People prefer giving orders to taking them. They prefer granting permission (or not) to having to ask permission. They prefer questioning others over being questioned. They prefer more pressure on others to answer to them, and less pressure on themselves to answer to others.
People try to figure out how to achieve these things. This begins in early childhood when they discover that their parents have social (and physical) power over them. Then they have to answer to their teachers, to babysitters, to the parents at a friend’s house they’re visiting, to adult relatives, and more.
They find at the peer level that some people get what they want more, are listened to more, are respected more, and so on. Doing better with peers is realistically achievable in the short term.
They find they look weak when they’re insecure, needy, unconfident, reactive, seeking approval from others, acting like a follower not a leader, etc. They learn how to act to get others to put in more effort than they do, to have people come to them, to get approval while looking like you aren’t trying to get approval, to hide their effort, to make comments highlighting others’ weaknesses without being considered an aggressor, to recognize and follow trends a little on the early side. They learn to hide weakness and ignorance. They learn to be dishonest. Some things are not even really considered dishonest, socially, they’re just normal. But they aren’t how a scientist thinks. A scientist volunteers relevant info in pursuit of truth instead of looking for opportunities to withhold unfavorable info. And in short, doing anything less than an idealized scientist would is dishonest to some extent.
People discover there are both formal and informal social power structures. Being a teacher, parent or boss is a formal position. It’s an explicit label. The leader of a group of friends is an informal position. There’s no contract or clear rules. It can just change as opinions change.
Sometimes formal and informal social power have a mismatch. A general may not have the respect of the soldiers he gives orders to. A boss may struggle to get his subordinates to listen to him – formally he’s in charge but informally people don’t see him that way.
Mismatches aren’t terribly common. People whose informal social power is significantly below their formal position often get replaced. More often, people don’t get positions in the first place if they don’t have an appropriate informal social status. Mismatches are often caused by giving out positions due to favoritism instead of merit, e.g. getting a position for one’s child who didn’t (socially) earn it (and often didn’t earn it on objective world merit, like knowledge and skill, either). Sometimes mismatches develop over time – things started out OK but a person lost respect or got undermined or something over time. Status can be unstable. People often get promotions to positions they’re expected to probably be able to handle, but there’s no guarantee and it doesn’t always work out.
However, mismatches are extremely common when no one cares what the subordinates think or want. If the subordinates are there voluntarily – e.g. customers or people who could get a different job or transfer to a different division in the company – it puts pressure against mismatches. However, when the subordinates are children, prison inmates, involuntary psychiatry patients, or the elderly in an old folks home, then the people in power may be hated by their subordinates and stay in power anyway. This is also a big problem with the government and its citizens – there is some accountability but generally not enough.
Anyway, people learn how to behave so they do well in terms of informal social status. There are incentives and benefits there, and it’s also one of the main things that leads to gaining and keeping formal social status.
Strangers to Ourselves
Whose approval do you think you're seeking? Or do you feel you have broken free from seeking anyone's approval?
You talk frequently about social status, do you feel you're status is not what you rightly deserve? or is it more observational curiosity that drives you to this topic?
Have you read Foucault? He seems right up your alley regarding power structures, formal and informal as you say.