Do you ever think about your social status? I do, and sometimes I find it corrosive

Examples of thoughts that might come up:

  • Should I share X doc/idea with Alice? Her feedback might be useful, but it might make her think worse of me.
  • Why did my friend Bob get invited to X event and I didn’t?
  • I wonder if Carol has a negative impression of me. 
  • David responds to my friend but not me. Why?

In many situations, these thoughts are helpful. For example, it might be good to occasionally examine if “Carol” has a negative impression of me, especially if Carol is someone I respect, because it might help me find areas where I can grow.

But sometimes, these thoughts are unproductive, limit my thinking, or distract me from more important tasks at hand.

In the rest of this post, I’ll describe some techniques/frames that I’ve found helpful when I notice status coming up in corrosive ways.

Note: If you haven’t read “PR” is corrosive; “reputation" is not, I suggest reading that first.

My Rob Bensinger shoulder model 

My Rob Bensinger shoulder represents integrity, honesty, and transparency. He tells me things like:

  • What do you actually believe? How can you communicate it accurately?
  • What kind of community do you want to foster? Do you want to be in a community where people are afraid to voice their true opinions?
  • Sharing our beliefs and ideas openly is how we get closer to the truth.

“Be the sort of person internally who you would find most admirable and virtuous. Be brave, be thoughtful, be discerning, be honest, be honorable, be fair, be compassionate, be trustworthy; and insofar as you’re not those things, be honest about it.” -- Rob

When I talk to my Rob Bensinger shoulder model, he reminds me that the options are not merely “think about how others perceive you” vs. “don’t pay attention at all to your self-presentation.” There is a nice third option which looks something like “imagine a person who is scoring well on a bunch of virtuous axes, and aim to be that person. Be honest, share your views, and aim for integrity rather than likability.”

Habryka’s comment about identifying as an EA

When it comes to status concerns, my Habryka shoulder model is based on one comment he wrote in 2021. He reminds me to notice if my attachment to the community is harming my ability to think and act in the world. And he reminds me that identifying strongly as part of the community (and carrying the weight of thinking about how my actions will reflect the community or be perceived by the community) is ultimately my choice.

An excerpt from his comment:

I have found that when I identified as an EA, I had a lot more unproductive critical voices in my head that prevented me from considering a lot of potentially good ideas, and it exposed me to a lot of people who would get angry at me if I did anything that "damaged the reputation of the movement". After many years of actively carrying EA as part of my identity, I had noticed that my ability to take directed action in the world had very greatly atrophied, I was much more anxious and risk-averse, and it took me at least two years of internally distancing myself quite a lot from the EA-identity cluster before I felt like I could have novel ideas again and start working on ambitious projects again. 

See also: Use your identity carefully

The status equation

Someone told me that they see status through the following equation: 

Status = Goodness of your thinking + Goodness of your actions + Something About Your Vibes™

When thinking about status, beware of spending too much time thinking about the third thing. Use the part of you that cares about status to improve your thinking, learn more, understand the world more carefully. Use the part of you that cares about status to launch new projects, form new partnerships, work harder, and find ways to improve the world. 

Be careful if you’re thinking too much about your tone, or the particular “vibe” of your social interactions with others. These things matter, and some people draw their status from this source, but this is not (primarily) what you’re aiming for. You're aiming to be a better thinker who takes wiser actions.

Is status the true bottleneck?

Suppose you come up with a plan that would significantly reduce AI x-risk (or make the world a better place in some other way). But the issue is that you need buy-in from important stakeholders. The plan fails because you lack the social status/social capital to get it implemented. If only you had more status...

There's an important thing about this story: you already have a fantastic plan. Most of us do not. Most of us would benefit from thinking much more about the world, learning about new fields, and getting more contact with the territory. We're not bottlenecked (primarily) by status; we're bottlenecked by not having good enough ideas.

Also, when I actually think about what it would be like to have a Plan That I Truly Believe In, it doesn't really seem hard to get it on the desk of The Important Stakeholders (or someone who knows someone who talks to The Important Stakeholders).

This doesn't work for all plans. Sometimes status is the true bottleneck. But you might be surprised at how far you get if you actually just ask yourself if status is really the primary thing that's bottlenecking you from coming up with better ideas or executing your plans. 

See also: Is that your true rejection?

Focus on the people you respect

There are some outstanding people in the community whose thinking & actions I greatly admire and respect. These are the people I should focus on.  

It’s tempting to get carried away thinking about what everyone thinks, or what “the community” thinks. Instead of focusing on “the community,” I try to shift my focus toward what the people I admire/respect would think.

(There’s a danger in doing this if the people you admire/respect the most also tend to agree with you the most. I try to be mindful of this, and make sure I include at least 1-2 voices I admire/respect but who generally disagree with me). 

Few books are worth reading twice

Sometimes, my concerns around status come up when I’m comparing myself to someone else. Maybe my friend Alice got invited to X event or got Y opportunity that I didn’t get. 

In these cases, I pull out a frame from my childhood best friend. He once told me something like this:

Here’s the thing, Akash. There are some incredible books in the world that both of us should read. But most books worth reading are not that good. One of us should read it, and then we should share the main insights and try to communicate >50% of the value. There are few books so valuable that it’s worth both of us spending our time reading them.

Thanks-- now I don’t have to do that!

Here’s another one from the same friend, that I also find helpful for social comparison situations:

Sometimes I’ll have an idea for a movie I might want to direct one day. And then a few months later, Christopher Nolan will release a high-budget film with the same concept, and he’ll execute it well, and I’ll be like darn, I wish I had the chance to do that. 

But then I’ll look back on my List of Films I Want to Make One Day. And I’ll notice that there are still plenty of options left. And I’ll remember all the work and time it would’ve taken to make that film. And I’ll cross it off my list. And I’ll say, thank you, Chris Nolan. You brought this into the world, so now I don’t have to. You’ve given me the ability to focus on something else.

Gratitude frame

People are imperfect evaluators. Sometimes, the community is going to make mistakes when conferring status. And sometimes, those decisions will be consequential. This sometimes makes me feel upset, disappointed, or annoyed.

When I notice one of these feelings (and I’ve deemed this feeling unproductive), I remind myself of some ways in which I’m grateful to the community.

Some examples of things I might think about:

  • I would not be here without the community. I did not independently discover the importance of existential risk from first principles. A lot of what I know and a lot of what I care about is based on the work of others in the community.
  • I imagine what it was like for people who began their journey in 2010, or even 2015, or even 2018. I’ve seen a snapshot of the community: a particular subset of people at a particular moment in time. And more concretely, the community I joined had money, office spaces, and a track record of making things happen in the world. EA, longtermism, and AIS are “weird”, but they’re much less “weird” and “risky” than they were 10 years ago. I’m grateful to the people who were willing to come into the community when there was more to sacrifice and less to benefit from. 
  • I imagine what it was like to work on reducing x-risk when we knew even less about what we were doing. I imagine all of the work that it took to learn about AI x-risk before we had large language models, deep learning, and many of the papers/posts that explain various aspects of the alignment problem. 

Conclusion + invitation to the reader

Many of these frames have come from talking with friends about their experiences with status, reputation, social comparisons, and related topics.

If you (yes, you!) have any frames/stances that help you handle these kinds of concerns, I invite you to offer them in the comments.

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5 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 4:55 AM

A related stream of thoughts related to status in EA that I had the other day:

I had the vague impression that some EAs I know feel like they get too little validation from the broader and more local EA communities, like too little appreciation and acknowledgement for their work and for them being part of broader EA project. And I felt like that's pretty sad because making people feel more socially valued seems not very costly at current margins:

  • Tell people more often you appreciate their work/engagement.
    • This doesn't mean you think the work is particularly impactful, or the best that this person could be doing. Just feel and express some gratitude that somebody is trying to do something good in the world, and tries to be thoughtful about how to do as much as they can.
    • E.g. just saying "Thanks for thinking about this, I think that's an important issue." before giving critical feedback on a forum post would probably make people feel appreciated, while I expect just voicing the criticism can often feel dismissive.
    • Just reacting somehow to people's output often feels like a helpful and validating gesture, like saying "Interesting post!" or reacting with some Emoji to a Slack post.
  • Have more spaces where people can find friends and form small sub-communities, e.g. local EA retreats seem good for that, local EA groups, online spaces of sub-communities.
  • Maybe? some people in EA could look out a bit more for people who might not naturally receive much social validation for random reasons, such as being shy, new to a group, not having as much to contribute to work on important problems (yet), etc.

Thanks, I was just thinking about the topic of status and found this stimulating! :) Some quick random direct reactions to your sections:

When reading the "Is status the true bottleneck?" section, I felt like it would be useful to spend more time making clear what exactly "status" is referring to. In that particular section, it felt more appropriate to replace the broader "status" concept with the partially overlapping and correlated  "trust of funders that you implement a given project competently and in line with the funders' values".

The section "The status equation" made me feel like it'd be useful to emphasize that social status is relative to a community. I wasn't sure if this equation was meant to be descriptive of how (some subset of) the EA community assigns status, or if it was aspirational for a community, or if it was how that person individually wants to/feels like they personally respect people differently according to.

Status = Goodness of your thinking + Goodness of your actions + Something About Your Vibes™

Definition from Wikipedia, to support the "what a specific social group thinks" aspect:

Social status is the level of social value a person is considered to possess.[1][2] More specifically, it refers to the relative level of respect, honour, assumed competence, and deference accorded to people, groups, and organizations in a society. Status is based in widely shared beliefs about who members of a society think holds comparatively more or less social value, in other words, who they believe is better in terms of competence or moral traits.

FWIW, I think the equation does not capture everything that I perceive from how the EA community differently values individuals, though goodness of vibes can maybe cover anything? :D 

  • association with other people and orgs that have high status
  • responsibilities/rank at an org/seniority
  • wealth
  • beauty and fashionable looks

Sometimes, the community is going to make mistakes when conferring status.

Maybe worth mentioning that social status is probably not a single variable out there but made up of a different things and also fairly fluid. E.g. there are a lot of subcommunities in EA with their own fuzzy social status assignments, there are a lot of EAs who don't know you who might quickly hold you in very high regard if you'd move to their city and get to know them, etc.

Thanks for this Akash. I like this  post and like these examples. 

One thing I find has been helpful for me here is to stop talking and thinking about "status" so much and focus more on acknowledging my own emotional experience. e.g. the bullets at the start of this post for example are all example of someone feeling shame

Shame can be a useful signal about how it would be best for you to act in any given situation, but often isn't particularly accurate in its predictions. Focusing on concepts like "status" instead of the emotions that are informing the concept has, at times, pushed me towards seeing status as way more real than it actually is. 

This isn't to say that status is not a useful model in general. I'm just skeptical its anywhere near as useful for understanding your own experience as it is to analyzing the behavior of groups  more objectively.

Totally agree with everything in here!

I also like the framing: Status-focused thinking was likely very highly selected for in the ancestral environment, and so when your brain comes up with status-focused justifications for various plans, you should be pretty skeptical about whether it is actually focusing on status as an instrumental goal toward your intrinsic goals, or as an intrinsic goal in itself. Similar to how you would be skeptical of your brain for coming up with justifications in favor of why its actually a really good idea to hire that really sexy girl/guy interviewing for a position who analyzed objectively is a doofus.