The Status Game: On Social Position and How We Use It

The Status Game: On Social Position and How We Use It



The Pequod Review:

Will Storr's The Status Game builds on the author's earlier work — namely The Heretics (2013), which argued that intelligent people believe irrational things mostly when they relate to some heroic story we tell of ourselves; and Selfie (2017), which detailed our self-obsessive thoughts — as it argues that much of human activity is driven by a need for status:

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. The game is inside us. It is us. We can't help but play.

Life takes this strange form because of how we've evolved. Like all living organisms, humans are driven to survive and reproduce. As a tribal species, our personal survival has always depended on our being accepted into a supportive community. We've developed powerful emotions that compel us to connect with others: the joy of acceptance and agony of rejection.

Storr's thesis is not entirely original; even Jonathan Haidt's research covers similar ground (and in a bit more rigorous way). But Storr has some good observations:

This is how youthful idealism stales and grows mould... In this and a thousand other ways they'll begin absorbing the lawyer's game. "It is very difficult for a young lawyer immersed in this culture day after day to maintain the values she had as a law student. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, young lawyers change. They begin to admire things they did not admire before, be ashamed of things they were not ashamed of before, find it impossible to live without things they lived without before. Somewhere, somehow, a lawyer changes from a person who gets intense pleasure from being able to buy her first car stereo to a person enraged over a $400,000 bonus."


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. If our need for status is so fundamental, this discomfort we feel towards it may seem surprising. But that's the game. To admit to being motivated by improving our rank is to risk making others think less of us, which loses us rank. Even admitting it to ourselves can make us feel reduced. So our awareness of our desire for status eats itself. We readily recognize it in rivals and even use it as a method of insult -- which, ironically, is status play: an attempt to downgrade others and thereby raise ourselves up.