Monkey Pornography, Social Status, and Reputation


Britt is further developing his thoughts on relative celebrity. He points to a study that looks at social status in monkeys and their willingness to sacrifice food to look at the faces of high-status individuals and what amounts to monkey pornography. On the flip side, they demand more food to look at the faces of low-status individuals.

Male rhesus macaques sacrificed fluid for the opportunity to view female perinea and the faces of high-status monkeys but required fluid overpayment to view the faces of low-status monkeys. Social value was highly consistent across subjects, independent of particular images displayed, and only partially predictive of how long subjects chose to view each image. These data demonstrate that visual orienting decisions reflect the specific social content of visual information and provide the first experimental evidence that monkeys spontaneously discriminate images of others based on social status.

Primates appropriate a significant portion of their brain to constantly monitoring, calculating, and analyzing relative social standing and, naturally enough, mating potential. Britt makes a jump from social status to celebrity (i.e. the state of being well known) and I'm trying to decide whether I agree with that connection. Is social status merely celebrity, or is it something more nuanced than that? I believe that celebrity, status, and reputation, while related, are quite different from each other.

If you read the study, it allows that we're hardwired to associate certain facial traits with status. That is, we do judge books by their covers. Harrison Ford just looks like a good president, doesn't he? That would indicate that social status is quite primitive. As a society we afford the opinions of celebrities more credence than is probably warranted. Actors are forever lending their fame to this cause or that and influencing people on issues on which they have no particular expertise.

We tend to conflate status and celebrity, but I think they are quite different. An entity might be very well known and still have low status. In fact, that might be the basis of their celebrity. For example, criminals have a certain celebrity, but low status. Allowing for some exceptions, the people we call "celebrities" are well known because of the high social status we grant them. This is just the opposite of thinking that they have high social status because they're well known.

To be fair Britt is talking about "relative celebrity" and that's an important distinction since "relative" allows the celebrity to be context sensitive. But status, and I think reputation, are more than mere celebrity. Certainly reputation is the measure of how well known an entity is in a particular context. But reputation is also being known for something. We use reputation to estimate an entities probable future action. That's more sophisticated, it seems to me than celebrity.

In my personal lexicon of reputation and identity, I'd probably break it down like this:

  • Reputation is an individual calculation about an entities past performance in a particular context. The expressed opinions of other entities are part of this calculation. Every other entity performs this calculation and gets their own result. They use this result to create expectations of future behavior (i.e. trust).
  • Trust is the expectation of an entities future actions based on their reputation.
  • Status is the relative ranking of multiple entities based on reputations in a given context. Thus we tend to "trust" people with higher status.
  • Celebrity is a measure of how well known a given identity is by other entities in a given context. It can be a factor in reputation, and hence status, but is not the same as either reputation or status.

For now, that's how I'm understanding these concepts. Feel free to take a whack at them and see if you can make more sense of them than I have.