Prestige and the art of Sprezzatura
Buying a blue tick is as vulgar as buying your own furniture
In The Secret of Our Success, Joseph Henrich explained that humans evolved differently from other ape species in the way we came to depend on cultural transmission. We are uniquely reliant on our collective intelligence, the acquired culmination of social knowledge, without which we are surprisingly helpless. This, he says, is perhaps why we live way beyond the end of our fertile years, while chimps tend to die soon after raising their last child.
We need elder knowledge, folklore and custom for our survival. Much of this doesn’t appear to make sense, or at least no one knows why it works, such as particular cooking methods which remove toxins or taboos about pregnant women eating certain foods. Here there are parallels with Chesterton’s argument about traditions which we can’t explain.
The importance of this collective intelligence is illustrated by the numerous examples of European expeditions stuck in inhospitable environments. These almost invariably ended with everyone dying, even with relatively large and cohesive groups led by extremely intelligent men. The exceptions were those lucky enough to make contact with local indigenous people, who were able to transmit vital knowledge about hunting and food preparation. Where Europeans didn’t follow particular cooking methods, they often fell sick and died.
This cultural knowledge can take a long time to learn and is easily lost. Even the art of pickpocketing has been put out of existence for this reason.
Because cultural know-how is so important, humans have come to adopt a more complex form of social hierarchy than other ape species: as well as the more common ‘dominance hierarchy’, we have developed a second form of status, based on ‘prestige’.
Whereas individuals across mammalian species may reach the top through brute strength and the ability to intimidate, people rise in the prestige hierarchy by displaying certain skills or useful qualities, skills that for our species – more than any other – are vital to our survival.
The man with the unique ability to bring down a wild animal with a spear was as important as the alpha male who ruled the tribe. Inevitably, everyone else wanted to learn from him, seek his approval, and even look to his guidance in areas other than the particular skill he had.
Because we place such emphasis as a species on prestige, Henrich argues, so we come to follow the behaviour and even beliefs of those who carry that quality.
He cites the example of wine tests: people spend vast amounts of money on wine and yet most people fail taste tests, barely able to distinguish a £10 bottle from one costing ten or a hundred times that. Instead we tend to follow what others — prestigious people — tell us, so that ‘research makes it clear that people’s preferences, or tastes, are strongly influenced by observing and inferring the tastes and preferences of others, and that price is one of the cues people use to set their preferences.’
One especially bizarre aspect of our prestige-obsession is the degree to which people will follow the medical advice of actors. This can have positive results, Henrich citing the role that Angelina Jolie had on increasing breast cancer screenings. But there is otherwise no reason why an actor’s medical opinions might be worth following.
The same goes for their political opinions, and here is another area where prestige has a huge impact. Indeed, one of the big drivers of recent political radicalisation is the competition among people to display prestigious political beliefs, in doing so driving those beliefs to further extremes.
Runaway status competition develops when hierarchies are unclear, or become overly competitive; modern progressivism has become radicalised in part because egalitarian-minded 21st century westerners are obsessed with status and prestige. They can’t help it, living in an age in which the rewards of success are so much more elevated than in any previous society, and where failure carries novel forms of psychological humiliation.
Twitter has long epitomised this progressive paradox, being a site which is hugely skewed towards the Left, and pushing the bounds of acceptable belief in that direction, but built around status. Far more so than social media sites before, it signalled individual status both explicitly and implicitly; explicitly in the number of followers, and implicitly in signals like the number of bio-hashtags and the type of avatar, although these status signals are constantly changing, a Red Queen-style evolutionary battle to avoid cringe.