On Forms of Status – Dominance

In The Elephant in the Brain authors Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write about our hardwired desires to increase our status. No matter who we are, where we are, or what we are doing, we are subconsciously aware of our status and we are pretty much always trying to increase our status one way or another. The authors describe two type of status, and how our attempts to increase our status change depending on the form of status we seek. They write,

 

“Status comes in two distinct varieties: dominance and prestige. Dominance is the kind of status we get from being able to intimidate others – think Vladimir Putin or Kim Jong-un. Dominance is won by force, through aggression and punishment. In the presence of a dominant person, our behavior is governed by avoidance instincts: fear, submission, and appeasement.”

 

Tomorrow I will continue their quote and write about prestige, but for now, I’ll share a few thoughts that I have on dominance. Dominance as a strategy for obtaining strategy to me feels more primitive, and while it may be the kind of status we often seek in sports, courts, and boardrooms, it is not the kind of status that usually seems to be the most effective. In a politicized world where many weaker individuals can gang up on the stronger more dominant individual, this path can be a dangerous route to take. In other parts of the book Simler and Hanson seem to argue that our brains evolved to be more successful in seeking status in other ways.

 

People who seek greater status through dominance alienate a lot of people. They may be impressive in their abilities to bulldoze through their competition and they may achieve great success, but in the social and political species that we are, having friends and allies is important. Dominance does not encourage greater cooperation among talented individuals, but instead seems to force away those who are less dominant. It is not hard to see how this could lead to a small number of dominant sycophants sticking together to ward off attackers, and it is also easy to see how this strategy could backfire and fail to produce long-term status.

 

Ultimately, seeking status and seeking dominance seems to be a “careful what you wish for” type of approach. When your status is based in your dominance of other people, you can never be successful or attain a sense of success on your own. Our status is always tied to others by nature of being relative, but the dominance approach leaves you vulnerable to every slight. Achieving great status in this way is likely to leave you in a point where your status is high in only select groups, and despised in others.

Weapons for Our Early Ancestors

Weapons are in interesting consideration for early human evolution and how we ended up in the place we are with large brains and strong social groups. Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson address the importance of weapons in their book The Elephant in the Brain. Weapons change the value of physical strength and the nature of conflict on the individual and group levels. They altered the threats and defenses that our early ancestors faced and could mount.

 

“Weapons are a game changer for two reasons.” write Hanson and Simler, “First, they level the playing field between weak and strong members of a group. … Another way weapons alter the balance of power applies to projectile weapons like stones or spears. Such distance weapons make it much easier for a coalition to gang up on a single individual.”

 

Physical force has been a dominating aspect of human relationships (and probably early proto-human ancestors’ relationships), but we don’t live in societies where just the most physically dominant individuals rule. Weapons are a big part of why this is the case. Once we could hurl projectiles, even just heavy or sharp rocks, at opponents, our social grouping had to change. Coalitions could push back against a dominant individual who did not care about the well being of the group or of others. The role of politics and cooperation could naturally be expected to rise in a system where physical dominance was not the sole determinant of leadership and power.

 

What weapons did, Hanson and Simler argue and I will discuss more tomorrow, is create a system that favored brain development. Social intelligence and intellectual capacity became more valuable when coalitions could rule with weapons, and that created a space where the brain could evolve to become larger and more complex. If pure physical dominance was the best predictor of power and of passing along our genes, then we would not have expected our early ancestors to begin evolving in a way that favored the development of a large and highly energy dependent brain. By bringing physical prowess down a level, weapons it seems, helped further the evolutionary growth of the human brain.

Political Monopolies

Throughout his book Political Realism: How Hacks, Machines, Big Money, and Back-Room Deals Can Strengthen American Democracy, Jonathan Rauch argues that our government needs a little less sunlight and transparency to allow for good governance. His ideas are that too many rules and restrictions, too many provisions for transparency and clearness, and too many changes to make our system more democratic have led to a point where necessary parts of politics cannot take place, and as a result, our government cannot function effectively. Politics (thinking about human behavior dating back to our first human ancestors) is about coalition building, creating alliances, and cooperating for safety, growth, and group survival. When a government’s political activities have to be entirely out in the open these types of activities are hindered, and as a result, we get showmanship and political battles as acts of public coalition building. Real governance, compromise, and negotiation become impossible.

While Rauch thinks that we need more of a cover in our system for these political behaviors, he does understand how we got to this point and he does examine some of the shortcomings of our old political system which compelled people to impose such restrictions on modern day politics. When looking at political machines specifically, Rauch highlights some of the negative aspects of organized political coalitions. He writes,

“Machines seek monopolies. In order to preserve power, they will seek to manipulate rules and rule-making (redistricting, voting rules, and the like) to shape the political battlefield in their favor—often with the goal of raising barriers to entry for would-be political competitors. They also will try to get their hands on as many formal levers of power as they can, using each to reinforce the others.”

This description of political machines reminds me of modern day corporations. Rather than simply looking to out-compete and out-innovate their sector and competitors, many firms today seem to prefer gaming the system and industry to limit competition. Often corporations will argue for increased regulation and requirements because it makes it harder for new firms to enter the market and disrupt current markets. Firms also look to build monopolies and diversify across different sectors to capture markets and establish a status quo that favors their bottom line rather than the interests of society or the furthering of new products and technology. Rauch argues that the danger of our old political system of machine politics mirrors the danger of modern markets. The political landscape in one sense becomes an economic landscape, with different political coalitions competing for greater market-share (vote share) and influence.

What I find interesting and revelatory about this point of view is that ideology and beliefs take a back seat to group dominance and interests. When we operate in machines, what we favor is the preservation of our coalition, not necessarily any specific ideology. Just like in a market we may prefer a specific brand and gravitate continuously toward that brand even if competitor brands introduce better products. Often we will stick with our familiar brand and highlight the good things about the brand we like while downplaying the shortcomings. Rauch’s demonstration of machine politics reveals that we do this in our political alliances as well, favoring rules and power grabs that help our side while remaining critical and opposed to any actions taken by our competitors.

What Rauch highlights here is part of why we have implemented rules that make politics more transparent and clear. The political actions of machines are not about issues but rather power, and we are uncomfortable with that. Unfortunately however, we humans operate in this tribal manner, and without these political power games, we don’t seem to be able to coalesce around issues to foster good governance. Somewhere in the middle of where we are now and the machine politics of the past is where good governance can live and thrive, addressing our political issues while engaging the public and building teams to move government policy forward.