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Prestige and the Ongoing Process of Culture Revision

Abstract

Human prestige systems are symbolic in nature and thus culturally patterned, though agonism lurks beneath all such systems. In both humans and chimpanzees, they may serve to permit learning from the high ranked and the successful. However, reliance on socially transmitted (cultural) information would be maladaptive without evolved mechanisms to screen out harmful information and retain the useful. One of these filters is preferential attention to the prestigious because prestige can be earned by skill and success. Prestige and dominance, like their underlying sentiments of respect and fear, are intertwined components of often complex and mutable social relationships; these components can be separated experimentally and mathematically but co-occur and evolved together. The evolution of our symbolic (culturally determined) prestige systems most likely involved sexual selection breaking down our ancestral social hierarchies into what we have today: multiple sets of symbolic criteria for the assessment of relative standing, with most sets being marked by competition in terms of a standard of excellence. Symbolic prestige allocation systems would have favored the evolution of cooperation over overt rivalry because they permit cryptic disagreement about relative standing, muting overt conflict and thus, perhaps, permitting the rise of complex, socially stratified societies. Culture does not so much get “transmitted” as edited, revised, inferred, and filtered. It is unclear to what extent we were selected to have knowledge-domain-specific mechanisms for cultural learning; an alternative hypothesis is that we rely on preferential attention and learning from the high-in-status across diverse knowledge domains, but that evolution has produced “switches” that influence, on the basis of our age, sex, and current status position, which individuals we find prestigious. The corollary of paying preferential attention to the high-in-status is ignoring the low: It often takes an ideology or moral imperative to get the higher ranked to pay attention to them. Apparent lack of compassion for the poor or disabled may often simply be inattention. Mass media challenge the filtering role of preferential attention to the high-in-status because they devalue the coin of local prestige. Today, we risk learning irrelevancies from apparently prestigious strangers at the expense of relevant knowledge learned from locally successful individuals.

Keywords

  • Prestige
  • Attention
  • Cultural transmission
  • Michael Chance
  • Hierarchizing

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Barkow (1978) has argued that the Stockholm syndrome reflects the inappropriate triggering of mechanisms that evolved to help young children internalize norms crucial for survival. The triggering takes place because the extraordinary amount of power the kidnappers have over their captives is comparable to the power parents have over young children. The triggered mechanisms cause the victims to sympathize with, respect, and even (at times) admire their captors and to believe in their cause. Fear is replaced by or at least joined with admiration that may be construed as “freely conferred” because it can endure even after captivity ends. The problem here is that “freely conferred” is a simplistic folk concept that is incompatible with modern understanding of the complexities of human psychology.

  2. 2.

    While these authors themselves do not cite Chance directly they do cite Barkow (1975), who summarizes Chance’s ideas, and they do appear—in my opinion—to have been influenced by his thinking.

  3. 3.

    “Exaptation” refers to the fact that the selection pressures which originated a trait may subsequently be replaced by others, so that the trait changes in form and function.

  4. 4.

    For example, among some groups the stereotype exists of the proud parent who speaks not of “my son/daughter” but of “my son/daughter the doctor,” the profession of physician being considered highly prestigious.

  5. 5.

    Professors with doctorates but not medical degrees who teach in medical schools have been known to complain that the students pay little attention to them, despite their often considerable eminence as researchers; professors who are practicing physicians seem to find it easier to attract the attention of the students.

  6. 6.

    If much of cultural capacity and, indeed, human psychology itself, was indeed produced by sexual selection, then it was our biological “Big Bang;” a constant concern with sex is apparently our species’ equivalent of Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation.

  7. 7.

    Respect or prestige should not be confused with affection or even the absence of enmity. The USA has been hated in much of the world by people who nevertheless readily adopt its entertainers and some of its cultural practices. American-style rap music and fast food, for example, are popular in many places in which America itself is not.

  8. 8.

    One could argue that, in terms of evolutionary biology’s costly signaling theory, attention and aid to those utterly lacking in social rank would be akin to the peacock’s plumage, a signal that one’s genetic endowment was so superior that one had resources to burn! However, such an argument should not be used to reduce the practice of good works to nothing but costly signaling!

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Acknowledgments

Effort sponsored by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, Air Force Material Command, USAF, under grant number FA8655-10-1-3012. The U.S Government is authorized to reproduce and distribute reprints for Governmental purpose notwithstanding any copyright notation thereon. The author wishes to thank the editors of this volume for their helpful comments and endless patience.

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Correspondence to Jerome H. Barkow .

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Barkow, J. (2014). Prestige and the Ongoing Process of Culture Revision. In: Cheng, J., Tracy, J., Anderson, C. (eds) The Psychology of Social Status. Springer, New York, NY. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4939-0867-7_2

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