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The status games we all play

Author Will Storr on our universal obsession with status and how it distorts so much of human behavior.

Are you obsessed with status?

I’d love to tell you that I don’t care about status, but that’s a lie. I do care about it, even though I know I shouldn’t. When I publish an article or a podcast or when I drop a half-clever tweet, I still find myself waiting for the little ping on my phone. I still get disappointed when something doesn’t land the way I hoped. And it’s ridiculous. None of it matters.

I just read a book about all this, and I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s called The Status Game, and the author is Will Storr, a journalist and writer from the UK. His thesis is that everyone’s playing a status game, sometimes multiple status games, and if you’re not aware of that, you may not understand why you do what you do — or why you don’t do what you wish you would.

I reached out to him for this week’s episode of Vox Conversations to talk about the evolution of status in human life and all the ways it distorts and defines our behavior, as individuals and societies. It challenged the way I think about the role of status in my own life and in some ways it made me feel less terrible about some of my unhealthy fixations. If you find yourself needlessly worried about status, it might do the same for you.

Below is an edited excerpt from our conversation. As always, there’s much more in the full podcast, so subscribe to Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Sean Illing

You have a pretty provocative claim in the book. You offer a definition of tyranny as something that happens when status games go bad or wrong. You write that, “We must accept that tyranny isn’t a left thing or a right thing. It’s a human thing. It doesn’t arrive goose-stepping down the streets. It seduces us with stories.”

I used to study ideologies and how they transformed into political religions. The question that always vexed me, particularly about a case like Nazi Germany, is how does one of the most sophisticated, developed, and well-educated societies on the planet become so deranged?

Your answer seems to be that they were playing a status game that went disastrously wrong. That’s not to obviate or diminish the role of ideology or racism or whatever. Those are all real, and they matter. But it’s also true that our beliefs are often props for much deeper psychological drives. However insane Nazi Germany appeared from the outside, and it was indeed insane, for lots of people inside, they were just jockeying for position within a social hierarchy. That has a way of blinding our moral intuitions in really disturbing ways.

Will Storr

So this was one of the big revelations for me, really. Being brought up in the UK, we were obsessively taught about the Nazis and the Second World War. It’s very recent in our shared history. But the question, exactly as you put it, is how can this incredibly sophisticated nation fall so hard and so badly? The answer that I came to in The Status Game was that actually, the sophistication of that nation is part of the reason why it fell so badly.

Earlier in the book, I talk about individual killers, whether it’s terrorists or incel spree killers or serial killers like Ed Kemper. Men are much more likely for evolutionary reasons to restore what they perceive as their lost status with violence. They were all humiliated. All of those men were serially humiliated throughout their childhoods, and suffered from the perception that they were extremely low-status. It wasn’t just one event. They were dragged through it in quite barbaric ways.

But also, and I think essentially, they all started off very high. All of those people were narcissistic. I can’t say that they were narcissists in the clinical sense, because I’m not qualified to say that. In the book, I use the word grandiose. I argue that this is a really deadly combination. If you take a narcissistic man and chronically humiliate them, there’s a likelihood that they’re going to become violent.

I talk in detail about this guy, Elliot Rodger, the incel guy. [He was] completely grandiose and entitled and unpleasant in his worldview, found it impossible to make friends and girlfriends as he became an adolescent, and became obsessed with the fact that girls didn’t like him and with all the misogyny that that suggests. He ends up, at the age of 17, having this kind of crazy ideology which basically said that sex should be abolished, because he said the reason the world is terrible, it’s all the fault of women. Because women always choose the jocks, the violent, aggressive jocks to procreate with, so they have all these jock, violent babies.

So it’s all the fault of women. So what we need to do is exterminate the women, apart from a few which will be artificially inseminated in laboratories, to keep the human race going. Then that will be a kind of utopia. You read that, and you just think, “My god, this guy is sick. That is a sick ideology. Surely, this guy is mad. He’s crazy.” Certainly, his actions — he did a spree killing in Santa Barbara [County] — would suggest that that would be true.

But then you look at what happened in Germany in the 1930s, and you see almost exactly that happening, but on the level of the nation. Germany pre-World War I was a pretty grandiose nation, and for lots of good reasons. They were the most successful nation in Continental Europe, probably all of Europe, including the UK at that point. Then, famously after the First World War, they felt completely humiliated. Not only were they taken out of the war when they felt that they were going to win, the Treaty of Versailles was designed to humiliate them, and they were dragged down into a state of absolute national distress and humiliation.

Mainstream historians agree that the main thing the Germans wanted was the restoration of what they saw as Germany’s rightful place at the top. Anti-Semitism was widespread in Europe. It was a major issue, but the main thing they were focused on was the restoration of what they saw as Germany’s place at the top of the status game.

What Hitler did, and what all the anti-Semites did, was do exactly what Elliot Rodger did. They weaved this terrible story, which in its outlines is no different to the story that Elliot Rodger told about women. It’s just that they were about the Jewish people, with the result being the Holocaust. Suddenly, when you look at what happened through the lens of status, it suddenly becomes explicable. You see these patterns of behavior in individuals. You also see them in nations.

Sean Illing

You have a chapter in the book where you call the humiliated male “the game’s most lethal player.” You quote a proverb that I had never encountered before that goes, “The child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth.”

I swear, man, that quote is still kind of washing over me.

Will Storr

It’s incredible, isn’t it?

Sean Illing

It really is, and it just kind of distills all of this.

Will Storr

Men are really violent compared to women, and there are of course differences. On the killing, it’s very much tied to humiliation, the humiliation of the family. In some cultures, women are very implicated in honor killings. So, I’m not weaving my own simplistic story of “men bad, women good.” That’s not true at all. Women have got their dominance techniques — ostracization, bullying, group attacks on other people — the kind we see on social media, for example. It’s not accurate to say that’s “toxic femininity” or anything like that. Men and women do that, but there’s no shortage of women using that form of aggression, that kind of way of achieving status through dominance.

Sean Illing

You say that the experience of humiliation is essentially “the annihilation of the self.” And you can look at extreme, disgusting cases like Rodger, and be tempted into thinking that the rest of us are exempt from that, but that is a kind of self-deception. These impulses live in all of us, and to forget that is to be vulnerable to the worst manifestations of it.

Will Storr

I forget the precise numbers, but in that chapter, I talk about a major study that talked about men and women, about the last time they fantasized about killing somebody. For both genders, a large chunk of that was about status. It was about being humiliated. It triggers these homicidal fantasies in a large number of people, across the genders.

So, yeah, I’m sure we can all admit in ourselves that some of the times we’ve behaved, we’ve been at our worst, not only the most in pain, because humiliation is acutely painful. Because status is so important to us, when it’s removed from us in such a complete way, it’s extremely painful.

But then some of the times when we’ve acted out, and we’ve been at our worst, are the times when we have felt humiliated. For me personally, I know that when I become most irrational in my head is when I’m dividing the world into heroes and villains, and telling this nasty moral story about goodies and baddies. It tends to be when I’m feeling my status is under threat by people or groups.

Sean Illing

I want to go back to something you said earlier about social media. Is the internet and social media the greatest or the most powerful status-generating machine in all of human history?

Will Storr

Religion is a status-generating machine. The nation is a status-generating machine. So it’s quite difficult to judge them in that sense, but certainly that’s what social media is. In the book, I talk about the first social media site as we know it, which was called The Well. It was back in the mid-’80s, back in the time when we were still putting our phones on modems and dialing in and all that stuff. Even then, it was extraordinary to look at the history The Well.

It was a bit like Reddit. It was just people, most of them on the West Coast of the US with things in common, who would gather in groups and discuss them. If you were into wine, you’d talk about wine. I’m sure there was lots of showing off and stuff about what you knew about wine.

Then, when it got to about 500, this person arrived who I describe as the world’s first internet troll, and he basically just started attacking everyone. He really hated men, and he let them know it, and he called them all racists and perverts and destroyers. He completely maddened them. They just canceled this person. They mobbed up against him, kicked him out, deleted lots of his entries. ... He was somebody that was sort of non-gendered but [used] male pronouns.

They were having all these arguments about pronouns that we’re still having today. They were making those stupid jokes about “If you identify as you want, then I want to identify as the King Poobah.” It’s everything that happens on social media today, and it was happening on the first website back in the ’80s, where the population was around 500.

So Facebook and Twitter haven’t helped, but they’re not responsible for all this. They haven’t invented from the ground up what happens on social media. In my last book, Selfie, I write about the selfie camera. It’s exactly the same story. At the time, people were saying, “Oh, the selfie camera has made us all narcissists,” but the selfie camera was not dreamt of by Silicon Valley as a selfie camera. It was supposed to be a business meeting thing, like Zoom.

They thought that’s what you’re going to be doing. They didn’t think we were going to be taking pictures of ourselves and uploading billions of them a day. It’s the same with social media. Social media has by instinct worked out how we play status games, and kind of wrapped itself around status games and encouraged them with the follow accounts and blue badges and all that stuff. So yeah, like capitalism, it encourages it, it worsens it, but it didn’t create it.

To hear the rest of the conversation click here, and be sure to subscribe to Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

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