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The Status Game. Human life and how we play it

Session 4 - Will Storr 2024

by Sam Leith @ OffGrid Sessions 2024

Will Storr opened his session on his book The Status Game with a bold and thought-provoking provocation. We experience the world in two different ways at once, he said. Our conscious experience of our normal lives is structured as a story; and our unconscious experience is structured as a game. It’s the interplay between these two things that leads us to all our sorrows, joys and confusions. 

Here’s how he went about unpacking it. Our consciousness, he said, “remixes reality into a story” — as one neuroscientist he quoted put it, we cast ourselves as “an invisible actor at the centre of the world”. Even in the most mundane situation – when you’re held up on public transport and you’re late for work – you feel at the centre of a drama, your mind narrows to an intense focus on overcoming a series of obstacles (that malfunctioning ticket barrier! That idiot who stopped on amber!). “You’re James Bond… in a very boring way.”

There’s a whole suite of psychological mechanisms – what Will called “hero-making technologies” — that cause us to apprehend the world this way. There’s what psychologists called “the spotlight effect”, which causes us to feel like the centre of the universe. The young people these days, Will observed, call this “main character syndrome”. Then there’s “autobiographical memory”: we store our experiences not as they actually happened, but with the Aristotelian structure of a dramatic story. Our memories have a beginning, a middle and an end. 

It’s not just memory. Studies show that we are “delusionally optimistic” about our futures. Being as we are, after all, the main characters, we expect to experience the hero’s journey: we’re Prince Hal rather than Andrew Aguecheek. And, also accordingly, we indulge in “self-enhancement”: “we think we’re better at stuff than we actually are”.

There was some lovely data on this one. When people are shown a jumbled collection of photos of themselves, each one differently digitally enhanced to make the images more or less attractive to different degrees, the one that people chose as “the real one” was on average 20 per cent better looking than the actual real one. 

Surveys asking couples how much of the housework each thinks they do routinely add up to a total of 160 per cent. Better yet, studies conducted with people in prison found respondents saying they considered themselves “above average in moral behaviour” and “averagely law abiding”. “While they were sitting there in actual prison!” Will marvelled. 

What’s more, we believe we’re right about everything. And we believe in happy endings. The next big thing, we think, is always what’s going to make us happy. If you ask billionaires how much extra money they’d need to be completely happy, they always say two or three times as much as they have.

And, like heroes of stories, we all have “personal projects” — usually about fifteen on the go at the time, “from teaching your dog to give you a high five to bringing peace in the Middle East”. In some sense, says Will, we are our personal projects.

So we experience the world as stories in which we are the protagonists; indeed, that may be to put the cart before the horse. Will suggests that the reason the stories we tell in films and books are shaped the way they are because they mimic how our brains see our lives. 

But that’s just one half of it. Because the unconscious side of things is, as he said at the outset, quite different. Quoting another neuroscientist, Will said that “the brain encodes reality as a reward space using emotions”. Our unconscious minds cause us to navigate the world with two basic responses to stimulus: approach… or withdraw. (Anger, he says, is a third thing – an uncomfortable mixture of approach and withdraw.) Approach and withdraw causes us to ping-pong through the world, avoiding things we don’t like and glomming on to things we do. 

So what do we like? What’s all this for? The absolute base level is the necessities of survival – food, shelter and so on. But after that things get interesting. Uniquely among the great apes, we are extraordinarily cooperative as a species – to the extent that the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has called us “part ape, part bee”. 

And that means there are two things we crave; indeed, that we can’t do without.

The first is connection. “Social rejection is a unversal human dread – it has been described as the annihilation of the self.”

The second is status. That doesn’t, as you might vulgarly suppose, mean “being rich, famous, or an influencer – it means having value to others; and that’s a wonderful thing”.

These two things, says Will, “aren’t just nice things to have – they are vital. If you don’t have them you are liable to get mentally ill.” Working as a volunteer for the Samaritans, he reports, there are three drivers that cause people to take their own lives. One is recent bereavement, another is chronic pain, but the third and considerable more prevalent is what he calls “identity failure”. “When the story is unwinnable, when you can’t be heroic, the brain turns on itself.”

It’s increasingly established that these two things are important to physical as well as mental health. It’s well known that loneliness is a worse risk factor for heart disease than diet and exercise; but less well known is that lack of status carries similar risks. A survey of employees in the British civil service (a very structured and hierarchical organisation) found that with everything else corrected for civil servants in the lowest rung of the status ladder were four times more at risk of early death than their top status counterparts. 

As with civil servants, so with monkeys. Ingenious scientists fed monkeys a whole bunch of junk food, and discovered that in a population of monkeys with terrible diets the high-status monkeys were far less affected by health issues. And when they manipulated the status arrangements in the group, the health outcomes changed too. 

As Will reminded us, we spent 100,000 generations living in hunter-gatherer societies and only 500 generations living in cities. The hunter-gatherer rules still apply. There were two ways to get status: competence (you were best at collecting honey or finding tubers) or virtue (you were brave, or you were good at following and enforcing the group’s norms). We still have competence status (Bear Grylls) and virtue status (Greta Thunberg). And do high-status individuals get better grub, safer sleeping spots and access to high-quality mates? They surely do. 

An anthropologist reporting on the tribal people of one remote island found a society that offered little social mobility – but there was one way to rise. If you could present the leader with the biggest yam at the annual feast, you won instant promotion. Accordingly, as Will put it in his best academic jargon: “everyone became obsessed with growing giant fucking yams”. The menfolk of this island would spend years cultivating 90kg yams in secret spots in the jungle, and it would take twelve men with a stretcher to bring these yams to the feast. It was considered bad manners even to look at another man’s yam patch. 

The problem we have is that the part of our brain that tells stories doesn’t have access to the parts of our brain that plays games: we don’t understand why we do what we do, and we think that we’re in search of truth when in fact we’re just trying to grow a bigger yam than the next dude. “Status,” said Will, “is a huge motivator.”

  1. We think we’re the heroes of our own stories. We’re not

  2. “Identity failure” can cost you your health, and even your life

  1. Get your dirty eyes off my yam