Hierarchies of Status

Imagine a world where everybody plays a single videogame with a global ranking of players. Exactly one half of all people are above average and one half are below.

Now imagine a world where all the people play two games simultaneously. Assuming their skills at each game are independent, the situation is quite different:

Now 75% of people are above average! Woohoo!

With 3 dimensions it’s 7/8 or 87.5%. Extend to infinity, get the famous “all the children are above average”, which, as it turns out, not a complete nonsense.

What relevance does this metaphor have to everyday life? In real life, everybody plays numerous games: job, community, online forums with prestige systems, literal videogames, etc. Assumption of independent outcomes doesn’t seem at all plausible but still, the more distinct hierarchies of status exist, the better people can feel about themselves, which is pretty nice.


  1. Outcomes in hierarchies may have very strong covariance.
  2. People may change subjective weights of different hierarchies.
  3. People may compete on the number of hierarchies they’re above average in.

In fact, in the present model, if hierarchies are transparent, there’s very likely to emerge some kind of the ultimate weighted-sum-of-all-others-ultimate-status which will collapse the system and return everybody to the initial state with one axis. (Cheng, Tracy, Foulsham, Kingstone, & Henrich, 2013), (Von Rueden, Gurven, & Kaplan, 2008)


Obfuscating hierarchies should probably help. In fact, this is what norms against wage disclosure are probably about. But the universality of this strategy is questionable.

Still, I really like this model as a basis for thinking about the world, as, personally, I can employ advanced epistemology to extend the dimensions to infinity, believe weightings to impossible, pretend hierarchies to be completely obfuscated, etc. and live in complete peace with myself and others.


Thanks to Daniel Klein for letting me bounce my ideas off him.

My thinking on the topic is heavily influenced by Slate Star Codex’s Scott Alexander, specifically:

Burdens and The Parable of the Talents


Cheng, J. T., Tracy, J. L., Foulsham, T., Kingstone, A., & Henrich, J. (2013). Two ways to the top: evidence that dominance and prestige are distinct yet viable avenues to social rank and influence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104(1), 103–25. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0030398

Von Rueden, C., Gurven, M., & Kaplan, H. (2008). The multiple dimensions of male social status in an Amazonian society. Evolution and Human Behavior : Official Journal of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society, 29(6), 402–415. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2008.05.001

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