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Today, I spoke with Will Storr, who is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in titles such as The Guardian, The Sunday Times, The New Yorker and The New York Times. He is the author of six critically acclaimed books, including ‘Selfie: How the West became self-obsessed’, ‘The Heretics: Adventures with the enemies of science’, as well as the Sunday Times Bestseller ‘The Science of Storytelling’.
He also recently published the book The Status Game: On Human Life and How to Play It and he joins me today to explore how status influences our behaviour, relationships, and how it contributes to so much of what’s good as well as bad in our world.
Some of the topics we covered are:
- The Significance of Status: Understanding Its Purpose and Implications
- Dominance, Virtue, and Success: The Three Types of Status Games You Need to Know
- Cultural Influence on Status Games: Why Understanding Culture is Key
- Influencing Social Groups: The Importance of Understanding their Culture and Status Dynamics
- The Impact of Status on Physical and Psychological Wellbeing: What You Need to Know
- Status Loss and Suicide Ideation: Understanding the Correlation
- Genocide and National Status Loss: Examining the Link
- Status in Culture Wars: Brexit, Trump, and the Role of Status Games
- The Use of Status Games by Cultural Elites
- Geopolitics and Status: Understanding Their Interconnection
- Escaping Status Games: Is It Possible?
- Playing a Hierarchy of Status Games: Why It Matters and How to Do It
Listen to the podcast here
Will Storr – The Status Game: Understanding Its Significance, Implications, And Why We Play It
My guest is Will Storr, who is an Award-Winning writer whose work has appeared in titles such as The Guardian, The Sunday Times, The New Yorker, and The New York Times. He’s the author of six critically acclaimed books, including Selfie: How the West Became Self-Obsessed, The Heretics: Adventures With The Enemies Of Science, as well as the Sunday Times Bestseller, The Science of Storytelling. He also published a book, The Status Game: On Human Life and How to Play It. He joins me in exploring how status influences our behaviour and relationships and how it contributes to so much of what’s good as well as bad in our world. Will, thanks for joining me on the show.
Thanks for having me, Maz.
Before we dive into the status and what it does to us, maybe it’s worth getting a sense of your background. What motivated you initially to become a writer? How did you land upon topics such as the self-obsession of the West, enemies of science, and status?
I always wanted to be a writer. What happened was I left school without any qualifications having behaved very badly and started hanging out with bands, writing about bands, and interviewing bands back in the ‘90s. That’s how I began as a writer.
How did you get into these particular topics? Firstly, the self-obsession of the West, enemies of science, then ultimately status?
My second book was called The Heretics. It was looking at why it is that smart people end up believing crazy things. It is not how smart people end up believing in the literal truth of the Bible, for example. To answer that question, I had to find out how the brain or the mind worked, and that led me to psychology. It’s what I write about. All my books are about applying the latest psychological ideas to the world and the self.
What’s the answer? I haven’t read The Heretics, but it sounds like an interesting book. I might look up later on, but what is the answer? Why do otherwise intelligent people fall for the literal translations of certain stories and narratives?
The brain isn’t a machine for detecting the truth. The brain’s a storyteller. We tend to uncritically accept any idea that flatters our sense of who we are, our heroic narratives about ourselves and the world, and reject any argument that makes us feel uncomfortable and undermines the story we like to tell the world. Intelligence is no inoculation for these effects. Intelligence makes you better at finding reasons to defend your positions. It doesn’t make you any better at finding out. Intelligent people don’t seek contra arguments more than people who aren’t intelligent. There’s a sense in which big intelligence is more likely to lead you down these crazy rabbit holes.The brain isn't a machine for detecting the truth. The brain is a storyteller. We tend to accept any idea that flatters our heroic narratives about ourselves and the world and reject any argument that makes us feel uncomfortable and undermines… Click To Tweet
That’s interesting. I’d imagine that also then fits into our idea of status and how we perceive status, especially when we’re talking about the mind being a storyteller. In that story, we also defer some status to ourselves and imagine.
That’s at the centre of the story. The brain likes to tell the world. In The Heretics, I call the brain a hero maker. It’s what it does in a healthy brain. If a brain is functioning as it should be, it’s making us feel irrationally heroic that all our positions are correct and that we have this optimistic future in store for ourselves, and that we’re special in various ways. Status is deeply linked to these processes.
Before we dive into status in more detail, how do you define it firstly? What is its purpose? I know in the book there’s an evolutionary reason behind even the purpose of status.
The definition of status is it is the feeling that we are of value to other people, specifically of value to our tribe. Humans are tribal species. We have tribal brains. That’s what we do. We, humans, gather into groups to solve problems. Those groups can be national groups, political groups, hobby groups, or football groups. That’s what we do. We gather into groups and solve problems.
That’s a result of our brains, which are tribal. We are compelled to join cooperative groups to engage in status competitions. We’ve evolved to want to feel that we are of value to the other players in our teams because that’s the evolution’s incentive to stop us from prioritising ourselves individually and start prioritising our tribes. It’s a human universal. If you tell someone they’re useless and they have no value, they feel bad. The opposite of that is if you tell people that they’re fabulously useful, intelligent, and talented, they feel good.
That works for you too?
That’s status. That’s that. Historically, on an evolutionary scale, there are huge rewards for pursuing status. In the pre-modern groups in which we evolved, the hunter-gatherer groups, the more status you earned, the more food you got, the better food you got, the safer your sleeping sites, and the greater your access to a choice of mates. It’s this basic rule the subconscious brain has, which is to go for status. If you go for status, everything else gets better. What was true tens of thousands of years ago remains true nowadays in the modern world. No matter where you go in the world, the more status you get, the better everything else gets in your life and the greater your capacity to survive and reproduce.
I’d imagine most people wouldn’t be surprised to hear that because it does feel intuitive. The higher status you’ve got, the more resources you’ve got, the better life is. I was amazed to read that it has an impact on your health markers. You write comparisons of people in there who are both smokers, both have the same likelihood of developing serious heart disease, etc. It was status that ultimately determined who would get sick and who wouldn’t, which is great.
Mostly wouldn’t be surprised to hear that, but a lot of people are. A lot of people don’t like it. Some people who hear the message of the book get quite upset about it because they feel like it’s demeaning to the human condition. The idea is that the great artists, the great leaders, these people that we look up to and call heroes, we’re motivated in any way by social status. They find it terrible. It’s crazy. They take it as a personal insult too. “I don’t pursue my goals because I’m interested in status. No. It’s because I want to.”
“I’m good, and I’m righteous.”
That’s the hero-making brain in action. That’s why it’s useful to see it in evolutionary terms, which is it’s the feeling of being of value. It takes this thing away. What happens when you talk about status is that people think you’re saying everybody wants to be rich, famous, be Kim Kardashian, which is not what I’m saying.
Everybody wants to procreate, even if it’s subconscious programming that exists. Everybody wants to secure their offspring, etc., and you achieve that by the second-order effect of status, which is all of those things.
We all want to succeed. We all want our lives to get better. The way to make your life better is by pursuing status no matter what domain you are living in. It’s pursuing status. That’s the basic, ultimate goal of much if not all of human life but a lot of human life.We all want our lives to get better, and the way to do that is by pursuing status, no matter what domain you are living in. That's the basic goal of much of human life. Click To Tweet
You have written about three particular types of games that we play. What are those?
You have to go back into evolutionary history. Before we were even human, the way that we would pursue status and have status is a contest with dominance with literal physical aggression and the threat of aggression. That’s the main game in the animal world nowadays. It’s not the only game, but it’s the main game.
When we became recognisably human, and we started living in cooperative groups, you can’t live in a highly cooperative group if everyone’s bullying each other all the time and attacking each other all the time. It would be a nightmare. A great part of our becoming cooperative, which is our secret source as an animal, is this amazing capacity we have for working together and solving problems together.
You have to pursue status contests in different ways. That’s when this value thing comes about. You’re incentivised to be of value to the tribe, and there are two ways of being valued to the tribe. The first way is by being a morally good person. That might mean being selfless with your provisions and being courageous in battle. It also means sincerely believing the sacred beliefs of the tribe. No matter how crazy they are, you believe them. You follow the rituals. You take it seriously. It also means policing other people’s moral behaviour. That’s virtue status. That’s one way that you pursue status.
You’ve just described Twitter.
Very much of Twitter is that, but also it’s religion. The Pope is a superstar, but he’s a superstar, not on the basis of any technical ability. He’s purely a superstar on the basis of his virtue. The second way that you’re a value tribe is by being useful or skilful, like being a great hunter, a great honey finder, and a great storyteller. That’s the other status game, which I call a success game. It’s based on competence and ability. That’s the other way that you can pursue status. The Pope is virtue, and you might say that Serena Williams is a success game.
There are so many aspects of the book, as I said. I’ve got the Kindle version. One of the downsides of the Kindle is I end up highlighting everything. I’ve got 26 pages of notes, but this stood out to me because I could see when I read Dominant Success in Virtue Games, then I started thinking about things in my life that are important to me. In other words, the games I play.
I could very clearly define what fits where. It visually captured very well for me the idea of status and how important it is, and it’s literally everywhere. That was an eye-opening moment for me with the book. That’s what I was meaning before. The status seems intuitive. We all perhaps understand and have an idea of what status might be, or some perceive somebody of high status, or we can think of somebody who has high status. I don’t think we delve that deeply into it as to how prevalent it is at everything. That’s why I was interested to hear that most people don’t think about it. I find it quite fascinating.
As you say, you’ve only got a look at social media. It’s very illustrative to me what social media has done. The current figures are that there are more than 4 billion people on social media. It’s more than half the population of the world, which is mad. What happens when you connect 4 billion human beings together and sit back and allow them to communicate? Dominance, virtue, and success, that’s what it is. They’re pushing each other on the ground.
They’re doing their virtue stuff. They’re parading their sacred beliefs and policing other people’s sacred beliefs. They’re showing off their success, holiday, promotion, and their lovely thin body or whatever it might be. That’s what humans do. It’s dominance, virtue, and success. That’s why social media is like it is. It’s not because it’s been devised that way by evil Silicon Valley Tech Bros. That’s what happens when humans get together, which is dominance, virtue, and success.
It’s a product of human motivation. Therefore, it represents human motivations in a digital form, which is also very scary because it’s also polarising. If you say 4 billion people, that’s scary, given the algorithms are fuelled by these games as well. You mentioned before that status-seeking is a universal need. Does culture have any role in how people play the game or how they perceive the game? How does that impact when we have intercultural communication or international relations? How does status play a role?
Culture has a huge role to play. The way the brain works is that there are basic fundamental wired in DNA rules that all brains share, and these rules are the basic blueprint of the human condition. The basic blue misprint human condition is things like gathering into groups and pursuing status. It’s quite basic. That’s the hardware of the computer. On top of that, you layer the software, which is culture. The culture tells you how to play the game. It tells you what the status means in this community.
Those rules changed dramatically as you moved through history. They change dramatically as you go around the world. In the book, I talk about these crazy table manners rules that were going on in Medieval Britain, where it was seen as rude to hold vomit in your throat. It’s much more polite to just vomit everyone like he’s mad.
It was the first-ever etiquette book, and it said, “If you’re sharing a bed with a stranger and you find a piece of shit in the bed, it’s rude to pick it up and say, ‘Smell that.’” It’s unbelievable to be that. Also, as you go around the world, the most studied differences culturally are of East versus West, so Western Europe versus East Asia. The West famously is much more individualist.
What that means is that we play status games a bit more on the individual level. We see ourselves as individuals. We’re still group-ish, but there’s much more emphasis on individual heroism and pushing yourself forward and being the superstar, being the one that stands out. In East Asia, it’s much more about the group.
I read this paper on how the concept of face works in Japan. A Japanese sociologist was saying something about if you’re working for a company and you get singled out for praise within your group. In the West, you are like, “That’s great. I’m the winner.” In Japan, it seems terribly shaming because what you’ve done is you’ve made the rest of the group feel bad.
Instead of being a motivating thing, what will often happen in Japan is that the individual who’s been singled out for praise will deliberately do a terrible job for the next few weeks in order to remove the stain of that praise and make everybody else feel better. It’s a very profound influence. That’s why you get culture shocks as you go around the world. The things that you think that you are doing that should earn status and mark you out as a valuable person who knows manners and politeness don’t work anymore. You get this very alienating, confusing sense.
It’s interesting. You also cited Michele Gelfand’s work on Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World, and how the norms embedded in culture are defined by the threat to that particular culture feels. Also, even within that status game, that’s where this conflict might occur because norms are developed under a vastly different set of circumstances. When you then come in as an outsider, you simply don’t know the rules of that game.
Very often, you can become part of a problem rather than part of a solution. There’s something I’ve discussed in the show in a military context in relation to Afghanistan as Western forces go into a country like Afghanistan and expect certain rules, norms, behaviours, etc., of our partnering forces but never have an idea of how that place works. When you don’t understand the games people are playing, you’re not in the game.
You’re not because you got to know the rules in order to follow them. People massively underestimate culture. When people think of culture, they think of music and what books you’re reading and stuff. It is deep. It’s the operating system through which you experience reality. That’s why on a military level the idea that we had in the West that we could go into Iraq and give them the gift of democracy was incredibly naive from a psychological basis.
You can’t go into a place that isn’t Western and give them the gift of Western values because they don’t have Western brains. From the age of 0 to mid-20s, brains are literally being formed physically around the basis of the local culture, the local rules for life, what’s good and what’s bad, and how the world should work. It forms the structure of the brain. You can’t go in there and give them a different operating system. It’s not that simple.
You got to reinstall. That also plays into the status game because if you’re coming in and this is us as the West, there’s a perceived superiority immediately in us enforcing our game. “We know this game better than you do, so here’s the game that we want you to play.” If you’re the recipient of that, in some instances, it’s going to be hugely dishonourable and bring shame upon you, especially if you don’t have the means, particularly if it’s a dominance game like in a military context. I suspect many of my readers can relate to that when we think about what’s happened in Afghanistan and Iraq and how little success ultimately we’ve had in this process of democratisation. That ultimately, certainly in Afghanistan, has failed miserably.
There was one other thing that hit a nerve when you were talking about it. That was a rapid loss of status. Falling outside of the rules or outside of your group can have a detrimental impact on one’s psychological well-being, which speaks to this point. There’s a direct correlation between increasing the likelihood of suicide. Can you talk about that a little bit more? That’s going to be hugely relevant for many of my audience.
I failed to answer a previous question, which is connected. You were asking about the health implications of status. It’s been found that the lowest status that we feel that we are, the more likely we are to become physically sick. It’s also because the brain translates low status into a harsh environment or a dangerous environment and puts you into this inflammatory state for a long time. You have chronic inflammation. It’s very bad for you and raises your capacity to the likelihood that you’re going to have heart disease, cancer, autoimmune dysfunction, and all that stuff.
It clearly has a huge negative psychological effect on us. People who study suicide say that the loss of status is an extreme predictor of suicidal ideation. That’s why I don’t buy the Epstein conspiracy theories because being accused of paedophilia and losing all of your status is a major signal that you’re going to be feeling extremely suicidal.
They find that the sudden loss of status is especially dangerous. Also, I thought what was interesting is it’s also dangerous when you get left behind. You can be in the same place, but if the people around you all accelerate in status, you can be left depressed and possibly suicidal. I thought that was interesting. When you asked about humiliation, too, humiliation is connected to this.
One of the technical definitions of humiliation is that it’s not only the removal of all your status within a group. It’s the removal of all your statuses, which is so profound and total that you are unable to claim status from them at any point in the future. It’s done. You are gone as far as they’re concerned. You’re so terrible. There’s no redeeming for you, and you’re kicked out. That is humiliation. A universally feared state and in certain kinds of people can make you extremely dangerous because the only way to restore your humiliation is by taking revenge on that group by using dominance and forcing them to attend to you in status, the violence.Humiliation is a universally feared state. Click To Tweet
That’s right. I want to come back to that point, but I want to pick up on this falling out of the group piece because that resonates. The highest risk group, certainly in the Australian Army, are young males, 19 to 24, who have recently been discharged from the Army, which is 100%. I don’t know the figures now, but it’s a significantly higher risk of suicide ideations than the average population as well as other military people. There are a number of things there. That’s the status-seeking age, 19 to 24. You talk about testosterone, where you quote a good friend Mike Martin there as well in the book.
That’s the hormone that drives us to seek status. When you fall out for whatever reason, whether it’s for medical reasons, you have a change of career or have a mental health issue, or whatever it is, when you lose your group or your tribe, your status goes with that. That then speaks to potentially why we have such a high suicide rate amongst those young men in particular.
It doesn’t surprise me at all. When you’re in the military, that’s your status game. That’s the game that you’re playing for status. That’s literally your identity. That’s who you are. That’s your tribal reputation. To lose that, especially at that age because, as you point out, adolescents and early twenties, we are especially interested in status, is psychologically extremely dangerous.
As you know, the book begins with the story of this guy who was imprisoned when he was fourteen for killing a child who was younger than him. He ended up being the longest-serving life prisoner in the UK. I interviewed him, and it turned out that the reason he was in prison for so long was because he didn’t want to leave because he became this prison lawyer. He became this feared, powerful individual inside the prison.
He said, “I’m a big fish in here, and when I get out there, I’m no one.” When they interviewed me, he had finally left prison, but he was in a terrible state psychologically. He was in the midst of an appalling breakdown and was describing being crumpled up on the floor in tears. It’s a similar thing. To live is to play status games. One of the great meanings of our life is the games that we are playing. To take that away from somebody, especially at the age of 24, you are leaving them extremely vulnerable to a mental health crisis.
That’s fascinating. The other thing that stands out there is what you mentioned before that it’s only relative. The status is relevant to your environment. The example you give is about the guy that was in jail from a young age and, in that environment, he was someone in something. If we’ll take him out of that context, he’s nothing. For the rest of us, we would’ve thought, “He’s finally out. He should be happy.”
In his mind, “This is now a whole new world. Everything is completely different.” The other piece I want to pick up on now is the dishonour piece which, when you’re being dishonoured, that can lead to violence. You even talk about this in the book in terms of genocide, which you describe as highly moralistic. Can you explain that a little bit? This is important that we are seeing this play out literally now in Ukraine due to the Russian invasion. Can you maybe explore that a little?
To understand this, there’s an extra little piece of the puzzle that I need to explain. All of this is subconscious. We don’t wake up in the morning and say, “Now, I’m going to go out, sit to the world and pursue status.” It’s hidden from us. The conscious experience of life is not a game. It’s a story. We are living out these heroic stories, and they’re morally inflected of doing the right thing and the wrong thing of pursuing great goals. That’s what it feels like to be a human, even though the real politic subconsciously is it’s this constant eternal game that we’re playing for status.The conscious experience of life is not a game; it's a story. Click To Tweet
That’s what you see on the individual level. In the book, I tell the story of this incel spree killer, Elliot Roger, who found himself continually rejected by attractive young women. His brain told him a story that the problem with the world was these terrible women. He became very misogynistic and ended up killing a bunch of men and women before killing himself. That’s the classic incel story. What’s interesting about that incel story is it’s the same story that was told in 1930s Germany on the level of the nation but against the Jews. Status is deeply implicated in episodes of genocide.
It’s the same as on the individual level. When we tell a story that our status or rank is being unfairly reduced by these other people, who are behaving disruptively and dishonourably and are attacking us, then you’ve got the conditions for terrible things happening all the way up to the level of genocide. In the book, I say that the most dangerous people are men because men use violence much more than women do. Also, they are narcissists.
Elliot Roger was a narcissist. The thing about narcissists is that they automatically think that they are deserving of very high status. When it’s removed from them, they feel even more furious, and they’re even more likely to be pushed into violence. That’s what you saw before the First World War in Germany.
Before the First World War, Germany was the wealthiest and most highly developed society in Europe. It produced 2/3 of all the steel in Europe, half its cold, and 20% more electricity than Italy, France, and Britain combined. It was just ahead of everything, and they knew it. People always say, “How could a highly advanced cultured nation fall to the level of genocide?” This is interesting because that’s why they fell to live of genocide because they were so high up, then they lost the First World War and felt that it was completely unfair that they’d been stitched up.
The story was that they’d been stitched up by the Jewish population. It was that sudden humiliating fall from that level of high status which created the conditions for the genocide. When I was researching this, I found this was interesting. I had no idea about this, even if he studied all this stuff at school that we all do in the UK. During the ‘30s, Hitler dialled down his anti-Semitic rhetoric massively when he was doing his speeches. Rather than attacking the Jewish population, he was promising massively restored status in the future, the Third Reich, and the rebirth. Germany has been humiliated. It was humiliated by the Treaty of Versailles. They had their faces pushed in that dirt. It went from being at the top to being at the bottom.
We all know the story about the crazy economic situation with mad inflation. In August 1922, a US dollar was worth about 1,000 marks. By December 1923, it was 4.2 trillion marks. It was mad. They were getting screwed. Hitler promised to end that humiliation and he did. When he started manoeuvring against the Treaty of Versailles, that’s when you see these great moments that we look back on in horror and confusion. There were tens, hundreds, and thousands of Germans flooding the streets and worshipping it like a God.
“Make Germany great again.”
He was doing it too. You cannot understand the second world war, the rise of the Nazis, and the genocide that followed without understanding status because it’s all about status and humiliation.
As somebody from Bosnia and the product of that war, this status piece comes to the fore on how certain elements of those societies were motivated by the idea that it was them who took your glory, well-being, food, and jobs to the point where then ultimately, that boiled. All you needed was a spark. I like the idea that it’s deeply moralistic as difficult as it is to digest that because we’re talking about genocide, ethnic cleansing, and mass extermination of people from a social group. It speaks to what you’re talking about before.
We’re the hero in our story and everybody is the good guy. We all know that the path to hell is paved with good intentions because you are justifying whatever actions you’re doing through this deeply moralistic story that you are somehow cleansing the world, i.e. the ethnic cleansing piece, of some highly immoral being, creature or whatever it is. That creature is somehow taking away from your status, group, worth, status, or the status of your group. That deeply resonated with me. That was a profound thing.
I found that initially quite difficult to get my head around the idea that virtue and morality aren’t necessarily a good thing. It’s very quickly a bad thing because virtue and morality are always dependent on the group. It’s never what’s good for everyone. It’s what’s good for our group. That’s how we understand morality. That’s how we process morality and virtue.
If we feel that somebody else is unfairly taking our status, then the moral thing to do is to attack that group and destroy that group. The Nazis thought they were the good guys. They sincerely believe they were the good guys. The communists thought they were the good guys. Lenin thought he was a good guy. Stalin thought he was a good guy but rather than being Jews, their enemies were the bourgeoisie and the middle classes.
I hesitate to compare them because they’re so far apart but in the last few years, we have lived through a very mild but similar narrative that straight White men have been the enemy. It has been perfectly okay for people to stand on platforms, attack and say, “Men are awful. White people are awful.” We are 1 million miles from that turning into a genocide but it’s the same psychology.
It depends on where you are as well or which country you’re in. It was the first time that the US almost came into the top ten risks to look out for civil war by the Internation Crisis Group, which is one of the global think tanks, as you undoubtedly know, that analyze conflicts. This is the leader of the free world. This is the beacon of democracy that is on the verge of potentially a civil war due to all these various culture wars. Pick your culture war and status quo. They’ve got them all.
In the book Selfie, I wrote a bit about the rise of Trump. I picked up again in The Status Game how the White working class in America and the UK have been maligned and insulted since the ’60s when the left decided that what they were worried about wasn’t poverty anymore. It was race, sexuality, and gender, which is what happened in the ’60s and ’70s. The White working class became the enemy and they know it. They know how they’re seen. They feel demeaned, diminished, and uncared for by people generally. The response is Brexit and Trump.
As soon as we get the opportunity, we’re going to give these values the big middle finger. That’s all about status. It’s all about how we feel maligned, insulted, and degraded down the status scale. I was raised in a lower-middle-class White family. It was very liberal, left-wing, and deeply concerned about matters of race and gender especially but not at all concerned about the White working class, looking down your nose at the White working class and demeaning them all as racists and whatever it might be.
It’s the games we play. It defines our lived reality. When you don’t understand the games people are playing and you’re trying to fix problems, more often than not, you’re pouring fuel on the fire. That’s happening all around the world but especially in these Western developed societies. There’s a complete disconnect between those in charge or leading donations, the status games they’re playing, and the status games that people on the lower rungs of society are playing, which is the silent majority. What you’re talking about is Brexit, Trump, and COVID.
We’re seeing this through COVID. There’s a silent rejection of the dominant narrative as much as people are playing the game. They’re getting vaccinated, wearing bloody masks, and all that stuff but all of that is coming unstuck with more releases of false narratives being propagated. Even the FBI has come out and said that it is likely that the virus was a lab leak. People who said that years ago were notched down, cancelled, and banished from social media or any mainstream media. If you dare to discuss those, you were a conspiracy theorist. Now, it’s almost flipping on its head a little bit. I’m guessing the people in charge are going to pay the price for it as we saw with Trump.
It’s one of the funny ways this manifest. What we have seen, especially over the last few years is this separation of the elite from the majority of the people. I’m not talking about the political elite. I’m talking about the cultural elite. The gatekeepers of culture have become pretty woke for lack of a better word. You’ve got this hilarious thing that you see constantly where a film comes out that espouses these woke values and this woke mindset. It’s not a great film but it’s very diverse. The White man is the baddie. All the reviews are, “This is amazing. This is fantastic,” but if you look at the Rotten Tomatoes viewer score, everybody hates the movie.
The reverse is also true. When you get a film that isn’t like that, the critics hate it but the public love it. It’s an interesting phenomenon where the elites have their little status game, which is this very hyper-progressive, anti-White man, and pro-diversity. I’ve given it an inverted comment because it’s fake diversity. It’s a strange disconnect we’re seeing from the games the elites are playing versus the games that most other people are playing. It’s coming to a slow end. That’s my sense at the moment.It's a very strange disconnect we're seeing between the kind of games the elites are playing and the kinds of games that most other people are playing. Click To Tweet
What do you mean?
The extreme progressive activist worldview that you might call woke is becoming less dominant. There was a time when they got their way. We get all these little battles. In the UK, we had this battle over the rewriting of Roald Dahl’s books. The publishing industry is rife with this stuff. They would have won and gotten away with it.
The people who wanted to not censor and rewrite Roald Dahl would have been dismissed as racists, gammons, or whatever it might be but now, they’re saying, “We’re going to publish both. We’re going to have the new version and the classic version.” Let’s see what sells more. We all know. I don’t think it would have played out that way before. Weirdly, in the UK, Harry and Meghan have had a lot to do with it because they became almost personifications of that worldview. They have slowly revealed themselves to be perhaps not deserving of very high status. That has been part of it all.
I’ll let you say that. I won’t comment. As Australians, we snub our noses at all of that. That’s my perception anyway. It’s a little bit of a scary time. Correct me if I’m wrong. What do you think about this? These status games or culture wars are nothing new. We have had this throughout human evolution where we go 2 steps forward and 1 step back. The pendulum swings too far and then comes back. That seems to be happening with this woke cultural phenomenon. It’s slowly swinging back. This is not to say that there aren’t genuine grievances that we need to address but we don’t need to look at the world through a single lens of some culture or subculture.
In the book, I try to delineate the ways the two sides in the culture will see the game and the way that it’s unfair. If you take the average woke person who works in journalism, publishing, or whatever it might be, they see the game as, “It’s unfairly dominated by straight White men. That’s not fair. We need to change that.” That’s how they see the world whereas the way Brexit and Trump see the game fixed is, “The game is unfairly fixed by highly educated left-wing people.” Who’s right? They’re both right but they’re both wrong as well because it’s a massively oversimplified idea about how the world and game works.
The reality is way more complex and nuanced than that. Even with the gender piece, if you go into a set of games that are dominated by women, you’re not as a man going to be privileged. You’re not going to have privilege. Women are going to have the privilege because that’s how privilege works. Who gets the privilege in any group is set by who dominates that group. If you’re a White guy trying to be a rapper, you’re not going to be privileged in the world of hip-hop. The whole idea of privilege is so much more complex and nuanced than either of those worldviews would have you believe.
That’s what you said before about culture, not culture in the work sense but culture in the software, programming, habits, and norms of a particular social group. If you as an outsider try to play those certain games, you’re not going to attain the right kind of status. I wonder if you’ve given any thought to how this status game applies in the geopolitical contestation between the US and China.
I’ve taken this to a very macro level but I also feel like there are status games in the military and also in broader society. You see this also again with Ukraine and Russia. If you even dare to say, “Maybe we should look at negotiating or peaceful solutions or give diplomacy a go,” many times, you are being notched down as siding with the enemy or whatever it is. You’re outside of the tribe.
Even uttering the words about Ukraine and Russia, “A negotiation agreement will have to happen at some point. Better we start sooner rather than the later before more people die,” that argument is in my view a rational argument because what is the end state to this? How much can you dishonour and shame each other or notch each other’s status until somebody pushes a nuke? That’s always the ultimate risk anyway. I wonder if you’ve given this any thought, given the context of Russia, Ukraine, the US, and China, and how status and our need to retain and attain status play a role.
The status is deeply implicated in Russia and Ukraine. It’s deeply implicated in China versus the West. We touched upon briefly in our conversation the idea of tight versus loose groups. When a group feels under attack, they tighten up. What that means is they become much more conformist. The rules of the game or the purpose of the game are much more tightly policed. You don’t get much more under attack than what Ukraine is at the moment. The whole status game thinking around Ukraine is extremely tight, which is why if you suggest, “They should come to the table and figure out a compromise,” you’re going to be accused or banished.
It’s very difficult to get past that basic wire in human emotion and human cognition and try and approach it rationally because if you were to approach this with pure rationality, fewer people are going to die if they get around the table and try to figure this out but we’re storytelling. We are not trying to figure out how to make fewer people die. We’re trying to figure out who’s going to win this great story of good and evil. It’s difficult to get people out of that because that’s how we consciously experience the world.
Can we ultimately escape these status games? Are we ultimately powerless against its pool?
Understanding them is a huge help. It was Carl Jung that said about the power of making the unconscious conscious. What I’m trying to do with the book is, “All this stuff is happening. It is playing a huge role in your life. It’s not everything but it’s a lot of your life. Here it is. Hopefully, that will help you understand yourself but also the world in general much better.” Understanding is helpful in a number of ways, even from the very simple insight that status is this immeasurably valuable resource to other people. If someone treats you in a low-status way, it can ruin your day, even in a mild way.
It’s a free resource. We’ve got status to give out there in the world. We can be better people if we’re more generous by giving out status to other people and letting them know that we feel positive about them. There are simple things like that that are useful to understand. Fundamentally, you can’t ever recuse yourself from the game because it’s how your brain is built. You can’t take it out of the mind because it is like taking the exhaust system out of a car. It is not going to work. You can’t do it. People use mindfulness meditation.
I’m a meditator. I laughed when I read that part. Maybe mention the games inside there.
The University of Amsterdam did a study where they looked at 2,700 mindfulness meditators who specifically meditated to reduce their ego needs and their need for success. They found that these people scored very high in what they called spiritual superiority. They started getting arrogant about how mindful they were and how great they were about that. It’s funny because you know it’s true. We have met these people.
It’s like vegans. I have vegans in my life or CrossFitters. I used to be in that cult. I used to own a CrossFit gym myself, just between you and me. We owned one in Bosnia some years ago. It’s like joining a social group with particular rules and language. Some call it a cult. It was cult-like in the initial days but it is like that. You tend to get a very high view of your achievements, conduct, and moral righteousness whether it’s in the vegan sense or it’s a success because you’ve got a six-pack or you can do muscle-ups, rings, or kipping pull-ups, which many will laugh at about CrossFit. It resonates. I’m sure most people can relate to that.
You do end the book on a positive note. Some might think that it’s all bad news but it’s not. You finish your book on a high and encouraging note. You give us some practical steps both on an individual level but perhaps we could take out to societies as well how we can better navigate status games to reduce the likelihood of interpersonal conflict and also international conflict. What are some of those?
There are various ideas at the end of the book about how to play games better. One of the ones for me, especially as you go into middle age, is playing this hierarchy of games. What psychologists find is that the more groups that we are members of in life, the happier we are and the more stable we are emotionally. That’s because we have various sources of status.The more groups we are members of in life, the happier we are and the more stable we are emotionally. That's because we have various sources of status. Click To Tweet
I do think that when you’re in your teens and twenties, you probably focused maniacally on one game, ideally a success game because success games are the games that make the world a better place rather than virtue games. Scientists have done immeasurably more good than all the religions put together with things like vaccines and the advances that we have made medically. If you want to make the world a better place, play success games, not virtue games. Virtue games are a con in a sense. You need a bit of it in a success game because if there’s no virtue in a success game, it becomes sociopathic.
No one follows any rules or norms.
Everyone is exhausting fights to win. You have to have a bit of fairness also because people have different abilities. You can’t have a capitalist world purely on the basis of meritocracy because it’s not fair. Genes are real and some people are born with low IQs or dysfunctional personalities. If you’re born in a low socioeconomic group, you’re socially held back in an unfair way. There has to be some virtue in there but if you want to make the world a better place, pursue a success game. Become good at something.
Especially as we’re going into our 30s, you need to hedge. You need to start playing a variety of different games because if you’re only playing one game, you are very vulnerable. You talked about the guy in the prison, Ben Gunn, and his experience in the military. That’s true for all of us. If we only have one central source of status, what happens when that goes wrong? What happens when you start failing or you’re not the best anymore? You’re in trouble.
Play that hierarchy of games where you have one main game but then you’re hedging with lots of other games. It is weird when you start doing that because you almost become a variety of different people. Within every status game that you play, you have a different identity. You’re a slightly different person. You end up having new ways of being alive. Playing the hierarchy of games is an important one.
When you say hierarchy, you’re talking about having a multitude of social identities with different hobbies, jobs, and peer groups expanding your horizons beyond a single identity. I was talking about the young fellows in the Army especially. That’s their life.
That’s why I say a hierarchy because to get somewhere in a status game takes effort. Having a few that you give equal attention to is probably less effective. Have your main thing but also make sure that underneath that, you’ve got some other games. It’s especially important as you’re going to middle age because it’s in middle age that you start facing your failures much more. Life starts beating us a bit more.
You end up having kids. That’s a whole different status game that you’re never going to win.
You start playing status games with your children. It’s what often happens.
That’s so true because there’s this proud dad moment when my daughter does something good. There is status deeply embedded in it. There’s a reflection of you through them. That’s interesting. Will, we have reached our hard shoulder. It’s a fascinating book. I’ve already started using some of the aspects from the book in some of my teaching. I teach interpersonal and intercultural communication in some components of our military. I’m already starting to use some of that stuff.
It’s insightful. To me, it seemed intuitive except when you start scratching below the surface. There’s so much more to it. You start recognizing and seeing it everywhere. It’s a visual way to understand how the world works and how the games you play define your lived reality. Thanks for putting it out. What are you working on next? Is there another book in the making, judging by the fact that you’ve already written six?
I’ve got a few things at the moment. I’m working with an architect called Thomas Heatherwick. I’m working on a book with him. It was great talking to you, Maz.
Thanks, Will. All the best.
- Will Storr
- Selfie: How the West Became Self-Obsessed
- The Heretics: Adventures With The Enemies Of Science
- The Science of Storytelling
- The Status Game: On Human Life and How to Play It
- Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World