Costly Status Striving

Although we can get grains of truth from our ideologies’ aphorisms, which say things like “have you ever seen an ungrateful happy person”, the real insight comes from the details.  That is what I present today.  Ideologies are not supposed to teach us scientific truths and instead appeal to our moral sentiments.  The pithy expression is a criticism of liberalism in that all we do is complain. This is appealing to some because it validates their belief that liberals are whiney weaklings.  They then share this “moment” with others. That is how ideologies work. They make us form bonds with those on our side, so we remain self-righteous, divisive, and insular.

Does not change start with a complaint though?  For those who are not satisfied with the status quo, it must start this way.   In any event, I am not complaining on this post.  I am saying one thing: exaggerated status inequality, regardless if we are indifferent towards it, has consequences.  I do not mean to pick on Jordan Peterson, OK I sort of do, because he helps a lot of people. He does so by helping them become “disagreeable”.  Disagreeableness is a personality trait where we act aggressively and manipulatively in order to serve our interests.  Thus, Peterson will be contributing to more formidable competitors within the status hierarchy.  I do not know if Peterson should be judged for this because this is what successful people do, they aggressively pursue their interests.

If it does not occur to anyone, this constitutes scientific evidence for any feelings of indignation that some may have over inequality. I say “some” because most studies show that we can accept a lot of status inequality.  And, no, indignation is not envy nor is it resentment.  Conservatives have already told us what they think of our feelings—”*$*! your feelings”.  We cannot argue just on feelings.  I could not address many of the commentator’s points because either they made no sense or were unworthy of my time.


Most do not care about inequality.  We care about fairness.  Studies show that we can tolerate the disparity between the poor and the rich without throwing a fuss, with the rich making up to four and even fifty times that of the poor [8].  Most believe meritocracy is fair, which is what our economy aspires to be.  Meritocracy is when we award people based on their abilities.  We look at what they have done or can do, which is a function of their ability plus the effort put forth.  This may not feel fair to those with an intellectual or physical disability.  But life is not fair.  Even to the average person, meritocracy is not entirely fair because we are not all born with the same levels of privilege.  We are not all born with the same abilities, such as intelligence, motivation, etc, either.  In principle, this does not seem to bother most.  Meritocracy is promoted as providing an incentive to achieve status while being an efficient way to allocate talent.  As Peterson has said, we want the best people performing brain surgery on us—a hierarchy of competencies.

Meritocracy is a legitimizing myth since it justifies the status hierarchy that forms as a result of our differences in ability.  It morally justifies our successes and says those on top are competent and smart, while those on the bottom are lazy and stupid.  Despite some quibbles, I do not have a problem with this.  The exception is that meritocracy can make our society look like an experiment in social Darwinism [9].  But we start this post under the assumption that people more or less get what they deserve; we just have to exclude when we have privilege, superior intelligence, gifted drive, cronyism, selfish and conscientious personalities, and luck, all of which are out of our control.  Hey, grit and effort count as much as two times that of ability.  To a conservative, who wants us to shut up and take our medicine (life) like men, my assumption that we more or less get what we deserve should be welcome.

Status-Striving: A Zero-Summed Game

Many of us are failing in our efforts at bringing about more status—whether it be influence, respect, care, love, sex, material goods, etc.  How do we know this?  Take a look at Jordan Peterson’s popularity.  He is here to help, primarily males, achieve more status and prestige.  Status is anything that brings positive attention.  Positive attention is admiration, praise, and deference.  This attention we get pays off because it brings influence and access to resources [4].  In other words, since people believe we have something special to offer, we can get them to do what we want.  They are more likely to reciprocate and help us when in need.  After all, people defer to us and we hold their attention.  We represent what they secretly want to have and be like.

Status is all relative.  Think about how high our confidence and comfortability levels are around people who rank low in intelligence, physical attractiveness, and ability.  All else equal, these people are more likely to defer to us.  Status and prestige, however, are scarce resources since we all want high-salaried positions, attractive and affable friends, and so forth.  This means that our self-interest is in competition with other people’s self-interest, which results in a conflict of interests.  So striving for status is often a zero-summed game.  There will be losers and winners.  It is not like participating in a market transaction, where free marketers assure us that it is a non-zero summed game since both participants stand to gain an increase in utility.  So we should not conflate the two. But this is exactly what the free market enthusiasts do; they say hey the market is a win-win and it is about cooperation, not competition.

When there is a limited supply of desirable resources such as goods, mates, positions, and prestige, those who are able to outmaneuver, overpower, or entice resources from others, will do better than those who cannot do these things.

We attract, entice, and get these things (status) by having status (intelligence, talents, attractivenss, abilities, etc.).

Indeed, social hierarchies are reflections of outcomes of conflicts: Those at the top have usually escalated and won, whereas those at the bottom have usually been outmaneuvered, overwhelmed, lost, and have had to de-escalate. [3]

So how do we approach this game of status striving?  One solution is to be better than others by being formidable and heeding Peterson’s advice.  We can intimidate and impress people with our confidence and prowess while increasing our chances of success by being selfish.  In the process, we will create a winner at the expense of others becoming losers.  This is how social hierarchies form, which creates status inequality.  Whenever we get people together, this is what happens although Peterson is biasing it to work in someone’s favor.  What about those who cannot pursue their own self-interest?  There is a solution for them too. They must accept their status and be grateful.  But even if we accept our positions in life and become content, where we stand in relation to someone else has effects on our survival.  There are subtle forces at play beyond our awareness.

Relative Status: the Insidious (or Beneficial) Force

Commentator: As Science, Engineering, and Technology becomes more advanced, inequality increases, irrespective of politics. Inequality increases. So what? The living standard of the poor increases along with that of the rich. JB Peterson aims to make the young competent enough to meet the challenges of tomorrow.

Peterson believes that a successful person is one who is “tough, smart, conscientious, and disagreeable.”  Disagreeableness is a personality trait that involves selfishness, manipulation, and aggression [1].  Although possessing these traits and striving to be formidable help some, the net effect is to contribute to an increase in inequality.  But there is status mobility, right?  Social inequality is not a bad thing because it entices people to strive for more status.  America is the land of opportunity, and people have more chances to become wealthy here than anywhere else.  These points are not necessarily wrong, but they miss an additional effect. Where we stand in the hierarchy relative to where another person stands, affects our health and happiness.  The better positioned we are, all else equal, then the happier and healthier we are relative to others with less status, anywhere along the continuum.

Average happiness levels do not rise with increasing average of the society, because whether societies are rich or richer, there will always be those who are better off, and those who are worse off; there will always be relative inequalities.  [This should answer the “Inequality increases. So what?”  It makes no difference if we increase GDP or raise people out of poverty.  None whatsoever!  Becuase it is where we stand relative to others that matters.  This is an additional effect that must be taken into account.  It is shown across most species in the animal kingdom too.  Having gratitude for where we are at, taking good health advice, and trying to be satisfied is not enough to buffer the effects of relative status differences.  The research bears this out.]



Researchers followed 8,500 men and women over a twenty-year period and reported the results above.  If we made less than $15k (~$30k today), then we were nearly four times at risk of death compared to someone who made $70k (~ $140k today).  This distribution has been replicated for many other time periods and has gotten worse [5].  All factors that may influence the result were adjusted.  We may say to ourselves, oh, well, that is easy to explain.  Those who have a higher income have a better education. Better education and more income mean making healthier decisions, taking fewer risks, and having access to better health care.  It turns out that this effect is not big enough to explain these disparities.  That is, once we are out of poverty and do not have to worry about malaria, dysentery, and starvation, education and income have little effect in themselves.  It is what status brings us, which is an increase in influence, control over our lives, social engagement and benefits.  Status matters a whole lot.  

Humans have a pervasive need to be valued and to court good feelings about the self in the mind of “the other,” in order to be chosen for a role (as an employee, a friend, a lover, etc.). We have evolved special processing systems underpinning self-processing competencies that tract our social standing and how we think others think about us. [3]

Studies show that we care a great deal about what others think of us.  We also care about the amount of status our friends, rivals, and spouses have relative to us [7].  In fact, our happiness depends, amongst other factors, on how we compare ourselves to others.  Popular culture says that it should not matter what other people think and that we should only compete with ourselves.  This is good advice since unfavorable comparisons can cause a negative mood.  In fact, if we are constantly comparing ourselves and fail to measure up, then we can experience low self-esteem and inferiority.  This is a recipe for an unhappy life.  Still, it is inevitable that we will size one another up since the mind automatically assesses others as either a threat or non-threat to our interests.

Relative Status: on Health and Happiness

Most mental illnesses, such as depression and social anxiety, have their origins in striving for status [3].  In the United States, the mental illness rate is over twenty-percent.  Depression is a perfect example of status striving.  Depression is a “failed struggle” or a “failure to yield” [3].  This means that when we are experiencing interpersonal conflict (peer abuse, competing for positions, spousal criticism, etc.) or our goals become blocked (unrequited love, stagnant at work, can’t live up to expectations, etc.), and there’s no hope to reach these goals or to “win”, then we will become depressed if we don’t accept or accommodate ourselves to the situation.  In other words, the more we escalate or try harder to get what we want, whatever that may be, and we can’t get what we want, the more the body naturally deescalates itself and we become depressed.  Depression tells the body to seek more fruitful paths in life.

Commentator:…that relatively large disparities in status differences result in a reduction in health and happiness.” Really? Where is the evidence? Just J.E.A.R. (Jealousy, Envy, Anger, Resentment) degrades health and happiness. [Negative emotions can reduce subjective well-being (aka happiness), but the point is missed.  As much as we can wish or practice CBT to reduce these feelings, these feelings are inevitable.  In fact, they are a direct result of us not being equal, which is why we have status inequality.]

The negative emotions listed above are the result of us living in a social world and are not so much dependent on our ideology. Conservatives, however, are found to score higher, not by much, on measures of subjective well-being.  Subjective well-being is a common measure of happiness and is a function of life satisfaction, positive affect, and lack of negative affect.  The quotes below list some of the ways in which they accomplish this.  I suppose by liberals focusing on what they do not have or how the world should be, they can develop general envy towards others and resent the system and those who participate in it.  But I have not seen any research on this.  There is reason to believe that liberals may feel more discontent and unsatisfied because they view the world more accurately.  To change something, there must be some dissatisfaction with the way things currently are.  

Some say that conservatives have a greater sense of agency (they believe that they are in control of their life) and optimism (believe that meritocracy is fair, that is, with a little effort anyone can be successful) or they have certain social and cultural values that promote happiness (they derive meaning from religion and work). Others have been less flattering, saying that conservatism helps people feel less troubled about social inequalities by helping them to rationalize them away. [9]

High political conservatism is associated with preferences for stability, conformity, tradition, and order and structure. High political liberalism, in contrast, is associated with preferences for creativity, curiosity, novelty-seeking, and new experiences. Highly politically conservative people eschew ambiguity and disorganization and prefer closure and limited shades of gray (“hard categorizers”). Highly politically liberal people tolerate ambiguity and disorganization and favor flexibility and taking on cognitive conflicts. []

The relative risk of death does not segment itself into different ideologies.  We have no way of knowing how conservative beliefs and practices would help reduce the relative risk of death.  Since happiness is highly correlated with health, then it is conceivable that it would.  The key to understanding relative status is that its effect is often incremental and subtle.  If we have something “to offer”, which is what status is, we are more likely to be chosen for roles to participate in.  People invest in us because they believe in us. They are more likely to help us when in need.  We have increased access to resources, which come in many different forms (psychological, social, etc.), to help us solve problems.  We can take control of the situation instead of the situation controlling us [5].

All of these things, however subtle, accumulate to decrease the likelihood of stress, which is highly correlated with mental and physical health.  It is simply not true that high-status jobs are more stressful, such as being a physician.  This is because of the respect that is accorded to them.  The more that people defer to us, then the less stressful life is.  People are less likely to directly express their disapproval, anger, or criticism towards us.  The benefits of being valued pay off in psychological dividends.  People that are lower in status relative to their peers are more likely to experience anxiety and depression [3].  They are often in a state of “embraced readiness” because they must defend themselves from being harassed.  Think of extreme cases of high-status others, such as CEOs from successful companies.  They were not always calm, cool, and collected.  The brain increases neurotransmitters that signal to others that they are of high status.  They do not need to defend themselves because others will automatically submit.

Resentments: Much-Needed Distinctions

Commentator: Yes, I believe in many but not all cases envy and indignation can be at the root of a liberal worldview. [Not accurate.]  Leftism encourages fear, not respect.[Feeling threatned (fear) by Others, say minorities or those who threaten the establishment are more typical of conservative authoritarians.] Leftism encourages J.E.A.R. (Jealousy, Envy, Anger, Resentment).  [Sometimes they can feel indignation at the wealthy, especially those who don’t contribute to the welfare of others.]

Certainly, some liberals feel envy and indignation over the wealthy.  This could be reflected in the fact that they are for the redistribution of wealth. But envy and indignation are different things.  Envy is when we want someone else’s status and indignation is when we feel outraged over a grave injustice.  When it comes to the wealthy, I suspect that liberals are more likely to feel indignation than envy.  They feel that it is a scandal of capitalism that billionaires exist while 40 million people are at the poverty level.  A typical conservative, on the other hand, would see this as fair.  Because they believe fairness is proportional to the effort put forth in the market.  Of course, it is not quite that simple.  Regardless, most hate that we see from liberals is from their tribal instincts of Us vs. Them not from envy.  We feel hate when others are a threat to us, like someone we are competing with or who has different views than us, and we feel contempt for those who we perceive are beneath us.  Note that I choose more technical definitions than Webster’s but others are possible.  In short, envy is not “at the root of a liberal worldview”, not by a long shot.

What guides most liberals’ reasoning and stance on issues is compassion and empathy, sometimes to a fault.  Their worldview, not as a political philosophy but as a mode of thought and reasoning that prioritizes their values, has been more or less worked out by Lakoff and Haidt.  Their personalities tend to be more sensitive to feelings of compassion than conservatives, and they are more open to new experiences.  Again, this is just a model and variations exist.  Think about how they want to protect people from themselves, the market, corporations, guns, and so forth.  We can argue whether liberals’ approach to configuring society is ideal or not, but just like conservatives, they are coming from a particular point of view.  If we get their view, then we can understand them.  The antidote to our tendencies to engage in tribal warfare is to look at what we have in common with Others, not our differences. This may be difficult for authoritarians since their personality traits don’t easily lend a hand to empathy or openness to new ideas.

More distinctions must be made here too.  Those damn details.  Resentment is feeling anger and disgust towards another for perceived unfair treatment.  Whether or not the resentment is rational is something entirely different.  But resentment can also mean that we can resent when unfair things happen to us or when someone else gets something that we they do not deserve.  In a sense, envy is similar to resentment since we can have envy towards someone getting a new position (status), which could lead us to resent them.  And yet another nuance, indignation usually involves moral scenarios against members of society, whereas resentment is at the level of the individual.  When resentments include the thoughts “I deserve it”, and “they don’t deserve it”, then this may be fueled by a sense of entitlement.  Now that we have defined our terms, we need to ask if the liberal worldview fosters a sense of entitlement and resentment.  The answer is yes to the former.  But the word entitlement means something different to a liberal than a conservative (ii).  It is how we frame these very concepts that cause disagreement among the parties.

Psychological entitlement refers to an inflated and pervasive sense of deservingness, self-importance, and exaggerated expectations to receive special goods and treatment without reciprocating. [4]

For the mentally rigid, this may be a difficult concept to grasp, namely relativism.  Not relativism in the postmodernist sense where we cannot give priority to any truth at all, but in the sense that everything is relative to something to give it meaning.  In the definition of entitlement above, what do exaggerated expectations mean?  What is considered exaggerated is relative to the beliefs held within a worldview.  Liberals, for example, believe that health care is a basic need that everyone should have.  Conservatives say not a chance.  Conservatives’ belief in self-reliance drives all of the entitlement logic to be cases of unreasonable expectations.  Since we are supposed to be self-reliant and self-disciplined, then entitlements are always an unreasonable form of coddling.  But liberals believe that providing health care is empowering and nurturing the individual to help them realize their full potential.  Thus, what are exaggerated expectations in one worldview turn out to be reasonable in another.  We cannot possibly say that liberals are excessively entitled within the liberal sense of the word.  Putting liberal concepts within a conservative frame becomes incoherent.

Not that Simple: Shutup and Be Grateful

Commentator: Who is more likely to be a criminal: a resentful person? an unresentful person? Have you ever met a happy ungrateful person? [Notice the use of categorical reasoning.]. Gratefulness is the essential ingredient to happiness. [Yes, on the right track, but it is not the only factor.]

Psychology does show that gratitude is related to happiness.  Conservative pundits, with the exception of Peterson, are not psychologists.  They make it sound like gratitude is a simple choice.  It takes effort to be aware that we are feeling resentful and to put gratitude into practice. It takes even more effort to override feelings of resentment that we may harbor for society in general, which can exist in some.  Take an extreme example of mass shooters, who mostly start with no mental illness, and have been physically abused by parents and chronically rejected by their peers.  [I say start with no mental illness because, after abuse, they develop depression, trauma, and other mood disorders.]. They develop resentment towards society in general and then anger turns outward towards the Other.  The advice of being grateful is something that will have little to no effect on “categorically” resentful people.  There are of course a lot of people who have good genetics and upbringings that would prevent them from becoming mass shooters if abused and rejected.  And, no, I am not saying that mass shooters should not be accountable for their actions.

To say that a resentful person is more likely to be a “criminal” is an empirical question.  How do we know which came first, the resentment or the criminal act?  To even start, we would have to ask how frequent, to what magnitude, and how people experience resentments in order to qualify as a categorically “resentful person”.   If we exclude the pathological cases of those who experience resentment towards life, others, and the world in general, then there is no reason to believe that liberals experience it more than others.  Most resentments that we experience are not in general but occur in our daily interactions with other individuals.  Think about when someone snubs us, criticizes us, or does not take us seriously.  We either feel hurt feelings or anger and then later can develop resentment towards that person.  If they are rivals at work, we may even feel hate towards them.  The solution from a conservative is to toughen up or have gratitude that you are alive.  This advice is silly when we are feeling these emotions.  If we are pervasively not taken seriously, then maybe there is some truth to it.  We can instead focus on self-improvement or adjust our level of self-importance.  When we decrease our expectations of how we are supposed to be treated, then we are less likely to develop resentment.  On the other hand, perhaps the individuals who said this wasn’t high in status, and we could care less about their opinion and choose to dismiss it.  Life is complex and using pithy expressions as a strategy for navigating our social worlds is a start but not enough.  Conservatives’ advice always has a grain of truth to it, which is why it is contagious.

Have we ever met a happy ungrateful person?  There is truth in this oversimplification, but the “how” is missing, which makes it easy for self-righteous conservatives to stand in judgment instead of trying to understand why someone is resentful.  Some people’s personalities and environments make it challenging to accomplish this.  We would need to be in a milieu in which we could become content by finding satisfaction in the small things and lowering our expectations for status attainment.  There are a lot of people, however, who want to obtain more status in life, whether it is more respect, influence, love, sex, care, support, friends, high-status positions, etc., but they are failing at bringing this about.  Feeling trapped and powerless is a real phenomenon.  Lowering our expectations for status and accepting our position in life is one strategy, but giving advice to someone who wants more out of life to “be grateful” invalidates their struggle.  One strategy is to heed Peterson’s advice.  But there are no guarantees for advancing or becoming content.  Those who are truly low in status, that is, do not have much to offer in the domains of intelligence, attractiveness, ability, or personality, then they will struggle if they do not accept their status.  They will have a pervasive “chip on their shoulders” if they do not lower their expectations and self-importance.  In fact, experts claim that low-status individuals get rejected often and are at risk of just giving up on life.  The advice is for them to become more affable and giving.  In other words, if we can’t beat them then join them by subordinating ourselves.  This leaves the undesirable worrying about sacrificing too much and becoming exploited.  Since they are not good enough to be accepted or compete in this world, yet they do not want to be taken advantage of, then they must either subordinate themselves or live as the proverbial resentful person.  These people, the “undesirables”, have it rough, to say the least.  Those who are lower in social status are often on the periphery and become invisible.

The Science of Status Hierarchy 

Commentator:…the problem we have with status hierarchy…” A pointless statement. No matter how you re-arrange society, economy, and government, new hierarchies will arise with associated strata and status levels. Only in Dream-Land do strata-less, status-less societies exist. [Again, the difficulty with nuance.  It is a matter of degree.]

Anthropologists:  And as a large body of anthropological research shows, long before we organised ourselves into hierarchies of wealth, social status and power, these groups rigorously enforced norms that prevented any individual or group from acquiring more status, authority or resources than others. [6]

Whenever people get together status hierarchies form. The criteria that determine rank depend on the goals of the group, which is usually some combination of competence, intelligence, assertiveness, resources, and physical attractiveness.  Status hierarchies have the benefit of being an efficient means to economic progress because they put the more capable in charge.  They weren’t always this exaggerated though.  It was not until we started to grow our own food and settle down did we start to acquire vast amounts of material status.  But our psychology has not changed from 10,000 years ago.  Instead, our social norms have changed; we advocate competition, self-reliance, and materialism within our own tribe (U.S.).  It is not that we did not compete with one another, but solidarity must have been more pervasive for survival.  And competition was primarily with other tribes.  There had to have been a counterbalance to our tendency for self-interest.  In fact, the definition of morality is about suppressing self-interest in order to allow for cooperation.  From an evolutionary psychologist’s perspective, having envy motivates us to want to achieve more status ourselves.  On the other hand, having an awareness that we can make others feel uncomfortable with our status keeps us humble. In other words, envy may have evolved as a way to equalize status and to help us bind together.  Think about the feelings we have when someone close to us increases their status.  It is not always envy that we feel but that we don’t want to be left behind.

Commentator: According to the dictionary, FORMIDABLE = inspiring fear or respect through being impressively large, powerful, intense, or capable. Fear (aka intimidation) versus Respect. Fear is not Respect. Fear is a reaction; respect is a decision. Going back to the subject of play, no one gets invited to play through intimidation. Peterson definitely advocates people to strive to be capable, competent, and (IMPORTANTLY) playful. Formidable and playful inspires much more respect than fear. Fear and Respect are functions of the beholder more than of said formidable person. [Not quite the whole story. See below.]

According to the dictionary, RESPECT = a feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements. Respect opens one to improve oneself, to educate oneself. Fear closes one to improvement and education. Leftism encourages fear, not respect. Leftism encourages J.E.A.R. (Jealousy, Envy, Anger, Resentment). The Left fears the competent. The Left resents the competent.  [Not quite acccurate.]

For the above, some of the concepts are correct and others are conflated.  Respect is an easy concept to understand if explained by an evolutionary psychologist.  Its end result is deference.  The ones that are “looked up to” are who we defer to but are also the ones that can do the threatening.  They threaten not with violence or aggression, as that is no longer acceptable, but with disapproval, anger, or rejection.  On average, we care more about the opinion of those above us than those on the same level or below us.  Because those are the people that can affect our position (status) in the world.  In the mind, respect can manifest as feelings of admiration over someone’s attributes and accomplishments.  But respect need not be only admiration.  If we define respect as being dependent on its outcome, which is deference, then invoking fear in others also results in a form of respect.  We just do not accept this form of respect anymore because we have evolved from a dominance-based to an affiliative-based system.

Respect is more likely to be an unconscious response than a choice; it is deeply rooted in our evolutionary past.  We unconsciously appraise situations quite quickly often without making any choices at all.  If we size someone up as stronger, more attractive, or more intelligent, we may automatically defer to them.  It is a fact of life that many get deferred to automatically without putting much effort into it—for example, those who are tall and physically attractive are treated better, all else equal.  We do not have fear anymore of someone retaliating with violence but rather have fear of being judged as inadequate or undesirable.  But feeling fear is still possible when we interact with others that we appraise as more capable, attractive, and accomplished.  I would call it insecurity, which if we study the mind, we will see that insecurity is rooted in the same parts of the brain as fear induced by the threat of violence.  In fact, there is a ton of research on how many will get social anxiety around those who pose a threat to their status.  Who we defer to and admire versus who we challenge or even hate would likely be based on who is our ally versus who is our competitor.

The point of contention was whether or not Peterson is accelerating the rate of people becoming dominant, not through force, but by virtue of what Peterson believes creates success.  For Peterson, the traits that create success are “disagreeableness, intelligence, and toughness”.  As a side, the commentator is taking my hypothesis more seriously than needed.  I have no way of testing this empirically.   In any event, let me start out by describing the status system that we currently work in.  We largely compete now to bestow positive value upon one another in order to be valued or chosen as relational partners or workers.  We advertise our worth through our abilities, smarts, character, and appearances.  Possessing these things equates to status and prestige.  We attract attention through our status with an, often unconscious, goal to stimulate positive feelings in the minds of others.  Although in the process we can create insecurity in some, the objective is to inspire others to improve their own status in a way that benefits others.

This system’s outcome is cooperative since we are competing to engage in mutually beneficial activities, say to be valued as a friend or to provide services to others as a valued worker.  In this type of system, we do not want to be seen as undesirable which means unattractive to others in some kind of way.  We care what others think, and we want to be accepted and valued.  This system is known as the hedonic system by evolutionary psychologists, which is “affiliative based on mutual benefit through positive displays”[1].  By contrast, the older system, which is the agonic or dominance-based system, still exists and in some ways has been coopted for the newer system.  The agonic system uses the threat of force and intimidation with the goal to get what we want by inhibiting others.  This system causes us to rank one another by virtue of who is better at whatever the relevant domain may be.  We can thank this system for us wanting to feel formidable, a force to be reckoned with, to be Machiavelian, and to be submitted to.  For those who liked “Better Call Saul” and “Breaking Bad”, Saul Goodman wanted to be accepted and well-liked (hedonic), while Walter White wanted to be respected and submitted to (agonic).  Both systems of course coexist since evolution is a conservatory force.

Peterson’s Experiment: Escalating Conflict of Interests

Peterson cites the evidence for success, which is to possess the traits of “disagreeableness, conscientiousness, intelligence, and toughness,” more than enough to know that he has extensively researched this.  Disagreeableness is a trait that is correlated with a lot of other traits, even from the dark triad which involves manipulatory and uncooperative behavior.  We possess this trait when we score low for agreeableness, which comes from the Big Five personality model.  Agreeableness is about being compassionate, cooperative, and putting the interests of others first.  As far as disagreeableness and success, the research has mixed results. Because some studies show that the advantages of selfish and brazen behavior for moving up the ladder are offset by the inability to form strong interpersonal relationships.  In my own experience with the corporate world, I would have to agree with Peterson. Regardless, Peterson is encouraging us to become formidable and self-interested, which means exuding the traits of toughness and disagreeableness   This is why I have said that if we want to be successful, then we should be willing to take Peterson’s advice.

Commentator: The Left fears the competent.  The Left resents the competent. [Having insecurity over someone being more competent and formidable than you is a function of the human condition not of an ideology.  We all can feel insecure over those higher in status than us, that is, those who are more attractive, capable, stronger, and talented than us.  They pose a threat to our own status because they attract more attention.  Status is defined as the increased influence we have over others by virtue of the amount of deference and positive attention we receive.]

Peterson is activating the agonic system since he believes being disagreeable and formidable are needed for success.  To be disagreeable is to act selfish, manipulative, and aggressively [1].  Since there is flexibility in these systems, Peterson, however, is also activating the hedonic or affiliative-based system when it is time to play.  But the play does nothing to negate the dominant-to-subordinate configuration that we create by becoming formidable.  It just means that when the dominant wants to play, it is time to play.  Peterson is encouraging the worst kind of competition by evoking the agonic system, which is characterized as being about “inhibiting others” through intimidation.  We do not become formidable in order to inspire others; we do so in order to become a “force to be reckoned with”.  We want people not to only defer to us but to submit to us when they are inferior to us.  In Peterson’s world, there is either the formidable or the opposite of the formidable, which is the weak.  Although he does not advocate the threat of aggression or force, he advocates the threat of creating insecurity in others by displaying superior competencies.


The purpose of this exhaustive post was not to defend the idea that Peterson contributes to status inequality.  Its purpose was to show how status inequality contributes to health and happiness.  Perhaps Peterson should not be reprimanded for helping others do what is partly instinctive, which is to strive for status.  The bigger point remains that anyone who selfishly strives for status will be contributing to status inequality.  Whether or not they become winners or losers, depends upon a host of factors—the primary of which is where they fall on the status continuum relative to others.  We all know that life, in terms of status striving and being valued by others, is based on how well we are positioned relative to others.  So the advice is to go where we can shine relative to others. This increases our chances of being valued and advancing our interests.  But what about the losers just below us.  Well, become more formidable and advance, or be grateful and accept.  In the former case, this creates more losers, and in the latter case we convince ourselves that we are happy, yet the statistics say that stats still matter.  Maybe we should change our approach instead.

But the following narrative is so ingrained in us that it will not be easy.  Status inequality creates incentives for us to want to achieve and be on top.  But no one is suggesting getting rid of status inequality since it is an inevitable result of what it means to be human. Solutions are for another post though.

Without competition, there is no source of reward for self-discipline, no motivation to become the right kind of person.  It is through competition that we discover who is moral, that is, who has been properly self-disciplined and therefore deserves success, and who is fit enough to survive and even thrive in a difficult world.  [4.5]


[0.5] Christie Aschwanden.  Maybe Conservatives Just Think They Are Happier.    FiveThirtyEight

[1] Cameron, Anderson.  People with disagreeable personalities … PNAS.

[2] Deaton, Angus. The Great Escape. Princeton University Press.

[3] Gilbert, Paul.  Subordination and Defeat: An Evolutionary Approach To Mood Disorders and Their Therapy.

[4] Jens Lange.  A Status-Seeking Account of Psychological Entitlement.  Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

[4.5] Lakoff, George.  Moral Politics.

[5] Marmot, Michael. The Status Syndrome. Henry Holt and Co

[5.5] Ross Pomeroy. Why Are Conservatives Happier Than Liberals?  RealClearScience.

[6] Rogers, Deborah.  Inequality: Why Egalitarian Societies Dies Out.

[7] Sandel.  Michael.  The Tyranny of Merit.

[8] Starmans, Christina.  Why People Prefer Unequal Societies.  Nature Human Behavior.

The End to Peterson (Sneak Preview)

Sneak Preview: This is a sneak preview of my formal rebuttal to a commentator who dares to challenge me.  Do not take this too seriously as this is entertainment.  I should have the rest of my rebuttal up sometime this month.  I found a ton of more research that I must include.  Hey, it is a long and exhaustive response, and it takes time to review the original research.  Although I can’t offer direct empirical support for my hypothesis (indirect, yes), I do make a good a priori case.  I will not be responding to any rebuttals though.  I know this is unfair, but I have the power to do so and no more time to give.

I really got under this commentator’s skin because they are shouting like an aggressive Trump heckler, “CONSERVATIVE PHOBIA!” This is what happens when people defend their beliefs; it becomes tribal warfare.  Being an ideologue makes us self-righteous and have hate for the Other.  The difference between them and me is that I have been cordial and have acknowledged their points.  This person, on the other hand, wants to shove their argument down my throat until I choke with blood and concede that I am wrong. They show what happens when we combine conservatism, the authoritarian flavor, with folk psychology found on the internet. 


Angry Trump fans converge on the press pen at a rally in Florida (source: RAWSTORY)

You cannot know what you can withstand.  You cannot have any proper sense of self-respect unless you know what you can tolerate.  And if you avoid everything you have reason to avoid, but should nonetheless not avoid, you will not know who you are, and you cannot live a proper life.

[The Jordan Peterson quote has to be what people mean about him being difficult to understand.  It is basically saying that a struggle in life is worthwhile although I would only say that perserverence makes us understand one aspect of ourselves.  This comes from an assumption of conservatism that life is a struggle for survival, which is not accurate.]

This will be the end of the reply to the never-ending comment, not to Peterson.  Peterson will go on as other conservative pundits do.  Recently, I got the privilege to listen to Dennis Prager and Peterson discuss the topics of God and the attack on Western culture.  I am not being sarcastic; most of the stuff Peterson does is thought-provoking.  Since he is concerned about people challenging his thoughts, he formulates every response as a long strained argument.  This makes following him challenging but sometimes worth it.  Dennis Prager, however, rubs me the wrong way.  I obviously have an ingroup bias.  I think this is where the commentator has a point.  For some, those who are “formidable” and confident are threatening.  Although Prager comes across as bold, it is also possible that his look which is the prototypical authoritarian from the 1950s (Christian, strict father, short hair, etc.) irritates me.  Personally, I enjoy people that are a little more easygoing.  It is just a matter of preference.  It does not mean that I do not strive for excellence and competence.  The difference is in a matter of degree and what we ground our worldviews in.

Mental Rigidity 

I noticed that sometimes this person has difficulty dealing with nuance, especially with the idea of how much.  There is a difference between some versus all and sometimes versus always.  They don’t agree or concede to anything or try to “get” where I am coming from. Although this individual would have to take a test to be sure, it is hard not to infer that they would score high for the RWA trait or Right Winged Authoritarianism.  This trait affects how they process information (see below) [1].  Since this person follows conservative dictums to a tee, I am sure they will retort with the left being authoritarian.  There is some evidence that they would be correct.  The best estimates in the US put the right to be at least three times that of the left [2].  In any event, I am not one of them.

Processing of Information [1]:

  • difficulty in judging evidence
  • high need to compartmentalize info
    • ironically, they hold more contradictory beliefs than others; so they must vigilantly categorize to reduce dissonance.
    • once information is categorized, then it becomes solidified which makes changing their minds impossible.
    • the mind is also poorly integrated so when they hear something that doesn’t fit right, they don’t know what to do with it
  • dogmatism — intolerance towards ambiguity
    • since nuance comes across as ambiguity, this explains why they must insist on absolute categorization without degrees
    • absolute categorization says that something is either in or out of the category and there is no deviation
  • lack of self-awareness

These are the four assumptions [3] that drive all logic within the conservative worldview.  Notice that one of the assumptions is absolute categorization which would explain why conservatives hate relativism but like moral absolutism.  This does not mean that radical relativism is true in the postmodernist sense.

  • folk-behaviorism – we learn through punishments and rewards which affects all of their moralities
  • humans are rational – this makes maximizing self-interest to be a moral act by way of logical necessity
  • competitive struggle for survival – life is tough which in turn justifies competition and other moralities
  • absolute categorization – attributes are either in or out of a category, which gives way to absolute morality

Authoritarian Trait

Intriguingly, the researchers found some common traits between left-wing and right-wing authoritarians, including a “preference for social uniformity, prejudice towards different others, willingness to wield group authority to coerce behavior, cognitive rigidity, aggression and punitiveness towards perceived enemies, outsized concern for hierarchy, and moral absolutism. [2]

[It seems that all in-groups if they don’t question their tendencies to oust outsiders and prefer insiders, especially ideologues, are susceptible to becoming authoritatians.]

The following description lists the trait as a series of subtraits or dimensions.  We all possess these tendencies, but it is a matter of to what degree.  And everyone can sometimes be an authoritarian, especially if someone wrongs us.  Possessing this trait obviously had some survival value if it still exists within the population.  In fact, I think it is the rudimentary trait of all in-groups before we realized that other groups matter too.  But if we possess the knowledge that it exists, then we can hold one another to a higher moral standard.  As stated, liberals can exhibit this trait too, but it seems to be much more pervasive with conservatism.  The interesting difference is that left-wing authoritarians are against the establishment and right-winger authoritarians reinforce the establishment. We have evidence for the mental rigidity in the commentator, but can we assume that they possess all of the sub-traits of RWA?

Describing the RWA trait:

  • to believe that authorities are always legitimate
  • follow and obey authorities and not criticize them
  • be intolerant of others who hold different moral, political, and racial differences
  • to adhere to societal conventions and norms and value uniformity
  • to agree to hostile and punitive treatments (e.g., coercion, oppression) for those who do not follow authorities or adhere to social norms, rules, or expectations
RWAs are likely to agree with the following statements [4]:
  • “People who are poor just need to work harder”
  • “In life, winning is the only thing that matters”
  • “A company’s main focus should be profits”
RWAs are unlikely to agree with the following statements:
  • Building relationships is more important than building profit”
  • “Happiness is more important than money”
  • “Protesters are the most patriotic citizens”

The Tough Guys: Gad Saad, Jordan Peterson, Thomas Sowell, and Dennis Prager

Commentator: Direct quotes from Lakoff (Leftist), a reference to Haidt (classical liberal). No quote or reference to JB Peterson or any other conservative like Thomas Sowell or Dennis Prager. Is the narrator lazy and/or gripped by fear of Conservatives? CONSERVATOPHOBIA!!!

The above comes across as a bully harassing the nerd on the playground.  This is an intellectual debate and not a contest over who can intimidate who with mockery and slurs. I have bent over backward trying to understand the commentator’s points, but there have been no original insights on their part, just rehashed conservatism.  The only thing I have learned is that Peterson buffers the blow of being formidable with playfulness.  The entire argument was whether or not the essence of Peterson is conservative-like. We already established that he is.  The next argument is whether or not Peterson is contributing to the tension in status hierarchies.  I think that I can demonstrate this with an affirmative.  Play or not, Peterson is aiding self-interested people in preparation for combat.

As references, I did use conservative sources from the Cato Institute and Federalist Publications.  But even this is irrelevant.  The references that I use make no difference in what their ideology is because it is an explanation of their scientific work albeit in an accessible style.   In principle, science describes phenomena, in this case, the different worldviews, and is not about what an author thinks society should be like.  It would be impossible for George Lakoff, who is a brilliant cognitive linguist, to have advanced in the scientific community without having bonified research.  His views on how society should be configured are liberal, but this has absolutely nothing to do with his analysis of the different worldviews.  In fact, he states that the conservative worldview is rational and those who are conservatives are just framing issues differently than how liberals do, which is a scientific fact, not an opinion.

As far as having a phobia, no, I would say that it just so happens that most of academia is liberal.  Furthermore, none of the “tough guys” have research published on modeling and describing the different worldviews.  If they did, I would have used them.  Their popular writings are opinions on what is wrong with the liberal worldview, which is often quite good but irrelevant to my purpose.  I used to be a conservative and looked up to these guys until I started to question why I was attracted to conservatism.  I know their reasoning and arguments in and out.  I have had life experiences that made me want to place more of an emphasis on being empathetic and gaining insight versus a focus on being formidable.  I will say it again; this boils down to a difference in preference.

Parting Words of Wisdom

Of course, each side views its own beliefs and values to be the right ones (making us self-righteous) while the other side is deemed to be in desperate need of the facts (making the other irrational).  Relative to one’s own framework, both sides are correct because both sides form coherent and rational moral frameworks.  In other words, liberals’ beliefs and values will only make sense within a liberal moral framework, and vice versa.  This explains why experts on morality believe that each speaks their own language. Taking one example of many, liberals define abortion as a cluster of cells, while conservatives define abortion as a baby.  Therefore, within the liberal frame, abortion is moral and within the conservative frame, abortion is immoral.  Preferences for framing things one way over the other are based on differences in personality or culture.  These framing differences give rise to different beliefs and values. Once we prioritize and reason with our beliefs and values, then we have a coherent worldview.  So can we ever have a correct answer?  Of course but we would have to formulate our beliefs as matters of facts that can be empirically tested, which is a challenge.  Most beliefs, morals, and values are known as distal beliefs and are difficult to prove.  The best is yet to come …


[1] Altemyer, Bob.  Right Wing Authoritarianism

[2] The Experts Somehow Overlooked the Authoritarians on the Left

[3] Lakoff, George.  Moral Politics