Mechanisms of influence

A critique in good faith of Jordan Peterson’s social model of Hierarchy

Embracing your inner Lobster

Jordan Peterson has frequently discussed issues addressing the problems of hierarchies. The Edwards /Kravitz study on serotonin, aggression and social status in lobsters is the meme Peterson is most famous for in his attempt to articulate that the issues of hierarchy are much deeper than a manifestation of patriarchy in western culture.

18:10. — 24:44 Contributing to the Left

Peterson’s premise is that The Right exists to maintain hierarchies and The Left exists to remediate them; and that meritocracy (via competence) provides the best criteria for defining their stratification. He postulates at times, that the world of business writ large is exemplification and manifestation of this archetype. I suspect many people who work out in the wilds of the globalized economy may see this in a significantly different light and Steven Pinker has taken him to task on this particular point. Pinker’s further point on resource allocation is also thematically relevant, but not central to this discussion.

so all that having been said and you’re absolutely right we have to acknowledge the nonzero role of hereditary can permit to talent the nonzero role of chance and that still leaves a big chunk of the variance that could be due to systemic features of the system that perhaps ought to be changed there’s no doubt that the wealthy game the system particularly in the United States in a number of ways that don’t work to the benefit of society at large
Steven Pinker

The Serotonin System and Social Status

Peterson has discussed his discomfort for the term “Dominance Hierarchy” preferring at times to substitute competence for dominance. Competence is a difficult term to reconcile with the chimpanzee example yet tyranny is clearly a model for failure and there is also a clear sense that sound leadership is grounded in social actions of reciprocity giving us a broader set of criteria by which to assess status.

Dominance is an expression and expectation of control. Control is an inappropriate conceptualization when addressing complex systems. No matter the degree of influence exerted, influence does not equate to control. Stating that control can be exerted over complex systems is simply an admission that one does not understand complex systems.

As complex social animals, dominance is the most degraded method of exerting influence to achieve status. It could be argued from an evolutionary standpoint that in part, the development of the domains of culture and technology are expressions of and linked to the refinement of the serotonin system. Developments within these principle domains provide greater opportunities to exercise mechanisms of influence, and to achieve status, thereby further reinforcing and refining the neurotransmitter subsystem in increasingly complex relationships between culture and its adoption and adaptation of internal and external technologies.

Peterson says something similar to this in his final description of God in the first Pangburn discussion with Sam Harris…

“God is that which selects among men in the eternal hierarchy of men. So men arrange themselves into hierarchies and then men rise in the hierarchy and there’s principles that are important that determine the probability of their rise and those principles aren’t tyrannical power. There’s something like the ability to articulate truth and the ability to be competent and the ability to make appropriate moral judgments and if you can do that in a given situation then all other men will vote you up the hierarchy so to speak and that will radically increase your reproductive fitness and the operation of that process over long expanses of time, looks to me like it’s codified in something like the notion of “God the Father”. It’s also the same thing that makes men attractive to women because women peel off the top of the male hierarchy and the question is what should be at the top of the hierarchy… and the real answer is something more like the ability to use truthful speech in the service of, let’s say “well being” and so that’s something that operates across tremendous expanses of time and it plays a role in the selection for survival itself which makes it a fundamental reality.

Competence is a critical differentiation in any situation where the consequences are meaningful but it doesn’t define the categories it is applied to. Hierarchies are heterogeneous by definition, in that their function is to sort by a category of differentiation by which not all will be measured equal. Complex hierarchies are going to be subject multiple influences so we need to look at multivariate dimensions of competence as well as those other influences.

Peterson’s construct of the hierarchy is an ideal state that we are no where close to. If we are going attempt the journey towards that ideal state we need to have a clear understanding of where we are and the transitional architectures required for those state changes.

The salient point of the Dunning Kruger Effect is that only the top quartile of a group of people is able to exhibit or assess competence effectively for any given skill domain. That leaves 75% either out of the game or introducing errors at a rate faster than can be recovered from. Perceived competence leaves much to be desired as a useful benchmark.

So, let’s “get a lot more sophisticated” to quote Dr. Peterson directly. That which dominance and competence have in common and is unarticulated in the analysis of how chimpanzees achieve and maintain status through social bonding, is that these two factors (among others) are mechanisms of influence.

The Influence Hierarchy

Mechanisms of influence are not limited to the admirable (demonstration of competence/integrity) but to all forms of social capital including spectacle (Kardashians et al. ) as well as reprehensible forms of manipulation, such as the dopamine economy (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc.) the constant state of alert from the Fear Uncertainty Doubt Factor in the media priming systems with cortisol, and the resurgence of the strong man caricature to appeal to the fearful masses.

By understanding influence as the structural mechanism of hierarchies, we can develop more refined hierarchical and institutional models that are less susceptible to corruption and have more robust mechanisms to respond when it happens.

Achieving this has nothing to do with balancing the concerns of left or right as Peterson contends but has everything to do with understanding complexity. Dichotomies are insufficient and we need to start addressing problems within these systems with a commensurate degree of complexity. Two dimensional mindsets can’t solve multidimensional problems.

Reduced to their temperamental disposition left and right provide a variance over boundary definitions that reduces to nothing more than a bias towards permissive or exclusive Group Based Access Control in the authentication subset of the grand list of complex problems we need to solve as societies and a species. The model the bias brings to the table has been proven outmoded for dealing with complexity. (Footnote)

Functional System Architecture

I see a structural pattern in some of Peterson’s thinking when he reaches into domains he is less familiar with. He will set bounds for floor/ceiling or start and end points without delineation of the space in between. The outer bounds have been set but there is much left to parse between the poles and differentiate the transitions. This seems to manifest principally in areas of cultural or social analysis as my argument with him regarding the creation of values hits the same structural points. This is an adequate strategy when mapping new territory, but inadequate if one is “returning to the trough”.

“It’s complicated…”

Is almost reminiscent of Harris in its dismissiveness, without referencing the existing knowledge domains that might help to answer a question or at least point a finger in the right direction to explore further. It gets a lot more complicated when we don’t access tools that have been developed for those specific domains of complexity.

This seems inconsistent with other aspects of his greater project and with engagement with material. Whether it is temperamental or experiential or (sub) cultural bias related to those areas I have no idea but it would be nice to see these issues addressed in some specificity where there is the capacity to do so with tool sets like Enterprise Architecture and Information Technology.

Design Patterns

If we’re going to deal with generating functional system architecture or effectively exercise root cause analysis on existing systems we need to have some sense of the functional systems and subsystems. When these systems have repeatable and recognizable forms and architecture they are recognized as design patterns.

Hierarchy is a design pattern, one that seems to be emergent from the biological substrate. As a design pattern I think it shares a lot with MVC (Model — View — Controller), it is effectively unavoidable as a meta pattern and yet completely ineffective when applied unilaterally through every sub-component of the system. As a meta pattern it can still be implemented in multiple and potentially interlinking ways across degrees of scale within the system to address complexity.

Hierarchy is the precursor and building block of the “tree” structure ( multidimensional relational arrays) providing an effective architecture for boundary transitions because it can pre-filter through domains of responsibility until reaching a single point of accountability, before transitioning to another domain. Hierarchy is the meta pattern of organizational structure but it is never the only pattern at play. There is also a composition within the meta pattern of hierarchy of other biological and cultural design patterns, extended by concrete instantiation and implementation at the individual level.

It is worth considering, in human matters, the implementation seldom matches the specification.

System Failure, Data and Process Corruption

Corruption is a factor of any system. Power surges are a regular contributor to destabilization failures in hardware and culture but they are not a sufficiently “complete” list of factors to effectively address continuity, recovery or oversight and governance of a robust system.

We can look at corruption as one of four different organizational states of failure from specific risk vectors:

Unless the organizational structure diligently exercises and maintains processes for review and renewal the organization will fail and the rate of failure will be commensurate with the negligence/incompetence of the oversight mechanisms.

This was clearly demonstrated at the meta level by the deregulation period that found its wings under Reagan and thereafter facilitated the hyper consolidation of power that Lord Acton warned about into a literal handful of companies in across food, media, pharma and extricable resources. Then onto a handful of proprietary platforms that mediate the daily experience of much of the population of the world, along with trade deals that allow foreign corporations effective veto power at municipal, state/province nor federal levels if regulation interferes with profit.

This closed source nature ensures they will only be subject to the crudest forms of pressure or review while acting with impunity in exercising any form of censorship, observation or manipulation.

One of the first symptoms of structural corruption is the inability to accept internal questioning or criticism as James Damore found out. If the premise or product can’t withstand internal criticism it has no business expecting to survive outside.

Peterson is on the nose when he says the hierarchy requires renewal to avoid decay and ossification as well as requiring oversight to avoid corruption but positing the political left and right as stewards of civil discourse or guiding lights in the maintenance of organizational structure is “falling short of meeting the appropriate level of sophistication”.

Beyond the point made to the segment of the audience that is ignorant to the degree of complexity involved, using “it’s complicated” as a rug under which to sweep the complexity of social organization is a disservice and insult to those members of the audience seeking to identify and resolve systematic corruption.

“It’s complicated” isn’t the end of a conversation, it is the beginning for Root Cause Analysis. If people want to address these issues at the commensurate level of complexity for meaningful analysis across the multiple domains involved, you had better get not just your room, but your tool sets sorted out buckos.


Footnotes

Role Based Access Control (RBAC) vs Group Based Access Control (GBAC)
TL;DR intersectionality makes groups infinite and they may or may not cross temporal borders, roles are specific to responsibility and should be temporally constrained. ACL means Access Control List. GBAC is so outmoded it was hard to find a reference for it.
How Are Roles Different From Groups?
There is a superficial similarity between RBAC (roles and traditional groups. As normally implemented, a group is a collection of users, rather than a collection of permissions, and permissions can be associated with both users and the groups to which they belong. The ability to tie permissions directly to users in a group-based mechanism can be regarded as a “loophole” that makes it difficult to control user-permission relationships. RBAC requires all access through roles, and permissions are connected only to roles, not directly to users. Another aspect of RBAC that distinguishes it from traditional group mechanisms is the concept of a session, which allows activation of a subset of roles assigned to a user. Core RBAC includes those systems with a robust group/ACL mechanism that supports the construction of a many-to-many relation among users and permissions.
https://csrc.nist.gov/Projects/Role-Based-Access-Control/faqs