Economics of Social Status

In economic terms, for a good to function as money it must serve three related purposes:

  1. A medium of exchange,
  2. A store of value, and
  3. A unit of account.

We’ve already discussed how status functions as a medium of exchange. Because it’s so fluid, it can be used to price favors and other goods at relatively fine resolutions, and it facilitates transactions that wouldn’t otherwise be able to occur. Negotiating with status beats the hell out of bartering — i.e., trading one specific good for another — thereby allowing smoother, more efficient economies to develop.

Certain goods – money, nice cars – are only useful insofar as they contribute to first-order goods: food, water, reproduction.  Does social status count as a first- or second- order good?  While it doesn’t keep us alive, we are social creatures that crave and need social attention.  Consider what happens to socially isolated individuals, especially those in prison.  Go read about the economics of social status.

Jumping off of bridges

No man is an island, entire of itself.  Although we like to think of our decisions occurring in a vacuum, in reality we’re bombarded with information on how other people are deciding all the time.  It would be shocking if our decisions weren’t influenced by the behavior of other people – and, obviously, a wide range of studies indicate that we are (sociology).

In nature, too, the behavior of animals is dependent on what they see other animals doing.  Think of fish swimming through schools and schools of other fish.  To the right it sees a flash of a fin: is it a predatory fish? Or a friendly fish?  If it’s a predator and you misidentify it you’ve made a big mistake; but misidentify a friendly fish as a predator and you’ve just wasted a bunch of energy – and you maybe you’ve lost a friend.

You can improve your identification of a predator – or of anything really – just by listening to the crowd.  If your friends are looking out for the same things that you are, you should make your decision based on what the majority of your friends think (quorum sensing).  Not only will you make more true positive decisions, you’ll also make fewer false positive decisions: you become more perceptive as a whole.

Humans do this, too.  Just sit a bunch of people together in a room and force them to identify Group evidencewhether a short movie clip has a predator in it or not.  When they are told what percent of other people think they’ve seen a predator, they will do much better than if they just decide on their own information alone.  Even having just one other person help to you out will have a dramatic impact.  People don’t go with a simple majority opinion, rather, they base their decision on how reliable the group has been.  When the group has been more reliable in the past – when it has had more true positives – then more of the group needs to agree in order for someone to be swayed in their decision (see figure).

What is most interesting about this to me is how trivial it would to implement in a spiking neural network model.  Divisive normalization (or gain control) is a common feature of neural networks: neural activity isn’t really the sum of its inputs, but is divided by a factor relating to the total stimulation.  In other words, if there were a very strong input stimulus (say, a lot of social input) then the neural response would relate to the fraction or variation in that input.  Basically, quorum sensing.  And using group reliability to determine your quorum threshold?  It just reeks of reinforcement learning.

As I’ve been reading papers over the last year, attempting to become a ‘neuroecologist’, I’ve been trying to keep in mind how social decisions might be built into the brain.  This paper is a great example of how ideas in ecology might provide straightforward input that can advance neuroscience.


Wolf, M., Kurvers, R., Ward, A., Krause, S., & Krause, J. (2013). Accurate decisions in an uncertain world: collective cognition increases true positives while decreasing false positives Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 280 (1756), 20122777-20122777 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2012.2777

Photo from

Humans are not the only copycats…

Both sets of newcomers seemed to follow social cues when selecting their snacks. Baby monkeys ate the same colour maize as their mothers. Seven of the ten males that migrated from one colour culture to another adopted the local colour preference the first time that they ate any maize. The trend was even stronger when they first fed with no higher-ranking monkey around, with nine of the ten males choosing the locally preferred variety. The only immigrant to buck this trend was a monkey who assumed the top rank in his new group as soon as he got there — and he may not have given a fig what anyone else ate.


“The take-home message is that social learning — learning from others rather than through individual trial and error — is a more potent force in shaping wild animals’ behaviour than has been recognized so far,” says Andrew Whiten, an evolutionary and developmental psychologist at St Andrews and co-author of the paper.

Humans are not the only copycats.  (More from Ed Yong).  With the key question being: what are the neural mechanisms that distinguish between social learning and ___ learning?