In previous posts, we’ve talked about how core the need for status is — because status gets us into a tribe.
In this piece I’d like to establish a deeper understanding of status games in order to understand why being vulnerable has become high status, why high status people feel compelled to hide their status, and why status anxiety plays a more prominent role in society today than it did in the past.
We’ll address that last one first. Why is status anxiety more prominent today?
Starting at the beginning: For much of the last 10,000 years of human history, the vast majority of people lived in settled agrarian communities where status mobility was limited: there was a strict hierarchy based on age and gender and everyone had the same occupation and religion. There was no need to ask: "who am I?” — limited social choices determined who you were both on the inside and the outside.
In other words, for most of human history, our status was fixed. You had a job and a family and a position in society. Our internal wiring hasn’t changed much, but our environment has. Today, status is malleable: what you do, where you live, and what you believe are in a larger sense up to you. Your position in society is much more up to you than at any point in history. Depending on how your life and decisions play out, you will end up either relatively higher status or lower status. You have agency over this outcome. This means that if you make it, it was partly due to your efforts. But this also means that if you didn’t make it, that’s on you. Which means status dynamics are high stakes!
But who measures status? The tribe. How do they do it? Well, gossip. Remember: back in the day there was no police force, no judiciary, and no prison system. Gossip was how we regulated our societies for thousands of years. After all, people needed to know who to collaborate with and who to avoid. But once we settled down and our communities started growing big enough that we couldn't know every member personally, gossip stopped working as a method of adjudicating and regulating the behavior of the tribe. So we invented a new accountability mechanism: an all-seeing, all-knowing God that could either reward and punish us. And once we stopped believing in god, the media took over god’s role. More recently, social media has become the newest accountability enforcer — and it’s a disaster.
From local to global status games
Indeed: Social media has deeply changed how status works.
Our brains evolved to work in small groups of 150 people and now we’ve plugged them into the entire world via the internet overnight.
This amplifies the comparison game we play. Previously, our envy was limited to 150 people. But now we’re constantly comparing ourselves to 8 billion people. Take any skill we might have — we can now easily find someone orders of magnitude better at it.
Social media has put people in a 24/7 global status competition hamster wheel and most people can't keep up. There are more ways to gain status, recognition and community than ever before — but there are also more ways than ever to remind ourselves how many people are better, richer, and happier than we are.
In addition to the comparison game, we’re also forced to play the tribal warfare game. When we see another person or group of people acting in a way that is against what our tribe stands for, we feel a need to attack them in order to prove loyalty to our tribe. We feel viscerally outraged. Back in the day, this would have happened very rarely. Now, it happens every day.
I heard someone on a podcast say that seeing someone who holds different political beliefs is neurologically similar to walking through the forest and encountering a bear. This explains why people on Twitter get outraged so easily.
Here’s another analogy: Twitter is to status and outrage what a candy bar is to our craving for sugar. To be sure, our propensity to chase status and get outraged has always existed the same way our craving for sugar has—but these new factors have exacerbated our craving to previously unheard of levels.
Similarly, another problematic human pattern that social media amplifies is our tendency to cancel and scapegoat people.
There are two prestige games we play within tribes in order to increase our status: virtue games and competence games. Virtue games are about enforcing the norms of the group. Competence games are about being useful to the group. Before settling in tribes, we used to primarily play dominance games — but prestige games (i.e. virtue, competence) took over once we began to collaborate with other tribes.
In some ways, the industrial revolution cemented the prioritization of competence games over virtue games. We started caring much less about caste and social background, and caring much more about who can build the best bridge or the best internal combustion engine, etc. This meant that status became much more “liquid,” meaning you could rise or fall much more often according to your level of competence.
But in other ways, virtue games have reinvented themselves today. They’re played by all the whistleblowers, activists, and cancelers. Some change history — but some just cause problems. Why do they do this? Among other reasons, they get a status boost from it. There are millions and millions of ordinary people with ordinary lives who suddenly feel like they're fighting the good fight against the forces of evil. As humans we have this need to feel like heroes, and modern life grants us very little opportunity to do so. Religion and wars used to serve this purpose. Today, it’s politics and activism.
To be sure, everyone wants status. But not everyone can be competent. That’s hard. Competence takes years of practice, in addition to natural talent and opportunities. But, for better and for worse, nearly anyone can become a victim. Given how much we empathize with victims, we struggle to adjudicate harm and reflexively take the side of the victim, even in circumstances where the harm was exaggerated, partly to counteract how much we’ve failed to defend certain victims historically.
This partly explains cancel culture: a warped amplification of our natural desires to gossip, seek revenge, and accrue status points from taking other people down. In a society where status inequality is salient and acquiring status is hard to come by, this makes sense: If people don’t feel like they can gain status from building things, they’ll try to remove status from others by taking things down.
Some people don’t think a crash in status is that significant, but what are we without status? As a reminder, status is the system that rewards people for being useful to the tribe. If you're valuable to the group, you earn status. If you're not, your reputation decreases. And the punishments are dreadful: everything from mockery to humiliation to even execution.
For millions of years, this has been true for us just as it’s been true for most animals: the more status you get, the better everything else gets.
This forms the basic heuristic in the human brain: get status and everything else will get better.
The irony, however, is that once you assume a lot of status, you’re now suddenly incentivized to hide how much status you have. This is because you have become a threat to others who don’t have status and see status as zero-sum — which in some relative sense, it is.
Status anxiety today
There are studies that show that when you see other people doing better than you, you feel less empathy for them. Conversely, when people are doing worse than you, you feel more empathy for them. This makes intuitive sense: When we hear about people doing better than us, we feel worse about ourselves. When we hear the opposite, we feel better. This is what people mean when they advise visiting people in poor countries to “get perspective.”
Remember, our 150-person tribes evolved to be egalitarian by design since resources were limited. Since we’re still wired for that zero sum world, we feel excited when others suffer and angry when they thrive because we unconsciously assume that their thriving is at our expense. This, however, is not the case. It’s actually the opposite — people who thrive often have more to offer us.
This results in Tall Poppy Syndrome, or the idea that you don’t want to stand out too much lest people start to resent you. When Tall Poppy Syndrome pervades a culture, it prevents people from reaching their potential, which is perverse. It also explains why successful people are often so vulnerable — they want others to think that they’re just like them, even though they are in fact better. They often don’t have imposter syndrome, but you’d probably hate them if they said that aloud. Instead they wax poetic about how much they doubt themselves so they appear more relatable. This is also why successful people behave vulnerably in the public eye. Vulnerability makes unsuccessful people feel better by implying that the reason they didn’t make it is because of either bad luck or a biased society. It also implies that even if they had become successful, they’d be miserable anyway, since success breeds misery, or something. Which largely isn’t true, of course.
Nietzsche named this envy “Ressentiment”. Ayn Rand called it “Hatred of the good for being the good.” In a world where we believe that we can be anything, if we don’t end up the next Elon Musk or Michelle Obama or Kim Kardashian or whoever celebrity we admire, we seek someone to blame. We could blame ourselves, but that would be depressing. It’s easier to blame other people or larger societal injustices. Ressentiment is “a reassignment of the pain of feeling one's own inferiority onto an external scapegoat. The ego creates the illusion of an enemy — a cause that can be "blamed" for one's own failure. Thus, one can consider themself thwarted not by a personal failure, but rather by an external "evil.""
Ressentiment explains why the endless Twitter debates about whether hard work matters are so contentious. This is also why the idea of meritocracy is so controversial. Anything that implies that people *earned* their success implies that other people didn’t. That’s a hard pill to swallow for many. It’s the endless battle between Nietszsche’s idea of “Priest Morality,” or valoration of the victim against the oppressor, vs “Warrior Morality,” or valoration of the strong against the weak.
Managing status anxiety
So. We see a great tension between people wanting to signal high status in order to gain resources while also wanting to do so subtly in order to avoid the Ressentiment of those lower in status than them.
Agnes Callard identifies two games that people play in order to do this in her great piece: the “importance game” and the “leveling game.”
“In the Importance Game, participants jockey for position. This usually works by way of casual references to wealth, talent, accomplishment or connections, but there are many variants. I can, for instance, play this game by pretending to eschew it: “Let’s get straight down to business” can telegraph my being much too important to waste time with such games; or your being so unimportant as to render the game otiose.”
“The other game is the Leveling Game, and it uses empathy to equalize the players. So I might performatively share feelings of stress, inadequacy or weakness; or express discontent with the Powers that Be; or home in on a source of communal outrage, frustration or oppression.“
True pros play both games simultaneously. “Complaining about how busy one is hits a sweet spot of oppression — I cannot manage my life! — and importance — because I am so in demand!”
Another example of this phenomena in action is charity: the act of giving signals both how rich/successful you are *and* how egalitarian you are. People want to be both extremely successful and extremely humble & charitable. Therapy is another easy example. Discussing how you’re struggling while subtly implying you have the money and time to spend on yourself signals your status as higher than those who can’t afford this luxury. Another classic example of this is people who went to Harvard saying they went to school in Boston.
Why play these games?
Of course, one must pretend not to be playing these games while they play them. Paraphrasing Taleb: anything done with explicit intent to improve one’s status likely won’t improve one’s status. To admit to being motivated by a desire to improve ones’ rank is to risk making others think less of us, thus diminishing our rank. Even admitting this reality to ourselves can make us feel like our status has dropped. Even reading this piece has significantly lowered your status (kidding!)
Which is why most people don’t even acknowledge status dynamics at all, even to themselves. For example, a friend once asked me why I tweet. When I told her it I do it for myself, not anyone else, she laughed. I meant it too. When I later asked her why she takes selfies on Instagram in a Bikini, she said she did it for herself, not anyone else. I laughed, realizing my answer must have sounded just as silly.
Without even trying, we convince ourselves we aren’t seeking status, but of course we need it. Without it, we become depressed — even suicidal. Status is how we're wired to measure our worth. Why? We’re wired this way because we originally needed to be part of a tribe in order to survive. If you lost all of your status and were kicked out of your tribe, you died — which is why being “canceled” at the time meant you died, which explains why we dread it so much. People who experience a severe drop in status often become depressed or suicidal. Status isn’t enough to make us happy — since it’s a hamster wheel — but losing status most certainly makes us unhappy.
Even meditators are not immune to status games. There was a study that looked at four thousand meditators and found that they scored very high on spiritual superiority. They said things like, “if only other people had the amazing insights I have, the world would be a better place.” There’s even such a thing as competitive meditation.
The status path forward
So. How do we get out of the status rat race?
One path is to differentiate. Thanks to the internet, we’ve created a kazillion niches where people can attain status within their local tribe. One of the biggest gains of the internet that hasn’t been captured by GDP is how many new niches have been created in which you can become great and be recognized for it.
Indeed: The best way to not be jealous of other people is to not compare yourself to them. The best way to stop comparing yourself to other people is to not compete with them. And the best way of avoiding competition is to do something only you can do.
Another potential path to avoid the rat race is to try to opt out entirely by committing to a person, a place, and/or a group of friends. After all, people are highly motivated to seek status as a way of upleveling their tribe. This partly explains what David Perell calls the commitment crisis. If you’re already committed to a tribe who appreciates you for who you are at present, you’ll likely face far less pressure and anxiety to switch tribes. This is why people appreciate loyalty so much: A loyal friend is rare to find in a world of status-seeking maximizers.
However, even in the case of commitments, it’s very difficult to opt out of status games entirely. So another path is to just submit. Perhaps the only way out is through.
Will Storr, in his book “The Status Game”, recommends pursuing warmth, sincerity, and competence. When you're warm, you’re basically saying “I’m not going to play a dominance game with you and you're not going to receive any threats from me — you're in a safe place.” Similarly when you're sincere, you're saying “I'm going to be virtuous and not going to bullshit you. When things are going badly, I'm going to tell you. And lastly when you’re competent, you’re saying “I'm going to be useful. I've got a skill that’s useful to our game, and I can help you benefit from it and maybe even learn how to do it too.” One can analyze status dynamics in a million ways, but in some ways maybe it’s as simple as being warm, sincere, competent—and loyal.
The more you think about status dynamics, the more you realize that shouldn’t. Status is a very specific game: any time you think about the game, you lose. So now that we’ve thought about status dynamics at length, particularly why people seek it and how they subtly signal they have it, perhaps let’s go back to pretending it doesn’t exist. Things might be better that way.
For those who don’t want to, here are some other good adjacent readings:
Thanks to Molly Mielke
Great piece. What you say at the end reminds me of James Carse. Quoting from finite and infinite games:
"...self-veiling is a contradictory act-
a free suspension of our freedom. I cannot forget that I have forgotten. I may have used the veil so successfully that I have made my performance believable to myself. But credibility will never suffice to undo the contradictoriness of self-veiling. To believe is to know you believe, and to know you believe is not to believe."
Venkatesh Rao have also noted the two effects of "Tall Poppy" and "Games". The two games looks very familiar to Posturetalk (pretending one is better than the others, whilst being tone-deaf) and Gametalk (average people not rocking the boat, herd-like behaviors) https://www.ribbonfarm.com/series/mediocratopia-2/ https://www.ribbonfarm.com/2009/11/11/the-gervais-principle-ii-posturetalk-powertalk-babytalk-and-gametalk/