The Gervais Principle IV: Wonderful Human Beings

Each of them – and they constitute 80% of humanity – is born the most beautiful baby in the world. Each is an above-average child; in fact the entire 80% is in the top 20% of human beings (it’s crowded up there). Each grows up knowing that he or she is deeply special in some way, and destined for a unique life that he or she is “meant” to live.

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In their troubled twenties, each seeks the one true love that they know is out there, waiting for them, and their real calling in life. Each time they fail at life or love, their friends console them: “You are a smart, funny, beautiful and incredibly talented person, and the love of your life and your true calling are out there somewhere. I just know that.” The friends are right of course: each marries the most beautiful man/woman in the world, discovers his/her calling, and becomes the proud parent of the most beautiful baby in the world. Eventually, each of them retires, earns a gold watch, and somebody makes a speech declaring him or her to be a Wonderful Human Being.

You and I know them as Losers. Welcome to Part IV of the Gervais Principle series. Read Parts I, II and III first, otherwise you will misunderstand (and possibly be deeply offended by) this post.

Last time, we left one of the unfortunate Clueless, Andy Bernard, staring with deep frustration and anger at the world of the Wonderful Human Beings, pining to join, but rejected and humiliated.

Marxist Office Theory

No, not Karl. Groucho. Groucho Marxist theory is the key to understanding Andy’s predicament.

Andy doesn’t belong, and it frustrates him to the point that he punches holes in walls. He can’t get into the Finer Things Club (a lunch group comprising Pam, Oscar and Toby, devoted to occasional elitist indulgences) despite his best efforts, while Jim can drift in without even trying. Andy’s life is about joining clubs.  And Marx provides the core idea we need in his famous line, “I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.”


There is a deep truth here. Social clubs of any sort divide the world into an us and a them. We are better than them. Any prospective new member who could raise the average prestige of a club is by definition somebody who is too good for that club.

So how do social groups form at all, given Marx’s paradox? The answer lies in the idea of status illegibility, the fuzziness of the status of a member of any social group. This is governed by what I will call Marx’s laws of status illegibility.

Marx’s First Law of Status Illegibility: the illegibility of the status of any member of a group is proportional to his/her distance from the edges of the group.

Marx’s Second Law of Status Illegibility: the stability of the group membership of any member is proportional to the illegibility of his/her status.

So the status of anyone who is not the alpha or the omega, is necessarily fuzzy (and yes, it is related to James Scott’s idea of legibility in Seeing Like a State, but never mind that).

Read the laws carefully. This is a tricky concept. The laws imply that in a group of ten people it is much easier, both for insiders and outsiders, to identify numbers 1 or 10 (alpha and omega)  than it is to identify number 4 unambiguously. They also imply that alpha and omega are weakly attached to the group, while the obscure middle is stably attached (the two-way attraction/repulsion expected-value math is straightforward; work it out).

Among the Losers of The Office, the alpha Jim is on the cusp of Sociopathy, while the omega, Kevin, is borderline Clueless. In between things are murky. Necessarily murky as we shall see. I challenge you to supply a complete and defensible ranking of the rest of the Losers in the office, from 2 to (Ω -1). Does Oscar outrank Phyllis? Does Creed outrank Meredith? What about Stanley vs. Oscar?

Status illegibility is necessary to keep a group of losers stable. It is a deep form of uncertainty. I am not saying that there is a ranking that is just not known or knowable. I am saying there is no clear ranking to be known. If you’re silently screaming “Heisenberg,” please; some patience. We have a long way to go.

Status illegibility is the key to the Marx paradox, and the foundation of every other aspect of Loser group dynamics (which is also all group dynamics, since forming groups is a loser activity). If your status is clear, and the status of the club is clear (by definition, the average status of all its current members) then either your status is higher, in which case the club will want you, but you won’t want to join, or your status is lower, in which case the opposite is true. If status were precisely known all around, then the only case that allows somebody to join a club is if their status exactly matches the average of the club. The probability of this happening is vanishingly small, even if status could be measured accurately and quantitatively. Worse, this benefits neither joiner or club.

But consider what happens when all you really know about the club is the range of status (lowest and highest). If you know you belong in the range (“that dude is cooler than me, but I am definitely cooler than that loser”), but have no idea whether your status is above or below the average, the uncertainty allows you to join. And your fealty to the group, and the group’s to you, will be in proportion to the legibility of your status. If events conspire to make status too legible, competitiveness is amplified, weakening group cohesion, and stabilizing dynamics kick in, restoring the illegibility, or the group breaks down. We’ll see how that works in a bit.

If you are having trouble understanding this notion of status legibility, read this well-known Internet meme:

Aocdcrnig to rseecrah at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno’t mttaer in waht oderr the lterets in a wrod are, the olny irpoamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rhgit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whoutit a pboerlm. Tihs is bucseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey ltteer by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Aaznmig, huh?

Status illegibility works a bit like this, but is stronger. It requires that the middle be jumbled up. There can be no correct rank ordering, but the group is still meaningfully coherent.

Note that the legible limit points are necessary to provide basic calibration to new aspirants to membership, and to help Sociopaths value the social capital represented by the group, and negotiate terms with alphas with legitimate authority. The alpha and omega set the range. Both are by definition the most unstable members. The alpha can be tempted away into the illegible middle of a higher-ranking group, with more murky room to climb, while the omega might get sick of being the whipping boy (in mixed-sex situations, the omega is usually male) at the bottom, and move to a higher relative status in a lower group (both can also be tempted into Sociopathy; Butters, an omega in South Park, turns into Professor Chaos, an ineffectual Sociopath-wannabe). If either happens, a new alpha or omega emerges through a succession battle. Social groups grow from the illegible but stable center of the status spectrum, and leak at the legible but unstable edges. Resistance to status legibility is  illustrated in ridiculously literal ways in an episode in The Office, when there is a fire in the building and Dwight attempts a headcount to make sure everyone is safe:

Dwight: Oh, hey, Michael. Ryan needs a number for the count off.

Michael: Okay, well, one is taken.

Ryan: Uh, okay, two?

Dwight: NO!

Ryan: Ok- Oh, sorry?

Dwight: Okay, he can have 14, Marjorie isn’t here today.

Michael: Well, he needs a permanent number, right?

Ryan: No, I don’t.

Crucially, during this exchange, the rest of the group (all the Losers) is not paying attention. Michael and Dwight treat the count-off sequence as a legible and static status hierarchy. Ryan of course, assumes it is just a nominal number (a procedural situational ranking, which is what sane people use for count-offs), but the interesting thing is his natural resistance to being drawn into this explicit ranking game.

Why is status illegibility central to group stability? How is it created and maintained? How do you know if you can join a group, and how do you go about doing so? What games do you play, when, and how? Why play these games and form groups anyway?

All shall be revealed. I guarantee you won’t like the answers.

The Lake Wobegon Effect Reconsidered

In case you didn’t get the reference, I began this post with an homage to Garrison Keilor’s Lake Wobegon, where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” Keilor’s classic nugget of mordant wit has since been used to bolster the theory of illusory superiority, a kind of delusion by which the mediocre convince themselves they are above average.

This is a partially true explanation. Loser dynamics are largely driven by Lake-Wobegon-effect snow jobs, which obscure pervasive mediocrity. But unlike the delusions of the Clueless (false confidence of the Duning-Kruger variety which we saw last time), which are maintained through the furious efforts and desperate denials on the part of the deluded individuals themselves, Loser delusions are maintained by groups.You scratch my delusion, I’ll scratch yours. I’ll call you a thoughtful critic if you agree to call me a fascinating blogger. And we’ll both convince ourselves that our lives are to be valued by these different measures.

Loser above-averageness is generally not based on an outright falsehood. Unlike Michael’s pretensions to comic genius, which are strictly not true, Pam really is the best artist in the group. The delusion lies not in a false assessment of her artistic skills, but in the group choosing to evaluate her on the basis of art in the first place.

In other words, Losers are too smart to fool themselves. They enter into social contracts which require them to fool each other.

This social contract requires them to play games. Games that work at two levels to create cohesion and social capital: they structure current, live situations, and they bolster redemptive life scripts (“I am special” stories). We need to understand status illegibility at both these levels.

At the life-script level, the game-playing social contract creates complete nominal illegibility. Each individual in a group is judged according to a custom life script that makes it impossible to compare two lives within the group. Pam’s life has a redemptive script based on the fact that she is the cutest one in the office, can paint well, and forms the “It” couple with Jim. Kevin’s is based on the fact that he is in a band. Creed’s uniqueness lies in his weirdness. The alpha usually enjoys a reputation of ineffable “coolness.”

Remember, you are unique, just like everybody else. And everybody is uniquely above average. This is why, paradoxically, collectivist philosophies that value equality must necessarily value diversity. Nobody wants to equally average. Everybody must be given a chance to be equally above average. Sociopaths detect and get wary of this dynamic very quickly: later  in the same fire alarm episode, Ryan’s developing instincts are on display:

Dwight: Oh, you know what else, I thought of a nickname for the three of us. The Three Musketeers.

Michael: Um, yeah, okay. Oh, no, no, no, no. I got one. I got one. The Three Stooges.

(reaction shot of Ryan looking concerned)

Ryan ( talking to the camera later): I don’t want to be like, a “guy” here. You know? Like, Stanley is the crossword puzzle guy. And Angela has cats. I don’t wanna have a thing, here. You know, I don’t want to be, the “something” guy.

Ryan is right to be wary, not just because this is a lousy idea for candidate social club proposed by the Clueless, but because the “uniqueness” game is a game of mutual delusion. In the big games of life, those involving the Darwinian dimensions of sex, money or power, we don’t get to define the rules. And it is only those games that can create social value.

Which means that competitive Darwinian dynamics must also be present, in veiled form, within groups. Nominal status illegibility and Iamuniqueism do not stop the pretty artist Pam from fighting the numbers-Guru Oscar over the use of the budget surplus (money). Unlikely social climber Phyllis cuts pretty-girl Karen down to size: “You don’t know who Bob Vance is? You have a lot to learn about this town, sweetie” (sex). Pam and Karen fight Angela over party-planning rights (power). The fights are more macho in more male-dominated loser groups, but the principle is the same.

So all the social dynamics are about maintaining a delicate balance between mutual reinforcement of unique life scripts and comforting status uncertainty on the one hand (which requires status illegibility), and fighting veiled battles over sex, money and power (which fuel the engines of group value creation).

Status illegibility is maintained through games and Gametalk of course, but before games can be played, groups must form and cohere.

Joining and Leaving Groups

Let’s return to the trajectory of our hero from the last part, Andy. His stated strategy for gaining social acceptance is a simple one:

“The Finer Things Club is the most exclusive club in the office. Naturally, that’s where I need to be. My backup is the party planning committee, and Kevin’s band is my safety.”

This idea (gaining status is a large group via membership in a subgroup) isn’t bad actually, but it is mistaken at two levels. First, Andy mistakenly believes that there is a clear status hierarchy among groups in the office. Actually the status illegibility effect is recursive, and applies to subgroups as well. In the mythos of American high schools as portrayed by Hollywood, the football team and cheer-leading squads are on top and the marching band is at the bottom, for instance. Do the Goth kids outrank the hackers? That is strictly unknowable.

Second, he treats membership as an audition process, whereby he can gain entree by offering proof of status.

What Andy actually needs to do is offer proof of the right level of status illegibility. Yes, his music and other skills matter. But they merely create a vector of uniqueness for later use. If he gets in, that’s what the group will use to socially bolster his unique-and-above-average delusion. But to actually get in, he needs to demonstrate the right level of status illegibility, governed by the level he is aiming for. Attacks on alphas and omegas by newcomers can be clear-cut (yes, even omega positions can be attractive to outsiders; George Costanza plays that game in a bid for a rent-controlled apartment on Seinfeld at one point). A bid for any interior position must be made by demonstrating the right level of status illegibility.

Status therefore, must first be successfully obscured during a membership bid. As with most group dynamics, membership bids are scripted in gametalk. How new members segue into existing group games is what determines their future. An example is the episode in which Michael is out of town, leaving Jim to run a staff meeting.

Dwight, smarting at having to suffer Jim’s authority, seeks to undermine it by putting a voice recorder on the table, ostensibly to capture the meeting transcript for Michael’s benefit. This clumsy stunt is of course, easy enough for the alpha, Jim, to shoot down. He immediately improvises a joke at Dwight’s expense:

Jim: “Dwight, what are you doing? You can’t take your pants off in the office! It’s making me uncomfortable. This is sexual harrassment… Oh my God! He’s got a knife! Let the record show that Dwight K. Shrute is now completely nude, holding a plastic knife to Stanley’s neck.”

Dwight of course, is caught off guard and reduced to trying to yell out his own defense over Jim’s voice.

But it is hopeless, because Dwight isn’t facing Jim alone. He is facing a mob of Losers that is capable of immediately playing along with the improvisation in a “let’s beat up on Dwight” game. The others pile in, building on Jim’s Dwight-is-naked premise. Dwight’s situation looks hopeless.

Andy to the rescue.

Andy entirely fails to read the situation. At some dim level of awareness, he realizes that the group is in a good mood, and that Dwight is the center of attention. He decides to get some attention while the gettin’ is good.


There is dead silence. Andy has just failed a  membership test. If he’d known what he was doing, he’d have been careful to join the game with a calibrated build on Jim’s premise: saying something funny, but not so funny that the spotlight moves away from the alpha, or so unfunny that even the omega can top it. Karen, who is equally new to the group, does exactly that. While she has an advantage (dating Jim), she nevertheless earns her membership with a calibrated fuzzy-status build on Jim’s joke (“Dwight, what is that on your stomach? Is that a Muppet Babies tattoo?”).

Andy ultimately fails to gain entree into the loser circle. His fate is basically sealed in the episode when Ryan returns to Scranton for the first time after becoming VP. Andy is very impressed by Ryan’s new status. An encounter occurs in the break room between Kevin, Andy and Jim, which marks the end of Andy’s hopes of being accepted.

Jim: That whole [Ryan’s] lifestyle? His whole vibe? You find that appealing?
Andy: Tuna! (sigh) Tuna,tuna,tuna
Kevin: Tuna,tuna,tuna
Andy: He has a killer job. He’s rich. He smells like what I think Pierce Brosnan smells Like. He wears rich guy clothes.
Kevin: And he can get any girl that he wants
Andy: So, sorry Tuna, but if you don’t know why that’s awesome, then…you need awesome lessons. See ya Tuna.
Kevin: Tuna. Check ya later.

This is a deeply fascinating conversation, and the highlight is that for the first time someone else validates Andy’s membership bid. Kevin accepts Andy’s nickname for Jim (tuna), and even imitates Andy. The alpha (Jim) is insecure, feeling threatened by the newly powerful Ryan. The newcomer allies with the omega (Kevin) to score a point off the alpha. But though he wins a point, this conversation is the beginning of the end for Andy. Once you’ve resorted to entering a group by co-opting the easily-won support of the omega, you’ve sent a very clear status signal. You only outrank the omega. Since this violates the requirement for some status illegibility around the (Ω -1) position, Andy has now permanently marked himself as an outsider, and Kevin, through his injudicious support of Andy, has reinforced his position as omega (the two do manage to get to Jim just a little though; later when Pam turns down Ryan’s advances, Jim remarks to the camera, “well I guess he can’t get any girl he wants.”)

Andy failed an overt membership test (the Finer Things Club), a softer membership test  (the “let’s all beat up on Dwight” game) that required a social skill: group humor, and ultimately cemented the Clueless perception by allying with the omega loser, Kevin,  making his own status too legible.

Why can’t Andy enter the group easily at a clear (Ω -1) position? He is not useful as a safe calibration point (the group has already invested in making Kevin the omega), and he doesn’t raise the value of the group. Though there are no good examples in The Office, you can’t enter at #2 either. Only the alpha can legitimately confer the #2 title, and there is rarely a good reason for the alpha to do so unless he/she is planning to exit. For the alpha, keeping contenders guessing through unpredictable signs of favor is the best idea (a great example involves a different Andy, the character in Deadwood who causes much tension among Al Swearengen’s henchmen, by getting too close to #2). Actually the only successful Loser-entry in The Office involves Karen, who rode in on Jim’s coat-tails, proved herself in the beat-up-Dwight game, and sealed her position by conspiring with Pam against Angela during the Christmas party planning war (Charles Miner and Ryan Howard entered and exited, but as Sociopaths). If you’d like more examples of how group entry works, read this fascinating article on how bouncers make decisions about who to let into nightclubs. Obfuscated status signalling is key. The bouncers aren’t enforcing an illegible threshold as much as they are enforcing an illegible spread.

Exits work the same way. If an alpha or omega leaves, the new alpha or omega is plucked out of the illegible middle at that time. Not before. Succession planning may be a good idea in formal hierarchies, but it is a bad idea in social groups.

Finally, purely through internal dynamics, a group can become more or less legible. Status legibility can increase through clear status “overtake” events (example: it is suddenly revealed that Phyllis can actually draw better than Pam). A sub-group clique gaining too much power is another example (as with the Party Planning Committee casting Karen out).  Status can also become too illegible when games get too too ritualized, and lose their social-capital generating ability.

Legibility is controlled by pulling individuals down or up through games, the adoption and abandonment of specific games, and the formation and break-up of sub-groups through open conflict (often catalyzed by external Sociopaths). We’ll only tackle highlights of all this.

If this forced regression to the (above-average!) mean didn’t happen, the status would become increasingly legible and the group would disintegrate through vicious status competition. If the group were to become too illegible, vitality would be lost and games (which create new social capital) would ossify into sacramental rituals (which don’t). Groups must remain socially fluid to work. Fluidity is the other side of illegibility.

But where does the group get this power to pull down high-fliers and pull up the unfortunate? How can sub-groups be created or destroyed? How can games be retired and new games introduced? Groups achieve all these effects by withholding or awarding evidence of social proof. Social proof dynamics create social capital through existing games, legitimize/de-legitimize sub-groups (which play sub-cultural games, such as the little elitist games played by the Finer Things Club), and accept or reject new game scripts.

Social Proof and Social Capital

All game-structured social dynamics are based on some social skill or the other. Since these games are skilled activities (such as improvising jokes or comforting a member who has suffered a loss), they can create value. This value accumulates as social capital. Let’s look at what that means.

A social skill, such as joke-telling ability, is a behavior whose effectiveness is determined by the reaction of a group. A joke is funny if the audience laughs. A proven mathematical theorem remains true even if a billion people scream that it isn’t. Theorem proving is not a social skill in that sense. Like theorem-proving, social skills are information skills, since nothing tangible is produced besides an effect on others’ minds. Unlike theorem-proving though, the value of the product is based on social proof rather than objective proof (peer review as a process combines elements of both in varying proportions, depending on the field). Social skills produce information; a social truth hypothesis (such as a joke). If it passes a social proof test, it becomes part of social capital (the grand narrative of the group). In other words:

Social skills –> Social truth hypotheses –> Social proof –> Social capital

A social skill can rest on the foundation of an objective skill (as in the case of both humor and music), but the test of the skill lies not in the objective characteristics of what is produced (as Andy believes), but in the reaction of the group to skillfully-timed deployment of the skills.  Besides humor, capacity for skillful expressions of sympathy, praise, teasing and criticism are other social skills.

Social proof is why the Lake Wobegon effect is not entirely about false superiority (recall I said illusory superiority is only partially true as an explanation). If everybody agrees that Pam is a good artist, then she effectively is a good artist, and she will benefit by that social-proof judgment (so long as the group has the capacity to reward her through praise, situational leadership during office art projects, and so forth).

Let’s examine the workings of humor in detail, as an example.

Most forms of humor attempt to raise or lower status of individuals via game-like structures, with defined roles and a structurally predictable script (the surprise comes from the content). There is always a jokester, a victim (which can be the same person by design or accident) and crucially, an audience. The victim may or may not be present. So there are at least three roles in a piece of humor, of which the role of audience may be played by a group. This gives us three basic forms of humor.

Clueless (Two-Person) Humor

Two-person humor is Clueless humor. If you attempt a joke with just one other person present, and you can are only capable of experiencing gratification if the other person laughs (social proof; majority of 2/2), you get a terminally stupid situation that only the Clueless will attempt to enact. Note that two-person jokes with an absent victim are really three-person jokes, so they don’t count.

In a two-person situation, you either get non-adversarial self-deprecation (which reinforces existing status), or an adversarial joke. Since social proof works by majority vote, two-person adversarial  jokes cannot work unless the victim laughs at himself, accepting an insult. If the victim fights back, with no neutral audience to cast a laugh vote, you get a pointless game of oneupmanship, as in the Andy-Dwight Cornell interview session we saw last time. That is why the humor is clueless. It boils down to he-said-she-said. Without a judge, there is no outcome, and there are no significant status movements.

Sociopath (One-Person) Humor

One person humor is Sociopath humor, and is psychologically more complex. It can only happen when the jokester and audience are the same person (which replaces social proof with individual judgment), and everybody else present is a victim, often unaware that they are being made fun of. Andy Kauffman’s humor is an example. Here’s an example from The Office that illustrates the effective way to push Dwight’s “farmer” button.

Jim, Andy and Dwight are at Beni-Hana, to help Michael get over his breakup. Now, Beni-Hana, for the benefit of non-Americans, is a hibachi restaurant where people sit at communal tables around a chef working a grill. Dwight is forced to sit a little apart from the other three and strains to hear the conversation. Watching Andy gain points with Michael, Dwight gets increasingly worried. At one point Andy, in an effort to get the pretty waitress Cindy hooked up with Michael, engages her in a game of trying to imagine her dream home. The waitress closes her eyes to imagine. Dwight yells across to Jim to ask what’s happening.

Jim: … she’s trying to describe how to correctly butcher a goose, but she’s having trouble coming up with it.

Dwight (yelling): Ok. Cindy. Yo! Cindy, Cindy! Hold its neck back, insert the knife beneath the jaw, bring it all the way around. There’s gonna be a good amount of blood. But don’t let that bother you. Have a bucket there. For the blood, and the innards and the feathers.

Here, Jim doesn’t need anybody else to get why this is funny, not even Dwight. It is pure Sociopath play, a cat-mouse “pushing buttons” exercise in viciousness for private pleasure. Sociopath humor often possesses such push-button cruelty (and is “objective” humor in that sense, since the victim’s reaction validates an objective psychology hypothesis). In this case, the button being pushed is Dwight’s pride in his identity as a farmer, and the predictable behaviors it causes. Contrast this with the (failed) “farmer” joke that Andy tried in the Cornell episode.

But humor gets really interesting when there are more than two active participants. That gets you to Loser humor, an engine of social capital creation.

Loser (Group) Humor

In Loser humor, as with Clueless humor, the “it is funny” validation comes via social proof from somebody other than the jokester (audience ≠ jokester ≠ victim). But unlike the two-person stalemate that is the norm in Clueless humor, Loser humor usually creates clear outcomes because democratic social proof can work. The smallest meaningful Loser group is three people (including some special cases where the victim is absent, and both jokester and audience laugh, providing a 2/3 social proof majority).

In general, the creation of social capital depends entirely on the reactions of the audience. What breaks the status stalemate in groups of three is that meaningful status movements can occur. The high can be pulled down, and the low can be pulled up. Due to status illegibility, bigger groups are even better, because you get the benefits of status-weighted social proofs without requiring clarity of status. If three people, who among them illegibly share ranks 3, 4 and 5, are present, then you can weight their collective laughter with a 4 and get accurate results.

How does humor create social capital, once it has earned social proof? Consider a simple three-person situation. A makes a joke at B’s expense. Without C present, you’d get Clueless dynamics. But if C is present, and he laughs, he bonds with the joke-teller and creates social capital in the bond of trust betwen them. If he frowns or otherwise indicates that the joke was in bad taste, he bonds with the victim and creates capital there. And crucially, if he does not react, no social capital is created at all.

Laugh/frown votes are a powerful weapon for the passive members of any situational group. In the most extreme situation — the smallest possible group of three people — there is enormous power wielded by just one person.

Andy fails to understand this because he thinks there are objective group standards that govern whether something is funny. A very clear example can be found in the Dwight-versus-Website episode, when Andy offers to support Dwight’s bid to beat the website’s sales:

Andy: And this is where I will record your sales.
Dwight: Hmm. Very nice. Very nice.
Andy: And then I will say something positive, like kudos or job well done.
Jim (imitating Andy’s characteristic a capella bebopisms): Or zipadeedoodaah.
Andy: I can’t tell if he’s mocking me.
Dwight: Just ignore him.
Andy: Ehh, can’t do that. Really hard for me to let things go.
Jim: I was… mocking.
Andy: Thank you.

Notice what happened? Andy had power and he squandered it. He could easily have decided to not laugh, or fight back with even a mediocre comeback. He’d have gotten Dwight’s support, and Jim’s joke would have fallen flat (this joke, unlike the goose joke, is a Loser joke rather than a push-button Sociopath joke; Sociopath jokes usually involve straight-faced delivery and private laughter, with no hint of mockery). But Andy does not recognize that he has control over the situation; that he can give Dwight (a temporarily friendly judge) the deciding vote simply by ignoring Jim.  The joke can be unfunny if Andy wants it to be. In the larger group situation we encountered earlier, in the case of the chainsaw joke, Andy again squandered his social proof voting power. He failed to vote for Jim’s joke with a build.  If he’d done that, the joke might actually have worked (“Oh no! Dwight is now attacking Phyllis with a chainsaw!” would have worked perfectly).

Round and Round and Up and Down

Among the Clueless, status stays static: you get the Michael > Dwight >Andy arrested development totem pole we examined last time. Among the Sociopaths, status is irrelevant. Table stakes and skill at using them is what matters. Sociopaths pay attention to what you have, and how well you bargain with it. Not who you are.

But among Losers, status is real, and it matters. Within the limits of the status illegibility required for group stability, status churns through skilled Gametalk interactions. Humor causes status shifts among jokester, victim and audience. Net inflow of social capital occurs when the victim is out-group. Redistribution and appreciation/depreciation happen when the victim is in-group. Net outflows happen when an entire group is made victim by another individual or group within a larger, subsuming context (the football jocks making fun of the glee club, or Red Sox fans winning a bar room brawl with Yankees fans). Expressions of sympathy or workplace moaning work in similar ways.

It probably surprises you that even when the victim is in-group, there is appreciation/depreciation of social capital. Clueless jokes are zero-sum, but Loser jokes are actually non-zero-sum. This does not mean they are win-win (people with a vague understanding of game theory often conflate “non-zero-sum” with “win-win”). This is a variety of non-zero-sum called mutual exploitation that is sadly under-studied by game theorists. It simply means you can create net positive value by taking turns beating each other up competitively (aside for game-theory geeks: in the iterated prisoner’s dilemma, you get mutual exploitation by breaking the constraint that the cooperation payoff must be higher than the average of the defection and sucker payoffs) . You can also create net-negative toxic non-zero-sum outcomes.

Among Losers, in specific situations, status may go up or down, but overall, it just goes round and round. There is no grand status hierarchy. Only a top, a bottom, and an illegible middle. Newcomers attempt to successfully lose themselves in the middle. Situational wins and losses create a turbulent churn that maintains the illegibility without creating any decisive movement within the group.

But the social capitaldoes appreciate and depreciate through the churning economy of jokes, sympathy, moaning, commiseration, solidarity, anger/derision directed against out-groupers, and so forth. That whole chaotic chemistry that we dignify with the word “culture” and structure with grand narratives.

Who owns the social capital? That’s the beauty of the thing. Due to status illegibility (which would imply clear contribution/ownership weights), there can be no fair and equitable distribution. So the group can only deploy the capital collectively. Social capital is also generally illiquid anyway, except in aggregate forms. The trust between you and me, developed through banter and jokes, is of no use to a third party unless they hire us as a team to work together on something. I cannot take half of our mutual trust bond value and go sell it in the Sociopath marketplace for cash.

But let’s leave the Sociopath’s relationships with Loser collectives, and the dynamics of trading social capital for dollars, for Part V. We’ll need to lay the foundations of the theory of Sociopaths before we can tackle that.

There’s a lot we haven’t touched upon, like sub-group dynamics, and the creation and break-up of groups. We also haven’t built out the laws of illegibility into an uncertainty principle (I am still working that one out). We’ll get to some of that later, since those phenomena depend on what sociopaths do.

But let’s finish up with the soul of the matter: empathy.

Empathy, or Why You Losers Cringe at Michael’s Actions

We’ve been drilling deep into social dynamics, and we finally get to that one deeply human quality that makes all this possible.

It’s called empathy. The ability to feel what another human being is feeling.

All this complicated social psychology does not need to be explicitly understood. For high-empathy people, all this is natural. By participating in collective feeling in groups of any size, and reacting to basic attraction/aversion drives, you can actually safely navigate all the complexity by instinct.

Not only can you do this, you will actually feel good doing this. This feeling is called happiness. I don’t have time to go into this, but happiness is entirely a social phenomenon, and there’s plenty of evidence that the best way (and from my reading, the only way) to get happy is to get sociable. Non-social feelings that seem like happiness turn out, upon further examination, to be distinct emotions like contentment, equanimity or hedonistic pleasure.

This isn’t particularly surprising. Our brains are designed like our bodies: just as we possess backs that others can scratch more easily than us, our brains contain “backs,” so to speak. That’s where happiness lives, and is brought alive by empathic scratching.

As we will see next time, when Sociopaths head down their own paths to delusion, despair and descent into madness, they take the first step by giving up on happiness.

But I’ll finish with my explanation of why Losers cringe (rather than laugh) at Michael’s behavior.

Why do we use the word cringe to describe the peculiar brand of humor in The Office? Think about the word. You cringe when you anticipate pain. Physical cringing, such as the cowering reaction you instinctively produce when you realize your car is going to hit another car, or when you realize somebody is going to hit you, serves to mitigate the anticipated damage. You also cringe via empathic anticipation of someone else’s impending pain. Watch yourself next you watch someone else about to get hit by a swinging door for instance. You will cringe.

Psychologically, you cringe when you realize you are committing a social faux pas and can expect a negative social-proof judgment. Again, this cringing helps — you interrupt the offending behavior and try to recover. Empathic social cringing is even more effective among Losers, since you can watch my developing “embarrassed for you” reaction to moderate your own behavior in time.

So cringing is physical and psychological anticipatory damage control, and is powered by both individual anticipation and empathic sharing of feeling. Normally, cringing is a self-moderating impulse, since it dampens the behavior that causes it, either in yourself, or in others.

But empathic cringing causes a curious runaway effect when you have an (instinct-driven) Loser watching one of the Clueless begin to blunder socially.  You cringe as you would in any social situation, but because the Clueless person is oblivious to the impending negative social judgment, he or she blunders on anyway. Your cringe naturally gets a lot more exaggerated. Imagine being in the passenger seat of a car about to crash, and driven by a slower-reacting driver. Your empathic slamming of the brakes will be exaggerated compared to if you were yourself at the wheel.

The finest example of this in The Office is in the episode when Michael accidentally outs Oscar, and produces the most cringe-inducing moment in the show to date, when he tries to demonstrate his non-homophobia by kissing Oscar. The reactions in the rest of the room are worth watching. Jim looks shocked. Kelly stares open-mouthed. Ryan physically averts his gaze.

In this episode, Ryan is still not a Sociopath, so he cringes. Jan and David Wallace on the other hand, maintain an effortless poise no matter what Michael or Dwight get up to.

To get there, they have to sequester empathy through detachment, and give up happiness. We’ll see how and why that pact with the devil happens next time. And after these last two long-slog posts (this one is over 6600 words), we’re finally past the dip. If you’ve survived this far, the next part,  should be much easier to get through. But there are a few surprises still left. I still haven’t explained Toby, remember?

About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. College Loser says:

    This post appearing today is an interesting coincidence, since recently I’ve been thinking a lot about group dynamics, and how to exploit them. This sentence also especially resonated with me:

    “As we will see next time, when sociopaths head down their own paths to delusion, despair and descent into madness, they take the first step by giving up on happiness.”

    What’s a (wannabe)-sociapthic college student to do?

    A university student body is a very different kind of organisation to a workplace, or a high school. I can certainly see the group dynamics mentioned here in action, but the Loser/Clueless/Sociopath classification just doesn’t fit (I tried to map it to one observer’s trichotomy of student subcultures – Party/Career/Academic – without success). The only enjoyable pastime for sociopaths seems to be involvment in organising the large and/or prestigious student societies, where the stakes are just high enough for some political games to be played.

    Some background: A few months ago I decided to start making a conscious effort to improve my social skills. At first, it was rewarding; I began with the basics, paying attention to how I was perceived and trying to be more perceptive of others. Improved social life, improved relationships – I found that, despite having always perceived myself as an introvert, socialising made me happy.

    Fast forward to now; I’m in a new environment (I’ve just started a one year exchange program), having to build a social circle from scratch. (About 100 exchange students arrived at the same time as I did, and as a group we’re fairly isolated from both the local and full-time international students, so there were many people in the same situation as me. It was interesting to watch the various groups coalesce).

    I thought I’d find it easy, having also started to learn about status games and group dynamics, and deciding to be more strategic in my choice of friendships. The result: I’m f****** lonely. Both in the normal (I feel I have no-one to confide in) and the existential (I now feel that it’s impossible to really confide in someone) senses. Some of the people I would normally have made friends with, I’ve kept as friendly acquaintances, simply because I don’t see them as valuable to be around (social losers, to be blunt). As for the in-crowd, I’ve got a large number of weak ties with people from various social circles; viewed through the lens of this article, I’m on the periphery of a number of groups, but not a member of any of them. (My inner adolescent wants to hang out more with the cool kids, but a more adult part realises that it’s mostly a waste of time and effort). I have started to pick a handful of individuals (some exchange, some full-time students, some outside the university completely) that are worth cultivating further.

    But thinking this way about relationships does not bring happiness. I no longer enjoy solitude as much as I used to, but I also find it harder to relax in company. The road to sociopathy is certainly a gloomy one.

    I’m not sure why I posted this; I guess one reason was just to show how this kind of thinking could be applied to a non-workplace context. I think the main difference (for college sociopaths) is that objective sources of social capital are much harder to come by – being ‘President of X Society’ one of the few examples I can think of. Good academic performance doesn’t count, because unlike good job performance, it doesn’t make you valuable to anyone. Also, since almost everyone gets ‘promoted’ at the end of each year, there’s no real possibility to salmon leap into a superior pond, transcending the social games of your current level.

    The smart thing is probably to follow the career-minded kids and start planning my exit into the real world, though two more years of limbo in loserdom might kill me. Any suggestions on how to cope?

    • Being a sociopath wannabe doesn’t seem to fit.
      What about cultivating some“>cluelessness instead?

      • College Loser says:

        …There seems to be enough sociopath wannabes appearing in the comments for previous Gervais Principle posts.

        The approach advocated by that blog is tempting, though I think checking out of the hardcore-studying/resume-padding game sounds more like loserdom than cluelessness. I don’t know what clueless students would look like, as there are no student middle managers.


        • Studentdom is kind of a limbo as far as the gervais principle is concerned. You’re not playing with real stakes for the most part so you can’t be a sociopath unless you’re looking to conquer the social scene.

          In such a context you’re much better off stopping the powergames and finding people who are going places and networking with them. Your college time is the most powerful foundation of network building you have on your own. You’re not there to run the world, but you are there for meeting future contacts, gaining the knowledge which will help you in your career, and learning how to work inside insane organizations.

          Trying to apply a model to a situation it isn’t designed for without checking to see if it is valid at all can’t be anything other than game playing.

    • I think there was an article in the ribbonfarm posterous that touched a bit on what you’re seeing, College Loser. It had to do with an examination of sororities and the way the girls at the top treated the others, and how they arrived at the top. I know it’s not exactly the same, but the result of the study was that the ones at the top, the sociopaths who acted mainly for their own gain and didn’t care who they stepped on to achieve their goals, more often than not were elevated to that status from within the group as people everyone liked. The ones who joined the sorority with the sociopath attitude, backstabbers, and so on, were not elevated to the sociopath positions of power within the sorority itself.

      You can kind of see this in Venkat’s writing about Jim, and I just realised it’s probably described in The Prince in the parts about how ‘no fortress can substitute for the trust of the people’ (though I may be reaching). There hasn’t been much talk about the specifics of table stakes that sociopaths play their games with, but from the article, it seems that one variety is the value of the support of the losers.

      I know I didn’t really give you much advice, but maybe it’s something to think about for a sociopath in training that one of your main goals should be finding a way to get yourself enough chips to be able to sit at the sociopath table and be dealt in, and pushing away a source of some value may be the wrong way to go about it.

      • College Loser says:

        What you say makes sense. (Though I’d say that any sociopaths that come across with a naked sociopathic attitude probably lack some social savvy.)

        However, I don’t think my problem is that I don’t make an effort to be liked – the converse, in fact (I did say I’m only an aspiring sociopath). I score highly on agreeableness, which makes it easy to get on with people*, but means I have to work to overcome my aversion to conflict and rejection.

        *(Reading up on basic psychology has shown me a few connection-building tricks that should be common knowledge if they’re not already. Steer conversation towards talk of feelings and opinions. Gossip about others. Intimacy is built on shared secrets. If people do you a minor favour, they’ll like you more; they’ll reason backwards that they must have liked you to help you.)

        Your point about finding table stakes is well taken. I just need to find a table worth playing at…

  2. Thanks jld and Scott… pretty good answers that cover the ground. I really have nothing to add, except one major point:

    Most sociopaths learn from other sociopaths through 1:1 live-ammo-fire situational training. Sociopaths aren’t into feel-good mentoring, so they only help wannabes along if there’s something in it for them. So your first task really is to find a more sophisticated/evolved individual willing to take you on as an apprentice in a project that requires a certain amount of sociopathy. This person will take you along to consequential meetings (powertalk games), and throw you into the deep end at the right times so you can sink/swim.

    This is a lot of value, so you have to offer something in return. If you can’t think of anything, you won’t find for-pay mentors. And that may mean you are dead in the water. Learning this entirely by yourself, via books and blogs, is really hard even if you have the raw talent. On The Office, Ryan seemed to pull it off, but Jim had help from Jan and David Wallace.

  3. Ah finally! Thanks for making my day.

    I’m confused about the connection between group value creation and a goup’s social capital. What can the alpha of a loser group gain by exiting upward, without turning sociopath? If they join a cooler group, that coolness either reflects a combination of the Darwinian dimensions (since you say only Darwian games create social value), or their happiness still depends just on their delusional life scripts and games, in which case they don’t qualify as a potential sociopath.

    • Think of it as switching jobs. I actually looked at these dynamics of switching to increasingly valuable social groups in my post The Crucible Effect.

      I only hinted at the relation between social capital and economic value creation here, but the relationship is straightforward. Social capital (in the form of trust bonds) allows people to work in coordinated ways. A 1000 engineers who don’t know each other and have no trust/social capital can at best work alone and create a 1000 modest 1-person inventions (or… an Apple App Store catalog?). Build the social capital, and the group can build moon rockets.

      But the social capital is required to moderate the competitiveness and create sufficient cohesion and harmony. Consider the dynamics of a head-on coding competition like one of those Netflix challenges, versus people coordinating enough to take on bigger projects… but you can’t moderate the competitiveness too much (that’s one of the hidden failure modes of waterfall planning).

      In this picture, sociopaths stay somewhat independent, and influence how the collective, coordinated energies are directed.


  4. Socialpath says:

    Terrific fourth installment. Lives up to the impossibly high expectations.

    Although I agree that status illegibility is important for many members within a group I would argue that status illegibility is no more than “reasonable doubt”. With a bit of effort everybody’s real status can be discovered.

    The key to this, I would argue, lies in two aspects of social interaction:

    1) (overt) challenges for status between two people

    2) the group dynamic in absence of the alpha

    Both define status very, very clearly.

    The challenge for status between two people I divide into four levels.
    (a) nonverbal action
    (b) verbal action
    (c) concealed action
    (d) overt action.
    When omega – 1 in a group attempts humor (verbal action) and the alpha frowns (nonverbal action) then this reconfirms the relative position of the alpha and the alpha – 1 and the alpha – 1 implicitly loses status. If the alpha were to react with verbal action he draws attention to the challenge, which hurts his own status. An action is concealed if it’s not not telegraphed to the rest of the group and overt when the group actively becomes part of the challenge (by having to pick sides). There are 4 ways to initiate a challenge and 4 possible reactions so there are 16 combinations in total. This decreases status murkiness substantially. Meredith could publicly challenge Jim and Jim could just ignore her, because his status is so much higher. But when Dwight challenges Jim, Jim has to respond every time.

    The second aspect is to watch how the group dynamic changes when the alpha leaves (or hasn’t arrived yet). As argued in the article, the successor isn’t clear until the very last moment, but even when the alpha is absent for a few minutes somebody will step up. Because The Office only shows us 20 minute highlights we don’t really see the dynamic change as people enter a room one by one. Only Dwight clumsily attempts to assert his authority whenever Micheal leaves the room.

    Anyway, I’m going to give the whole classification of status in The Office a try:

    On more than one occasion we’ve seen actions and jokes by Pam shut down by Phyllis with just a single look. The other way around is unimaginable, Pam will never be able to stop Phyllis mid-sentence by raising her eyebrow. Pam’s status is only elevated by association with Jim, her real status is way lower and Phyllis knows it.

    So: Phyllis >>> Pam.

    In the accounting group Angela, Oscar and Kevin share a corner. Kevin is barely acknowledged as omega. The interesting dynamic is between Angela and Oscar. What we’ve seen though, is that Angela puts up baby posters that drive Oscar up the wall but his nonverbal and later verbal disapproval have no effect. Angela dismisses him non-verbally. This I think shows that Angela has way more status than Oscar. Oscar doesn’t like Angela’s overt display of dominance and challenges her publicly and even involves Micheal. Oscar wins and arrives slightly below Angela in status. He he had to challenge her overtly, but he won and Angela had to publicly defend herself, so the status gap can’t be big. The entire ordeal hurt both Angela’s and Oscar’s status substantially, but Oscar had no choice.

    So: Angela > Oscar

    If Phyllis had less status than both Angela and Oscar she could side with one of them to gain status. But this is unimaginable. Phyllis gains status by staying out of it. Phyllis seems to be above most minor conflicts in the office.

    So: Phyllis > Angela > Oscar

    Angela snipes at Pam (e.g. calls her a hussy) and Pam doesn’t do much in return. So Angela can’t have much more status than Pam (or she wouldn’t feel the need to snipe to show dominance) and Pam quietly accepts Angela outranks her.

    So: Phyllis > Angela > (Oscar | Pam)

    In the Finer Things Club Phyllis isn’t a true member, as far as I remember. I think Pam and Oscar are the core of that club. Angela eagerly joins the club below Pam because it makes Phyllis the omega of the Finer Things Club. This puts Phyllis in an awkward position, because by refusing to join (or leaving it) she loses status and she can’t be in charge of it either. Ultimately I think the Finer Things Club is not taken very seriously and has little effect on status.

    Creed is an Unlikely Sociopath (can you imagine him cringing at anything?). He’s not part of the group dynamic and doesn’t want to be. When he interacts with the group it’s for his solely for his amusement. No jokes are made about Creed behind his back (not even by the omega). Imagine for a moment the Party Planners are setting up the conference room for a party and leave a cake there. If Creed were to take a piece of the cake for himself before the party had started (a “concealed action”, for he wouldn’t cut the cake in front of Angela or Phyllis) what would happen? Creed would just eat the cake at his desk and Phyllis wouldn’t be able to do anything. If she confronts Creed he’ll just walk away, and what has been eaten can’t be uneaten. Creed has no status to lose. So Creed can’t really be classified in the range [alpha – 1, omega), but I’ll try anyway.

    Stanley is like Creed but to a lesser extent. He has hardly any status (and he knows it) and he chooses not to be part of the group (because he’d clearly belong in the bottom half qua status, which is worse than his side-line position). He will assert himself when he wants and he publicly challenges Micheal (who he perceives as the alpha) by walking out of meetings by not taking part in company activities. Micheal doesn’t know how to deal with somebody like Stanley so he gets out of the way. I can’t imagine Stanley cringing (being emotionally affected by) anybody in the office. I think that makes Stanley a Casual Sociopath. I have no idea what would happen if Stanley and Creed were to take part in something together, but I suspect one of them would make a move for dominance. Since even Casual Sociopaths avoid other Sociopaths when they have nothing to gain by an interaction I don’t think any Stanley-Creed interaction will take place. Since Stanley feels the need to publicly challenge Micheal (the weakest kind of challenge) and Creed doesn’t I’d have to guess that:

    So: Creed > Stanley

    Then there’s Ryan. He’s fallen from grace and his desk is moved to the corner of the office. Only Kelly is loyal to Ryan (thinking that if Ryan becomes popular again she’d be the #2 to Ryan. This wouldn’t work of course, because Ryan is a sociopath). So this leads me to conclude:

    Creed > Stanley > Ryan >> Kapoor

    And Toby. Toby I think wins the award for World Worst Sociopath. Kelly is occasionally mean to him, and he never uses his authority. I’d say that places him pretty clearly directly below her.

    Creed > Stanley > Ryan >> Kapoor > Toby

    Meredith is ignored by Phyllis, Pam, Angela, Dwight, Stanley, Oscar and Creed. She’s the butt of jokes all the time. Nonverbal signs of disrespect are also abound. She’s not a sociopath and attempts to be part of the group.

    So: Phyllis > Angela > (Oscar | Pam) > Meredith > Kevin

    Then the sales staff.

    Jim is top dog. Dwight challenges Jim publicly to great harm of both his and Jim’s status. Jim is continually annoyed by this, but he can’t do much about it. Jim would be the supreme Alpha without Dwight, but Dwight just doesn’t know when to stop. Dwight and Jim gives Andy shit all the time, so the dynamic becomes:

    Jim > Dwight >> Andy

    Phyllis and Jim mostly avoid each other. Phyllis accepts Jim as the alpha, and in return Jim doesn’t involve himself with Phyllis’ group. Phyllis knows that if she were to insert herself between Jim and Dwight that Dwight would go ballistic (again lowering both her and Dwight’s status). Angela (Phylis’ #2) is loyal to Dwight. So this means Phyllis, as weird as it may sound, actually belongs with her entire group below Dwight.

    Jim > Dwight > ( Phyllis > Angela > (Oscar | Pam) > Meredith > Kevin )

    Because Pam has leverage with Jim this puts her ahead of Oscar, so the complete hierarchy becomes:

    Jim > Dwight > Phyllis > Angela > Pam > Oscar > Meredith > Kevin

    and the hierarchy of Sociopaths becomes:

    Creed > Stanley > Ryan >> Kapoor > Toby

    I think that’s pretty much a complete order of status. Arguably Angela and Phyllis should be swapped. I think Angela used to rub it in that she was in charge of that commission and I don’t think Phyllis knew how to react. So I think I’m going to swap them.

    Jim > Dwight > Angela > Phyllis > Pam > Oscar > Meredith > Kevin

    That feels right.

  5. I just stumbled on an interesting discussion about status (power games) in mathematics.
    I think the relevant point to the current post here is that bare ambition is a bad motivator.
    If we transpose that to the contexts of the 48 laws of power and the like it means that you should not be self-conscious about the power rules you apply, they should be internalized and “in the background” and you should strive to be motivated by the joy of the game in itself just like good mathematicians are driven by “beauty” and “elegance” of the theories.
    Of course this implies weeding out ethical conflicts you may have and finding the what is for you the proper balance between worldly “success” and social concerns.
    I think there cannot be “pure” psychopaths, everyone has to tone down his rational greed no matter how detrimental this is to actual performance because going against one’s own penchants will actually results in worse performance.
    Finding your sweet spot of “slight evilness”…

  6. Socialpath says:

    Whoops, left out Andy from the list.

    Jim > Dwight > Angela > Phyllis > Pam > Oscar > Andy > Meredith > Kevin

    Andy belongs below Pam and Oscar (because they rejected him in several ways) but above Meredith.

  7. Socialpath:

    Your details are interesting, but the whole point is that you cannot legitimately infer a global, static, total ordering from a set of time-separated local, dynamic, partial orderings. The structure here is a constantly morphing partial-order graph.

    I could pick different incidents and make up a different ordering. That’s why there is illegibility and churn. Example Pam > Phyllis because Phyllis copies Pam’s wedding ideas (and Pam displays high status anger).

    Your final ordering is in fact is drastically different from the one I would come up with if forced to, which itself is a sign that illegibility exists.

    Another important dynamic you are missing is that high-status people will often pull their punches and NOT attempt to take status points from lower status people simply out of pity. Pam could (but never does) make fun of Phyllis’ smells. Karen accidentally does, but quickly covers up. So there is a bias towards wins by lower-status people in the visible incidents, since the lower people are more anxious to win small status battles to assert themselves.


  8. I’ve never seen anyone pull a Ryan, but I know at least four who did it without a mentor. They joined a small- or mid-size business, observed the founding sociopaths, and then set up shop for themselves with some sociopath and loser allies. I bet nearly all sales-driven companies start that way.

    In a college context it’s the same, but the weight lies more with sex than money. Social skill seems to be a “deep game”, since student groups are highly stratified. Where I studied, the betas of tier one groups (top 10%) could have joined the groups of the 80th to 90th percentile as alpha, and so on. As a beta in several 80th to 90th groups, I got automatic fawning anywhere below the 80th. Everyone knows it works like this implicitly, but you need to be near the top know it consciously. I didn’t get clued in until repeated interaction with tier one people who could afford to be rather blunt about it.

  9. One tactic figured out by Harvard to maintain status illegibility, at least on the low end is the “happy bottom quarter” philosophy (

    “At the Harvard admissions office, they used to have an alleged philosophy they called “the happy bottom quarter.” The idea was that Harvard could fill each class, if it wanted to, with nothing but the very top high-school students but that this might be traumatic to those who didn’t make it to the top at Harvard. So, the admissions office supposedly reserved about 25 percent of each class for those who could handle the notion of not being a star student.

    In practice, this did not mean searching for young folks with a Zenlike acceptance of life’s fate, or a profound sense of universal human equality, or enough mathematical wit to appreciate the joke that even at Harvard—unlike Lake Wobegon—everyone cannot be above average. No, “the happy bottom quarter” was a fancy way to make room for alumni sons and athletes and rich kids whose families might give money. These were people who didn’t need top grades in order to feel above average. They would be happy with a “Gentleman’s C”—meaning both that gentlemen were entitled to no less and that gentlemen strove for no more.”

    The way I heard it, the happy bottom quarter comprised of people who were focused on extra-curricular, athletics, the school paper etc. That, perhaps, is a convenient cover for the real story detailed in Slate.

    In any case, the HBQ strikes me as a stable way to stop omegas dropping out from the bottom end of any group.

    • This is very interesting. I hadn’t thought of this particular impact of top-down design before. I was thinking primarily of groups that form organically around a context created for a purpose unrelated to fulfilling human social needs (example: distributing paper products). Sociopaths do use many design mechanisms to influence loser groups, that I am going to cover in the last part, but deliberate mixing-in of specific populations with social ends in mind is one that isn’t evident in The Office, so I hadn’t thought of it.

      • I think that the same sociopath / clueless / loser dynamic is still in play here, just in different groups.

        Pre-admissions, the players being discussed in this comment thread – incoming students – do not know each other so they are NOT in the game. The real players are the administration, via the admissions office which is just a proxy for the admin, the incoming students and the proxies of whomever “happy bottom quarter” who may be rich / socially connected parents as so on.

        The fact that the school even has a “happy bottom quarter” shows that sociopaths are in the mix: the clueless have created this “happy bottom” construct to provide a mechanism to accommodate the wheeling and dealing that takes place so that “C” students can come in. Without it, the sociopaths would have to suffer the consequences political capital put up on them and the admissions office becomes the clueless who take the blame when things go wrong since the losers – staff at the actual admissions desks – would not be bothered with the politics and would just admit on merit.

        One students are on campus, it quickly becomes clear which group any of them falls into.

  10. Although I’ve never watched The Office, I loved reading your article and would like to share a few ideas.

    So, in these situations one can only choose to either be a loser (participate in the game) or a sociopath (be external to the game)?

    I seem to recall groups I’ve been where everyone had a sense of brotherhood and group-improvement were a strong focus and very little tearing down happened. One example of this is martial arts. However, I do concede that both skill and willingness to contribute to the community imposes a hierarchy here.

    I have a large number personal friends from a wide variety of backgrounds (non-group relationships) but have a very difficult time bringing them together into a group even for small social events. I think this must be related.

    I am guilty of sociopathic humor. In fact, I don’t always say it outloud, often I just spontaniously laugh. However, as far as I am aware not any of the other DSM IV criteria for sociopathy. I think this is related to the meta level I naturally think at.

    It’s a bit depressing to think that all groups might be “loser groups” as I have seen different levels of this behavior just about everywhere.

    Have decades of sitcoms created (or magnified) loser group culture by teaching people this is the correct way to act or did it exist in exactly this way before?

    • Rick:

      Read Part I. By the theory in this series and the special definition of ‘loser,’ yes, a dojo full of nice people bound by a sense of solidarity is a loser group.

      Decades of sitcoms haven’t created this. They have merely accurately reflected it.

      There is one alternative to sociopathy, an exile decision. We’ve discussed that briefly in the comments to previous parts, but I haven’t gotten around to exploring it in detail.

      Finally, the inability for specific groups to gel is not evidence of non-loserdom. Loserdom is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for groups to form and cohere.


      • Hi Venkat,

        I got through the first one and it did clear things up a bit. So far I think the largest ignored feature of the model is that simultaneously co-existing systems (both larger and smaller) are in place outside of the corporate entity.

        Looking forward to reading the rest. Thanks again for writing, it’s great stuff.

    • The dojo example might be a situation where there is no (or little) illegibility in the group, because there is a definite (objective?) way to measure status: via skill. And in a dojo that happens a lot, sparring, practise etc.

      I wonder if there is some inverse relationship between the importance of skill in an “office” and the opportunities for politics and sociopaths. Perhaps the emphasis on skill scares off the sociopaths and you’re left with (happy?) all-loser groups?


  11. has anyone mentioned “Catch Me if You Can” and DiCaprio’s sociopath tactics to fool everybody? Powertalk to the nth.

    • Really? I think there’s a difference in Venkats system between “power talk” and effective verbal communication/deception: From what I’ve read before, I think he’s going for language centred around matters of power, dependence, weakness and advantage, said explicitly or more likely, very obviously but inexplicably. Think talk in “high powered” corperate drama or crime drama.

      What DiCaprio’s character does is closer to branding, storytelling or other semiotic constructions, which is actually closer to clueless-dom! One secret to avoiding that going south is to stand partially outside your own branding, accepting it as partially accurate but incomplete, and hopefully by doing so be able to laugh at yourself.

  12. Venkat, I notice that you focus on alphas and omegas, but I’m sure you’ve seen situations where there are multiples of both; situations where an oligarchy of differentiated people at the top of a group intentionally reject global status rankings, but are still able to give a casting vote on group identity by virtue of having known each other for a long time. In other words, they form a collective alpha, where status games between them are brief and tit for tat, and who’s primary purpose is to stop the other people taking themselves seriously.

    Now in my experience I’ve only come accross this lovely situation infrequently, and I suspect it is a transitory mode, because of the delicate balance needed to preserve it, but on the other hand, perhaps there are specific types of groups who’s identity makes this easier.

    I’ve seen something like this with multiple omegas, in the context of people with a strong impulse against ganging up. The thing is that in some situations, instead of explicit kindness that still emphasises the lower status of a particular group member, the constant swapping of focus actually destabalises that status. In other words someone else starts looking like the omega and people get bored of that and go for someone else, making them appear to be the omega. In contrast to the above, this seems to work better in unstable environments, where things can disrupt the basic patterns very easily, and a wider range of people can have incentives to defect.

    • Can you please elaborate on this: “instead of explicit kindness that still emphasises the lower status of a particular group member”?

      Are you saying that explicit kindness is a signal of low status?

      • Once upon a time I had an excellent reply about this, but somehow it never posted. How ironic:

        Whenever you talk to someone, you don’t only say the content of your words, but imply relationships. People can impute status hierarchy to certain details of that relationship, regardless of whether it is present in your model when instigating it.

        I don’t believe in status, except to the same extent that market value can be derived from various bartering/negotiation exchanges. It’s reification with inconsistent transferability.

        But yes, I think that explicit kindness can be used to construct a relative status relationship between two people, only the other way around. Giving someone help can be viewed as displaying their weakness, or your own excess ability, etc. Just look at the way some old aunty of yours views “charity”. Or the attempts by many people to steal assistance that they would otherwise be provided.

        I might say more later if anyone’s interested, there is a bundle of stuff about the nature of status that fits in well here.

  13. I don’t know where this fits into your theory of loser group dynamics, but here’s something I’ve observed: In decision making groups (committees, panels, democratically run non-profits) each person tries to make the group operate like their own dysfunctional family. Sometimes there is a real struggle for control and other times most people quickly acquiesce. Sometimes this manifests as authoritarianism (not necessarily with the instigator as leader), sometimes as passive aggressive behavior and game playing, sometimes with everyone emotionally pandering to one person’s concerns.

    It takes strong, perceptive facilitation to overcome this kind of thing, and it is like trying to fly a plane with negative stability. If you have a group where a majority of participants have sorted out their family gak, then there is some ballast and the decision making process can move forward with less constant maintenance.

    I like that illegibility concept. We don’t like to acknowledge our games, and to see status clearly is to have one’s game exposed. Hence the nuclear rudeness of “calling the game.”

  14. Venkat, you are a dangerous man. Some sociopaths may read your materials and then try to derail you before you get too popular. You’re arming wannabe sociopaths (or, worse, clueless and losers masses) with heretical “insight”. I’m sure alarm bells are ringing somewhere.

  15. I have to admit at the beginning of this series I was incredibly wary of what I have found to be your tone, terminology, and attitude more than your actual content. After some thought, here are my more concrete criticisms:

    First off, your identification and characterization of the alpha and omega archetypes is amazingly apt, though there is generally less legibility than you assume when identifying those characters in a given group. Also the three broader interactive patterns you outline are meaningful but incredibly misnamed.

    Perhaps the discussion would be more tasteful as follows: what you call ‘sociopaths’ might be more correctly named ‘socionarrative idealists’ or simply ‘social narrators’. These are not people who view the social structure as a means to an end per se, but rather those who are able to meaningfully direct the conversation. These directive characters are not merely selfish actors abusing the myopic attitudes of others, but rather are those who generate social capital en masse.

    We can extend this terminology shift by considering the ‘disinterested’ and the ‘disabled’ in a given group in exchange for the ‘losers’ and ‘clueless’, because…

    The spectrum is not uni-dimensional! You present group dynamics as a simple number line and consider the identity hallmarks of the individual constituents a mere defense mechanism. This is severely fallacious. One example: Pam is clearly not an omega in the office, but she ends up in that position at her art show.

    Multi-dimensionality emerges in stronger relief when a single social group interacts in a variety of contexts. In each environment, the group will collapse into legibility very differently. In one activity, an alpha may emerge that is completely different from that of another activity. This true specialization is a more plausible, productive, and compassionate explanation for the wobegon effect than contemptuously categorizing disinterested parties as underdeveloped neanderthals, reliant on ‘defense mechanisms’.

    Cleansed of its patronizing tone and expanded into multidimensional interactions, your theory seems incredibly effective in describing the value of multiparty specialization and its globally beneficial effects.

    Thanks for writing this blog, and I look forward to your book.

    • This will probably sound like bad news for you if you liked the concepts and ideas: having fun with tongue-and-cheek and borderline offensive terminology has pretty much been the entire point of this series.

      The sociological insights are almost incidental to the main purpose of painting a (hopefully) entertainingly bleak/dystopian portrait of the world of work. If I were forced at gunpoint to choose between keeping the terminology versus the concepts, I’d keep the terminology. Probably a case of choosing the bathwater over the baby, but then, I am perverse that way.

      For this reason, this series has had a strongly polarizing effect. There are readers who love the terminology, and others who hate it. I am afraid I side with the ones who love it, even at the expense of offending and possibly losing the readers who’ve wanted me to shift to more neutral, less ambiguous and more descriptive terms. You are the latest in a string of commenters going back to Part I, who’ve been thoughtfully and reasonably encouraging me to change my language.

      The non-neutrality, ambiguity and perversely non-descriptive nature of my terms is deliberate. “Patronizing” is not (satirical/ironic is what I was shooting for), so if the series comes across that way, that’s my failure as a writer.

      Anyway, thanks for reading and the thoughtful comment. Hope you stick around even though you object to my language.


  16. Hi Venkat,
    How would victimless humor play into social capital? Not that there is no victim, per se, but that the victim is not a person or group. Consider humor that is purely the proposition of the absurd, with participants creatively tweaking, guiding, or shaping that absurd in particular directions, but where the only victim is the constraints of reality itself (and how far the idea can deviate from it). Perhaps it can occasionally become a game of one-upmanship where the victim is any previous participant who could not take it quite as far, but not always.

    I’ve considered that in this case, we are collectively the victim (as we are victimizing our shared perception of the line between possible and impossible), but in fact, status as a group grows through bonding so though we are the victim it is actually a positive sum.

    What do you think?

    Very entertaining series, can’t wait to read more!

  17. GregBurton says:

    heh – just caught up. Excellent work. The ability to adjust both intra and extra-group status consciously and effectively is, of course, the sign of an incipient sociopath. Your reference to game theory is both appreciated and precise – with the ironic observation that in real-life situations the only classes of people who behave as predicted by game theory as developed for economic man are economists and sociopaths.

  18. Yes, I’ve often reflected on that irony. Game theory often doesn’t work, but when it does, it takes a rather special mindset to recognize and use it to their advantage.

    I read somewhere that Mexican drug cartels use it to optimize their drug runs across the border.

  19. Great work Venkat. This group dynamic is especially interesting in the startup incubators that are becoming more common. An entrepreneur, almost by definition, should be a sociopath, right? Yet the falling costs of starting a business has arguably led to non sociopaths wanting to start a company, and with it incubators offering a group for them to join. I’m not sure if the groups attract the losers or the losers attract sociopaths to create the groups, but it alters the focus of starting a company from finding leverage and ways to sit at the table to maintaining conformity within the group.

  20. Just curious if part V was ever posted? Google has no results for it.

  21. Phil Goetz says:

    “You also cringe via empathic anticipation of someone else’s impending pain. Watch yourself next you watch someone else about to get hit by a swinging door for instance. You will cringe.”

    So, we should be able to test for sociopathy by hooking someone up to a “lie-detector” and showing them a video of someone getting hit by a truck.

  22. Patrick says:

    Where is part V?

  23. Also wondering when Part V will be out. I noticed you mentioned it would be out “any day now” in a post earlier this year– can’t wait to read it (looking forward to examining Toby).

  24. I am also very interested in part V

  25. Count me among those looking forward to Part V. I’ve been following this trail since you were “slashdotted”.

    The other day, I was having a discussion and this series of posts came to mind. I found myself wondering how well your paradigm for organizations translates to other situations. I’ve seen the reference here to a college campus, but I don’t know that I’m sold on that being applicable. When it comes to students on a campus, the real power structure is pretty rigidly in place. Students’ power, as it relates to each other, seems to be entirely of the loser, “social proof” variety. Student “sociopaths” cannot stage some kind of coup and be named “Dean” or “Tenured Professor”. The only ways out of that ‘organization’ are quitting and following the pre-determined track.

    I was thinking more along the lines of politics in societies as an extrapolation of the organization. The stakes are higher the ‘organization’ has total power instead of just “at will, 9-5” power, but some of the dynamics seem similar. But, does the metaphor work? Are all successful politicians sociopaths, or can some relatively naive or ineffectual elected official be clueless? Are all voters losers, or does their collective, abstract power of the vote confer a different sort of status? Is the clueless the layer of appointed government officials living a cushy life, but appointed through cronyism or political calculation? And, where does wealth factor in? A powerful lobbyist or CEO type is a “loser” voter, but also has the ability to buy proxy power from the sociopath politicians. Or, am I stretching the metaphor too far…?

    Anyway, interesting stuff. I’ll keep reading the trail as long as you keep writing it.

  26. Prepping to read Part V… Liking this part so far! The argument that Phyllis statement to Karen about “You don’t know who Bob Vance is? You have a lot to learn about this town, sweetie” being a competition _over sex_ seems tenuous to me… I feel as if that joke relates back to how hard Bob Vance tries to put his name out there, always insisting that he be referred to as “Bob Vance, Vance Refrigeration”. Part of the joke is probably that no one knows Bob Vance that Phyllis. While Phyllis happens to have wild sex with Bob Vance, it doesn’t seem like there’s any sort of competition between her and Karen over Bob Vance, or even competition to see who has more status derived from sex.

  27. Francisco Danc says:

    Man this is good. I think its changing more perspectives than just a few. This is a miracle.

  28. Wow! Well put.

  29. Detachment is the ability to remove ones self from a situation, thought or feeling and to shift awareness to a different one or none at all. Detachment can CREATE happiness or anything you want to experience. I do not agree with your view of happiness at all as it entirely conflicts with my experience. When you allow other people to control your happiness, you are not being happy, you are being a “loser or clueless” for certain. I would argue that the level above what you describe as sociopath is a person with the ability to detach and create their own happiness through their own thoughts and awareness of happiness. They are powerful like a sociopath, but also healthy unlike what you describe as the pinnacle of humanity (sociopath), which I utterly disagree with. There is no pinnacle, and it’s certainly not sociopathy. Empathy and human connection is important, which is why I disassociate with the idea that sociopathy is healthy. But most don’t understand that the ability to detach and be autonomous from other people or groups is paramount to navigating others’ ignorant actions or ill will towards you. That is where I see the divide that you are trying to gap. Otherwise, this is extremely on target and well-written. Thanks for your effort and sharing your intelligent thinking!