Being famous. Knowing someone famous. Getting a laugh after telling a joke. Getting a good grade. Getting likes on a social media post. Winning a video game. Cooking a tasty meal. Being good looking. Having inside knowledge. Sharing a good recommendation.
We often think of status exclusively in terms of wealth, but it’s actually at play everywhere, in every situation where we get the feeling of being of value, where we feel ever so slightly elevated in our relative social position. The universal human desire for status greatly influences our culture, as well as our own behavior and the ups and downs of our mood. We would all do well then to understand status better, and my guest today can help you do that. His name is Will Storr and he’s the author of The Status Game: On Social Position and How We Use It. Today on the show, Will walks us through why status in its infinite forms is so important to people, the ways it can be gained through dominance, virtue, and success, and how status games take place both within groups and between them. We talk about the good of status — how it can give us a psychological high and motivate the pursuit of skill, competence, and achievement — as well as its dark sides, including the way that a loss in status, and the resulting feeling of humiliation, leads to depression and violence. Will explains how status can be gained by enforcing the rules of a group and punishing those who seem to be lowering the overall status of the tribe, and how this punitive dynamic plays out online. We also discuss how when you try to eliminate certain status games by making things equal, people just find other status games to play, and that when one hierarchy is destroyed, another simply rises to take its place. We end our conversation with what we can do, if the status game is inescapable, to play it in a healthy way.
Resources Related to the Podcast
- AoM series on status
- AoM Article: How Men Are Evolved for Fighting
- Study on how mindfulness training can lead to feelings of superiority
- Hikikomori — Japanese who have withdrawn themselves from society
- AoM Article: How to REALLY Be Alpha Like the Wolf
- AoM Podcast #734: How Moral Grandstanding Is Ruining Our Public Discourse
- Envy: A Theory of Social Behaviour by Helmut Schoeck
Connect With Will Storr
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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Being famous, knowing someone famous, getting the laugh after telling your joke, getting a good grade, getting likes on a social media post, winning a video game, cooking a tasty meal, being good-looking, having inside knowledge, sharing a good recommendation. Now, we often think of status exclusively in terms of wealth, but it’s actually in play everywhere, in every situation where we get the feeling of being of value, where we feel ever so slightly elevated in our relative social position. The universal desire for status greatly influences our culture as well as our own behavior and the ups and downs of our mood. We would all do well, then, to understand status better. My guest today can help you do just that. His name is a Will Storr, and he’s the author of The Status Game: On Social Position and How We Use It.
Today on the show, Will walks us through why status in its infinite forms is so important to people, the ways it can be gained through dominance, virtue and success, and how status games take place both within groups and between them. We talk about the good of status, how it can give us a psychological high and motivate the pursuit of skill, competence, and achievement. As well as its dark sides, including the way that a loss in status, and the resulting feeling of humiliation, leads to depression and sometimes violence. Will explains how status can be gained by enforcing the rules of a group and punishing those who seem to be lowering the overall status of the tribe, and how this punitive dynamic plays out online. We also discuss how when you try to eliminate certain status games by making things equal, people just find other status games to play. And then when one hierarchy is destroyed another simply rises and take its place. We end our conversation with what we can do, if status games are inescapable, to play it in a healthy way. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/status.
Will Storr, welcome to the show.
Will Storr: Thanks for having me.
Brett McKay: So, you got a new book out called The Status Game: On Social Position and How We Use It. And in this book, you take this very broad… Also a deep dive into the anthropology, the history, the psychology, the sociology, the philosophy of social status. And I’m curious what led you to take such a deep dive into social status? Something that we don’t like to talk about, particularly.
Will Storr: Yeah. So for the last few books, I’ve been really writing books around the idea that the brain is this storyteller and that the conscious experience of our life is that we’re this hero in the kind of unfolding plot of our lives. And the books that I’ve been writing have sort of been sort of focused around that idea. But then I started to think, okay, so if the conscious experience of life is this heroic story, and that heroic story is kind of delusional and kind of leads us into all these traps, what’s going on in the subconscious? ‘Cause the subconscious is unimaginably more powerful than the conscious. So what’s actually going on down there? And so The Status Game is my attempt at answering that question.
Brett McKay: Okay, so let’s start with definitions. How do you define status, social status?
Will Storr: It’s simply the feeling of being of value. And to understand that you’ve got to understand kind of where it comes from for humans. Most living things compete for status, and the more status they get the better their lives get, the longer they survive, the more and more safely they can reproduce. So it’s a really important critical goal that lots and lots of living things have. But humans, we’re this kind of tribal ape. And so tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands years ago when we were… When our brains were evolving and becoming the recognizably human brains that we have today, we were living in these hunter-gatherer groups and we started competing for status with prestige. And the way that we gained these prestigious forms of status were by being valuable to our group, and there were two ways of being valuable to your group. You can be virtuous, so you could be like generous and courageous and good follower of rules or you can be successful. You can be valuable by being useful, by being a great honey finder or a great story teller or a great hunter. So that’s kind of the root of a lot of human status driving, it’s that feeling of being of value. And when we feel that we’re of value to other people, that’s when we get that great status bump.
Brett McKay: And I think an important point to make is status isn’t just about being rich. I think a lot of times when we think about status, we think of class, right?
Will Storr: Yeah.
Brett McKay: With either being a lower class, middle class, upper class but status is everywhere. You get status for being young. You might get status for being attractive. You get status when someone compliments you on something you did, so like on your clothes, if you had a good thought, if your kids are well-behaved. You get status for winning like a board game or a pick-up game of basketball or you’re getting likes on… It’s not just about money. It is just about your relative social position with other people in your group.
Will Storr: Yeah, absolutely. So the brain has this thing that scientists call the status detection system, and it’s unbelievably sensitive. It’s constantly monitoring evidence for our relative status versus other people and monitoring other people’s status as well. And in the book I write about some of these crazy things they found. The relative amount of orange juice you get poured in your glass versus somebody else. If you get more, the brain reads that as good. And if you get less, you get offended. “Oh, I’ve been treated as if I’m lower status.” So we’re unbelievably obsessed with status. And we’re constantly measuring it, mostly subconsciously. It’s all about a symbol. Those measures of orange juice in the glass, that’s a symbolic status kind of ranking, but so is money. And so is, as you say, kids’ soccer games and the soccer games that we play. And so we’re constantly measuring our status in this kind of wild variety of ways.
Brett McKay: And there’s a lot of things going on when we experience status, like physiologically there’s hormones that boost stuff. Testosterone increases, I think both in men and women, but more in men. You feel this surge of testosterone. Like even if you’re watching your favorite football team or soccer team play, and they win, the people watching on TV, the men watching on TV, will have this surge in testosterone. So there’s a lot… There’s like neurochemicals that go on. And then the same thing when you have like a status defeat. When your team loses or if you experience some sort of slight, testosterone levels go down. You don’t get the dopamine or the serotonin. So we are definitely wired for this.
Will Storr: And we’ve been wired for it since before we were human. Before we were human it was mostly dominance battles, so even with physical fighting. Lots of animals still use dominance. Most animals use dominance as their primary way of competing for status. So yeah, you can’t get rid of it. It’s in the brain. It’s been in the brain for millions of years and we all do it.
Brett McKay: But there’s people out there that say, “Well, I just… I don’t care about status. I’m above that.” Is it really possible not to care about status?
Will Storr: It’s completely impossible. Yeah it’s… And that always make me laugh, because you say, “So why are you telling me that?” Usually when [laughter] people tell you, “I don’t care what other people think of me,” they’re kind of showing off. They’re kinda saying, “I’m better than you, because I don’t care what other people think of me.” And it’s like well… It’s this completely self-defeating argument, it always makes me chuckle ’cause you can just tell by the tone of voice, people are kind of… They’re using that as a claim to status, and no you can’t… And I know people who are sort of big into their kind of mindfulness and wellness, and they’re kind of anti-materialistic, maybe they’re driving a beaten-up car, and they’re kind of thinking that means they’re kind of immune to being interested in a status.
But the way they’re dressing and eating and living their life, are just ways that they’re enabling themselves to look down on those other people who aren’t behaving as they are. One of the studies that I write about in the book… Some academics in the University of Amsterdam, they did a survey of 3700 people who were into mindfulness meditation, and they were specifically looking at people who were doing meditation to get rid of their ego needs and their needs for success in their lives, and they found that these people scored very high in measures of what they called spiritual superiority. They were saying things like, “If other people had the amazing insights that I have, the world would be a much better place,” and all this stuff. I’m sure it’s possible to reduce, with lots of meditation, to reduce your need for status, but you cannot get rid of it.
And then the only people that really try and get rid of it, that I’m aware of in the modern age completely, are the Hikikomori in Japan, who essentially shut themselves away, and you have to do that, because you can’t have a social encounter without playing the status game, in all this… In tone of voice, in body language, we’re always getting information about what other people think of us, do they think we’re a good person or a bad person, a handsome person or an ugly person or a polite person or a rude person, it’s endless. So the only way you can really do it is to shut yourself away like the Hikikomori do, but even then, most of them are playing computer games, and that’s the status game so…
Brett McKay: Alright the status going on there. Even when people say, “I don’t care about status”, you might not care about the status game that the wider culture’s playing, you’re gonna play a different status game.
Will Storr: Yeah, so the way to understand it is… That’s how I talk about games, is that there’s not one game for status that everyone’s playing with each other, there are infinite games, and that’s because we’re tribal or a group of species, we have these very powerful subconscious urges to do two things and one is to connect with other people, to connect into coalitions of like-minded people, and then once we’re in those coalitions, we compete for status within those groups, we want to raise in status and be thought of as a kind of above average member of that group.
But then also those groups compete with other groups for status, so if we’re playing in a soccer match, for example, we want to get a reputation as one of the better players on the pitch amongst our team players, but we’re also trying to beat the other team. We’re connecting into games and then competing for status within them and with other kinda games, if you think about that, that’s sports, that’s politics, that’s religion, that’s hobby groups, that’s groups on social media. The kind of infinite games that we play and as I said before, we can use anything to symbolize status and as you say, lots of the people just assume you mean money, but money is only one way that we play the status game. There are lots of other ways that we can play the game, it’s just about anything that makes us feel that we are of value in the eyes of other people.
Brett McKay: Alright, so just to be… We’re hardwired for status, the reason is ’cause it serves a benefit to us, the higher status you get, the more access to resources, reproduction and you get to mate and then even as a group, group status that also… The whole group gets those benefits as well, but let’s talk about these… Dig in deep into how we can gain status, and you mentioned some of them earlier on, sort of the primal way of… Well there’s a couple of ways, there’s one type of status, it’s called embodied status, where it’s just basically, you gain status because of some feature you have physically. So, whether you’re young or old, young people typically get more status in our culture these days, if you’re attractive you have more status and things like that, but then there’s things that people can do to gain status and the most primal way to gain status is dominance. Let’s talk about dominant status, What does that look like? Is it just a matter of beating people up physically or there are other ways to display dominance without physical altercation?
Will Storr: Dominance isn’t just about violence and the threat of violence it’s also… It’s any kind of threat, so any time when someone’s kind of forcing or coercing you to attend to them in status and sort of give them respect that you don’t really want to give them, that’s dominance. Obviously, when you think of dominance, you think of the more masculine qualities, it tends to be one-on-one, face-to-face and physical aggression. Again, we’ve been doing that for millions of years before we were recognizably human. We were much bigger, had much heavier skeletons, we were much more physically powerful. We’re basically built for dominance disputes. Even today, millions of years later, men still are bigger and you can still see the traces of that kind of extremely violent life that we used to live millions of years ago, in the human skeleton and in human psychology and male psychology, but that isn’t the only way to use the sort of dominance to compete for status, things like ostracization, bullying, reputation destruction, they’re also forms of dominance.
And what you tend to find is, especially in children and in young adults, that plays out quite clearly, in that young males are much more likely to use physical aggression one-on-one to sort of compete in dominance disputes and young females are more likely to use that kind of bullying, the group ganging up from somebody else, the gossiping, the reputation destruction, that’s more kind of female typical. But then when the men grow up, because usually when men get beyond, I don’t know, mid-20s, late 20s, they’re much less likely to use violence or the threat of it and that kind of levels out and everybody just starts using these more reputation-based forms of dominance.
Brett McKay: Okay, so men are more prone to use physical violence, threats of intimidation…
Will Storr: Yeah.
Brett McKay: Young women… Sort of that reputational stuff… Like that mean girl stuff that…
Will Storr: Yeah exactly.
Brett McKay: The mean girl from the movie that you highlighted… When are we more likely to use dominance, ’cause we all use this at some point, like as a parent, you might be like, “Well, you’re gonna get your iPad taken away from,” but when do adults use that with each other, when do they use that strategy for status?
Will Storr: There are lots of ways that we kinda have to use dominance, in war we use dominance, when Apple computer sues a rival for patent infringement, that’s a dominance thing, that’s a force thing, but we’re most likely to tip into those kind of modes of behavior. And you’re right, we all do it every day, even when we’re growling at somebody in the supermarket check-out queue who’s upset us, we’re using… That’s a kind of form of dominance. It’s most likely to happen when the relative status of the people in the dispute are unclear. So in the book I talk about this woman who had an encounter with two police officers and the police officers had pulled her kid over and I think the car wasn’t insured or something like this, but she kind of marched up to them and started berating them and insulting them, and it turns out that she was high up in the police hierarchy, and she, of course, thought this made her the senior ranking person in the dispute and that they should defer to her.
But as far as they were concerned, she was just there to pick up the kid and it was irrelevant what her job was. And so there was this dispute about who actually had the right to behave as if they were higher status. The dispute ended up badly for the woman. I think she ended up having to resign her job, because they filmed the dispute and it ended up on the internet, and it didn’t reflect very well on her. But yeah, so it’s in disputes where the relative ranking of the people involved are a bit murky, a bit ambiguous, like the most obvious example is, if you can imagine going into a new company as the boss, but you’re 29 and you’re going in to manage people who have been there for years, and they’re in their 40s and 50s, it is ambiguous there, because they’re gonna look at you as this kid, “Who are you to boss me around?” But the kid is the boss, so the kid is there to boss them around, so it’s that situation that really is very dangerous in human relations.
Brett McKay: Well it happens in animals too, with wolves, for a long time, we thought that the alpha wolf was the wolf that just beats up on the other wolves, but that observation was made by looking at wolves in captivity, so what they did is they got a bunch of wolves, random wolves from not the same pack, put them in captivity and they saw, well, this wolf beat up all the other wolves, and so he’s the alpha wolf. Okay, so alpha wolf is the guy that beats up everybody, but then they actually started observing wolf packs in the wild, and what they found, that doesn’t happen. The alpha wolf are just like the parent wolves and their cubs are in their packs, so in the natural setting, the status hierarchy is established. The parents are the top dogs, so in that sense, wolves don’t rely on dominance, they just… You follow mom and dad, you do what they do. But in captivity, when you put wolves from different packs together, that’s when all the fighting happens.
Will Storr: Wow, that’s fascinating. Yeah, that’s fascinating.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Okay, so dominant status, we go to that with threats whenever we’re not sure about the status in a situation, you mentioned there’s prestige status, and there’s two ways you can get prestige status, there’s virtue and success status. What does virtue status look like?
Will Storr: Where this comes from is when we started to be these kind of weird apes who are highly, highly cooperative. And humans back then, like humans are today, really, we can be really nice, but we can also be very selfish, self-interested, hypocritical, delusional about our moral capacity. So how does evolution get these slightly selfish, self-interested, delusional apes to work together and cooperate and think about other people, so this is the way you have to develop this reward system for rewarding tribal members for behavior that puts the interest of the tribe ahead of their own selfish interests. So that’s why selfless behaviors are universally seen to be morally good behaviors and selfish behaviors are universally seen as really bad behaviors, ’cause it’s all about incentivizing us to be good members of the tribe, so anything that is pro-tribe, selfless, is virtuous. And so that could be, as I said, generosity, sharing your meat and resources, you being courageous in battle, but also things about conformity, so knowing the rules, following the rules, taking part in all the rituals and taking part in them really well, that’s gonna gain you status in the tribe, because you’re a virtuous, tribe-first minded person, you’re not selfish, you’re selfless. And also enforcing the rules, so somebody that enforces the rules and punishes rule breakers, that’s also seen as a virtuous act, so that’s when it gets into slight dodgy territory.
And the other one is competence is success, so that’s an obvious other way of being useful to the tribe, so that’s just by being just skilled, by being a great honey finder, a great storyteller, a great hunter, and so those are the three essential ways in human social life that we can earn status, there’s dominance, but there’s also virtue and success.
Brett McKay: May we see the benefits, if we have the status-driver, that compels us to be a good person, and it can compel us to be competent and become skilled at something, but this can also take us down dark paths and the first way this can happen is when someone feels humiliated. So humiliation is the opposite of status, it’s the complete opposite, what happens to us?
Will Storr: This was a really interesting thing when I was trying to work out whether it was right what I was reading about status, whether it is really important, and the test that I set myself was, “Okay, if you’re gonna argue that status is so important, it must be really bad when it’s taken away from us.” And so I started looking into that and I came across all the research literature on humiliation and how they define humiliation is, is not just the removal of all your status from the group, it’s also the removal of your ability to claim status in the future, so you’ve fallen so far down the game that you’re out, you’re basically expelled, nobody wants to have anything to do with you forever. So it’s really bad. Again, it’s a universal thing, which also shows how important status is. Nobody wants to be humiliated, we all fear humiliation.
Humiliation is the basis of the absolute worst of human behavior. Most obviously, human violence, there’s a violence researcher that I quote in the book that said when he got into studying violence, he just assumed, like most people do, that the major causes of street crime are greed and need. People are starving or they greedy and they rob people, but when he actually met these people and spoke to these people for years, the most common reason is status disputes. People feel disrespected so they fight back with dominance and in doing so, humiliation flips into pride, a real driver of the cycle of violence that you see on the streets because everybody’s trying to flip that sense of humiliation into pride, and it goes on and on and on. The thing, when you look at the kind of wider story, humiliation is implicated in the absolute worst of the worst of the worst of human behavior. And in the book, I talk about incel spree killers, terrorists, serial killers, spies, honor killings, all of which often have… Very often have a series of components of humiliation that kinda motivates them.
Brett McKay: Yeah, you highlight Elliot Rogers, the kid who did the mass shooting. You did a deep dive into him, did these manifestos, and it just sounds like the… He just felt humiliated. Well, first off… It sounds like he probably had some sort of narcissistic personality disorder, which made him more vulnerable to humiliation, but if you look through, he just had all these grievances and that’s why he felt justified at what he did.
Will Storr: Yeah, he’s a really fascinating case, and so I kinda build this argument in that chapter, that it isn’t just humiliation that makes people dangerous, but the most dangerous people are A, male for reasons we’ve already discussed ’cause men tend to be violent. B, humiliated, but C, also narcissistic ’cause if you are kinda grandiose and narcissistic, you are dysfunctional in the way that you imagine the status game. You feel that you are just naturally and automatically deserving of lots of status and this is not… This is sort of disconnected from your behavior. It’s not about earning it, you just earn it because you’re amazing. And so it’s a very unhealthy way of living your life, and if you take a male narcissist and you humiliate them again and again and again and again, you’re gonna end up with a very… Probably with an extremely dangerous person and Elliot Rodgers was definitely one of these people.
What was interesting about Elliot was that he left this 108,000 word… It’s actually an autobiography, this very detailed memoir. It’s full of moments of extreme narcissism, descriptions of himself. He’s a gorgeous, fabulous gentleman, things like this, but he’s also brutally honest about his failures and brutally honest about his sense of humiliation, at the hands of his peers, the bullying he encountered, and the only way that he… His only kinda source of status in his life was World of Warcraft, and such was his need for status that he became obsessed with World of Warcraft and ended up reaching its top level. He became a really skilled player, and he says it in the memoir that it was only when he was playing World of Warcraft that all his troubles with… His social troubles receded and he forgot all about that and he was happy.
And then one day, he had this kinda small circle of friends that he would play World of Warcraft with at this internet cafe, and one day he discovered somehow, they were all meeting up in secret behind his back, because they didn’t really wanna play with him, and of course this was devastating to him. He talks about playing with tears running down his face and that was the last day he played seriously. In his memoir that’s the day where he just… He just has these thoughts become just extraordinarily disordered and he starts imagining this dark future world in which sex is abolished and all the women are wiped out and so on. In the book, I argue that after his spree killing, lots of commentators on the left and the right blamed World of Warcraft and said, “Well, it must be World of Warcraft that made him violent.” But I actually think that World of Warcraft was the last thing keeping him sane, because it was his last source of status that he had and it was taken from him and that’s when he really cracked up.
Brett McKay: Right, so humiliation is the most extreme form of status defeat and it can… And in certain situations it can lead people to do terrible things, but we all experience, maybe not humiliation, but just status defeat on a daily basis and I imagine if you look back on your behavior, when you felt you weren’t proud of the way you behaved it was probably, because it was a reaction to a status defeat of some sort. Whether you got snippy with somebody or you lashed out online at somebody, there might have been… You might have just been having a bad day ’cause the boss yelled at you or something like that.
Will Storr: Yeah, I think that’s right. We respond in dominance all the time when things like that happen, it affects our mental health too. I mean lots and lots of cases of depression and even suicide are implicated in the sense that you’ve either declined in status or the people around you have accelerated in status and you stayed behind. And in suicidality it’s particularly… You would become particularly vulnerable to that kind of suicidal thoughts when we have a very sudden drop in status.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for you, word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. Okay. So throughout the conversation so far, we have mentioned social media in passing and its role that it plays in status games, but I wanna dig deeper into it, because I think anyone who has a social media account has experienced firsthand how social media can ratchet up status anxiety. You post a picture on Instagram and then you’re just… The rest of the day you’re checking how many likes did it get. What are people saying. Or you tweet something, then you’re checking how many retweets did it get. So walk us through that. How does social media intensify the status games that we play?
Will Storr: Yeah, totally. I mean all of social media… It’s a status game and I think what’s happened to the social media giants and designers have by kind of, instincts and trial and error, form their platforms around our need for status. If you think about those three games that we play, dominance, virtue and success, that is social media. Dominance with the kinda cancel culture, and the mobby kind of behavior. Success, all the pictures of the lovely holidays and, “I’ve won this award and I’ve got this new job.” And virtue of course, I’ve done this amazing thing, enforcing the rules, showing off about the marathon you’ve just run for breast cancer. And the interesting thing about it is… Lots of people are aware of some of the dark technology that runs social media and this idea that it’s a bit like a slot machine ’cause the rewards are unpredictable. So, if you make a contribution to social media, you don’t know how it’s gonna go down. Sometimes you’re gonna… It’s gonna…
You’re gonna get lots of likes, sometimes you’re gonna get none or you might even get attacked. So the rewards are inconsistent, which… And that’s just for… Just like a fruit machine keeps coming back gives this kind of addictive quality. But as I say in the book, I think that’s quite well known amongst technologists that that kind of slot machine effect, but what then it really talks about is what you’re actually gambling with, and it seems clear to me that you’re gambling with status, that’s what you’re doing. When you make any contribution to social media, whether it’s a picture of your holiday, or it’s a kind of witty comment, or it’s an attack on a political opponent, you’re gambling with your status. And sometimes you get loads of status, sometimes you get retweets, and people love it, and you go, “Yeah, that’s brilliant, you’re amazing.” And sometimes it’s a disaster, you either get ignored, which is depressing, or you get attacked, and you feel humiliated.
One of the sort of interesting things about seeing it as this kind of huge global status game that we can play, is that most people have just pretty ordinary lives. And they’re going to work everyday, and they’re a teacher or whatever but if they’re very active on social media, they might well find that they have more status packed into their phones that they’re carrying around in their pocket, than they do in their actual everyday lives. So when they’re in their everyday life, they just, they’re a police officer, or they’re whatever. But when they turn on their phone, they’re this amazing person with all these followers who love them, because they’re funny, or they’re brave, or they’re whatever. And so I think that’s why social media can become such a powerful thing in people’s lives. Because it becomes their kind of essential nutrient for the mind status, just like the vitamins or essential nutrients for the body.
Brett McKay: And that can go down bad places, ’cause people feel terrible, when they post something on social media and it doesn’t do well, or their follower count isn’t going up. And so to remedy that, they start posting increasingly dumb, or cringy things or they start saying inflammatory stuff that makes our politics more polarized, or they might start going after people because they need attention. And they’ll do anything to get another status boost. Related to this idea, at least to the piling on, that you can see happen on social media sometimes. And this is something that happens offline, too. It’s the enforcement of the rules of the status games we play. And you say this can be explained by two archetypes of people who enforce these rules. You call them the cousins and the warriors. So who are these guys? Who are the cousins and warriors?
Will Storr: Again to work out how this stuff works, you’ve got to go back and look at how life was in the tribes that we evolved in because that’s where our brains evolved, and where these instincts and kind of patterns of behavior kind of first emerged. And one of the things that I thought that really surprised me when you look at hunter-gatherer life, was that there wasn’t some sort of Big Man figure in charge who was a big leader, that it was generally much more collaborative leadership in hunter-gatherer tribes, and that’s surprising, because if you look at the world today, there are leaders everywhere, there are political leaders, and the cult of the CEO and the cult of the founder, we go to work and have bosses, that one kind of leader feels like a natural, you got natural and kind of universal facet of human life.
But it wasn’t like that back in the day, the status games that we play, most tribes were much… They were there but they were much reduced. And what would happen is that they were they were kind of a little, like a small group of elders, that researchers, they call them the cousins, and they’re not literally cousins, but that’s just what they call them, and there were these kind of elders. And so what would happen is if somebody dropped in status, because they were behaving badly for whatever reason, the cousins would go away and sort of discuss it and gossip would kind of spread out amongst the tribe. And the cousins would then kind of collaboratively kind of make a decision to enforce the rules of the group. And so, researchers talk about this idea that we weren’t living under the tyranny of leaders, we were living under the tyranny of the cousins.
It was a fearsome, fearsome… Could often be a fearsome, fearsome environment to live in, that one of the quotes from when these researchers was that we lived in this, they call it a social cage of tradition, where it’s all about the rules. So execution, capital punishment was… Is thought to have once been a human universal. So if you really transgress badly, you just be killed. And when you look at some of these groups, isn’t just you can imagine, okay, somebody can be executed if by… For a murderer, if they murdered somebody else, or if, for some really egregious… Other really egregious, aggressive series of crimes. But you could be murdered for all kinds of reasons. One of them was treading on the men’s path through… When you tread on the men’s path, you could be executed. And in the book, I talk about this. There’s a story I got from the ethnographic literature, from a group in Papua New Guinea and what happened was somebody died of sickness in the tribe, but the cousins decided that the person had died due to an act of sorcery.
So that so they did some sort of magic ritual, like smoking leaves to work out who the killer was, and they decided it was this one poor bloke who was accused and sort of panicked, the cousins began talking and gossiping, and the gossip spreads throughout the tribe, and everyone starts talking about all the bad things that this person did and why they’re so awful. And the sense of moral outrage and disgust is kind of focused more and more on this individual. And eventually, he’s just killed and eaten. And that’s what happened to him.
In the book, as you’ll know, I compare that to the kinds of things that we see on social media. Of course, no one has been killed and eaten on social media. But it’s the same dynamics, and it’s the same dynamics because we have these… We still have these tribal brains. The cousins are there on social media and if they target somebody that they feel is transgress the rules of their tribe, then the gossip starts, the gossip spreads down from their kind of lofty heights to all their followers. And it builds and it builds and it builds and it builds and then… But the attack is… It’s about that reputation destruction, that other form of dominance, we also use and, of course, that’s sometimes we call that “cancel culture”, but it certainly, we see that a lot on social media, because it’s human behavior.
Brett McKay: I think that’s a good point you make throughout the book, I think about this idea of… In small groups or in tribes. I think there’s this romantic idea that like, “Oh, they were egalitarian, we should be more like hunter-gatherer tribes,” and like, look, the Potlatch. Look at this big man, he’s giving away all of his stuff, because he’s so generous and noble. But if you actually look at the ethnographic research, a lot of times the researchers find out. No, they’re just giving away, not ’cause they were like, good, but it’s like they were afraid if they don’t, that the cousins would gang up on them and just kill them, because there could be no one higher in the group.
Will Storr: Yeah, that’s right, and also… It’s a status… The problem was a lot of that was about a status. In the book, I talk about a similar idea with these big yams and whoever brought the biggest yam to the feast was declared number one and was… Rose in status. So that’s absolutely right, and also this idea of the egalitarian tribe. The first thing to say about that, is that’s relatively speaking, that they weren’t actually egalitarian, these tribes. Not everybody was equal, there were status hierarchies in there, but they’re just much shallower than we see today, and the second thing that… Just as importantly, is they’re not egalitarian because they’re all sort of communists and they all… Nobody wanted to be the boss, because they’re all so humble and nice. They’re egalitarian, because they’re all obsessed with their own level of status, and everyone is checking everyone else constantly, to make sure that nobody claims too much. So when everybody’s butting heads socially, constantly to make sure nobody rises too much, that’s kind of what you end up with. If you live in an environment where you don’t have property or in a private property or in a land ownership, these kinds of things that can kinda become sources of status. So yeah, there is this myth that we lived in this proto-communist utopia back in the day, and it just isn’t true.
Brett McKay: You mentioned… So there’s the cousins, they’re in the group to sort of enforce the rules, what are the warriors?
Will Storr: Yeah, I talk about the warriors, ’cause again, looking at social media, the cousins are the ones that I guess decide on who he gets punished, the warriors… I talk about these people that go out and attack other members of the tribe, and again, what we see in the tribes from which we evolved. They were pretty violent. The tribes that weren’t particularly violent, tend do be the ones that are isolated and not that near to other tribes, but it’s fairly common for those kinda hunter-gatherer tribes to be extremely territorial, extremely aggressive, and to launch raiding attacks on rival tribes and in turn to have to defend themselves from raiding attacks on their own tribes. And again, you see this in life today, you see it on social media, again, this kind of warrior behavior, which is not so much about enforcing the rules within the group, but going out and attacking members of other groups for perceived attacks on their kind of status, and I think to explain… I sort of need to explain that one way that we measure status is with beliefs, so beliefs could be status symbols.
So, we can believe a million things that have nothing to do with status, like the length of the Mississippi River and the boiling point of water and nobody argues about this stuff, because nobody’s status is attached to it, but there’s a small subset of beliefs that we attach our status to, that when somebody doesn’t believe that thing, we look down our nose at them, and we look up at people, and we admire people who do believe those things. And of course, these are things like political beliefs, moral beliefs, and so every kind of status game has it’s sacred beliefs. And I think what you see in social media is warriors going out to attack people who they feel have insulted the sacred beliefs of their tribe.
Brett McKay: Throughout the book, you mention that status games… There’s all different types of status games going on, there could be a status game within a tribe, within your family, at work, wherever, or on a societal level even, but you talk about that sometimes status games can start to become tight, and that’s when they get more intense. What do you… Why does that happen, and what does a tight status game look like?
Will Storr: So this is based on some really fascinating work, principally by a psychologist called Michele Gelfand, she studies the differences in cultures, rather than groups. And what she finds, and psychologists who study the same thing, what they find is that there are different kinds of culture, some cultures are tight, relatively tight and some cultures relatively loose. Tight cultures tend to be much more conformist, much more suspicious of outsiders, much more kind of religious, much more prone to… In a supernatural belief, they’re kind of rule makers, rule followers. So if you look at things like the time on clocks in public spaces, the entire culture is much more likely to be creative than in loose cultures, the trains run on time more in tight cultures than in loose cultures. So Germany is a relatively tight culture, the UK is relatively loose… And what makes them this way, Gelfand and others believe, is that it’s kind of a history of struggle, difficulty, whether it be climatic difficulty or plagues or wars. If that culture has a history of a very severe kind of shock and stress and pressure, that they tighten up and they kind of remain that way, and I just sort of extended that idea to groups in general, ’cause I think it works for groups in general.
If you think about… The group is the status game, what’s the tightest status game you can possibly play, but that’s a cult. What defines a cult is… The cultists say, “We are your only source of status.” That’s it, you are not allowed any other source of connection or a status anywhere in your life, and that’s why cults want you to cut off contact with your family and friends, and even outside jobs, sometimes, you’re not allowed to have, if you’re a member of a cult. And they offer you a very, very specific set of rules by which to earn status, “You must do this, you must do this, you must do this.” And you must do it exactly. Very often cults even try to litigate over the content of your own head, they tell you what you’re allowed to think and what you’re not allowed to think. So there is an extremely tight status game, and they often offer ridiculously crazy status rewards.
The cult that I look at in detail in the book is The Heaven’s Gate Cult, and the idea there was that if you follow our rules, you can be literally taken away by UFOs and you’re gonna be taken to the level above human, so you’re gonna have such high status, you’re gonna be literally super human. Which, not coincidentally is also what the Nazis and the Communists promised followers of Nazism and Communism. They were gonna become kind of super human people. That’s a really tight group. You can extend that down, you can see… So, if the tightest group possible is a cult, then you can see something like fundamentalist Islamism as not a cult, but not far of a cult. That’s a tight group with really high, crazy promises of high status, very conformist, kinda wild supernatural beliefs, lots of political groups are very tight. Since the global financial crisis, I think the cultures of the West have tightened up. Politics now, in the UK, in the US and in Canada, it’s just a much… They’re much tighter games than they were I would say 15 years ago. People have wilder beliefs, they’re much more conformist, they’re much more angry. So yeah, I think the tightness looseness thing is useful, because it takes it away from, “Oh, it’s all the lefties, it’s all the right wingers, it’s all all the left wingers.” It’s actually everybody, the problem isn’t being left wing or right wing. The problem is of being unhealthily tight.
Brett McKay: Alright, so status is everywhere. And it can take us down some dark places, cause a lot of problems. So some people think, “Well, why don’t we just get rid of status,” you know, make everyone the same, everyone equal, and we won’t have these problems anymore. But as we talked about earlier, the fact that hunter-gatherer tribes, they were very egalitarian, in a sense, that didn’t stop other kinds of status games from going on. And then you also talk about a modern day case study about what happened in Russia during Soviet rule, when they tried that, when they tried to make everyone the same. And it didn’t work out the way they thought it would. So what happened in Russia when they tried to make everyone equal?
Will Storr: Yeah, it was bad, it was really bad. And this was really illuminating for me, because, we’ve all heard, we know what happened in the Soviet Union, it was pretty bad. But actually, when you look at it, from a status perspective, it all starts to make sense. And so the idea, and this was an idea that was sort of bubbling around in the years after the Industrial Revolution, ’cause in the Industrial Revolution, you start to see this kind of… Much more inequality. And these kind of captains of industry hoarding status, and these very badly treated workers being very badly treated. And so this idea of we need to get rid of this, what they imagined was the wealth and property ownership was the cause of our status anxiety, they didn’t understand it was in our brains anyway. So they said, “If we get rid of property ownership, and well ownership of anything, we’ll get rid of status anxiety, and it’ll be a paradise, it’ll be amazing.” But of course, that’s not what happened at all, they got rid of property ownership, and just started playing a different kind of status game.
What amazed me and what I didn’t know, before I did this research was that under Stalin, the Soviet Union did an enormous sort of U-turn, and started actually embracing the status game again, you know, in the times of Lenin, all kind of… They tried to abolish all outward signs of status. So even ranks in the army medals, awards, all that stuff was gone and Stalin brought it all back, because he realized it just wasn’t working. He even insulted people by calling them equality mongers, you’re an equality mongerer. He said, “People want to own a cow, there’s nothing wrong with owning a cow, it’s perfectly normal to own a cow.” They brought back all the awards and all the medals. What you end up with in the Soviet Union is an even more hierarchical world than you had in the West. I mean, one group of sociologists visited the Soviet Union, I think it was in the ’50s. And they said, there were like 12 distinct social classes in the Soviet Union. And the top class really did live like the aristocrats of… Or the Czars of the previous era. They even had servants. They were swept away on holidays on these luxury trains that were full of extraordinary… Full of butter and veal and cigars. So it was entirely hypocritical.
And all they did was just build a new hierarchy, put themselves at the top, which I think is what always happens when people promise utopia, they just build a new hierarchy and put themselves at the top and the old people at the bottom. As I said, the reason it didn’t work is ’cause they just made that fundamental mistake. They thought that wealth and property and ownership caused our status anxiety, but the status anxiety is there anyway, you cannot get rid of it. So no matter what society you try and build, our need for status will always assert itself.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I think, I mean George Orwell talked about that in Animal Farm, right? All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.
Will Storr: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. And it’s… Yeah. And it was brutal. I deliberately didn’t sort of pull any punches in that chapter. And at the same time, the people at the top were… They called them the nomenclature. That the nomenclature would have their servants, being taken by luxury trains, and feasting for their free holidays and their… To their holiday homes. People were literally eating each other alive in gulags and on the kind of prison islands. So it’s really is… It was horrific what happened in the Soviet Union. And it’s a story that we were a bit obsessed with what was was going on in Germany in the middle of the 20th century in the West, and I think the stories from the Soviet Union are just as useful for us to know, and no less horrific.
Brett McKay: Yeah. So I think the lesson there, I mean, I think there’s a book I read that ties into this idea that even as you try to eliminate inequality, like the status game is still there. There’s a book called Envy: A theory of Social Behaviour by this guy named Helmut Schoeck and he makes that case, is you can try to make things equal, but what ends up happening is people just find another status game to play.
Will Storr: Yeah, I think that was one of the takeaways from my book, which I thought was probably quite controversial, but and an inarguable when trying to understand is this idea of equality is a complete myth. We’re never gonna have equality, because people are always gonna wanna be… Getting status is about winning, get being above and you’re never gonna eradicate that from the human animal.
Brett McKay: Yeah, you can just see this with kids, right? Like, you can give your kids the same amount of food, but it looks like the same. But like they’re gonna find a way, “No, he’s got a little bit more.” And we do that you do that even as adults.
Will Storr: Yeah. Yeah. And the fact that these kids, it demonstrates in the book I talk about, you know, some of this stuff. You know, as soon as kids are able to play with toys, they’re arguing about who gets the toy. And it isn’t about the toy. It’s about… ‘Cause the toys is just symbolic, symbolizes status. So it’s there. We’re born with it, and it happens automatically.
Brett McKay: Alright, so if we can’t escape the status game. Unless you’re one of those… A hermit or one of those Japanese hermit dudes who just live in their apartment room. How can we play the status game but in a healthy flourishing way? Have you figured that out?
Will Storr: I try to answer this question in a few ways. I think a basic one that I found useful personally, is this idea that we all too easily slip into dominance, and you know, these little acts of dominance that mark our days you know, when we kind of roll our eyes, send rude emails when we feel that we’ve been slighted. And it’s a much better strategy, I think, to try and use these small moments of prestige, try to make people feel good as much as possible, even though in the short term we might not get our way. Because people love status, if you get a reputation as somebody that is generous with your status, and makes people feel good about themselves, people are gonna wanna be with you, and you’re gonna get lots of status coming back your way. So I think it’s very easy, and it’s in our kind of animal nature, our pre-human nature, to push back with dominance all the time. But I think to mindfully go to prestige is a really useful thing. And I think on a broader level it’s this idea of making sure that we’re playing multiple games at once. I think a really healthy life is one in which there’s several different sources of status. I think you should have a hierarchy of games. The one at the top is your main game and you put lots of attention and care into, because it’s not easy to earn status and get a reputation of being somebody of value.
And you’re gonna have to sort of put some focus into that. But I also think you need to hedge ’cause nobody wants to be in a cult, where they’ve got one source of status and that’s it. And just generally speaking, if the only thing you’ve got in your life is your job, for example, then what happens, as is inevitable, especially as you get older, you become less respected, other people overtake you, things start going wrong, that’s a sort of annihilation of the self. That’s a catastrophe, if that’s your only source of status. You’re gonna end up in a very dark place sort of very quickly. So I think playing this kind of variety of games is a really useful takeaway as well.
Brett McKay: Maybe avoid social media too. What’s your take on that?
Will Storr: I think avoid that kind of virtue dominance behavior on social media. So, A, don’t allow yourself to be triggered by feelings of being slighted on social media, always have that in the back of the head that it’s just my brain… With me [chuckle] It doesn’t matter what this person has said that I don’t agree with. But also it’s about avoiding the kind of virtue play that’s kind of mixed with dominance. So we were aggressively going after people for transgressing our kind of sacred rules. I think that’s the thing to avoid on social media. I’m sure that you can use your social media to your benefit, but if you use it kind of modestly, and carefully, but I think you’re in danger when it becomes your major source of status.
Brett McKay: Okay, so first one, I think the one that give status freely ’cause it’s free and it’s unlimited, it doesn’t cost you anything to say, “Hey, good job on that.”
Will Storr: Yeah.
Brett McKay: And people like that, play multiple status games, so don’t just make your job your only source of status. And then I think also, I think the big takeaway too is just be aware of status, like being aware that there’s a status game going on, and then examine…
Will Storr: Exactly.
Brett McKay: Maybe, I do this all the time, my wife and I, whenever we feel down, we always like, “Maybe there’s like some kind of status thing going on, and maybe I feel like I’m not getting a win.” And that help ’cause other times you feel bad and you’re like, “Why am I feeling bad?” And bringing that status paradigm can… I don’t know, it helps for some weird reason.
Will Storr: Yeah, I think that’s absolutely right, and it’s just that realization. And since writing the book that… It’s so often that I found myself in exactly the situation that you described with your wife, where I’m down, and I’m depressed, it’s like, “What’s wrong with me?” And then you think, “Oh, yeah, I feel bad. This happened today, and I haven’t had a win for ages. And that’s what’s getting me down.” And then as soon as you get a win, since something good happens, you’re just on top of the world again. And once you start noticing it, it’s amazing how much of the kind of ups and downs of your daily mood, I find, are attached to what’s going on in the status games of your life.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I’m sure for an author, you do, probably, checking the Amazon, look at the ranking like, “Oh, did I go up today? Oh, yes.”.
Will Storr: No, I can’t. I learned not to do that after the first book…
Brett McKay: Yeah. [chuckle]
Will Storr: Because it’s agonizing. It is a disaster. So I don’t… I never look at my Amazon. I don’t look at the reviews. I don’t look at the planet ranking ’cause you just get obsessed with it.
Brett McKay: Right.
Will Storr: It just takes over.
Brett McKay: Yeah, you can’t let that happen. Well, Will, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Will Storr: So I’m on Twitter, it’s @wstorr, W-S-T-O double R. Yeah, and my website is just willstorr.com, you can find out a bit more about sort of the various books on there.
Brett McKay: Fantastic, Will Storr, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Will Storr: Thanks, Brett, it’s been a great conversation, thank you.
Brett McKay: My guest, it was Will Storr, he’s the author of The Status Game, it’s available on amazon.com. You can find more information about his work at his website willstorr.com, that’s Storr with two R’s. Also, check out our show notes at aom.is/status, we find links to resources, we delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. Make sure to check out our website at artofmanliness.com, where you can find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles written over the years about pretty much anything you can think of. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com, sign up, use code “manliness” at check-out for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS, and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple podcast and Stitcher. Helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or a family member who you’d think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you to not only listen to AOM podcast but put what you’ve heard into action.