Be Wary of Imitating High-Status People Who Can Afford to Countersignal
Pay more attention to people who are just a little bit ahead of you
Humans are high-fidelity imitators.
We are especially likely to seek advice from and imitate those who have done well for themselves.
A few years ago, shortly after receiving admission to grad school, I asked a professor at a top university how to be a successful graduate student. He replied, “I finished grad school thirty years ago, so I’m probably not the best person to ask. You should ask current grad students who are close to finishing, or people recently who finished their PhD.”
Two years later, I asked a bestselling author with a million Twitter followers and a highly popular newsletter about his strategies regarding online writing and social media. He replied, “I’ll tell you what I did when I was in your situation, not what I’m doing now.” He explained that in the early days, he posted a lot and wrote a lot and sought and responded to feedback to cultivate a readership. By the time of our conversation, though, he was less active online. After building a foundation, he engaged less frequently with his audience and directed his attention to more time-consuming writing projects.
High-fidelity imitation is unique to humans.
If a chimpanzee views a person perform a series of superfluous actions, along with one single necessary action, in order to obtain a piece of food, the chimpanzee will skip the superfluous action, and perform only the necessary one.
In contrast, children will copy every single action, including the unnecessary ones.
In these studies, chimps are behaving more rationally than humans. There is no wasted motion to obtain the reward.
But the human ability to over-imitate is a key reason why humans have survived and outcompeted other species.
Humans haven’t been successful because we are innovators. Rather, we are successful because we don’t think for ourselves, and save time and energy by copying others. Especially those our community deems prestigious. In the ancestral environment, people obtained prestige through wisdom, skill, and experience. Thus, we tend to believe that prestigious people are more competent; prominence is a heuristic for skill.
In her recent book Cognitive Gadgets, Oxford psychologist Cecilia Hayes writes, “children show prestige bias; they are more likely to copy a model that adults regard as being higher social status- for example, their head-teacher rather than an equally familiar person of the same age and gender.”
Preschool-aged children are more likely to imitate their head-teacher rather than an equally familiar person of the same age and gender. Young children are more likely to imitate a person that adults regard as being higher status. If you have any kind of prominence, you unavoidably become a model that others, including children, are more likely to emulate.
This, by the way, is why it has always struck me as dishonest when celebrities and others in media say kids shouldn’t imitate their behaviors. I grew up in the MTV/Jackass era. Before each episode, there was a disclaimer telling viewers not to perform the stunts they were about to see. Then the next day I saw guys jump off rooftops or let one of their friends shoot their bare ass with a paintball gun or whatever else they saw on the most recent episode. A three second warning can’t compete against 45 minutes of seeing charismatic and funny guys do reckless things.
This tendency to over-imitate high status people is why there is (was?) a peculiar interest in the morning routines of successful people. A few years ago there were a lot of articles and interviews about how some CEO or billionaire would wake up at a certain time, enumerating the newspapers and books and blogs they read, what they ate for breakfast, what their morning exercise routine was like, and so on. No one wants to read about grueling 100 hour work weeks and all the associated stress and anxiety and doubt. Plus, articles about books, newspapers, and exercise routines helps keep the consumer machine going. Forget about hard work. This CEO reads these titles on innovation and leadership and takes these cutting-edge anti-aging pills (a form of advertisement to the reader).
It’s wise to exercise caution before imitating the personal habits of prestigious people. Drinking the same green breakfast smoothie as your favorite entrepreneur or podcaster probably isn’t going to do much for your own success, but the human impulse to over-imitate still wonders.
Copying high-status people can backfire.
Successful people can afford to engage in countersignaling—doing things that signal high status because they are associated with low status. It is a form of self-handicapping, signaling that one is so well off that they can afford to engage in activities and behaviors that people typically associated with low status.
An example from Ogilvy Vice Chairman Rory Sutherland: If you’re a top executive, turning up to work on a bicycle is a high-status activity because it was a choice and not a necessity. But if you work at Pizza Hut, turning up on a bike means you can’t afford a car.
Or consider arriving “fashionably late” to a social gathering. For most people, there is an opportunity cost of socialization for arriving late. Each additional minute past the start of the event is a minute you did not spend interacting with others—maintaining and enhancing social bonds, forming potential business partnerships, seeking profitable opportunities, and so on. Tardiness is a bad habit for most people. But for high-status, prominent individuals, the opportunity cost of being late is comparatively smaller. Their social connections are already assured, their reputations already established, their economic positions already secured.
A final example of how countersignaling is differentially costly depending on social position: If you are an extremely successful author, you don’t have to self-promote your writing anymore. You can wait for others to share it and simply retweet or re-post their endorsements. Some don’t even do that. Some writers are so well known that, despite having millions of followers, they literally don’t promote anything they write on social media. That is some strong countersignaling.
Countersignaling is a poor strategy for new writers (or podcasters, or musicians, or others in creative domains). People just starting out should look at those who are a little ahead of them. They’ll usually find that novice writers who are accruing some success regularly post their stuff online and ask others to share it.
One form of countersignaling is excess humility. It increases status for those who are already high status, but humility decreases status for those who are not high-status.
Summarizing her research, Leslie K. John, a professor at Harvard Business School, has written:
“Humility is admirable. But if someone requests information or an answer that requires you to reveal positives about yourself, you should oblige. Research indicates that when someone details an accomplishment in response to a direct question, others don’t judge that person as any less agreeable…we found that if you’re given an opportunity to brag—for example, by being asked, ‘What are your greatest strengths?’ or ‘How did you finish that so quickly?’—forgoing it can raise suspicion. We found that not answering or being coy about such questions may cause people to think you’re neither trustworthy nor likable.”
A bestselling author who never posts about their writing seems humble or above it all. An aspiring writer who never posts about their writing seems shy, or unconfident, or unserious.
A lot of successful people talk about how their achievements are primarily due to luck (a humblebrag). Don’t listen to them. Even though they are right to some extent, you’re more likely to excel if you look at people slightly ahead of you. Besides, whether you are looking for moderate success (generally within anyone’s grasp) or extreme success (which requires a lot of luck), hard work is still a requirement.
In Fooled by Randomness, Nassim Taleb points out:
“Risk-conscious hard work and discipline can lead someone to achieve a comfortable life with a very high probability. Beyond that, it is all randomness: either by taking enormous (and unconscious) risks, or by being extraordinarily lucky. Mild success can be explainable by skills and labor. Wild success is attributable to variance.”
Hard work increases the likelihood of luck finding you, and hard work also prepares you for when it does.
This extends not only to individuals, but to cultures as well.
In The Complacent Class, Tyler Cowen wrote:
“Since the 1960s, the cultures that have produced the most upward economic mobility include Japan, South Korea, and China, due to their supercharged rates of economic growth. It is no accident that these are the same cultures obsessed with business cards, stereotypical blue suits, submission to hierarchical authority, and bringing the perfect gift, among other customs. The young and ambitious really can set themselves apart from the slackers, even if doing so looks conformist and stifling when multiplied and observed on a larger scale. Societies of upward mobility, when based on large and growing business enterprises, look and feel somewhat oppressive.”
American culture, though, is different:
“Americans at the top have become the experts in countersignaling, because they don’t feel they have to impress anyone… If you’re twenty-four years old and looking to get ahead, it can be tougher. There isn’t such a simple way to visually demonstrate you are determined to join the ranks of the upwardly mobile. Looking smart on “casual Friday” may get you a better date, but the boss will not sit up and take notice. In other words, a culture of the casual is a culture of people who already have achieved something and who already can prove it. It is a culture of the static and the settled, the opposite of Tocqueville’s restless Americans.”
Successful Americans no longer feel the need to signal. So they now demonstrate their status through countersignaling. Other cultures still practice straightforward signaling.
Returning to the level of the individual, if you are trying to level up, the best approach is to borrow the strategies of those a little ahead of you—people who are still signaling. Beware of imitating those who are so far ahead that they can afford to countersignal.
If you are relatively early on your path, it is natural to seek advice from those who have achieved astounding success in your area of interest. You’d be better off, though, asking people who are on a similar trajectory as yourself, but a little further ahead. If you’re a white belt and want to level up, don’t ask the black belt (or red belt) what to do. Ask the purple belt.
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Gen. Douglas MacArthur wearing his office uniform, meeting the Emperor Hirohito in a formal coat and tie, is a superb photographic example of the countersignal. My grandfather worked for MacArthur in Japan and raved about that photo. Although he did not use the word "countersignal," that is how he describes it in his memoir. Grandad went on to a career in corporate boardrooms after 1951 and eventually made a fortune as a consultant on Japanese business practices, among other things, so he paid attention to the visual language of power.
I'll attempt to paraphrase:
So incremental steps keeping in step with what the Jones are doing wins the long game. No countersignaling until you've made it.