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.
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?
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.
Andy: “I AM NOW CUTTING OFF PHYLLIS’S HEAD WITH A CHAINSAW, RRRRNNNN!!”
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
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?