Arnold Kling  

The Pleasure of Telling Others What to Do

PRINT
Gonick the Great - and How He ... Balan's Challenge...
Humans clearly attend closely to status, an important part of status is dominance, and a key way we show dominance is to tell others what to do. Whoever gets to tell someone else what to do is dominating, and affirming their own status. But we are also clearly built to not notice most of our status moves, and so we attribute them to other motives. And as long as we are making up motives, we might as well make up the most admired of motives, altruism.
Of course, that is Robin Hanson. Of course, you should read the whole thing.

Comments and Sharing





COMMENTS (11 to date)
Tom Dougherty writes:

"Of course, you should read the whole thing."

Arnold, don't tell me what to do!

Jesse writes:

Ooh look at me, I'm Robin Hanson, I'm so smart!

Fenn writes:

Whatever his failings, Jesse, he did write this:
http://www.overcomingbias.com/2009/09/this-is-the-dream-time.html
best thing I've read in a while

e writes:

Dude, he has a master's in physics!

Yancey Ward writes:

That is why the world is filled to overflowing with busybodies and do-gooders. If we started shooting some of them rather than tolerating them, they might actually get the point.

Kurblad writes:

He is mostly right - although it is hard to say where should one stop with "you are doing x just for {selfish motive.}" It is not easily "falsifiable."

    Robin wrote: "Yet it is completely crazy to imagine that fat folks have not yet heard that fat might be unhealthy or unattractive. Believe me, they’ve heard"

Reminding works. My wife said me three times last week I need new credit card. She'll win, it is just matter of time.


Jesse writes:

My comment was a joke. I was suggesting that Hanson was not writing for the sake of explaining the truth to others (what a noble and admired motive). Rather, he writes what he does only to affirm and improve his own status (insightful person who sees what most people refuse to see).

People do what they do for a variety of motives. I don't think the reductionist approach to understanding human behavior (everything boils down to X) has been very successful.

Dr. T writes:

"Humans clearly attend closely to status, an important part of status is dominance, and a key way we show dominance is to tell others what to do."

I've been a "boss" for twenty years. (I direct medical labs.) However, I'm too much of a libertarian to enjoy telling others what to do. I prefer that employees act like professionals, do their jobs without prompting, and do their jobs well without nagging. But, only about a quarter of lab professional do that, and I reluctantly don my dominating boss hat a few times a week.

What does it mean when a person with power prefers not to exercise it? Is Robin Hanson's theory wrong, or am I atypical?

guthrie writes:

Dr. T, I think that the theory still holds up. To demonstrate, let me ask a couple of questions, if you will:

Is it merely an annoyance to have to 'don your dominating boss', or do you get sick to your stomach, tremble and feel compelled to touch your face when you're speaking, and have to take several minutes to recover afterwards? When you do 'tell others what do to' do they follow your direction (at least for a bit)? Or do they go and do the opposite immediately?

My guess (and please pardon my presumption) would be the former and not the latter for both when it comes to you and your staff. You may not recognize it as 'pleasure' as such, but unless you are 'undone' by such confrontation, and unless your staff blatantly disregards your directive, I posit that your status is still very much 'affirmed'. Indeed, I doubt seriously you would have become 'the boss' in the first place unless you possessed and could demonstrate this ability to dominate (in addition to your intelligence). Call it 'motivation', call it 'being the boss' but all the same your status rises in those moments. Does that jibe with your experience?

BTW, I suggest your status rises when you 'ignore' your subordinates as well.

mark writes:

I like the point generally but I think it's slightly wrong as applied in his example to efforts to get obese people to shape up. It's not that we're "trying to help them" or trying to establish our better status. It's that a healthcare payment system has grown up that envelops both obese people and non-obese people in the risk pools, and their health issues are imposing costs on the non-obese people who, with all due respect for the freedom of obese people, would like them to stop doing that. While there are a variety of ways to stop the cost shifting, that isn't likely, so the secondbest alternative is to try to stop the cost increases.

James Street writes:

All theories simplify reality in order to understand it. We need these simplifications to navigate around in our worlds, as city maps clearly demonstrate.
But every city is far more complex than any single map that describes it.

In my own life, when I was in school, I found that if I could satisfy my "human instincts" (with these metaphors I am begging several questions of course ;) through "dominance" in sports, I didn't notice all the other social hierarchies. (When I could no longer do this, the other hierarchies seemed to scream at me that I wasn't paying enough attention to them!) Later, I noticed other people doing the same thing through other activities such as politics, music and even religion.

There is human nature, even though it is very difficult to characterize, and there are many possible social organizations of human beings. Human nature and social organization of human beings clearly influence each other. Being dominant in sports, music, religion or mathematics are all similar but also different in important ways. And being dominant in any one area can, however irrationally, make it possible to almost ignore any other set of social ranking signs. The athletic hero is denigrated as a "jock" and the computer expert is called a "geek" by other groups. But they don't notice it and sometimes even glory in the name. These wars occur between all groups.

To answer one of Gutherie's questions:

Is it merely an annoyance to have to 'don your dominating boss', or do you get sick to your stomach, tremble and feel compelled to touch your face when you're speaking, and have to take several minutes to recover afterwards?

Unions have been the traditional answer but dominating bosses have convinced many economists that unions have a negative effect on total productivity and wages. Even if they are right, some things are more important than making more money. "Peace of gut" is one.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top