Food. Shelter. Facebook likes.
The pursuit of status is one of the most crucial drivers in society, a new book argues.
“It’s enormously important,” Will Storr, author of “The Status Game: On Social Position and How We Use It” (William Collins), out this week, told The Post. “It affects physical health, as well as mental health.”
The desire to earn respect from our fellow humans appears to be a product of evolution.
“Back in the Stone Age, increased status meant access to better mates, more food and greater safety for ourselves and our offspring,” Storr writes. “It still does today. So we’re driven to seek connection and rank: to be accepted into groups and win status within them. This is the game of human life.”
Most of us are only playing against those in our immediate subgroup, as opposed to every person in the world. For example, you might only measure your house against the other houses in your neighborhood, as opposed to the $50 million mansions you see on TV.
As Storr writes, we’re designed to feel best “not when we get more, but when we get more than those around us.”
And there are infinite ways to signal status, from six-pack abs (health) to giving a keynote address at a conference (knowledge) to carrying a designer handbag (wealth).
But status can be achieved in ways that are not always so obvious.
“Someone might be driving around in an old banger car, and they might feel pretty good for themselves that they didn’t buy a shiny Japanese car,” the author says. “If you talk to these people, they’re using that banger as a status symbol to look down their nose at people who they consider materialistic and shallow.”
Ultimately, even religion is a status game.
“Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Christians agree on a set of rules and symbols by which to play, then form a hierarchy along which they rise and fall,” Storr writes. Major status rewards are promised “not in this life but the next.”
But before you reach the afterlife, your status has a big effect on how long you’ll be living in this one.
One study found that the higher someone climbed in the UK Civil Service, the better their health and mortality outcomes — even considering other factors, such as monetary wealth and smoking.
And, unlike giving up smoking, status isn’t something you can necessarily control.
“The thing about status is you can’t own it,” Storr says. “It’s given by other people and you can’t demand it. We’re always obsessively insecure about our level of status.”
This is partly why social media is so addictive — it’s like a “slot machine for status,” Storr adds.
“Every time we post a photo, video or a comment, we’re judged,” he writes. “We await replies, likes or upvotes and, just as a gambler never knows how the slot machine will pay out, we don’t know what reward we’ll receive for our contribution . . . This variation creates compulsion. We just want to keep playing, again and again, to see what we’ll get.”
Status is so important, it’s likely the biggest motivation in violent crime, argues Storr, citing psychiatrist James Gilligan, who found the reason men most often committed murder and assault boiled down to, “He disrespected me.”
“Lots of people assume that violent crime was mostly about greed or need,” Storr says. “But very often it’s slights and respect.”
Despite its many drawbacks, Storr says it’s nearly impossible to opt out of the status game. “It’s built into the wiring through which we experience reality itself,” he says.
Not that people haven’t tried.
Dutch investigators once studied 3,700 people practicing mindful meditation specifically to rid themselves of the pursuit of status.
The investigators found that the meditators ended up measuring higher in “spiritual superiority,” and agreeing with statements like, “I am more in touch with my senses than most others.”
In other words, by trying to rid themselves of status, they managed to achieve status.
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