Why do humans care so much about social hierarchies? What are the rules and symbols of status games? What happens when a status game goes wrong?
You might think of yourself as the hero of a story about a traveler on a journey. But in The Status Game, Will Storr says you’re just a player in a game.
Read below for an overview of The Status Game to learn more about how these social games work.
The Status Game by Will Storr
Humans are fundamentally motivated by social status: by the drive to attain it, to gain more of it, to recover it—and, sometimes, to take revenge when we’ve lost it. Status isn’t just about wanting others to like us: We evolved to live in social groups, and to gain the survival advantages conferred by belonging to a group, we need to gain status.
In The Status Game (2021), journalist Will Storr—author of The Science of Storytelling (2020) and Selfie (2019)—writes that our quest for status plays out in the form of a game, often multiple games. In these games, we compete against other people to attain status for ourselves as individuals, and we also compete against other groups of people to elevate our own social groups.
Storr argues that by learning how these games are played, we can understand why we do what we do—and how we can avoid the dangers of games that sell us a simplistic narrative about who we are, what we deserve, and what stands between us and our goals.
What Is a Status Game?
You might not think of yourself as a person who cares about status. Yet Storr writes that not only are you constantly competing for status, but the need for status is wired into your brain. That might not be a flattering picture: We all see ourselves as the hero of our story, and we like to think that we’re defined by what we do, not by our need for others’ approval. But, Storr argues, the basic drive to gain status within our social groups is a product of how humans evolved as a species.
In this section of the guide, we’ll explore how Storr defines status and how the competition for status becomes a game. Then, we’ll outline the types of status games we play and the factors that determine which games we compete in throughout our lives.
What Is Status?
What do we mean when we talk about status? Storr explains that status involves more than being liked or accepted by a group. Instead, he defines status as feeling respected or admired by the people around you. When humans lived in itinerant hunter-gatherer bands, he says, we had an evolutionary motivation to join a social group because it conferred survival advantages. Conversely, a lack of social connection isolated us, leaving us feeling vulnerable and threatening our health and well-being.
Status also gives you something over and above a survival advantage: It helps you find your place within your social group. Storr points out that humans don’t just want to belong to a social group. We also want to rise up the social hierarchy within that group.
How Does Status Become a Game?
The competitive nature of our pursuit of status isn’t the only reason that Storr calls it a game—a status game also has rules and symbols that draw us in and compel us to play along. Next, we’ll take a look at two things that need to happen for status to become a game: We come to rely on rules to structure the status game, and we accept status symbols as a means of assessing our performance in the game.
We Agree on Rules to Structure the Game
When humans band together in a social group, we naturally create stories, which take the form of cultural narratives, ideologies, religions, and systems of morality. These stories serve as rules you have to follow not only to gain acceptance within the group but also to seek the respect and admiration of others.
Storr explains that some of the rules within social groups are ancient and universal (like helping other group members or respecting a leader’s authority). But other rules are culturally specific, particular to their time and place.
Status Symbols Tell Us How We’re Performing
Your brain is wired to seek things that are valuable, including social connection and social status. According to Storr, these value judgments are linked to a “status detection system,” which figures out how you’re performing against other people by looking at status symbols: signals that have an agreed-upon meaning relevant to a person’s social standing.
An obvious status symbol might be the car someone drives or the shoes they wear. But material objects aren’t the only status symbols your brain uses to size up other people. Storr explains that your brain has learned to read social value in people’s appearance, behavior, voice, body language, and facial expressions. Your brain is extraordinarily attentive to these cues because it wants to know where others stand—and how you measure up against them.
When you join a group and accept the rules and symbols of the group’s status game, you naturally internalize its stories and values, meaning that you subconsciously experience your membership in the group as a game. You then play the game to keep gaining more status. This causes you to become invested in upholding the rules and symbols of the game, because your own status depends upon their continued relevance.
What Kinds of Status Games Do We Play?
What form do these status games take? Storr writes that we play three different kinds of status games:
- “Dominance games,” where the people who can exercise the strongest force or instill the most fear come out on top
- “Virtue games,” where the people who can demonstrate the deepest dedication to obeying moral rules or fulfilling their ethical duty gain status
- “Success games,” where the people who achieve extraordinary skill or knowledge ascend the hierarchy
Storr explains that virtue and success games, which he calls “prestige games,” differ from dominance games because they tap into distinct psychological processes. The drive for dominance is ancient, he says, and the evolutionarily newer desire to gain prestige by demonstrating virtue or success hasn’t overwritten that earlier instinct to gain influence by exerting force.
Most games aren’t “pure” games that fall into just one category. Storr writes that for thousands of years, humans have played virtue-dominance games, where people win status by embodying and enforcing the moral principles valued by the group. We might speculate, for example, that in a paleolithic hunter-gatherer band, a person might have gained status by enforcing the rules of a religious ritual or by assigning a punishment to a wrongdoer.
Storr writes that the success game is an evolutionarily newer kind of game than the dominance game. He traces Western cultures’ emphasis on individual success to the medieval breakdown of early Europe’s kin-based social systems into nuclear families. He says that when people began to seek status outside of their kin groups, they began playing success games: joining guilds, attending universities, moving to cities, and building knowledge in science, philosophy, and theology. Success games incentivized people to learn new ideas, and the pursuit of knowledge came with a new kind of prestige. This pushed innovation forward and fostered the development of the scientific method.
What Determines Which Games We Play?
Storr writes that a combination of factors—including the genes we inherit, the environment we experience in childhood, and the people we spend our time with—determines which status games we play throughout our lives.
He points out that developmental changes that take place in the adolescent brain increase our sensitivity to other people’s judgments. These changes motivate us to seek the reward of social approval (and to avoid the pain of social rejection). Around the same time in our lives, we’re initiated into our first status games: often a sports team, a religion, a fraternity or sorority if we go to college, or a military force if we enlist as young adults. As we learn to play our first status games, we learn how to signal our membership in the groups we play them with.
Why Do We Play Status Games?
Storr explains that on a basic level, we play status games because we evolved to do so. But the reasons that we play status games are more numerous and nuanced than that. In this section of the guide, we’ll explore some of the evolutionary, psychological, and social reasons that we play status games.
We Evolved to Compete for Status
Storr explains that early in human evolution, prehumans played dominance games that relied on aggression and violence. Then, as early humans evolved to live together and rely on collaboration to survive, social intelligence became more important than aggression. Members of a group could gain status through a success game by sharing knowledge or skills that could help the group. They could also gain status through a virtue game by demonstrating virtues like courage or generosity, or by exhibiting a commitment to the good of the group.
We Derive Psychological Benefits From Playing Status Games
Storr writes that another reason we play status games is because they meet our fundamental psychological needs—when we succeed in gaining status, that is. Gaining status can help us feel a healthy sense of belonging, and competing for status can also help us make social connections, thus fulfilling a basic psychological need.
Games can also change us as we play them, as when we join a social network and engage with it compulsively to see what rewards get paid out when we post something. When we gain status, we want more. Storr writes that this might be because status isn’t a stable achievement that, once won, is ours permanently: It’s conferred on us by other people who can always take it away. We continually seek more status and believe that having more status will make us happy.
We Learn From Others to Play Status Games
A third reason that we play status games is simply that we learn them from others. Storr writes that beginning with our first status game as adolescents, we engage in a process of social learning to join a group and get the hang of its rules and symbols. Each time we join a group, we follow the same process to learn the game. Because the rules aren’t explicit, we learn to play by watching high-status people and mimicking them. We buy into the game, accepting the validity of its values, rules, and symbols.
Storr writes that just as we learn to play games by watching other people, we also learn to calculate our status by comparing ourselves with others. We feel jealous of other people’s success, particularly when we observe that there’s extensive inequality between the top of the hierarchy and the bottom. That occurs in part because we want not just to receive a reward, but to receive a reward that’s bigger or better than what others have.
In the process of learning how to play a particular game, the game changes us. That can be a good thing, if we gain social connections and gain status by exercising skill or creating knowledge. But it can also hurt us and those around us if we fall prey to some of the more insidious effects of status games, which we’ll explore next.
What Happens When Status Games Go Wrong?
Storr writes that a status game is successful when it generates status for its members and for the group as a whole. Though we have plenty of reasons to play status games and we derive benefit from these games, they have a dark side. In this section of the guide, we’ll look at the ways that status games can go wrong and the consequences that follow.
Status Games Induce Feelings of Grandiosity—and Humiliation
One way that a status game can go wrong is by producing a dangerous mix of emotions in its players. Storr explains that a natural consequence of status games is that the competition induces a sense of grandiosity, or exaggerated self-regard, in the game’s players. However, if the game fails to reward us in the way we expected, or we gain status and then lose it, our sense of grandiosity turns into humiliation, or a loss of pride or self-respect.
On an individual level, humiliation can result in poor mental health outcomes like depression, anxiety, and even suicidal ideation. When the humiliation is damaging enough, it can prompt us to react with rage and violence. The consequences can be dangerous: Storr writes that in extreme cases, a history of repeated humiliation is linked to violent crimes. For example, as a student at Harvard, Ted Kaczynski joined a psychological experiment where every week for three years an experimenter verbally abused and humiliated him. Kaczynski later carried out terror attacks with homemade bombs and became known as the “Unabomber.”
Storr writes that sometimes, it’s not just an individual but a group of people who lose status or don’t receive the status they feel that they’ve earned. When this happens, they may band together to overthrow the people at the top of the hierarchy.
Status Games Can Make People Believe Almost Anything
A second consequence of our drive to gain status is that a game can make us believe almost anything, even something irrational. In games where people earn status by believing in an idea, then the belief itself becomes a status symbol. The people who have adopted the idea come to view it as a core part of their identity. An example is the theory that childhood vaccinations cause autism: Storr describes how, when well-intentioned parents believe misinformation about vaccines and reject immunizations for their children, some become so invested in groups that spread anti-vaccination messages that these groups become core to their identity.
Storr explains that when a game becomes too conformist, it becomes something like a cult, a group that requires people to show complete obedience with their behaviors and their beliefs. In games that require conformity, players gain status by proving their dedication to the group’s belief. As people see others attaining status within the group, they join and adopt the belief, which becomes part of their identity. In this way, even extreme ideas grow in popularity.
Status Games Produce Hostility and Enmity
A third way that status games go wrong is when the natural rivalry between groups becomes too extreme and prejudices us against members of a rival group. We naturally find it uncomfortable to encounter someone whose beliefs contradict ours. But this becomes dangerous when we decide that people who believe differently than we do aren’t just wrong, but morally wrong and therefore evil.
When hostility between groups occurs, we often cease to see members of other groups as unique individuals. Storr explains that instead, we see them as a homogenous group, one that threatens our values and beliefs just by existing and by following different rules than we do. We may even feel justified in attacking others whose beliefs are different from others. This hostility between groups unites people within each group, reinforcing the narrative that group members are heroes fighting for a noble cause and that people outside the group are villains.
Status Games Incentivize Conformity and Prime People to Engage in Tyranny
A fourth danger occurs when the game becomes tyranny: when it becomes oppressive in its control, coercing people to follow its rules and refusing to tolerate those who don’t comply. Storr characterizes tyranny as one of the greatest dangers of status games because it distorts our perception of reality. This particular form of tyranny isn’t one enacted by a single leader: Instead, it’s a “tyranny of cousins,” where the members of the group enforce conformity, sometimes brutally. He says we all have the capacity for tyranny (like when we “cancel” people online for acting in a way that contradicts our beliefs). But by incentivizing us to participate in its cruelty, a tyrannical game clouds our judgment and can lead us to make unethical decisions.
However, Storr warns, conforming with the group doesn’t always keep us safe. When a game gets more strict and more focused on its rules, even ingroup members come under suspicion. Some people become more strict as the game does. Others lose their faith in the game, but enforce its rules to perform a loyalty that they no longer feel. As people’s doubts about the group grow, they become suspicious of others. The game can then turn into a “witch hunt,” where members hunt down players who are insufficiently loyal to the game.
Status Games Make Evil Seem Virtuous
A fifth way in which status games go wrong happens when a game metes out brutal consequences for a rival group that it considers its enemy. When a group playing a virtue-dominance game feels it’s under threat by another group, it feels justified in demonizing its enemies and destroying lives to protect its status. Because the group maintains a steadfast belief in its own morality, its members become so invested in the narrative of their own heroism that they experience what Storr calls “toxic morality.” These groups are then primed to commit acts of violence, such as colonialism and genocide, and to perceive these acts as virtuous.
For example, Storr writes, after the First World War, Germany lost its status as one of Europe’s great powers. Many Germans accepted the narrative that Jews were responsible for Germany’s loss and humiliation, but they focused less on Adolf Hitler’s message of antisemitism and more on his promises that the Nazi party could restore Germany’s status. Once the majority of Germans became invested in the Nazi party by virtue of the rewards (the status) they gained by participating, then its rules and beliefs could become more extreme, leading to the Holocaust.
Status Games Perpetuate Injustice
Finally, a sixth consequence of status games gone wrong is the inequality they create or perpetuate. Some people have a lot of status, some have very little, and everyone wants more than what they have. Storr explains that while we think that we want equality, status games all but guarantee that what we really want is to gain more status and a higher place in the hierarchy. Status games also create the problem of an elite class, which always exists even if the game’s structure undergoes monumental change, like when a political system changes.
According to Storr, people have long been attracted to the idea of a system that does away with inequality by eradicating the idea of personal property and wealth: a society where everything is shared and people live and work together. The problem is that the human desire to be more and have more than our neighbors is deeper, and older, than our systems of private property and wealth. (This, he says, is why Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin’s Communist Party didn’t create an equal society without hierarchy, but instead produced new classes and privileges.) Storr notes that it’s impossible to eradicate our desire to have more status than our neighbors. It’s part of us, and we have to find productive rather than destructive ways to channel it.
How Can We Play Status Games Without Getting Hurt?
Though it sounds wise to opt out of playing status games, given the above risks, it’s impossible to disengage from them completely. But Storr writes that it’s possible to protect ourselves from the dangers of status games. In this section of the guide, we’ll explore the principles that Storr recommends following in order to play status games without getting hurt.
Play Healthy Games—and Keep Your Priorities Straight
One way to avoid the dangers of status games is to play the right games. According to Storr, we need to play success games (games of skills or knowledge), not virtue games or dominance games. He also recommends picking games with small group sizes, since these may be less competitive and more collaborative. Healthy games may also have shallow social hierarchies, without much inequality. For example, you might feel happier joining a supportive local running group than competing in a high-profile marathon that thousands of people enter every year.
Storr explains that it’s also wise to play multiple games to avoid having too much of your identity and status wrapped up in a single game. He recommends constructing a hierarchy of the games you play so you know where to invest your time and effort. For example, you might determine that your career is one of the most important games you play, but realize that being an active and valued member of a community—whether it’s your neighborhood association, a writers’ group, or your local LGBTQ community—is just as important to you.
Storr also advises against indulging the natural tendency to hate people who play different games than you. For example, this might look like taking a step back from judging people who belong to the opposing political party as ignorant, wrong, or evil. You can also recognize that the moral principles you’ve accepted as part of the games you play are not universal. Even when you think that someone is doing something that’s morally wrong, Storr recommends cultivating empathy for them, trying to understand their perspective, and recognizing that they’re also playing a game and making tradeoffs to play it.
Focus on Making a Positive Impression
Next, when you’re looking to gain status, it can also help to pay attention to how you’re going about trying to get people to respect you. Storr recommends that rather than seizing status by force, you can make it more likely that other people will award you status by communicating in ways that make a positive impression, using the qualities of warmth, sincerity, and competence.
Other ways to make a positive impression involve demonstrating your respect for other people and their competence and agency (rather than indulging the tendency to compete with them or dominate them) and choosing to be a nonconformist. Being original can offer a healthier path to success than trying to be perfect. For example, you might start your own business rather than playing by the rules of an established corporation to gain status in your career.
Remind Yourself That You’re Playing a Game
Finally, Storr notes that you can avoid many of the dangers of status games by simply remembering that it’s all a game: You’re not really a hero in a story, but are actually a player in a game. Storr writes that by staying aware of the games you’re playing and the rules you’re playing by, you can remind yourself to make more rational choices about what stories you accept and how you want to live your life.