Status: Map and Territory

I’m here to add another angle to the discussion on social vs. objective truth (example). Here’s an analogy for reasoning about status games and why people react so strongly against improper status moves:

Society is a collective consciousness. From Society’s point of view, the status game is the map. Genuine competence (some combination of skill, virtue, and value) is the territory. The map is meant to track the territory.

Human instinctively play the status game; it’s impossible to just say what you mean. The status game is built into people’s verbal and nonverbal behaviors toward one another.

If the status game is a good map, you can decide who to befriend, admire, and chastise based simply on their status moves. You can figure out who best to ask for advice by the way they hold their arms. You can trust the beliefs of confident people without individually investigating each of their claims. The human brain opts into the status game by default to partake in all this free value.

If the accuracy of the status game is corrupted, the map loses all value. Trust breaks down and you have to rely on first principles.

There’s an approved way of climbing the status ladder: acquiring genuine competence. Well-socialized individuals naturally play higher status as they become more competent in the relevant domain, since the connection between competence and status is built into their brains. Society approves: the map keeps fidelity to the territory.

There’s an improper way of climbing the status ladder: playing status above your competence. Jordan Peterson’s go-to example is serial killer Paul Bernardo in this prison interview. Note the minute-long interaction between Bernardo and the lawyer(?) on the right. Bernardo acts like a disappointed CEO lecturing a wayward and nervous underling.

Knowing the truth about the individuals involved, I have a visceral reaction against this status interaction: the map has detached from the territory. Even if Bernardo is speaking only literal truths, there’s an instinct that screams he’s lying.

I predict that the neural mechanisms for detecting truth from falsehood (i.e. whether the map corresponds to the territory) are closely related to the mechanisms for distinguishing proper and improper status moves (i.e. whether the status map corresponds to genuine competence). I predict that your negative reaction against lying feels similar to your negative reaction against improper status plays.