[A] remarkable fraction of female journalistic output, at least the most heartfelt stuff, consists of demands for society to change so that that particular female journalist would be considered hotter looking.
—Steve Sailer, in "Female Journalism"
Humans all want high status, but we can't all have it. Some portion of our happiness, likely large, is determined by status; therefore some people are structurally guaranteed to be unhappy. While non-status transactions may make everyone better off, status transactions must make someone worse off. Status, I argue, is zero-sum (at best).
Salem of Why I Am Not... argues that status need not be a zero-sum game. For one thing, status is "obscure" - it's hard to measure, and we tend to overrate ourselves, resulting, presumably, in extra utility for everyone. However, even if we overrate ourselves, a large number of people still correctly rate themselves as being of low status, and suffer as a consequence. We are biased about status, but far from blind.
For another, says Salem, there are multiple statuses, not just one - multiple, overlapping groups among whom to achieve and display status, and multiple domains within which to achieve and display status. To some degree, these groups and domains even compete for status - which shows us that there is some kind of "background" status that exists outside of the group or domain within which status is sought. Status exists only in the minds of other humans, and in our own models of those minds. It is not merely context-dependent, but attempts to broaden itself over all contexts.
What I find to be the most fascinating objection to the "status is zero-sum" claim is that there may be imaginary status - i.e., status may be measured against others who aren't really in the game, and can't perceive their own relatively low status - non-playing characters in computer games, animals, those outside of and unaware of the existence of a given status domain, etc. As Salem puts it, "This also gives a different perspective on animal welfare. Perhaps little boys picking the wings off flies aren't so bad after all." As Chip Smith puts it, "If trivial inequalities that nevertheless satisfy discrete human desires for status welfare can be distinguished from consequential inequalities that satisfy the same end, then maybe there is a net benefit in the former. I'm sure market forces promote both."
Imagine an unattractive female journalist. She has a few choices available to her:
- Be sad about her low status in the mating domain (zero-sum)
- Focus on her high status in other domains (scholarship, etc.) and forget about the mating domain (potentially not zero-sum)
- Change relevant mating groups so that she may gain high status in the mating domain within some group, even if it's not the wider group (potentially not zero-sum)
Indeed, she might, to some extent, engage in all three. However, there is a fourth option that is almost universally pursued by those of low status:
- Try to persuade her group that she is more attractive, OR that the forms of status she possesses are more "real" or "important" than the forms of status she does not possess.
That is, humans desire high status, and attempt to externalize their conceptions of status. What it means to compete for status is not just that the agent must perceive himself as having high status, but that others must perceive the agent as having high status.
Imaginary status ("subjective" status) may be a substitute for others-perceived status ("objective" status) in the same way that pornography is a substitute for sex - an inferior substitute. We still try to get the real thing.