How Status Drives Humanity: A Conversation with Will Storr.

For centuries, philosophers and scholars have described human behaviour in terms of sex, power and money. In his new book, The Status Game, bestselling author Will Storr radically turns this thinking on its head by arguing that it is our irrepressible craving for status that ultimately defines who we are.

From the era of the hunter-gatherer to today, when we exist as workers in the globalised economy and citizens of online worlds, the need for status has always been wired into us. A wealth of research shows that how much of it we possess dramatically affects not only our happiness and wellbeing but also our physical health – and without sufficient status, we become more ill, and live shorter lives. It’s an unconscious obsession that drives the best and worst of us: our innovation, arts and civilisation as well as our murders, wars and genocides. But why is status such an all-consuming prize? What happens if it’s taken away from us? And how can our unquenchable thirst for it explain cults, moral panics, conspiracy theories, the rise of social media and the ‘culture wars’ of today?

In this interview, I speak to Will Storr on the profoundly important role of status in human society. We discuss how we are all driven, and influenced by status, the status-games wired into us and how understanding the psychology of status can change how we see others, and ourselves.

Q: What is the role of status in our lives?

[Will Storr]: Status, I believe, is intrinsic to our very being it’s at the core of who we are. This quest for status isn’t a novel aspect of human behaviour—it’s a pursuit that predates our very existence as humans. In the animal kingdom, status is a battleground, with higher status typically translating to greater access to resources. Humans, too, are engaged in this constant competition for status, albeit through more complex and nuanced means. While animals might assert their status through direct dominance and physical altercations, human endeavours for status often manifest in the pursuit of prestige. We seek acknowledgment for our achievements, our virtues, our capacity to be competent, respectable, and virtuous individuals. This pursuit isn’t just a facet of our lives; it essentially narrates the story of human existence. The significance of status, of being esteemed and recognised in these respects, cannot be overstated—it’s profoundly and fundamentally important to us.

Q: Why do we deny the importance of seeking status?

[Will Storr]: We’re constantly surrounded by displays of status. Take, for example, my Catholic upbringing: priests are elevated, adorned with grand hats, golden goblets, and we address them as ‘Father’ while bowing in respect. This hierarchy of status is not exclusive to any one belief system: it’s pervasive, even in practices like Buddhism. Yet, despite the omnipresence of status seeking, there’s a reluctance to acknowledge this pursuit within us. This irony stems from our deep-seated interest in our own status.

In the small, closely-knit groups of our ancestors, everyone was vying for their place, leading to a culture where everyone vigilantly monitored each other’s status. This is a common trait across human hunter-gatherer societies, where individuals often downplay their achievements in a display of humility. For instance, a successful hunter might return, downplaying their catch with a modest ‘I didn’t get anything,’ only to suggest checking outside for something ‘possibly worth cooking.’ This intricate dance around status, rooted in our evolution, reveals our complex relationship with reputation management. It often involves, to some extent, a distortion of our motives and selves. Interestingly, evolutionary psychologists suggest that one of the most effective ways to manage our reputation is by believing our own distortions. Our brains are adept at concealing our motives from ourselves, convincing us that we are not as interested in status as we might actually be. This self-deception, paradoxically, enhances our ability to argue our lack of interest in status, which, in turn, can ironically increase our standing within the social group. People are drawn to this perceived humility, further entrenching the intricate and ironic dance of status within human society.

Q: How is social (and digital) media changing our relationship to status?

[Will Storr]: I don’t believe social media has transformed the essence of our social dynamics; rather, it has introduced a novel arena for the age-old status games we’ve always played. Human social interactions are fundamentally structured around three types of status games: dominance, virtue, and competence. Dominance involves asserting power over others, not solely through physical means but also through social mechanisms like ostracization or what’s now known as cancel culture. Virtue status revolves around the display of one’s moral beliefs, often leading to policing others’ beliefs, which can turn toxic when it involves condemning differing perspectives. Competence status, on the other hand, is about showcasing one’s skills and achievements.

Social media hasn’t changed these games; it’s merely provided a new platform for them. It’s a space where we exhibit dominance, flaunt our virtue, and celebrate our successes. The phenomenon of connecting billions globally has essentially amplified these ancient status contests. Particularly on the virtue front, social media has made acquiring status seemingly effortless. Dominance requires boldness and risk, as it invites pushback. Competence demands genuine skill and the ability to stand out. Virtue status, however, is comparatively accessible, especially within the realms of social media. A simple tweet or post challenging someone’s belief—especially one that you hold sacred and derive status from—can instantly elevate your perceived moral standing among peers.

This ease of gaining virtue status on social media, coupled with our innate desire for status, explains the platform’s toxicity. We’re drawn to the simplest form of status acquisition, and social media facilitates this with minimal effort, creating a cycle of virtue signalling that feeds our need for recognition and approval. This dynamic is a significant factor behind the increasingly polarised and hostile environment we witness online.

Q: What is the role of storytelling in status?

[Will Storr]: …what stands out in the tapestry of human behaviour is our identity as storytelling beings, inherently non-rational, often organising our societies around peculiar beliefs. Hunter-gatherer tribes, for instance, held beliefs that could lead to severe consequences, such as a woman facing execution for merely stepping on a path deemed sacred to men. Anthropologists have highlighted how we’ve evolved within what they term a “social cage” – a set of rigid rules and beliefs adherence to which determines our belonging to a group. This deep concern over the shared beliefs of our tribe and whether we align with these beliefs has always been pivotal in defining our membership within these communities.

Today, we still see status games intricately tied to belief systems. Religion serves as a prime example. Belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, for instance, is a ticket into the status game of the Catholic Church. However, to gain status within such a community, one must not only believe but also embody and enact this belief, allowing it to influence behaviour and dictate interactions with the world. Furthermore, this involves monitoring and sometimes policing the beliefs and behaviours of others.

In my book, I discuss the journey of someone who delved into the anti-vax movement, discovering that merely accepting the belief in a pharmaceutical conspiracy against vaccination granted her entry into this group. Yet, to ascend in status, actions aligned with these beliefs were necessary – choosing not to vaccinate her child, confronting her doctor, and then sharing these experiences on social media to enforce the group’s ideology. Thus, embracing what I call “active belief” – a belief that not only exists in the mind but is demonstrated through actions and the policing of others’ beliefs – becomes a potent means to achieve status within these belief-based communities.

Q: What can we learn about how status is manipulated?

[Will Storr]: This vulnerability we have is like a crack in the human psyche, a gateway through which madness seeps in. The human brain isn’t primarily focused on discerning truth. Instead, it’s preoccupied with understanding who to align with and what beliefs to adopt to secure connection and status within a given culture. This predisposition leaves us susceptible to adopting beliefs that elevate our status and make us feel good about ourselves, all while garnering approval from our peers as a ‘good person.’

Observing cultural shifts over the decades reveals much about this phenomenon. Speaking from personal experience, as a middle-aged man, I’ve witnessed the ebb and flow of societal beliefs. In my younger years, the prevailing ideology was centre-left, Blairite, which I still adhere to. However, I find myself somewhat left behind by the radical shift towards a new progressive left ideology among the younger generation. It’s not so much that people have changed, but rather the ‘status game’ has evolved, demanding new beliefs to be considered acceptable within the culture.

Taking a historical perspective, consider Hitler’s regime. Despite the horror and the universally acknowledged evil of his actions, it’s crucial to recognise his success in manipulating the status game. He was, without a doubt, one of the most successful leaders of the 20th century, not merely because he promised status – a common trait among successful leaders – but because he delivered it. Under his governance in the 1930s, Germany saw remarkable economic recovery, going from one-third of the population unemployed to achieving full employment by 1939. He managed to overturn the humiliations of the Treaty of Versailles with minimal resistance from Western powers, significantly restoring Germany’s status as a continental leader. This dramatic reversal, after the devastations of World War I and the Treaty of Versailles, won him fervent support. His promise to restore Germany’s prestige was fulfilled, though, of course, his aggressive expansionist policies led to disaster. This illustrates why he garnered such widespread support: he tapped into the collective desire for status restoration, proving once again how potent and potentially perilous the pursuit of status can be within the human psyche.

Q: how should we better understand these status games in life?

[Will Storr]: Delving into the nuances of status revealed to me the necessity of engaging in a variety of status games. I’ve come to understand, particularly through my own experiences, the vulnerability inherent in dedicating oneself singularly to one pursuit. My own journey as a writer, coupled with the absence of parental responsibilities—which introduces a different set of status dynamics—highlighted this vulnerability. Hence, the wisdom in diversifying one’s status pursuits becomes apparent. This realisation led me to volunteer with the Samaritans, a decision that has been incredibly fulfilling.

In my interactions at the Samaritans, I’ve encountered a recurring theme: many individuals grappling with suicidal thoughts are often trying to navigate through what feels like an irreversible loss of status and the deep-seated need for connection and belonging. This insight underscores the profound impact that a perceived loss in these areas can have on an individual’s well-being.

As we age, the importance of spreading our investments across multiple status games grows exponentially. In your 20s, it might make strategic sense to laser-focus on a single arena, given the challenge of establishing oneself. However, as one progresses into their 30s and beyond, it’s strategically advantageous to diversify one’s sources of status. This approach becomes even more crucial past the age of 45 and into the 50s. As the physical and possibly professional peaks begin to wane, having all your eggs in one basket can lead to profound distress. We see this scenario unfold quite dramatically among celebrities. Once the spotlight dims, the loss of what they’ve built and identified with can lead to significant personal turmoil. Thus, embracing a multiplicity of avenues for achieving and maintaining status is not just a strategy but a safeguard against the inevitable shifts and declines in any single domain of life.

Q: How do we avoid getting caught up in the more extreme aspects of chasing status in our own lives?

[Will Storr]: We often fall into a trap, a by-product of our Western, highly individualistic, neoliberal market society, where we mistakenly equate status solely with wealth and fame. This equation of status is a relatively modern and Western-centric view, though it has increasingly permeated global perspectives. However, from an evolutionary standpoint, status is fundamentally about being recognised for contributing value to the human collective. In the smaller tribal communities of our ancestors, where daily life revolved around interactions with approximately 35-50 individuals, earning a reputation as someone valuable could have been as straightforward as being adept at gathering sweet potatoes or locating honey. The essence of status was about the utility and contribution one could bring to the group.

It’s crucial to remember that status isn’t confined to financial success or social media recognition. The avenues for gaining status are boundless. My personal experience with volunteering, particularly with the Samaritans, underscored this realisation. Assisting individuals during their darkest moments serves as a profound way to contribute meaningfully to the collective human experience. This act of service is a clear demonstration of offering value, which at its core, is what status truly represents.

Achieving various forms of status is not as daunting a task as it might seem; it primarily requires effort and a shift in perspective. By broadening our understanding of what constitutes value and contribution, we can appreciate the myriad ways in which we can attain and perceive status beyond the narrow confines of wealth and fame.

Q: Do we need to follow high status (or perceived high status) individuals for our own psychology and well-being, it seems we can’t stop!?

[Will Storr]: Joseph Henrich has delved deep into the nuances of status and leadership, revealing that one doesn’t necessarily need to wield power to gain status. Most people, in fact, have a limited appetite for power due to its accompanying burdens of responsibility and hard work, which aren’t universally appealing. Status, therefore, isn’t about occupying the pinnacle of a hierarchy but about being respected and proficient in one’s domain.

This distinction underscores that achieving status doesn’t demand extreme ambition, although it’s natural for some, particularly those driven by their temperaments, to aspire towards high-reaching goals. Evolutionarily, humans are wired to instinctively seek out high-status individuals to emulate. I describe this as the “copy, flatter, conform” mechanism, where we mimic these individuals’ behaviours, preferences, and even speech patterns, transforming ourselves into reflections of them. This imitation extends to offering flattery, a behaviour that persists even in online interactions, evident in the fierce loyalty seen among fan communities like Taylor Swift’s. Conformity follows, as we align our actions with their directives.

The criteria for identifying these high-status individuals involve several cues: similarity, skill, success, and prestige. We’re naturally drawn to those who share our traits, as evolutionary logic suggests we learn more effectively from those resembling us. Skill cues signal proficiency in areas we aspire to excel in, while success cues—like the metaphorical hunter’s necklace of teeth or modern symbols of achievement such as sports cars or diplomas—highlight accomplishments. Prestige cues, signifying widespread attention, suggest that the individual possesses valuable knowledge, making them a focal point for emulation. The aim of this mimicry is to elevate our own status, facilitated by our proximity to these high-status figures and the flattery we extend to gain their favour.

This dynamic is particularly relevant in the self-improvement and business sectors, where figures like Simon Sinek emerge as exemplars of success, encouraging others to follow their lead. These influencers effectively monetise age-old tribal dynamics, packaging and selling ideals of success rooted in our evolutionary drive to play status games and climb social hierarchies.

My aim was to tread carefully and offer a balanced view of the current cultural and political landscape, touching upon both the left and the right. And yes, there seems to be a whirlwind of madness swirling around us, but at its core, it’s all about status. It’s about individuals feeling robbed of their status, lashing out at those they view as adversaries. And so the cycle continues. This perpetual state of conflict is precisely why there’s a common lament that humans are doomed to repeat the same errors, that history is just a looping track. It’s all because we’re ensnared in an endless loop of status games, though they might take on new forms or expressions with each iteration.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.