally superior to others limits our world and puts us in a place where we are less likely to connect with people who are not like us. I see this a lot with the relationships between runners and people who do cross-fit. It seems almost universal that runners criticize cross-fit athletes. I have thought about this a lot, and I think that what is happening is that runners are trying to express their (moral) athletic superiority over cross-fit athletes as a way to justify why they don’t do cross-fit themselves. To acknowledge that cross-fit is a good workout and accept that a cross-fit athlete is just as athletic, talented, hard-working, or smart as a runner places the runner in a position where they have to defend their sport and their choice to do running when a potentially more well-rounded and fun type of exercise exists.

 

The runners versus cross-fit example is just a small example of how our in-group versus out-group thinking manifests in real life. This type of thinking, of believing that we and our group are superior to other groups can have serious consequences. It can lead to our group becoming more close-minded. It can lead to us individually being less open to people who live differently. It can lead to enclaves and divisions within society that see conflict and threat instead of opportunity and learning. By becoming aware of these feelings of superiority, recognizing how frequently these feelings lack any solid rational basis, and by trying something new, we can prevent ourselves and our groups from becoming isolated. This will give us a chance to learn new things, gain insightful experiences, and it will help us provide more value to the world.