Irrational Institutions #4
Status drunkenness, elite conformity, social brains
Our technology disguises reality. We want something, and it shows up on our doorstep. Magic! Back in April and May of 2020, I recall many friends expressing shock and anger that there were people who refused to lock down and instead went to work. How stupid and stubborn to not participate in the lockdown! I had to remind my friends that it was thanks to such misanthropes that food was being delivered to their doorsteps.
The concept of reality concerns things as they actually exist. Often we use this word to mean objective reality, independent of what is simply felt or perceived.
Yet as technology has made it personally less costly to lose sense of objective reality, many seem to be opting out. What are the consequences of this trend and where is it most pronounced?
Reality Privilege or Status Drunkenness?
Everyone’s life sucks. Your life sucks, your life sucks, my life sucks too. Sure, mine probably doesn’t suck quite as much as yours. . .
In an earlier post, I discussed Marc Andreessen’s view that those who escape to the digital world lack “Reality Privilege”. If your life sucks, is it really surprising you would seek to flee reality? For people who don’t live in beautiful places around interesting people, maybe the virtual world is simply better.
While many contest the claim that the digital world is uniformly better for the lonely and vulnerable, the weakest link in Andreessen’s argument might lie in the implication that the privileged live in objective reality more than the rest of us.
Robin Hanson argues that because society has become dramatically richer in a short span of time, evolutionary mechanisms for understanding our relative social status are now misfiring. As we grow in absolute wealth, we become “status drunk” and grossly overestimate our own influence and entitlements. The number of people who perceive themselves as elite status proliferates and shallow politics consume an expanding share of social life.
All this induces higher status people to track more news, and to talk more, more visibly, and more politically. It induces us to make and push more behavior recommendations, and to try harder to govern everything, creating more governance roles to fill. As democracy allows more people to participate in governance, we predict more democracy. And in fact over the last few centuries we have seen people more eager for news, talk, politics, democracy, government, and paternalistic policies.
If Hanson is correct, it is not the working class or the downtrodden that are most out of step with reality but our supposed elites.
That reasonably intelligent and well-meaning young people are willing to call white black is a matter of concern. It raises questions about our ways of education and about the values that guide our conduct.
Asch’s famous conformity experiments provide a useful framework for considering reasons elites may be especially likely to deviate from verifiable reality. In the study, participants were presented with a card depicting a single line on it and asked to match it with one of three lines of clearly different length.
As is evident from the picture above, this is an easy task and less than 1% of the control group failed to select line C. Yet nearly 40% of participants conformed to the incorrect answer when it was given by the rest of the group.
What caused so many of the participants in this study, composed of students at a highly selective private college, to deny what was plainly before their eyes? While a small portion of subjects reported genuinely misperceiving the lengths of the lines, most either doubted their own senses in the presence of disagreement or deliberately lied in order to fit in.
There are valid reasons to question the external validity of this experiment—how often are we asked to judge line lengths in a room of paid liars? But the results observed in this artificial setting provide meaningful insights into what kinds of real-world scenarios are most likely to produce reality-denying conformity. To conclude this section I list five such insights, with brief commentary on their relevance to elites in particular.
Conformity was most prevalent when all actors in the experiment were united in providing the wrong answer. As elites increasingly consolidate into a single culture, we might expect them to unite around distorted views more frequently.
Allowing participants to give their answers in private mitigated pressures to conform to the wrong answer. Yet true privacy is increasingly hard to find in the digital age, as McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski recently learned after his private text messages discussing urban violence leaked. While the increasingly public nature of communication probably makes everyone more cautious about expressing their true opinions, elites have the most to fear.
The Asch experiments take place in a setting without financial incentives for accuracy. This suggests that as social incentives become more dominant (such as when individuals earn enough money to be less constrained by financial worries), we can expect conformity to become more common. In a growing number of situations, financial and social incentives may even be aligned in the direction of conformity.
Conformity became more common when experimenters made the lines more similar to each other in length. Insofar as elites address more difficult, abstract, or ambiguous questions than others in their everyday lives we would expect to see a greater degree of conformity among this group.
Presence of High Status Peers
When others in the group are of higher status, conformity is more common. Because elites tend to traffic in circles with other high status people, they likely perceive at least some members of their peer group as holding greater status with regularity. If one of these individuals takes a strong stance, it becomes harder for other elites to espouse a dissenting view.
Undone by our Social Brains
In his book The Social Leap, the evolutionary psychologist William von Hippel writes, “a substantial reason we evolved such large brains is to navigate our social world… A great deal of the value that exists in the social world is created by consensus rather than discovered in an objective sense… our cognitive machinery evolved to be only partially constrained by objective reality.” Our social brains process information not only by examining the facts, but also considering the social consequences of what happens to our reputations if we believe something.
More so than others, elites experience intense pressures to adopt the views, attitudes, and behaviors that will preserve and increase their status. This pressure leads many elites to doubt their own perceptions or even lie outright, just as in the Asch experiments.
While elites have always been highly motivated by status, our modern wealth and technological sophistication allow more people to be “pretend-elite” and obsess over popularity, influence, and group politics. This makes them relatively less connected to reality than many non-elites, because the same difficult features of reality that might lead lower class persons to seek escapism also anchor them to the objective world. Contrary to what the phrase “Reality Privilege” suggests, the unreality advantage goes to those who can afford, either economically or socially, to keep tangible reality at arm’s length.
For this class of would-be elites, social realities become more pressing. Nothing much happens in the physical world if you demean factory workers and delivery drivers; chances are your package will still arrive on time. But you may face social sanction for not being sufficiently animated about the need for lockdown. In this setting, it is not surprising that people spend more time “reading the room” than contemplating the hard facts.
For insight into the social realities elites experience, consider a recent essay by Princeton graduate Scott Newman. In his telling, students at this elite institution spend every spare moment consumed with elevating their prospects for salary, honors, and prestige. They avoid hard classes, compete for entry to exclusive campus clubs, and network to get the best internships while largely abstaining from all but the most transactional relationships with their peers.
It was also hard not to notice the transactional nature of social interactions among undergraduates—especially when it came to Princeton’s “eating clubs,” glorified co-ed fraternities where many students eat their meals. Membership in these clubs serves as a marker of prestige, while also (supposedly) helping members advance their careers through alumni networks. In this way, even the simple act of eating in the company of others can become just another form of self-advancement.
Observing the single-minded, shallow, and competitive behavior of Princeton students makes much of the social activism taking place on elite campuses seem cynical. If motivated by personal virtue, we might expect to see signs of selflessness and caring in other areas, beyond where it seems to pay off professionally. It could be that a certain amount of competitiveness and overriding of other concerns is necessary in order to eventually arrive in a position to make a “real difference”, but it seems a little fishy that nearly 40% of Princeton graduates take jobs in finance, tech, and consulting. Is the potential for impact in these fields really so much greater than in science, engineering, and entrepreneurship, or do these alternatives simply lack the prestige of a Goldman or McKinsey?
As this performative posturing and obsession with status becomes increasingly democratized through Twitter and the infiltration of local institutions by elite dogmas, we can expect public discourse to continue to get worse and a greater share of society to hold distorted views of reality.
Studies also suggest cross-cultural differences in how confidential answers given in private really are. In an experiment comparing Norwegian and French participants, the former were much more likely to conform even when assured of privacy.
“In spite of the assurances that the responses would be privately analyzed, one subject said he feared that because he had disagreed too often the experimenter would assemble the group and discuss the disagreements with them.
Another Norwegian subject, who had agreed with the group 12 out of 16 times, offered this explanation: "In the world now, you have to be not too much in opposition. In high school I was more independent than now. It's the modern way of life that you have to agree a little more. If you go around opposing, you might be looked upon as bad. Maybe this had an influence." He was then asked, "Even though you were answering in private?" and he replied, "Yes. I tried to put myself in a public situation, even though I was sitting in the booth in private."
For more on this topic read Musa Al-Gharbi on educational elitism:
“Compared to the general public, cognitively sophisticated voters are much more likely to form their positions on issues based on partisan cues of what they are ‘supposed’ to think in virtue of their identity as Democrats, Republicans, etc.”