Psychology Society

Will Storr – The Status Game

As a tribal species, our personal survival has always depended on our being accepted into a supportive community. Powerful emotions compel us to connect: the joy of belongingness and agony of rejection. But once inside a group, we’re rarely content to flop about on its lower rungs. We seek to rise. When we do, and receive acclaim from our people, we feel as if our lives have meaning and purpose and that we’re thriving.

Our need for status gives us a thirst for rank and a fear of its loss that deforms our thinking and denies us the possibility of reliable happiness. It’s why, even as we raise ourselves so high above the other animals we appear to them as gods, we still behave like them – and worse. Always on alert for slights and praise, we can be petty, hateful, aggressive, grandiose and delusional.

This is why, I’ve come to believe, we make a fundamental error when we reflexively categorise our desire for status as shameful. A greater understanding of what helps drive us on our good days and bad must surely be useful. Digging beneath the flattering stories we like to tell of ourselves can help us see more clearly how we can become better, but also how easily we become tempted into delusion and tyranny.

We’re going to define three different forms of the status game – the dominance game, the virtue game and the success game – and ask how certain kinds of play can lead us into a fairer, wealthier tomorrow.

When asked why we do the things we do, we rarely say, ‘It’s because of status. I really love it.’ It can be distasteful to think of it as any kind of motivating force, let alone a vital one. It contradicts the heroic story we like to tell of ourselves. When we pursue the great goals of our lives, we tend to focus on our happy ending. We want the qualification, the promotion, the milestone, the crown. These motivations, that tend to spring to mind immediately, are known by researchers as ‘proximate’. They’re absolutely real and valid but they have other upstream ‘ultimate’ causes. Ultimate causes are often subconscious and so hidden from us: they’re the reason we want the qualification, the promotion, the milestone, the crown, in the first place.

Wherever psychologists look, they find a remarkably powerful link between status and wellbeing. One study of more than sixty thousand people across 123 countries found people’s wellbeing ‘consistently depended on the degree to which people felt respected by others’. Attainment of status or its loss was ‘the strongest predictor of long-term positive and negative feelings’.

Psychologists find that simply connecting with others and feeling accepted by them can be profoundly good for us. But equally revealing is how our minds and bodies react when we fail to connect. A wide range of research finds people with depression tend to belong to ‘far fewer’ groups than the rest of the population. Studies across time suggest the more a depressed person identifies with their group – the more of their own sense of self they invest in it – the more their symptoms lift.

In one study, participants were told they were taste-testing chocolate chip cookies. Before the test began, they were asked to mingle with other tasters then choose two they’d like to work with. Some were told (falsely) that nobody had picked them; others that everyone had. The first group, who’d been socially rejected, went on to eat an average of nine cookies more than the non-rejected: nearly twice the number. Most of them even rated the taste of the cookies more highly, implying their rejection actually altered their perceptions of the sugary food.

Marmot was surprised to discover precisely how high a civil servant climbed in the game of the civil service predicted their health outcomes and mortality rates. This was not, as you might reasonably assume, to do with the wealthier individuals leading healthier and more privileged lifestyles. This effect, which Marmot calls the ‘status syndrome’, was entirely independent: a wealthy smoker just one rung below the very top of the status game was more likely to fall ill, as a result of their habit, than the smoker one rung above them.

One review of the scientific literature found that ‘perceiving oneself as having low rank compared to others is consistently linked to higher depressive symptoms’. Some psychologists argue that when we become depressed we ‘mentally withdraw from the competition for higher status’. This keeps us off ‘high-status individuals’ radars’ and conserves energy, helping us cope with the ‘reduced opportunities imposed by low status’.

Much of what seems inarguably real and true, in the space around us, is not. The actual world is monochrome and silent. Sounds, colours, tastes and smells exist only in the projection in our heads. What’s actually out there are vibrating particles, floating chemical compounds, molecules and colourless light waves of varying lengths.

psychologically healthy brain excels at making its owner feel heroic. It does this by reordering our experiences, remixing our memories and rationalising our behaviour, using a battery of reality-warping weapons that make us believe we’re more virtuous, more correct in our beliefs and have more hopeful futures in store than others.

These apparently trite symbols matter. In one test, when participants were shown photos of people wearing ‘rich’ or ‘poor’ clothes, they automatically assumed those in wealthier looking outfits were significantly more competent and of higher status. This effect remained when they were warned upfront of the potential bias, when they were informed the clothing was definitely irrelevant and when they were told all the people worked in sales at a ‘mid-size firm in the Midwest’ and earned around US$80,000. It even remained when the participants were paid money to make an accurate guess.

The status detection system is highly evident in the behaviour of youngsters. Around three-quarters of arguments between children aged 18 and 30 months are over possessions, a figure that rises to 90 per cent when just two toddlers are present. For developmental psychologist Professor Bruce Hood, possession is a ‘means to establish where you are in the nursery pecking order’.

This has been found many times, with one study using data from twelve thousand British adults concluding ‘the ranked position of an individual’s income predicts general life satisfaction, whereas absolute income and reference income have no effect’.

These rules were essential because humans can often be greedy, dishonest and aggressive. One survey of sixty premodern societies uncovered seven common rules of play that are thought to be universal: help your family; help your group; return favours; be brave; defer to superiors; divide resources fairly; respect others’ property. These elemental rules dictate the ways humans keep their tribes working well.

In one study, 86 per cent of Australians rated their job performance as ‘above average’; in another, 96 per cent of Americans described themselves as ‘special’. East Asian games tend to be more collective

The brain begins learning these rules in infancy. As 2-year-olds, we have around one hundred trillion connections between our brain cells, double that of an adult. This is because, when we’re born, we don’t know where we’re going to pop out. Baby brains are specialised for many environments, many games. At this age, we’re better than adults at recognising faces of other races and can hear tones in foreign languages that grown-ups are deaf to.

Much of the rest of human life is comprised of three varieties of status-striving and three varieties of game: dominance, virtue and success. In dominance games, status is coerced by force or fear. In virtue games, status is awarded to players who are conspicuously dutiful, obedient and moralistic. In success games, status is awarded for the achievement of closely specified outcomes, beyond simply winning, that require skill, talent or knowledge.

In Tanzania, Hadza hunters who share meat widely ‘gain great social status – prestige that can be parlayed into powerful social alliances, the deference of other men, and greater mating success’, writes Buss. People engage in ‘competitive altruism’, battling to be ‘seen by others as great contributors to the group’. Of course, status is awarded to the altruistic in more modern societies too: studies show those who donate to charity, for example, experience ‘a dramatic boost in prestige in the eyes of others’.

Chimpanzee troops have been found to be ‘several hundred to a thousand times’ more aggressive than even the most violent human societies.

one survey found 53 per cent of Americans saying they’d prefer instant death than the reputation of a child molester; 70 per cent opted for the amputation of their dominant hand over a swastika tattoo on their face; 40 per cent preferred a year in jail to the reputation of a criminal.

It’s in this way that children in countries such as India overcome the pain of eating spicy foods. Mimicking the actions of high-status people is so desirable, it’s argued, their brains reinterpret the pain signals as pleasurable. Children are thought to teach themselves to enjoy spice-burning foods using automatic prestige-driven imitation. They rarely have to be forced.

Status games run on powerlines of influence and deference that crackle up and down their hierarchy. This is why, of all the countless status symbols that exist in human life, influence is probably the most reliable. We often assume money or fancy possessions are the most certain symbols of a person’s rank, but the highest-status monk in the world may have less wealth, and fewer Hermès ties, than the most junior banker on Wall Street. Influence is different.

But serious violence among women and girls is comparatively rare. For psychologist Professor Jonathan Haidt, ‘girls and boys are equally aggressive but their aggression is different. Boys’ aggression revolves around the threat of violence: “I will physically hurt you” … but girls’ aggression has always been relational: “I will destroy your reputation or your relationships”.’ Researchers argue female aggression tends to be ‘indirect’.

Humiliation has been described by researchers as ‘the nuclear bomb of the emotions’ and has been shown to cause major depressions, suicidal states, psychosis, extreme rage and severe anxiety, ‘including ones characteristic of post-traumatic stress disorder’. Criminal violence expert Professor James Gilligan describes the experience of humiliation as an ‘annihilation of the self

If humans are players, programmed to seek connection and status, humiliation insults both our deepest needs.

The only way to recover is to find a new game even if that means rebuilding an entire life and self. ‘Many humiliated individuals find it necessary to move to another community to recover their status, or more broadly, to reconstruct their lives.’

An African proverb says, ‘the child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth’. If the game rejects you, you can return in dominance as a vengeful God, using deadly violence to force the game to attend to you in humility.

Researchers find happiness isn’t closely linked to our socioeconomic status, which captures our rank compared with others across the whole of society, including class. It’s actually our smaller games that matter: ‘studies show that respect and admiration within one’s local group, but not socioeconomic status, predicts subjective well-being’.

The model said a person is compelled to act when three forces collide in a moment: motivation (we must want the thing); trigger (something must happen to trigger a desire to get more of it) and ability (it must be easy).

more than any other to make them habitual. He described a way of issuing rewards such that they’d encourage compulsive behaviours. If a programmer wanted to create a certain action, in a user, they should offer a symbol of reinforcement after they’d performed the desired ‘target behaviour’. But here was the trick: the positive reinforcement would be inconsistent. You wouldn’t always know what you were going to get.

To strengthen an existing behaviour, reinforcers are most effective when they are unpredictable,’ Fogg wrote in 2003.

We await replies, likes or upvotes and, just as a gambler never knows how the slot machine will pay out, we don’t know what reward we’ll receive for our contribution. Will we go up? Will we go down? The great prize changes every time. This variation creates compulsion. We just want to keep playing, again and again, to see what we’ll get.

Canny players sense the flaw in their elites and seek to improve their own rank with flattery. And flattery works: Tourish calls it a ‘perfumed trap’. A study of 451 CEOs found leaders who were exposed to more frequent and intense flattery and agreement rated their own abilities more highly, were less able to change course when things went wrong, and led firms that were more likely to suffer persistently poor performance.

Surprisingly, what made the most difference to their behaviour wasn’t the level of inequality in their game, but whether or not the inequality was visible. When players’ wealth was hidden everyone, including the elites, became more egalitarian. But when wealth was displayed, players in every game became less friendly, cooperated ‘roughly half as much’ and the rich were significantly more likely to exploit the poor.

This is why poverty alone doesn’t tend to lead to revolutions. Revolutions – defined as mass movements to replace a ruling order in the name of social justice – have been found to occur in middle-income countries more than the poorest. Sociologist Professor Jack Goldstone writes, ‘what matters is that people feel they are losing their proper place in society for reasons that are not inevitable and not their fault’

By the time we are thirteen,’ writes psychologist Professor Mitch Prinstein, ‘it seems as if there is nothing more important to us than this type of popularity. We talk about who has it. We strategise how to get it. We are devastated when we lose it. We even do things we know are wrong, immoral, illegal, or dangerous merely to obtain status, or to fiercely defend it.’

Psychologist Dr Lilliana Mason writes, ‘more often than not, citizens do not choose which party to support based on policy opinion; they alter their policy opinion according to which party they support. Usually they do not notice that this is happening, and most, in fact, feel outraged when the possibility is mentioned.’

The moral reality we live in is a virtue game. We use our displays of morality to manufacture status. It’s good that we do this. It’s functional. It’s why billionaires fund libraries, university scholarships and scientific endeavours; it’s why a study of 11,672 organ donations in the USA found only thirty-one were made anonymously. It’s why we feel good when we commit moral acts and thoughts privately and enjoy the approval of our imaginary audience. Virtue status is the bribe that nudges us into putting the interests of other people – principally our co-players – before our own.

When neuroscientist Professor Sarah Gimbel presented forty people with evidence their strongly held political beliefs were wrong, the response she observed in their brains was ‘very similar to what would happen if, say, you were walking through the forest and came across a bear

Professor Sam Gosling finds this when his students cluster into personality groups: ‘the extroverts don’t disguise their disdain for the uncommunicative introverts, who selfishly refuse to keep the discussion alive; they cannot fathom why their mute colleagues don’t do their bit to carry some of the conversational load. At the same time, the introverts have nothing but contempt for their garrulous counterparts; why not, they wonder, wait until you’ve got something worth saying before opening your mouth?’

For political psychologist Dr Lilliana Mason, part of the reason we continually attempt at warring for victory is that ‘people are compelled to think of their groups as better than others. Without that, they themselves feel inferior.’ At a ‘very primal level’ players are motivated ‘to view the world through a competitive lens, with importance placed on their own group’s superiority’. Humans love to become superior: to win. Researchers

A game’s command over its players strengthens when it flips into a mode of war.

For the vast majority of our time on earth, then, humans haven’t been subject to the tyranny of leaders. Instead, we lived in fear of what anthropologists call the ‘tyranny of the cousins’. These ‘cousins’ weren’t necessarily actual cousins. They’d usually be clan elders that, in these shallow hierarchies, passed for the elite.

In the end, she saved herself. At the time of writing, Templer’s company still exists, as does her blog. By conforming to the tyrannical cousins, and the frenzy spreading across the gossip networks of social media, she avoided being ‘cancelled’ – which is what we call it when internet mobs, unsatisfied by mockery, denunciation and humiliation meted out online, attempt at having their target de-graded as much as possible in the physical world.

A study of seventy million messages on the Chinese platform Weibo found the emotion that ‘travelled fastest and farthest through the social network’ was anger. Meanwhile, studies of mobbing events on Twitter find shamers increase their follower counts faster than non-shamers.

One investigation found those most likely to circulate ‘hostile political rumours’ including conspiracy theories and ‘fake news’ on social media were often ‘status-obsessed, yet socially marginalised’, their behaviour fuelled by a ‘thwarted desire for high status’, their aim, to ‘mobilise the audience against disliked elites’.

We found these same currents in the collective dreams of one of history’s most lethal games. The Nazis were Elliot Rodger, Ed Kemper and Ted Kaczynski on the level of a culture. They told a self-serving story that explained their catastrophic lack of status and justified its restoration in murderous attack. But it’s not just Germany that’s been possessed in this way. Nations the world over become dangerous when humiliated. One study of ninety-four wars since 1648 found 67 per cent were motivated by matters of national standing or revenge, with the next greatest factor – security – coming in at a distant 18 per cent.

Researchers find a primary motivation for suicide bombers is ‘the shame and humiliation induced by foreign troops in their country’.

When Algerians killed 103 French people following a riot, their colonialist masters sent aeroplanes to destroy forty-four villages, a cruiser to bombard coastal towns and commandos to slaughter on land: the French admit to 1,500 deaths, the Algerians claim 50,000. It’s for reasons like these that psychologist Dr Evelin Lindner has concluded that, ‘The most potent weapon of mass destruction’ is ‘the humiliated mind’.

Toxic morality is deeply implicated in these episodes: ‘genocide is highly moralistic’. Genocides are dominance-virtue games, carried out in the name of justice and fairness and the restoration of the correct order.

A ‘work ethic’ came into being, in which toil itself became prestigious. ‘This shift can be understood as the beginning of a work-centred society’, writes historian Professor Andrea Komlosy, ‘in which the diverse activities of all of its members are increasingly obliged to take on the traits of active production and strenuous exertion.’

We were getting our status from new kinds of games. Slowly, and in fits and starts, our focus had been juddering from duty to the clan towards individual competence and success. This changed our psychology, rewriting the cultural coding of our game-playing brains, turning us into new sorts of humans.

For Protestants, life was no longer a gruelling test for heaven or hell. God already knew where you were ending up. Believers were to look for clues of ‘assurance’ to see if they were saved or damned: signs of ‘elect status’ could be found in their own personal behaviour such as virtuous and sober living, but also in the accrual of wealth and rank on earth. Believers were said to have a personal ‘calling’. God had endowed them with special talents that they should seek to maximise by choosing the right occupation or vocation, then working hard in it.

Humans had been able to conquer the planet partly because we exist in a web of stored information. Every individual born didn’t have to learn everything for themselves afresh: knowledge was communicated by elders and passed down through the generations.

By connecting our ability to accumulate knowledge to our desire for status, they’d discovered the future.

This ‘Industrial Revolution’ was a status goldrush. It came to define the country’s mood and culture. Britons ‘became innovators because they adopted an improving mentality’, writes historian Dr Anton Howes. This mentality spread like a ‘disease’ that could infect ‘anyone … rich and poor, city-dwellers and rustics, Anglicans and dissenters, Whigs and Tories, skilled engineers and complete amateurs’.

One of the most famous, Scottish economist Adam Smith, is commonly known as the ‘Father of Capitalism’. Perhaps more than anyone, the hyper-individualistic, self-interested money-obsessed world we live in today is linked to him and his theories of how free markets and competition generate prosperity. But Smith didn’t believe greed for wealth was the ultimate driver of economies. He thought something else was going on, something deeper in the human psyche. ‘Humanity does not desire to be great, but to be beloved,’ he wrote in 1759.

We win points for personal success throughout our lives, in the highly formalised and often precisely graded games of school, college and work. In the street, in the office and on social media we signal our accomplishments with appearance, possessions and lifestyles. We’re self-obsessed, because this is the game we’re raised to play.

Following the depression and world wars, the economies of the USA and Britain became more rule-bound, virtuous and group-focussed: it was an era of increasing regulation over banking and business, high taxation (topping out at 90 per cent in America in the 1940s and 1950s), broad unionisation and ‘big government’ innovations such as the New Deal, the Social Security Act, the minimum wage and the welfare state.

American and British players became concomitantly collective: the monkey-suited ‘Corporation Man’ of the 1950s suburbs gave birth to the even more collectively minded hippies, with their anti-materialistic values.

But in the 1980s, the game changed again. During the previous decade, the economies of the West had started to fail. New ways of playing were sought. The leaders of the UK and USA, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, decided to make the game significantly more competitive. In 1981, Thatcher told journalists, ‘What’s irritated me about the whole direction of politics in the last thirty years is that it’s always been toward the collectivist society.’

We see this perfect human all around us, beaming with flawless teeth from advertising, film, television, media and the internet. Young, agreeable, visibly fit, self-starting, productive, popular, globally-minded, stylish, self-confident, extrovert, busy. Who is it, this person we feel so pressured to punch ourselves into becoming? It’s the player best equipped to win status in the game we’re in.

Led by psychologist Dr Thomas Curran, the researchers discovered all the forms of perfectionism they looked at had risen between 1989 and 2016. Social perfectionism had grown the most. The extent to which people felt they had to ‘display perfection to secure approval’ had soared by 32 per cent.

Today, sixty-nine of the hundred largest economies on earth are not nations but corporations. In the first quarter of 2021 alone, technology company Apple made more money than the annual GDP of 135 countries; its market valuation was higher than the GDP of Italy, Brazil, Canada, South Korea and Russia.

In just three years, between 2015 and 2018, support for capitalism among young Americans fell from 39 per cent to 30 per cent; a 2019 poll found 36 per cent of millennials saying they approve of Communism. Sociologist Professor Thomas Cushman writes, ‘anti-capitalism has become, in some ways, a central pillar of the secular religion of the intellectuals, the habitus of modern critical intellectuals as a status group’.

Between 1979 and 2005, the average real hourly wage for white working-class Americans without a high-school diploma declined by 18 per cent.

Education lies at the heart of this divide.’ Most of the 41 per cent of white millennials who voted for Trump in 2016 didn’t have college degrees. In all, white non-college voters comprised around three-fifths of Trump’s support in 2016; 74 per cent of people with no qualifications supported Brexit, the educational divide being greater than that of social class, income or age.

The person most credited with attempting to realize this dream is Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Lenin. His hatred for the bourgeoisie was blinding, violent and total; many contemporary historians see its genesis in the humiliation his own upper-middle class family suffered after his brother, Sasha, was executed for a ‘laughably amateur’ but nearly successful assassination plot.

By 1920, 5.4 million were directly employed by the government. ‘There were twice as many officials as there were workers in Soviet Russia and these officials were the main social base of the new regime,’ writes Figes. ‘This was not a Dictatorship of the Proletariat but a Dictatorship of the Bureaucracy.’

During the Great Terror, the police were issued quotas for what percentage of their district was to be shot or sent to the camps. On 2 June 1937, it was ordered that 35,000 were to be ‘repressed’ in one district, 5,000 of whom were to be shot. Between 1937 and 1938, 165,200 priests were arrested, 106,800 of whom were shot. In the same period, an average of one and a half thousand people were executed daily. One and a half million ordinary Russians were arrested by the secret police, nearly seven hundred thousand were executed for ‘counter-revolutionary activities’.

Throughout the 1930s, there came into being a complex hierarchy of status. Stalin might have admitted there were now three classes, but sociologists found at least ten: the ruling elite; superior intelligentsia; general intelligentsia; working-class aristocracy; white collar; well-to-do peasants; average workers; average peasants; disadvantaged workers; forced labour.

The new elites gained access to special apartments and had the best goods automatically reserved for them. Their children were sent to exclusive summer camps. They received holidays, chauffeur-driven cars and money. It became ‘normal’ for them to have live-in servants

As for the state itself, it argued their privilege was temporary: soon all of the USSR would live like this. They were not a privileged elite, went the thinking, they were a vanguard.

More than two thousand years before the revolution, the Ancient Greek who’d first dreamed the Communist dream had been corrected by his student, Aristotle, who’d pointed out it wasn’t actually wealth or private ownership that created the human yearning to get ahead. That yearning was a part of our nature: ‘it is not possession but the desires of mankind which require to be equalized’.

To persuade us to push a penis in and out of a vagina, it invented orgasm. To persuade us to sacrifice our wellbeing for a screaming, shit-smeared infant, it made love. To persuade us to force mashed-up foreign objects down our throats, it evolved taste and appetite. To persuade us to engage in groupish, co-operative living, it conjured the obsessive joys of connection and acclaim. Follow the rules, and follow them well, and you can expect to feel great.

As we play for ever-greater status, for ourselves and our games, we weave a self-serving and highly motivating dream that writhes with saints and demons and irrational beliefs. This dream is presented to us as reality. It’s entirely convincing, in all its colour, noise and pristine focus. We see evidence everywhere that it’s true. It has the power to seduce us into the most depraved acts of hatred and barbarity. But it can also lead us into modes of play that truly make a better world.

Psychologists studying optimal self-presentation discuss a set of closely related ideas. Professor Susan Fiske argues that, when encountering others, people ask of them two fundamental questions: ‘What are their intentions?’ and ‘What’s their capacity to pursue them?’ If we want to supply the right answers, and so be received positively, Fiske finds we should behave in ways that imply warmth and competence. More recently it’s been argued a third component should be added.

For Professor Jennifer Ray, morality is ‘not only a critical and separable dimension … it may even be the primary dimension’. Elsewhere, ‘perceived sincerity’ has been found to be essential to successful ‘impression management’.

Throughout history, leaders have succeeded by telling a story that says their group is deserving of more status, which, under their direction, they’ll win. But it remains important this evangelical passion doesn’t morph into arrogance.

Tyrannies are virtue-dominance games. Much of their daily play and conversation will focus on matters of obedience, belief and enemies. Is the game you’re playing coercing people, both inside and outside it, into conforming to its rules and symbols? Does it attempt to silence its ideological foes? Does it tell a simplistic story that explains the hierarchy, deifying their group whilst demonising a common enemy? Are those around you obsessed with their sacred beliefs?

Some forms of status are easier to win than others. For those of us who aren’t pretty, virtue is probably the easiest to find of all. It’s as simple as judging people: because status is relative, their de-grading raises us up, if only in our minds.

Morality poisons empathy.

I believe we can all take consolation in the knowledge that nobody ever gets there, not the superstars, the presidents, the geniuses or the artists we gaze up at in envy and awe. That promised land is a mirage. In our lowest moments, we should remind ourselves of the truth of the dream: that life is not a story, but a game with no end. This means it isn’t a final victory we should seek but simple, humble progress: the never-ending pleasure of moving in the right direction. Nobody wins the status game. They’re not supposed to. The meaning of life is not to win, it’s to play.