In a recent article a technology columnist complains about people who ostentatiously lay their cell phones on the table whenever they sit down, saying that all they are doing is showing off, that it is a kind of one-upsmanship. He thinks this behavior is no good, that it is a “damaging phenomenon.”[1] To which I reply: really? Humans, like all primates, are acutely attuned to social status. It is quite natural to want to enhance our status and display it to others. Now we have a new way to do it, by showing off the technology we own. What’s wrong with that?

Works by primatologist Frans de Waal, of which there are many, have recently emphasized the roots of empathy as a moral virtue in our primate cousins, chimpanzees and bonobos. But he has never lost sight of the focus of his classic Chimpanzee Politics, which describes in some detail how apes in captivity scheme, connive, fight and and form tactical coalitions to enforce social dominance.[2] It turns out that the much-more-peaceful bonobos have hierarchical social structures as well, although they are enforced by different mechanisms.[3] Humans are like our primate cousins in that we too are quite sensitive to our place in the social hierarchy and would much rather be viewed as having high status rather than low. Since status is purely a social phenomenon, being viewed as having high status is equivalent to actually having it. Hence, we display symbols of high status to achieve that end. There is nothing surprising about this at all.
Philosophically, there are a couple of interesting things to say about the human drive for status.

The first is that knowledge of human nature gives us some degree of control over ourselves. By recognizing that we are primates and knowing something about primates, we know something about ourselves and need not be surprised by dominance displays.

Humans have, more than any other animal we know about, the capacity for self-reflection, for what I call second-order mentation. We have the ability to pay attention to and think about our own self (that’s the second order) as well as objects and events in the world around us (the first order). This gives us the ability to control and direct our actions to a degree unprecedented in the animal kingdom.

Does someone display a sleeker, more powerful, more prestigious phone than yours? You can notice your reaction – perhaps a twinge of envy or a feeling of unworthiness – and decide whether to act on it or not. Does someone have the same kind of phone you do? And do you feel a small glow of pleasure, do you perhaps feel validated and confirmed, part of the group, when you see it? Again, you can notice that and decide what you want to do about it.

These are small examples, but the point is that if we are to be designers of our own lives, we, like artists, architects, engineers and builders, need to know our material. Primatology is one way of doing that. Brain science is another. Sociology, cognitive psychology, history, evolutionary psychology and any number of other fields, the subject of which is humanity in one form or another, are other ways. But the knowledge gained by these studies is useful only if we apply it.

Another way to apply it – and this is the second point – is to harness our innate sensitivity to status and dominance in socially useful ways. There are certainly more beneficial avenues to assert status than showing off gadgets. One of them is demonstrated competence.

I know a guy who has worked on a mountain rescue team. The work is exacting and dangerous, involving cross-country travel in hazardous conditions, rapelling down steep slopes and hauling injured people back up, and so forth. The teams have to make difficult tactical decisions at times, and the decisions are made by those who participate and do the work. He calls it “actocracy” – those who act get to make the decisions. So, within the team, those who have been on previous missions participate in deciding; and the opinions of those who have more experience and greater skill and competence – as judged by others on the team – carry the most weight. There is clearly a hierarchy of status, but the status is based on a track record of past performance.

It’s not the drive for high status that is damaging or degrading. That we have such a drive is just a fact about human nature. It’s how we manifest that drive, what we do to assert status and how, that is important. If we do it in a way that is trivial, that reveals very little about what we can be trusted to accomplish, then we are not living up to our full potential. If we do it in a way that enhances our power to be helpful and effective, then we are closer to being excellent human beings.

  1. Whittaker, Zack. “‘Phone on the table’ students: Driven by social status.” URL = as of 4 March 2011. ↩︎

  2. de Waal, Frans. Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes, 25th Anniversary Edition. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2007. ↩︎

  3. de Waal, Frans and Lanting, Frans. Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. See, for instance, pp. 72-78. ↩︎

How To Be An Excellent Human

Mysticism, Evolutionary Psychology and the Good Life by Bill Beacham, Ph.D.

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