A Primer on Social Status
Life is Status Games - Ideal Life 11
“Ones Turd smells the same be of Servant or Prince (English Translation)” ― Ricardo Arjona
Your Friends are Obsessed with Social Status
And so are you.
It is human nature.
Everyone everywhere is obsessed with social status
Otherwise they would not be here today. We are the children of generations of status-obsessed people.
And we are obsesessed with social status.
Most human activities are about increasing social status:
Children and teens spending countless hours optimizing their posts and stories on social media.
Everybody else using social media
All fashion acquisitions. The fashion industry itself. This season’s shirts are not better than last season’s shirts in any objective manner. They are better because they provide more status
Most car purchases. People choose their car based on utility, but also based on the status it confers. A BMW is different than a Dacia.
Most home decoration. There is an element of own comfort and practicality. But it is also about the impression it leaves with visitors, aka your status.
Most purchases have status embedded in them. Brands are on one level status-signaling devices. You cannot say you are ‘cool’ because nobody would believe that. But you can say it by wearing an exclusive Supreme shirt, or an expensive Apple Watch/ Rollex.
NFTs. They are status symbols with no practical value (this might change in the future)
Gaming now is multiplayer mostly because of the social status aspect
Choosing the restaurant to eat is difficult because it has a status component. If you go to a low reputation joint, it lowers your status. If you go to a place with too high reputation, it will make you feel you have low status relative to the other customers.
The damn war in Russia is in part a status game. One where one of the most powerful men on Earth believes his status is not high enough without conquering a country of 40 Million people.
Arguments. In most conversations people are exchanging information, but more importantly, they are signaling status. Knowing stuff is high status. Demonstrating you are right and the other person is wrong is superior status. There is an ongoing battle for status in most human interactions.
Business decisions. You would think that companies make decisions uninfluenced by individual social status. But companies’ decisions are made by people. Much about convincing a client to choose your company as a provider of a service is about demonstrating high social status of your people and of the personification of the company. In effect choosing the advertising company for your company has similarities with choosing in car in that one looks at both utility (what it does) and status (what status you think it has).
Adventures, exploration and sports. Part of it is status seeking. Felix Baumgartner gained high status from jumping from space in the Red Bull Stratos project. Kilian Jornet has high status among runners and mountain-lovers. Your friend who runs faster than everyone you know has high status. Or the one who goes on gnarly freeride tours.
Fitness in general. Being the strongest at your gym or box confers high status
Creativity and art. Successful artists have high status.
All professional success creates high status and the drive to succeed often comes from status seeking.
Knowledge and discovery. Finding out new, useful knowledge, improving how we understand the world are noble pursuits. They confer status as well. Becoming a Nobel laureate is very high status. But so is having your work published in a prestigious journal.
Fame. All fame is in fact high social status. The more attention you garner from other people, the higher your status.
Money. It is of course the tally of how many resources you have. More money brings more food, more shelter, more comfort, and so on. But it also brings more status. Rich people have higher status than poor people.
Almost everything we do is about status. Certainly everything in the world now has a social status component.
As much as we chase status now, we are the descendants of humans who were even more obsessed with social status.
Social status was life
Homo Sapiens did not conquer the world because we were smarter or faster or stronger than other animals. We conquered the world because we are more collaborative.
A lone human 100,000 years ago was helpless easy prey. A band of humans was the apex predator of every environment.
This stark difference shaped us. We are the most social of creatures.
No man is an island. - John Donne. Because no man could stand alone in nature. We needed our fellow humans to survive and thrive.
As such we have developed deep social needs.
The first is the need for belonging. This is the fundamental social desire. We crave approval because it means we are part of the group. Rejection is scary because it implies exile. This in turn has been deadly for the overwhelming majority of human history. Our unconscious is terrified of it.
This is also why loneliness is so debilitating. Being alone was a death sentence. Now it can bring about depression and even death as our mind and body might shut down in preparation of the inevitable demise.
The second is the need for social status. It’s not enough to be part of the group. We crave to climb the social ladder. This provided our ancestors with more resources, better reproduction and more security.
But what is this status that humans have sought throughout history?
Status is a complicated concept
On one hand it implies hierarchical relationships.
Kings and bosses have high status. They have power over those with lower status.
Such status seeking is inherently toxic. In a connected world of billions you can never achieve top status so you will also be unhappy. And fighting for it brings about a worldview in which everyone else is the enemy. Bleak.
This hierarchical view seems at odds with our hunter-gatherer ancestors’ egalitarian society. Until the Agricultural Revolution they did not have chiefs or kings. They organized in functional democracies. Each band or tribe made decisions collectively.
This organisation did not come easy.
Natural selection brought it about. Groups which had a chief fared worse than those who were more democratic. This was just the environment and lifestyle of hunter-gatherers, not any moral absolute law.
At the same time natural selection brought about individuals who wanted more power because it brought them more resources. So each human has always tried to establish dominance over others. We want to have more authority than our fellow men.
These two were at odds. And thus hunter-gatherers maintained democracy only by constantly checking each others’ claims to superiority. This explains why they fell into tyranny and inequality along with the Agricultural Revolution.
This brings us to the second connotation of status.
Status means reputation and perceived value to the community
High status means a good reputation. This is how others in the community perceive you. For hunter gatherers this reputation was critical. If you had a good reputation, others treated you well and you had good reproduction opportunities. If you had a bad reputation, you were treated less well and you risked exile.
A bad reputation was deadly. And so we remain obsessed with it.
What was a good reputation?
First of all one of reliability. We value truth-telling and integrity because there were crucial to collaboration. You cannot work well with a liar or a fluke. Now this means problems such as missing deadlines and inconveniences. In the Paleolithic it meant dying of hunger because your hunts went wrong or being torn by a saber-tooth tiger because your unreliable tribe-mate did not scout as they said they did.
Then it’s about the quality of their work. We value high quality work because it helped the tribe survive. A good hunter provided for the whole group, not just himself.
Then it’s about how much this person contributes to the group. A great hunter was useless if he hoarded all his kills. Such a thing would not have been possible anyway because hunter-gatherers had to work together to survive. So now a good reputation is one of someone who helps others and contributes to the good of the community.
This explains the hero archetype. A hero is someone who takes risks for the good of the community. He fights the scary monster. He explores the unknown territory. But then invariably the hero does not hoard the rewards of this risk, but shares them with the group.
Heroes were a big boon to human groups. They could bring benefits with low risk. But what was in it for the hero? Reputation.
Being the hero has high reputation, it confers high status. This was the reward that prompted humans to take such outsized risks. It is also why people of low status have a higher tendency towards heroics in folklore. They had much more to gain and less to lose compared to a king who already had high status.
Is a mix of all these past elements of status:
Power. This comes from money and authority, and fame. We have an unconscious assumption than people with power deserve it although we consciously know that is often not the case in our modern society. So power brings status regardless of how it was obtained.
Attention from others. This is fame, but it deserves a separate mention. Nowadays this is a common path to status. Being an influences, having many likes and views. This is status. In the past you did not get attention unless you had achievements that were impressive and beneficial to the group. Now we divorced these two, but our unconscious still considered fame as an indicator of status.
Perceived expertise. When you are known to be highly proficient in a worthwhile skill. A great surgeon, scientist, artist.
Contribution to the group. This is one aspect of status which has decreased compared to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. We attribute low status to profession that help others: teachers, nurses, social workers. I believe this comes from the fact that status means both power and value to the group. In the high unequal societies that came after the Agricultural Revolution we learn to value power most. These professions are not only about helping others, they also provide little real power. A doctor has higher status than a nurse because we consider we have to do what the doctor says but not the nurse.
On top of this mixing of status, we have almost infinite groups in which to gain it. Do you have high status among your department colleagues? Among your neighbors? Among your family? Among your close friends? Among your high-school former colleagues? Among your followers on Instagram?
The problem with social status now
Mixed meaning of status coupled with infinite groups in which to get it, make status seeking a Sisyphean struggle.
You can never have enough social status if you are chasing it.
Former U.S. President Donald Trump did not seem satisfied with his social status even when he was arguably the most powerful man on the planet.
Vladimir Putin might be the richest person on Earth and the autocratic ruler of a country the size of a continent. Yet he feels his status threatened because he is failing to conquer another country (Ukraine). Some theories suggest this war comes from his perceived humiliation by the United States in the past (such as their intervention in Kosovo). Status anxiety in this case brings about risking World War III.
Influencers have high social status in modern society. Most of them that I have met constantly fret about maintaining and growing it. It’s a constant job for them to produce content that preserves their status.
Scientists are the group of people least interested in status games. Otherwise they would have chosen a different profession. Yet the scientific and academic fields are rife with status seeking. It is a ruthless fight for reputation and status symbols.
If even these high status people cannot be satisfied with their status, how can regular people?
Most people most of the time are not satisfied with their status.
We seek status with our purchases, our social media obsessive scrolling and posting, our unpleasant and difficult conversations that we turn into arguments for social posturing, our stupid wars.
At the same time, we don’t talk about how we are unhappy with our social status. Often we don’t admit it to ourselves. Why? Because being discontent with social status is a signal of low social status. Social status is all about the image you project, so it motivates us to pretend we have high status even when don’t.
How to win the status game
How do you win the status game?
You don’t play it.
This is nice self-help advice. It would be great.
But it’s not possible. Status seeking is inherently human.
We can no more escape status seeking than we can escape having a liver or breathing.
People giving the advice of letting go of status are themselves status seeking by giving this advice.
It’s a way to project an aspirational image. As many other status seeking behaviours, it’s useless.
We cannot help playing the status game. But we can escape being obsessed by it. Below are three strategies to win at the status game by eliminating or reducing status seeking.
1. Multiple sources of status
We develop anxiety about status when it is fragile. This happens when we focus on only one source of status. Such as when you focus your self-worth on your professional role only. Or when you get your validation from your social media persona.
The opposite of this fragility is to have multiple sources of status. This way when one goes badly or plateaus, you have others. You become confident as you always have social validation.
How do you do this? You invest your identity and reputation in multiple roles in your life.
For me some of these are: writing this and developing a model for the ideal life, my professional role, my fitness at the Crossfit box, my fitness in trail running, my skill at skiing, my role in my relationship, my worth as a friend, as son, as a learner about the world.
If I have a bad day at work with failures, I am not devastated because my reputation decreased. I am fine because I still have the other sources of status. This gives me the confidence to take risks, which ironically brings more success than always worrying about protecting my image.
More about diversifying status here.
2. Build a tribe
Modern status seeking is so frustrating also because we try to manage our image in the eyes of so many people. Add up all your friends, colleagues, clients at work, acquaintances, social media followers, random strangers with which you interact each day. It’s a nightmare to manage your image in the minds of so many people. And it’s impossible.
Trying to gain social status in the minds of literally thousands or even millions of people is beyond the human brain. We cannot do it.
What we can do is create and maintain our reputation in the minds of a tribe of people. This protects us from the anxiety of trying to manage our image in the minds of thousands of pseudo-strangers.
What to do:
Find close friends and family and other people with whom you share values. Bring them close. Make time spent with them physically a priority so that it happens every week several times. If you think you don’t have time for this, take it from the time spent on social media and digital entertainment. Watch a movie with them instead of bingeing on Netflix or YouTube or TikTok alone.
Try to get these people to meet each other and become friends as well. The idea is to build a community, a tribe, even if it is small and tenuous.
This way your brain will focus on your image among these close people, among these tribe-mates. Because of the close relationship, this image needs to be close to your actual behaviour. Thus it’s easy to maintain, but also makes you responsible for your actions, rather than for managing your image.
Establishing status within this tribe will make you care less about how other people see you. It’s bulwark against the anxiety from our infinite-scroll status society.
3. Practice public failure
This is the hardest, but also the most powerful technique.
Unhealthy status seeking is about avoiding failure and shame. Thus the antidote is to experience it. Fear disappears when you encounter the source of the fear.
Go out and fail. On purpose.
Do things that you might find embarrassing. Wear clothes that you think are ridiculous. Ask strangers stupid questions. Act in ways that you find uncool.
Try things that you might fail at. If you go to the gym, try moves that you think might be too heavy or too complex for you. At work, take risks in projects. But also in presentations and group discussion. Speak out even if you think your idea might be stupid. Try a new way of presenting things.
Try new activities in your leisure time. Go skating and fall. Try slacklining and fall. Go tango dancing and be the worst dancer there.
We are antifragile. This failure will not only make you care less about status, but it will bring success. On one hand because success in modern society comes from taking risks. On the other hand because this is how you learn and grow.
When everyone plays it safe to protect status, he who takes risks and fails will ultimately win.
If you care about your status, you are human. It’s unavoidable.
But you can reduce how much this is a burden through the strategies above.
Enjoying life can only happen if you to care less about how others see you.
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Previous Ideal Life entries:
Mindset - Carol Dweck
Ego is the enemy - Ryan Holiday
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck - Mark Manson
Behave - Robert Sapolsky
Mastery - Robert Greene
The Art of War - Steven Pressfield
The Hero’s Journey - Joseph Campbell