“Life is a game. There’s no way to understand the human world without first understanding this. Everyone alive is playing a game whose hidden rules are built into us and that silently directs our thoughts, beliefs and actions. This game is inside us. It is us. We can’t help but play.”
So begins The Status Game, a new book by acclaimed science writer Will Storr.
He continues: “We play for status, if only subtly, with every social interaction, every contribution we make to work, love or family life and every internet post. We play with how we dress, how we speak and what we believe. … Life is not a journey towards a perfect destination. It’s a game that never ends. And it’s the very worst of us.”
Does it have to be?
We may not be able to quit the status game, but Will says we can learn to play it better. In this episode, he explains how.
Listen to Will’s appearance on the Next Big Idea podcast below, or read a few key highlights. And follow host Rufus Griscom on LinkedIn for behind-the-scenes looks into the show.
The need for status may not explain all of human behavior. But it does explain a lot.
Rufus Griscom: Do you see status as the essential human motivator is? Is it a unified field theory of human behavior?
Will Storr: No. I don’t think everything boils down to status. But a lot does. Psychologists often talk about “getting along and getting ahead.” Belongingness and status. We want to feel loved, but also admired. I do write about belongingness in the book, because to play status games, you’ve got to first be accepted into the group, but mostly this is about the “getting ahead” part. It’s not like a theory of everything in the sense that everything boils down to status, but it’s certainly a theory of a lot.
Rufus: I think it may be useful for listeners to define what we mean by status. People immediately think of fame and money. But those are just two flavors of status. How do you define it?
Will: When you say, “Oh, everybody’s motivated by status,” what people hear is, “Oh, everybody wants to be famous, everybody wants to be rich.” Fame and money are two ways you can measure status, but there are infinite other ways. Think about somebody who’s playing an ascetic, monk-like status game. They will measure their status on how little they can get on with—how little they can eat, how simply they can live.
It’s much more complex than saying, “Status is about the pursuit of fame and money.” Fundamentally, it’s about feeling valued. We want to feel valued by our group—that’s what status is. And there are very good evolutionary reasons for why we want it. We spent most of our time evolving the human condition in the context of highly cooperative hunter-gatherer groups, so we had to develop a system of incentive and reward to goad us into being useful members of those groups. When we proved ourselves valuable to that hunter-gatherer group, either with acts of great competence or by being virtuous and selfless, we were rewarded with status.
So we’ve evolved this fundamental, basic rule of life, which is: be of value. And if you are perceived to be of value, then you’ll be rewarded with status.
Why do we play status games? Because our health depends on it.
Rufus: The stakes of these status games are very high. You talk about the impact on health and this study on the British Civil Service. Do you want to share that?
Will: So this is a famous set of studies called “The Whitehall Studies” by Dr. Michael Marmot. Whitehall is a nickname for the British Civil Service. It’s an enormous organization, hugely stratified. And what Marmot and his team discovered was that the lower you drop down the status hierarchy of Whitehall, the worse your health outcomes become.
Now the first thing you’re going to think is, “Oh, that’s obvious. It’s because rich people get to afford to shop at Whole Foods. They get personal trainers. They’re less likely to smoke.” But that’s not what they found. They found that a wealthy smoker just one rung below the very top was more likely to fall ill as a result of their smoking than the person above them.
“Status is more important to people’s happiness than family or money.”
A separate set of academics found this in baboons. They did a test where they had baboons in a laboratory, and these unlucky/lucky baboons were given a really unhealthy diet of junk food to live on for a while. They developed unhealthy bodies and high levels of atherosclerotic plaque. And the researchers found, just like in Whitehall, that the baboons were all equally unhealthy, but it was the baboons towards the bottom of the hierarchy that were more likely to fall ill as a result of their bad diets. And then, crucially, the researchers conspired to rearrange the hierarchy of the baboon troop, and they found that the health outcomes changed in lockstep with the rearrangement of the hierarchy. The new top baboons were suddenly healthier and had better outcomes than boons beneath them.
So status sinks down to our physical health and our happiness. One of the major studies that I quote in the book looked at 60,000 people across 123 countries, and they found that people’s wellbeing consistently depended upon the degree to which they felt respected by other people. That’s status, and it was the strongest predictor of long-term positive or negative feelings. Status is more important to people’s happiness than family or money. And they found this across gender, culture, age, personality. Wherever they looked, all around the world, they found that this was true.
In our quest to gain status, we can achieve incredible things. Just ask the yam growers of Pohnpei.
Rufus: There are some extraordinary examples of the status games people play in other parts of the world. Can we talk about yams?
Will: Oh, yeah. We can talk about yams. Shall I explain the yams?
Rufus: I wish you would.
Will: So this is a really interesting anthropological study of a group down in the Micronesian island of Pohnpei. And I thought this was a really great example of how status manifests in human groups.
So in Pohnpei life is very stratified. There’s not much social mobility. But there is one way that you can rise in the ranks of status. There are these biannual chiefly feasts, and the man who brings the largest yam to that feast is publicly declared number one and is celebrated by the entire community. So what happened? The men of the island have become absolutely obsessed with growing massive yams. They will grow them in secret plots far away from their houses. A complex system of moral etiquette has bloomed around yam growing. It’s taboo to look at another man’s yams—it’s like you’re stealing his yam growing secrets.
What I thought was especially interesting, and which speaks to the value of status—the functional, wonderful role that the pursuit of status pursuit plays in human life—was that the islanders of Pohnpei have become absolutely incredible at growing massive yams. The yams are so big over there that they have to construct special stretchers to carry them into the feast. That, to me, speaks to how crazy we can become over the things that we decide signal status, but also how fantastically brilliant we are when we focus our minds on creating value to justify our claim to status.
Rufus: And what’s extraordinary is these 80-pound yams probably don’t taste that good.
Will: I had that same thought! I bet they taste horrible. But they’ve decided that this signals status, and so they go for it.
Status is always in flux. It can always be withdrawn.
Rufus: I was fascinated to read that our status detection system registers facial markers for dominance or submission in 43 milliseconds.
Will: Yeah, so neuroscientists talk about “the status detection system.” It’s always on. We’re always measuring, because the thing about status is it’s not like money. You can’t collect your status in a box and show it off. Status is offered to you by other people. That’s why even Kim Kardashian and Paul McCartney get chippy about status. It’s always in flux. It’s always in question. And it can always be withdrawn.
“Status is offered to you by other people.”
I noticed it with my wife. We’ve been together for 20 years. When we met, I was slightly older, slightly ahead in my career. But there was this extraordinarily obvious point where she became an editor of a magazine. And as soon as she became an editor, I suddenly noticed that in social occasions I wasn’t getting the same amount of eye contact anymore. I started to be sort of ignored at parties when I was with my wife because she was a magazine editor, which, in the media circles that I was traveling in, was perceived as being higher status. And I remember the night it happened, I was like, “Oh, god, that was really weird.” I was self-aware enough to chuckle at it but it was very noticeable.
Dominance, success, and virtue. These are the three status games we all play.
Rufus: You talk about three status games in particular, and some of them are healthier than others.
Will: There are three kinds of different status games that we can play.
First, there’s the dominance game. Dominance is violence or the threat of violence. And not just physical violence, but also social violence, so ostracization, bullying, humiliation, all of those things. Putin is playing a game of dominance over Ukraine at the moment, and Zelenskyy is pushing back with dominance. That’s war.
When we settled down, became characteristically human, and started living in cooperative groups, dominance wasn’t very good as a way of getting on in life because you can’t just go around beating everybody up and threatening people all the time. So we evolved prestige forms of status, And the two main ones are success and virtue.
The success game is about being valued because you are competent. You can be valuable to other people by being a great sorcerer, a great honey finder, a great storyteller, and so on. When you show value to your group by being very good at stuff, you get rewarded with status.
The other prestige game is virtue. That’s all about following the rules, knowing the rules, enforcing the rules, believing the sacred beliefs. Religion is a virtue game. The British royal family is a virtue game. It’s not about the competence of the royal family. It’s not about dominance. It’s about virtue. It’s about believing and accepting that King Charles really is a wonderful person who follows all the rules. I mean, the royal family is all about rules—saying the right thing, bowing in the right way, all of that stuff. So that’s a classic virtue game. And you can see how Elon Musk is a superstar of the success game, but Michelle Obama and the Pope are superstars of virtue games.
Status games have made the world a better, fairer place.
Rufus: In your journey writing this book, I’m sure you went through periods of feeling discouraged by some of these human instincts and the ways they play out. But I think you also found some real silver linings in your exploration of our attraction to status. What were those silver linings?
Will: One of the most fundamental ones is that the human animal has evolved an automatic system of reward for people who are valuable. So when we are virtuous, when we’re selfless, when we do something good, people automatically go, “Oh, that’s really good. You did a great thing,” and they give us a bit of status. It’s even internal. When we give money to charity or do something that’s good, we feel better about ourselves. We reward ourselves with status internally. No other animal has this system of rewards for virtuous behavior.
It’s also true with success. You think the virtue games are going to be the ones that change the world, but actually it’s because of success games that the world has become unimaginably better and fairer since the industrial and scientific revolutions. The weird thing that set off the scientific revolution and then the industrial revolution was that we started playing games in which status was awarded for the discovery of new and useful knowledge. For the first time in human history, we wanted actual truth, not a religious story or a story about monarchy or whatever crazy stuff our ancestors believed. Suddenly, actual, useful truth was a way that we could earn status. And that was baked into the culture of the industrial revolution. It was because of the success game that people were tinkering in sheds, inventing this and that. And it’s these success games that have lifted billions of people out of poverty. It’s these success games that have invented vaccines that have saved the lives and prevented the deaths of billions of people. It’s these success games that have figured out how cholera spreads. This is not a kind of paean to capitalism. What I’m saying is that it is actually the practice of competence that has made the world a better and fairer place.
“You think the virtue games are going to be the ones that change the world, but actually it’s because of success games that the world has become unimaginably better and fairer since the industrial and scientific revolutions.”
The big caveat, though, is that it has to be tempered by virtue. People who are highly motivated to achieve major status in success games are often completely sociopathic. They just wanna win. Think about the game Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are playing to see who can get to Mars first. They just want to win. Those people need the influence of the virtue people in order to ensure that in the success games they’re creating the rewards are distributed fairly. In the book, I write about success–virtue games. Those are the ones we should play.
Want to win the status game? Try being warm, sincere, and competent.
Rufus: I was very moved by some comments you made toward the end of the book about the power of warmth, sincerity, and competence. How can we apply this to our lives?
Will: There’s a really interesting body of work by psychologists looking into what they call “impression management,” which sounds a bit Machiavelian. “How can we manage the impression that we make on other people?” But I was interested in that work because it tallied quite well with the theory that I’d been putting forward in The Status Game about these three games of dominance, virtue, and success.
Researchers talk about these three different components of presentation: warmth, sincerity and competence. When we appear warm, sincere, and competent, people are just going to like us, and that maps onto those three games. When you present with warmth, you’re signaling to people, “I’m not gonna be dominant. I’m not gonna push you around.” When we signal sincerity, we say, “I’m going to play a good virtue game with you. I’m not gonna lie to you. I’m going to be honest with you.” And when we show competence, we signal that we’re going to be valuable to the group that we are in, and people want that because their group will benefit. So it felt to me like this kind of magic triumvirate: warmth, sincerity, and competence. It’s really hard to imagine meeting somebody who was warm, sincere, and competent, and not thinking, They’re amazing! It’s a good target for us to aim ourselves towards.
The final big takeaway for me was this idea that status is more important to people than money. What people really want is to feel valued and respected. And the amazing thing about it is it’s free, and we’ve got unlimited stores of it to give away. It was a revelation to me that we have this resource that people love and that we can just give away to anyone. That has changed the way that I behave in the world. I’m much more generous with telling people that I value them. And guess what? People love it!
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