Caesar vs. Dominance-Oriented Status Seekers
Two distinct psychological profiles of political discontent
In the opening scene of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (which is drawn from Plutarch’s Lives), the commoners of Rome are seen celebrating Caesar’s recent triumph over Pompey.
Two tribunes (elected officials), Flavius and Marullus, accost two of the commoners, asking them to name their trades and explain why they are out in their best attire rather than working.
The commoners respond to the tribunes’ condescension with indirect answers and puns that annoy the tribunes even more.
Eventually, Flavius and Marullus learn that the plebeians are cheering Caesar. The tribunes scorn them for doing this.
They tell the commoners that Pompey was a Roman too. So Caesar’s success was not truly a triumph for Rome.
Flavius later tells Marullus that they should remove the decorations from Caesar’s statues during Caesar’s parade.
Marullus questions this plan, stating that it also happens to be the Feast of Lupercal, a celebration of fertility.
But Flavius is adamant that they remove the ornaments, because the removal will help prevent Caesar from seeing himself as too great.
This first scene of Julius Caesar shows that the tribunes want to prevent the rise of a potential tyrant. But they themselves are more than willing to push the commoners around.
Later, two other prominent Romans—Brutus and Cassius—are likewise shown expressing their concerns about Caesar’s growing popularity.
Cassius asks Brutus how Caesar has any more right to greatness than Brutus or himself.
Cassius tells Brutus a story: When they were young, Cassius saved young Julius Caesar from drowning. Cassius always viewed himself as superior for rescuing Caesar. He is now aggravated that Caesar has risen above him.
Cassius decides to orchestrate Caesar’s assassination. Cassius gradually convinces other members of the Roman elite to help him carry out the conspiracy.
Meanwhile, Caesar himself, speaking privately with Mark Antony, expresses suspicions about Cassius:
Caesar is saying all men are hungry, either for food, entertainment (“he loves no plays…he hears no music”), or power. If prosperous men aren’t tempted by food and entertainment, then they crave power. Thus, prosperous men who are lean are dangerous.
Mark Antony dismisses Caesar’s concerns about Cassius, because Cassius is a “noble Roman.” But as events unfold, we see that Antony was misguided.
Caesar was correct in his judgment of Cassius.
The eminent literary critic (and my former professor) Harold Bloom has stated that Caesar’s “estimate of Cassius shows him to be the best analyst of another human being in all of Shakespeare.”
Bloom goes on to characterize Cassius as embodying a “spirit of resentment, unhappy as he is at contemplating greatness beyond him.”
Cassius secretly arranges to have fake notes sent to Brutus, who is fooled into thinking the notes have been written by ordinary Roman citizens who want the Roman elites to stand up against Caesar.
When persuading the other conspirators to help him carry out the assassination plot, Cassius stresses his lofty concerns, stating that eliminating Caesar will help to preserve the Roman Republic (which didn’t happen—the assassination helped to ignite a civil war in Rome).
But Cassius’s story to Brutus indicates that the assassination was in part fueled by his resentment that Caesar grew into someone more powerful than himself, thus upending their former status disparity.
Using the language of “concern” to disguise darker motives like competitiveness and aggression has been found to be an effective strategy for undermining rivals.
In a recent paper titled “Beyond Populism: The Psychology of Status-Seeking and Extreme Political Discontent,” a team of researchers investigated whether the desire to obtain status underlies extreme political discontent.
There are two different kinds of status: Dominance and prestige.
Dominance: Associated with narcissism, aggression, and disagreeableness. Joseph Stalin obtained status through dominance.
People confer status to dominant individuals because of what dominant individuals can do to them (inflict costs—pain, humiliation, injuries, disfigurement, violence, etc.).
Prestige: Associated with stable self-esteem, social acceptance, and conscientiousness. Stephen Hawking obtained status through prestige.
People confer status to prestigious individuals because of what prestigious individuals can do for them (provide benefits—teach them things, grant them access to resources, increase their status by being associated with them, etc.).
The researchers recruited several hundred U.S. participants.
The study had three main goals:
1. Test if status-seeking drives political discontent
2. Compare populism and status-seeking to see if one is a stronger predictor of political discontent than the other
3. Investigate which form of status-seeking (dominance vs. prestige) is more likely to predict political discontent
To measure the desire for status, researchers administered the Status-Driven Risk Taking scale to participants.
This scale measures the pursuit for money, power, and social prestige.
Participants rated how strongly they agreed with statements like “I would enjoy being a famous and powerful person, even if it meant a high risk of assassination” and “I would take a very high-status job even if I had to live in a place where there are many deadly diseases.”
Basically, do you value status so much that you are willing to put your life in serious danger in order to obtain it?
To measure populism, participants completed a populist attitude scale.
They rated how much they agreed with statements like “The government is pretty much run by a few big interests looking out for themselves” and “Quite a few of the people running the government are crooked.”
To measure dominance, participants rated how accurately statements like “I enjoy having control over others” and “Others know it is better to let me have my way” described them.
For prestige, they rated how accurately statements such as “People I know respect and admire me” and “Others seek my advice on a variety of matters” described them.
For political discontent, participants rated how much they agreed with statements such as “I would continue to support an organization that seeks to improve my group’s political and legal rights even if the organization sometimes turns to violence,” “I would attack police or security forces if I saw them beating members of my group,” and “I share my moral/political beliefs to make people who disagree with me feel bad.”
The researchers also measured Strong Leader Preferences. Participants rated how much they agreed with statements like “Our country needs a strong leader right now” and “We need strong leadership in order to overcome societies’ difficulties.”
The researchers controlled for gender, age, educational level, income, and ethnicity.
Did people who scored highly on status-seeking also express higher levels of political dissatisfaction? Yes.
Participants who agreed that they would be willing to shorten their lifespan by ten years in order to become extremely wealthy (one of the items on the status scale) were more likely to say that they would support or participate in political violence.
People who scored highly on status-seeking were more likely to:
Support political violence
Share hostile political rumors on social media
Attempt to demonstrate moral and political superiority in online discussions
Fight over political and moral questions online
Interestingly, people who scored highly on status-seeking reported a lower desire for a strong political leader. Why might this be?
The researchers provide a suggestion:
“Those who crave status hesitate to endorse strong leadership, because strong leaders may hamper their chances of climbing the social ladder.”
This implies that people who crave status don’t want strong leaders standing in their way.
Intriguingly, participants who scored highly on populism didn’t express much political discontent.
Populists were more likely to engage in political arguments online.
But unlike status-seeking, populism was not at all correlated with support for political violence.
The researchers suggest that populism is “associated with such narrow, moderate forms of political discontent.”
And also unlike status-seeking, populism was positively associated with a desire for strong leadership.
Populists favor strong leaders. Status seekers don’t.
The researchers separately analyzed whether dominance and prestige were unique predictors of political discontent.
Results indicated that people who scored highly on dominance also reported higher levels of:
Support for political violence
Intentions to share hostile political rumors on social media
Inclinations to demonstrate moral and political superiority in online discussions
Willingness to fight over political and moral questions online
And similar to status-seekers, people with high dominance were more disapproving of strong leaders.
As the researchers put it, “a likely interpretation is that dominant individuals do not view the appointment of strong leaders as a viable strategy for them to attain status.”
What about prestige? The results were essentially the reverse of the dominance findings.
People who scored highly on prestige reported:
Lower support for political violence
Reduced intentions to share hostile political rumors on social media
Disinclination to demonstrate moral and political superiority in online discussions
Less willingness to fight over political and moral questions online
People high in prestige also generally supported strong leadership, unlike people with high dominance orientations
The researchers state:
“Dominance, not prestige, is the more relevant mechanism in understanding how status-seeking can translate into various forms of extreme political discontent.”
Dominance-orientation, rather than prestige, gives rise to what the researchers characterize as the “syndrome of extreme political discontent.”
But dominance-oriented status seekers (DOSS) are not interested in appointing a strong leader to fix things. A strong leader would get in their way in the way of what they truly desire.
The researchers state:
“Populism fuels a cluster of more passive forms of discontent. Populists privately believe that the political system is corrupt and they promote strong leaders who can take care of that problem for them.”
“Dominance-motivated individuals, in contrast, are motivated to take on the source of their discontent themselves and this fuels the most active forms of dissent: Behavioural intentions to fight the police; a willingness to not only believe that the system is corrupt but to share information about it with wide audiences on social media; and a habit of actively using moralization to suppress the views of others.”
In short, the paper indicates that dominance-oriented status seeking is the key underlying driver of political discontent.
Psychologically, what seems to emerge here are two distinct approaches to navigating social hierarchies.
The first is dominance-oriented status seeking (DOSS). Dominance is the drive to rise to the top of the hierarchy through force and intimidation.
The second approach is the one populists favor: They are discontent with the current system. But, the researchers suggest, “their alternative political vision is not one in which they personally are placed at the top of the hierarchy. Rather, they seek to promote others to a top position that they believe will selectively benefit them.”
Populists don’t want to climb the social hierarchy themselves. They would prefer to appoint someone to a position of power who would then confer benefits to them.
In contrast, dominance-oriented status seekers are eager to climb up the hierarchy. They don’t want a strong leader. This is why, according to the researchers, they “engage in more active forms of discontent” and “are fueled by a personal craving for power.”
In Shakespeare’s tragedy, the titular character was worried about “lean” men. Who is leaner—supporters of populism or dominance-oriented status seekers?
Populists want to appoint a Caesar-like figure to be in charge.
Dominance-oriented status seekers (DOSS) want to take power for themselves. And are willing to inflict violence to obtain it.
The populists want a strong leader to liberate them from the dominance-oriented status seekers and rule according to the populists’ preferences.
The dominance-oriented status seekers want to be liberated from the population and strong leaders, preferring to rule according to their own preferences.
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