Arnold Kling  

The Status of Amateur Sociology

The Inelasticity of IQ... Oil Econ...

Or, rather, some amateur sociology about status seeking, in my latest essay.

I suspect that the most likely alternative to economic motivation is a worse motive: status-seeking. I believe that is more important to curb our lust for status than our lust for goods and services...

Trade and economic growth are positive-sum games, in which there can be winners without losers...

Status, on the other hand, is typically a zero-sum game, in which one person's gain comes at the expense of others. Adding to the evils of status-seeking is that people often deceive themselves and others into believing that they are doing something for a higher motive when in fact they are seeking status.

UPDATE: Tyler Cowen gave Thomas More's argument that people's need for approval is helpful to society.

if no one responded to approbational incentives of honor and shame. There would be fewer vanities and absurdities of many kinds, but extreme punishments would be needed to prevent people from breaking the law. No one would keep the law for the sake of honor. In reality, utopia is impossible, as pride and property are indispensable and society rests upon the foibles of men.

UPDATE 2: See also Gavin Kennedy.

For Discussion. Under what circumstances do you believe that the status-seeking motive would lead to better results than the profit-seeking motive?

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (8 to date)
dearieme writes:

Perish the thought that academics might have swapped potential wealth for the status of the title Professor.

Bruce Cleaver writes:

Well, since dispensing with status calculations is absurdly utopian and dangerously naive, we will have to find a way to live with them. Is this a case of market failure? Almost everyone has a utility function that includes status, with the odd abnegating Buddhist monk perhaps as an outlier.

Steve Sailer writes:

Tom Wolfe's books have been primarily about status-seeking for the last 40 years. Some of the status-seeking behavior is quite creative, as when people bail out of the existing status pyramid and start their own leagues centering around designing krazy kustom kars or surfing or NASCAR or whatever.

But the high end Manhattan status-seeking of "Bonfire of the Vanities" seems mostly a waste, in part because of the degeneration of elite taste from the days of the robber barons. The art the elite subsidizes today is either frozen old stuff (symphonies, etc.) or tawdry new crud designed to shock the bourgeoisie.

Paul N writes:

It's not as if you can force people to seek profit instead of status.

The reality is that the drive for status has driven a tremendous amount of economic growth that otherwise wouldn't have occurred. AK decries happiness research, but if it weren't for status-seeking, I think the results of happiness studies would be a lot more relevant to our world: I believe that people wouldn't really be driven to make more than $5k/yr or whatever amount above which increases in income don't seem to increase happiness.

Robert writes:

Most people consider themselves above-average drivers. On the same principal, most people can be happy about their status if they get to choose the basis on which they self-evaluate their status.

If Zeno can look down on Epicurus because he has greater self-mastery, and Epicurus on Zeno because he has more fun, then both Zeno and Epicurus are happier for it.

gamigin writes:

Wow, this guy is brilliant; that essay is spot on!

I would like to see that some logic taken a step further and see what actual changes can be made that would translate this insight into real benefit.

dearieme writes:

AK: apologies, my teasing was pointless - I have now read your piece and see you made that very point.

Stephen W. Stanton writes:

Status seeking explains much of philanthropy. People do a lot of good by simply wanting to enjoy "nice guy" status. Status seeking explains holding the door, helping old ladies across the street, etc.

Are these optimal outcomes? Often, no. Nonprofit fundraising can be very inefficient. Many universities just sock that cash into an endowment. They spend the earnings on silly things, too.

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