The Status Game Doesn’t Have to Be Zero-Sum

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“Prestige,” Will Storr writes in The Status Game, “is our most marvelous craving.”

Do you ever get a niggling feeling that other people are doing better than you? Don’t worry, we all do. And rest assured, social comparison isn’t a frivolous activity: “To our brains,” Will Storr writes in his new book The Status Game: On Social Position and How We Use It, “status is a resource as real as oxygen or water. When we lose it, we break.”

This isn’t to say one can never be too preoccupied with social status. Obsessing over how you might measure up to others probably isn’t healthy. But ignoring our tendency to seek status altogether would also be a mistake. In his enthralling exploration of our thirst for social status, Storr writes that our need for it is ancient, universal, and remains deeply ingrained in all of us. Indeed, for all social creatures on Earth, it is intricately intertwined with ultimate evolutionary goals. High status brings abundance: finer food, more land, and more romantic opportunities. In The Status Game, Storr, an award-winning journalist, explains the psychology of status compellingly and offers some wisdom in successfully navigating the status hierarchies we all find ourselves in.

“By the logic of the status game, he became sacred, the literal equivalent of a God…”

Storr put the “self-serving inner-hero” in the spotlight in his last book The Science of Storytelling: Why Stories Make Us Human, and How to Tell Them Better. The Status Game, by contrast, reveals the status-seeking mechanism that lurks behind the scenes. “If the conscious experience is organized as a story,” he writes, “this book concerns the subconscious truth that lies beneath it.” The gist of that truth? “The higher we rise, the more likely we are to live, love and procreate,” Storr writes. “It’s the essence of human thriving.”

The problem, of course, is that this fuels the best and worst aspects of humanity. Whille scientists and inventors wanting to solve problems or make a name for themselves can drive progress, people’s desire to get ahead of the competition also results in murders, wars, and even genocide. How do we make sense of this mixed scorecard? One way is to see the two paths that can lead to high status: prestige and dominance. Both appear to be equally effective ways of gaining status. The crucial difference is that domineering players typically force people to respect them, whereas prestigious leaders have been freely chosen by their followers. The latter, as Storr explains, is a sustainable strategy; the former isn’t.

“Prestige,” Storr writes, “is our most marvelous craving.” We grant it to people with the expertise our group needs to succeed. Although prototypical forms of prestige have been identified in wildlife, such as elder elephants leading their herds to water, no other species has stretched the psychology of prestige as far as humans have. Unlike any other animal, we are a fully fledged cultural species. We need to be socialized from the moment that we’re born, and we rely on collective wisdom for our survival (how long could you survive on your own in the wilderness?)

Success and virtue games help explain the psychology of prestige. In success games, status is awarded for exceptional achievements that demonstrate skill and talent in established contests (think of professional sports and tech start-ups). In virtue games, status is awarded to people who are conspicuously moralistic, obedient, and dutiful (think of religious or royal institutions).  

The flip side of prestige is dominance, gaining status through intimidation, manipulation, and coercion. No surprise that this type of leadership traces back millions of years. We share with chimpanzees and our other primate relatives a psychology hypersensitive to dominance. Of course, these strategies aren’t mutually exclusive, and Storr suggests each of us configure a winning formula of prestige and dominance in the games we play.

Storr underscores how young men, particularly, are prone to violent status contests, with “a propensity for them built into their minds, muscles and bones.” He points out that, in the majority of murder cases, killers are under 30, without a job, are unmarried, and poorly educated. Storr cites King’s College London’s Mike Martin, a conflict researcher who has written that, in most places, the leading reasons given for killing are “status driven, the result of altercations over trivial disputes.”

Needless to say, not all young men are violent criminals, and culture plays a big role here. However, Storr zeros in one combination he believes blows the powder keg: having a grandiose personality and experiencing intense feelings of humiliation. What’s the connection? Being humiliated is to have your reputation shattered, where your status plummets publicly and in dramatic fashion. “Humiliation can be seen as the opposite of status,” Storr writes, “the hell to its heaven.”

In the most serious cases, Storr says we sink so far down the rankings that we’re no longer considered useful players. The only way to recover is to start afresh and rebuild from the ground up. However, there’s another option available for those who are slipping and can’t get themselves up: annihilation. Storr highlights an African proverb: “The child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth.” “If the game rejects you,” he writes, “you can return in dominance as a vengeful God, using deadly violence to force the game to attend to you in humility.”

Storr spots this sense of entitlement and gnawing resentment in criminal behavior, notorious acts of espionage and sabotage, and among extreme political movements. Most poignantly, Storr draws parallels with the rise of Nazi Germany. “The Nazi catastrophe can’t be understood,” Storr writes, “without acknowledgement of why the Germans came to worship their leader as a god.”

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According to Storr, before the outbreak of World War I, Germany was the most prosperous nation in Europe (edging ahead of Britain), where Germans’ living standards had been soaring since the turn of the 20th century. When war was declared, the Germans were confident (perhaps overconfident) that this would be a quick victory.

In the aftermath of their shocking defeat, Germans expected that the terms of peace would be just. However, the strict provisions that were enforced through the Treaty of Versaille included accepting guilt for starting the war, agreeing to disarm while handing over enormous amounts of military equipment, surrendering vast tracts of land and German territories, and paying today’s equivalent of nearly a few hundred billion dollars in damages. These terms were almost unanimously felt as a national humiliation.

That Germany had to foot the bill for everyone’s war helped trigger a wave of hyperinflation that was so disastrous, workers had to collect their wages with wheelbarrows. These humiliations multiplied themselves. When Germany inevitably fell behind on its reparation payments, France and Belgium occupied the Ruhr Valley, one of Germany’s major industrial engines. Once hyperinflation had finally been tamed, the Great Depression hit. Germany was plunged into a deeper state of desperation and despair.

According to Storr, Adolf Hitler rode to victory partly on a ticket of healing Germany’s humiliations from the austere terms of the Treaty of Versailles. Although antisemitism was rife at the time, Storr argues Germans’ main priority was restoring what they deemed was Germany’s rightful place at the top: “Partly through effective propaganda, Hitler himself became highly symbolic of the resurgent Germany,” he writes. “By the logic of the status game, he became sacred, the literal equivalent of a God, a figure that symbolised all that his players valued…”

Genocide, Storr argues, is not just about the killing or cleansing of enemies. “They’re about healing the perpetrators’ wounded grandiosity with grotesque, therapeutic performances of dominance and humiliation.” The Holocaust, the Nazis’ systematic slaughtering of six million Jews across Europe, was scaled up when Germany’s war effort started going south, and continued right up until the end of the Second World War—just as Hitler’s house of cards was crumbling. The Nazis “told a self-serving story that explained their catastrophic lack of status and justified its restoration in murderous attack,” Storr writes. “But it’s not just Germany that’s been possessed in this way. Nations the world over become dangerous when humiliated.”

By peering into the minds of murderous regimes, Storr reminds us of the ever-present threat posed by tyranny. To make sure we’re not swept away by a visceral rush of virtue-dominance, Storr instructs us to continuously question if the groups we belong to are becoming too tight, too dogmatic, and too extreme. For example, Storr states if we’re ever made to feel that acts of violence are virtuous, that’s a red flag. “If we’re serious about ‘never again’ we must accept that tyranny isn’t a ‘left’ or a ‘right’ thing, it’s a human thing. It doesn’t arrive goose-stepping down streets in terrifying ranks, it seduces us with stories.”

Given our peers’ ability to warp our sense of reality, how do we actually know when our groups have become unhinged? The antidote, Storr argues, is to play several status games. In other words, to diversify risk and not put all your eggs in one basket. “People who appear brainwashed have invested too much of their identity in a single game,” Storr states. “If the game fails, or they become expelled, their identity—their very self—can disintegrate. No such risk can befall the player with a diversity of identities who plays diverse games.” Of course, being a member of many groups opens one’s eyes to different views, too.

When navigating status hierarchies within our groups, Storr advises us to practice warmth, competence, and sincerity. “When we’re warm, we imply we’re not going to use dominance; when sincere; we imply we’re going to play fairly; when competent, that we’re going to be valuable to the game itself.” It’s all too easy to flash sparks of dominance in the heat of the moment. However successful this may be initially, Storr stresses that overpowering people, through forms of intimidation or other means, isn’t a sustainable strategy. “The glowers, the sighs, the wails of complaint; such twitches of animalism might help us achieve some immediate goal, but they’ll also lead to our being deranked in the mind of others.”

Storr points out that we all have status to give, and that the credit we can dole out is essentially limitless. “Creating small moments of prestige means always seeking opportunities to use it,” he writes. “Allowing others to feel statusful makes it more likely they’ll accept our influence.” 

Another way of putting this, I realize, is that by going for prestige in getting ahead, you can make the status game a win-win.

Max Beilby is a member of Ethical Systems’ Advisory Board and a business-psychology practitioner working in the banking industry. He also runs the blog Darwinian Business, which explores business from an evolutionary-psychological perspective, and more.