The returns on hierarchy in group coordination

Optimising egalitarianism

Cosma critiques Táíwò (2022), which is is a book he did not enjoy, based upon an essay we both loved, Identity Politics and Elite Capture:

…there is a core idea here which I find persuasive, namely that those with existing advantages will tend to use those advantages to play a disproportionate, even dominating role in any situation, undertaking or movement and to steer it to their advantage, unless pretty severely checked by strong, and enforced, institutional constraints. That’s Jo Freeman’s “tyranny of structurelessness” (cited by Táíwò), as well as Robert Michel’s “iron law of oligarchy” (not cited). So far, so convincing.

But let me push a little. Unless one imagines that everyone in a movement is equally influential, it’s mathematically necessary that the most influential members, the elite, are disproportionately influential. (Just build the Lorenz curve of influence.) I admit this pretends that “influence” is a one-dimensional numerical variable, but that’ll be true of all sorts of proxies for influence, like time other members of the movement spend attending to you. At what point does this disproportionate influence tip over into “elite capture”? If this is a matter of degrees rather than thresholds, how ought one trade off the bad of elite capture against other desiderata, like actually getting anything done? (Imagine every member of a movement of even 1,000 people speaking for just a minute on a decision, and being listened to.)

These are, of course, very old questions of democratic theory. Liberalism has at least evolved some answers, by now boringly familiar: leadership through formal representation, accountability of representatives to members through regular elections, competition between rival factions of would-be leaders, etc. — in short, the threat of members throwing the bums out will keep the would-be bums in line. These have their own issues (throwing the bums out can be a collective action problem, which must be preceded by collective cognition)…

OK, so how do I optimise the degree of hierarchy in any given group action problem?

This notebook is about that.

Intrinsic costs to the low status

DeDeo and Hobson (2021):

While hierarchies might benefit the group as a whole, the benefits are distributed unequally, with those at the bottom suffering the most (Marmot et al. 1978; Sapolsky 2005)

Efficiency returns on hierarchy

Interesting study on power-efficiency trade-offs of a certain type: O’Connor (2019).


Aziz, Haris, Felix Brandt, and Paul Harrenstein. 2013. Pareto Optimality in Coalition Formation.” In Games and Economic Behavior, 82:562–81.
Balkin, J. M. 1997. The Constitution of Status.” The Yale Law Journal 106 (8): 2313.
Bergh, Jeroen C J M van den, and John M Gowdy. 2009. A Group Selection Perspective on Economic Behavior, Institutions and Organizations.” Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 72 (1): 1–20.
Boyd, Robert, and Peter J. Richerson. 1992. Punishment Allows the Evolution of Cooperation (or Anything Else) in Sizable Groups.” Ethology and Sociobiology 13 (3): 171–95.
Brandt, Felix, and Martin Bullinger. 2022. Finding and Recognizing Popular Coalition Structures.” Journal of Artificial Intelligence Research 74 (June): 569–626.
Brown-Iannuzzi, Jazmin L., Kristjen B. Lundberg, Aaron C. Kay, and B. Keith Payne. 2021. A Privileged Point of View: Effects of Subjective Socioeconomic Status on Naïve Realism and Political Division.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 47 (2): 241–56.
Bruner, Justin, and Cailin O’Connor. 2017. Power, Bargaining, and Collaboration.” In Power, Bargaining, and Collaboration. Vol. 1. Oxford University Press.
Casper, Brett Allen, and Scott A. Tyson. 2014. Popular Protest and Elite Coordination in a Coup d’état.” The Journal of Politics 76 (02): 548–64.
Cheng, Joey T., Jessica L. Tracy, and Joseph Henrich. 2010. Pride, Personality, and the Evolutionary Foundations of Human Social Status.” Evolution and Human Behavior 31 (5): 334–47.
Cochran, Calvin, and Cailin O’Connor. 2019. Inequality and Inequity in the Emergence of Conventions.” Politics, Philosophy and Economics 18 (3): 264–81.
Coleman, James. 1990. Foundations of Social Theory. Belknap Press.
Cooley, Erin, Jazmin L. Brown-Iannuzzi, Ryan F. Lei, William Cipolli III, and Lauren E. Philbrook. 2021. The Policy Implications of Feeling Relatively Low Versus High Status Within a Privileged Group. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 150 (11): 2346.
Currid-Halkett, Elizabeth. 2017. Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class. 1st edition. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
DeDeo, Simon, and Elizabeth A. Hobson. 2021. From Equality to Hierarchy.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 118 (21): e2106186118.
Fliessbach, K., B. Weber, P. Trautner, T. Dohmen, U. Sunde, C. E. Elger, and A. Falk. 2007. Social Comparison Affects Reward-Related Brain Activity in the Human Ventral Striatum.” Science 318 (5854): 1305–8.
Gould, Roger V. 2002. The Origins of Status Hierarchies: A Formal Theory and Empirical Test.” American Journal of Sociology 107 (5): 1143–78.
Hayward, John. 1999. Mathematical Modeling of Church Growth.” The Journal of Mathematical Sociology 23 (4): 255–92.
Henrich, Joseph, and Francisco J. Gil-White. 2001. The Evolution of Prestige: Freely Conferred Deference as a Mechanism for Enhancing the Benefits of Cultural Transmission.” Evolution and Human Behavior 22 (3): 165–96.
Horst, Ulrich, Alan Kirman, and Miriam Teschl. 2007. Changing Identity: The Emergence of Social Groups.” Economics Working Paper 0078. Institute for Advanced Study, School of Social Science.
Jiménez, Ángel V., and Alex Mesoudi. 2019. Prestige-Biased Social Learning: Current Evidence and Outstanding Questions.” Palgrave Communications 5 (1): 1–12.
Kawakatsu, Mari, Philip S. Chodrow, Nicole Eikmeier, and Daniel B. Larremore. 2021. Emergence of Hierarchy in Networked Endorsement Dynamics.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 118 (16): e2015188118.
Klug, Michael, and James P. Bagrow. 2016. Understanding the Group Dynamics and Success of Teams.” Royal Society Open Science 3 (4).
Maner, Jon K. 2017. Dominance and Prestige: A Tale of Two Hierarchies.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 26 (6): 526–31.
Marmot, M. G., G. Rose, M. Shipley, and P. J. Hamilton. 1978. Employment Grade and Coronary Heart Disease in British Civil Servants. Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health 32 (4): 244–49.
Marx, W. David. 2022. Status and Culture: How Our Desire for Higher Social Rank Shapes Identity, Fosters Creativity, and Changes the World. New York, NY: Viking.
O’Connor, Cailin. 2019. The Origins of Unfairness: Social Categories and Cultural Evolution. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.
———. 2022. “Why Natural Social Contracts Are Not Fair.”
O’Connor, Cailin, and Justin Bruner. 2019. Dynamics and Diversity in Epistemic Communities.” Erkenntnis 84 (1): 101–19.
Ostrom, Elinor. 2000. Collective Action and the Evolution of Social Norms.” The Journal of Economic Perspectives 14: 137–58.
Post, Daniel J. van der, Mathias Franz, and Kevin N. Laland. 2016. Skill Learning and the Evolution of Social Learning Mechanisms.” BMC Evolutionary Biology 16 (1): 166.
Pratto, Felicia, Jim Sidanius, and Shana Levin. 2006. Social Dominance Theory and the Dynamics of Intergroup Relations: Taking Stock and Looking Forward.” European Review of Social Psychology 17 (1): 271–320.
Rao, Vijayendra. 2005. Symbolic Public Goods and the Coordination of Collective Action: A Comparison of Local Development in India and Indonesia.” World Bank Policy Research Working Paper, no. 3685.
Sapolsky, Robert M. 2005. The influence of social hierarchy on primate health.” Science (New York, N.Y.) 308 (5722): 648–52.
Sidanius, Jim, James H. Liu, John S. Shaw, and Felicia Pratto. 1994. Social Dominance Orientation, Hierarchy Attenuators and Hierarchy Enhancers: Social Dominance Theory and the Criminal Justice System.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology 24 (4): 338–66.
Simler, Kevin, and Robin Hanson. 2018. The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life. 1 edition. New York: Oxford University Press.
Suessenbach, Felix, Steve Loughnan, Felix D. Schönbrodt, and Adam B. Moore. 2019. The Dominance, Prestige, and Leadership Account of Social Power Motives.” European Journal of Personality 33 (1): 7–33.
Táíwò, Olúfẹ́mi O. 2022. Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics. Chicago: Haymarket Books.
Tracy, Jessica L., Azim F. Shariff, and Joey T. Cheng. 2010. A Naturalist’s View of Pride.” Emotion Review 2 (2): 163–77.
Velde, Vera L. te. 2022. Heterogeneous Norms: Social Image and Social Pressure When People Disagree.” Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 194 (February): 319–40.

No comments yet. Why not leave one?

GitHub-flavored Markdown & a sane subset of HTML is supported.