The original karma system

Prestige / dominance.status hierarchies, as seen in cooperation and leveraged in reputation systems.

Much of this research comes from Joseph Henrich, Kevin Laland and Jessica Tracy.

Kevin Simler in Minimum Viable Superorganism, casts the problem of cooperation outside the family unit as the setting up of a “prestige economy”, with some nice phrases to support his case. (This is a complement to his intro to status post.) It’s missing things you’d need for a comprehensive account of human cooperation (altruistic punishment, generalised reciprocity etc) but has some excellent phrases and is a workable first-order approximation/perspective. c&c the effectiveness of reputation systems as motivation.

Councillor on shoulders of spokesman, David Livingstone’s Missionary travels and researches in South Africa (1857)

(Jiménez and Mesoudi 2019):

According to Henrich and Gil-White (2001), people use, not necessarily consciously, two distinct strategies to acquire and maintain high social rank: dominance and prestige The dominance strategy involves causing, or threatening to induce, costs to other individuals. If the use of this strategy is successful, this elicits fear in the other individuals, who defer and submit to the wishes of the dominant individual to avoid the potential costs. In contrast, the prestige strategy involves displaying competence in valued domains. If the use of this strategy is successful, this elicits admiration in other individuals, who defer and submit to the wishes of the prestigious individual in order to gain access to, and thus socially learn from, this individual, and to acquire other benefits such as private and public goods . Although the successful use of both strategies leads to receiving deference from other individuals, the key distinction between them is that dominant individuals receive coerced deference, while prestigious individuals receive voluntary (or ‘freely-conferred’) deference.

Wedding of Leopold I, Holy Roman Emperor, and Margarita Teresa, Infanta of Spain

Another curious framing/critique which shines a light on this is due to Scott Alexander, who notes Financial Incentives Are Weaker Than Social Incentives But Very Important Anyway, responding to (Duflo and Banerjee 2019).


Venkatesh Rao

Arbilly, Michal, and Kevin N. Laland. 2017. “The Magnitude of Innovation and Its Evolution in Social Animals.” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 284 (1848).

Becker, Mark W., Reem Alzahabi, and Christopher J. Hopwood. 2012. “Media Multitasking Is Associated with Symptoms of Depression and Social Anxiety.” Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking 16 (2): 132–35.

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.

Duflo, Esther, and Abhijit Banerjee. 2019. “Opinion | Economic Incentives Don’t Always Do What We Want Them To.” The New York Times: Opinion, October 26, 2019.

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.

Hoppitt, William, and Kevin N. Laland. 2013. Social Learning: An Introduction to Mechanisms, Methods, and Models. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Jiménez, Ángel V., and Alex Mesoudi. 2019. “Prestige-Biased Social Learning: Current Evidence and Outstanding Questions.” Palgrave Communications 5 (1): 1–12.

Laland, Kevin N. 2017. Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Explains the Evolution of the Human Mind. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

———. 2004. “Social Learning Strategies.” Animal Learning & Behavior 32 (1): 4–14.

Lin, Liu yi, Jaime E. Sidani, Ariel Shensa, Ana Radovic, Elizabeth Miller, Jason B. Colditz, Beth L. Hoffman, Leila M. Giles, and Brian A. Primack. 2016. “Association Between Social Media Use and Depression Among U.S. Young Adults.” Depression and Anxiety 33 (4): 323–31.

Maner, Jon K. 2017. “Dominance and Prestige: A Tale of Two Hierarchies.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 26 (6): 526–31.

Mead, Nicole L., and Jon K. Maner. 2012. “On Keeping Your Enemies Close: Powerful Leaders Seek Proximity to Ingroup Power Threats.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 102 (3): 576–91.

Mead, Nicole, and Jon Maner. 2012. “When Me Versus You Becomes Us Versus Them: How Intergroup Competition Shapes Ingroup Psychology.” Social and Personality Psychology Compass 6 (8): 566–74.

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.

Primack, Brian A., Ariel Shensa, César G. Escobar-Viera, Erica L. Barrett, Jaime E. Sidani, Jason B. Colditz, and A. Everette James. 2017. “Use of Multiple Social Media Platforms and Symptoms of Depression and Anxiety: A Nationally-Representative Study Among U.S. Young Adults.” Computers in Human Behavior 69 (April): 1–9.

Simler, Kevin, and Robin Hanson. 2018. The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life. 1 edition. New York: Oxford University Press.

Tracy, Jessica L., and Richard W. Robins. 2007. “Emerging Insights into the Nature and Function of Pride.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 16 (3): 147–50.

Tracy, Jessica L., Azim F. Shariff, and Joey T. Cheng. 2010. “A Naturalist’s View of Pride.” Emotion Review 2 (2): 163–77.