‘We experience the world as this battle between goodies and baddies. But it comes down to trade-offs’

What makes us like some things and dislike others? What drives our political and moral beliefs? Our editor sat down for a chat with best-selling author Will Storr to find out. In his new book, The Status Game, Will argues that our craving for status ultimately defines who we are.

Will Storr photo
Will Storr: ‘Status is very hard to switch off’
How important is status to us as human beings?

Status thinking comes out of our tribal brain. We’re a tribal species. But because we don’t live in literal tribes anymore we forget that. Especially in a culture with such a strong focus on the individual.

But still our brains think in group experiences. What groups are we members of? What do our peers think of us? And one of the big things that ties a group together is ideology. It’s the story we tell about the world. The ideas holding a group together, in the same way that territory used to hold the tribe together.

Who are our heroes? Who are our villains? What kinds of beliefs are good beliefs? Who are we going to award status to? And who will we push out of the group for being heretical?

On the other hand, status is entirely in our heads.

Absolutely, it’s all symbolic. None of it matters. It doesn’t matter what handbag you have. It doesn’t matter what academic awards you might achieve. Lots of the symbolic things we chase after are just houses on a Monopoly board.

The brain has an unbelievable obsession with symbols of our own status (and symbols of other people’s status). To the point that it’s measuring and picking up frequencies that we can’t consciously hear, constantly playing symbolic battles. You see it in things like road rage but also every conversation we ever have. It’s very hard to switch off.

What about when something like a pandemic hits? We’ve all heard moving stories of communities coming together.

When bad things happen we become more communal. On a massive scale, you see that in the twentieth century after the First World War and in the depression of the 1920s.

During the Second World War, both the UK and the US were massively communal, especially compared to how we are now. It was a time of big state, big unions, taxes as high as 90%. That all gradually ended in the 1980s with Thatcher and Reagan.

But there is a predictable effect we feel when we’re under pressure, or feel we are in danger. An automatic instinct to tighten up. That means connecting with other people. As well as being more conformist.

In the Covid landscape today, you’ve got two tribes of people in the supermarket. First, people who are wearing a mask. To show “I’m somebody that believes in the mask.”

And, second, people who don’t wear the mask. Now, they’re not being any less conformist by not wearing the mask – they’re conforming to the rules of their group. Which says: “Resist these attempts to take our freedom away.”

None of it matters. Lots of the symbolic things we chase after are just houses on a Monopoly board.

WILL STORR
What’s your take on the wider culture wars that are playing out?

If you look at people who voted for Trump and Brexit, you see a huge decline in status for those groups from the 1960s onwards because of globalisation. They’ve witnessed a decline in living standards and a decline in the respect that was once given to them.

The left sees the status game as fixed. Because the people at the top are mostly white straight men, unfairly holding the reigns. It’s time they moved aside.

But when you look at the story from the right, the game is unfairly fixed in a completely different way. Positions of power are dominated by people with a very high level of education. All colours and genders are seen as the enemy, too. So immigrants become easy to blame.

What’s interesting is the stories on both sides are kind of true. But they’re both dangerously simplistic. That’s our storytelling brain at work.

So how can different groups find common ground?

It comes down to trade-offs. We’ve got to the point now where someone who simply sees the world another way isn’t thought of as different. They are considered evil.

And, therefore, the morally right thing to do is to destroy them and their ideas. Because we experience the world as this battle between goodies and baddies. For us to be okay, we have to destroy the villain.

There’s a lot of that in our conversations right now, especially online. But I think what’s really going on – and the healthy way to see this – is to experience the world not as people fighting over the zero-sum game. But as groups competing for trade-offs. That makes it much less emotionally fraught.

By getting everybody around the table – as your organisation is doing – you’re not answering the question “Who’s right?”. Instead, it’s about what trade-offs we each decide to make.

A lot of conflict comes from very fraught moral areas. And from people who, rather than being listened to, are just shut down. They’re told their views are nasty and horrible.

When, actually, they’re in pain. And the pain is real. If you don’t listen to them and you don’t respect them, the conflict is just going to get worse.

You mention in the book how useful it is to give status away to others.

Well, status is more valuable than money. People often opt for better job titles over money because it’s that important. But the great thing about status is it’s free.

We get our status from other people. They offer it to us when we show ourselves to be of value. We often hoard it but being prepared to give status away, I think, is a genuinely good life skill. Even for quite cynical, strategic reasons.

Because if you’re the kind of person that gives status away, you’re going to be the kind of person that people want to be around. It’s going to rebound back onto your reputation and rising status.

No one ever won the status game… When psychologists look for the point where our need for status shuts off, they can’t find it. It’s not there.

WILL STORR
Is status the same for everyone?

The problem today is the quality of status that’s on offer. In modern capitalism our status largely comes from our jobs. We work for these huge corporations where the quality of the status on offer is low.

For centuries we were working our own land. We had the satisfaction of growing crops, looking after the herd and building the local church. We were sincerely religious people. And being a true believer gives you a legitimate and powerful form of status. But now we live in a sort of ‘post-religious’ age.

A while ago I was doing a story for The Observer about Josh Brandon, Britain’s most successful male escort. I went back to the village where he came from, Ammanford in Wales. I asked his friends and family why somebody like Josh would want to leave Ammanford.

One of his friends told me there used to be mines in the village. Pretty much everyone worked there. It was tough but people were very proud of their work. Then the mines were closed. But there were still local businesses – a butcher, a baker and so on. Until Tesco moved in.  

So now you’ve got this generation of young people who are (in his words) “stuck for the rest of their lives going up and down the aisles”. I thought that was so poetically put. And heartbreaking.

Because he’s right. If you go and work for your Dad’s butchers, you know you’re going to inherit the business one day. There’s a huge amount of status and pride in your work. It’s not the same standing behind the meat counter at Tesco.

There’s something in the quality of the status modern life offers us which I think is a huge subject. But it isn’t really spoken about.

The final line of the book is “The meaning of life is not to win, it’s to play.” Talk about that a little.

We know, anecdotally, that rich and famous people aren’t happy. Because we’re constantly measuring our status – not with the world but with our peers. So rich and famous people are competing with other rich and famous people.  

But no one’s ever won the status game. You can’t win. The brain never stops playing it. No matter how high you get, you want to get further. When psychologists look for the point our need for status shuts off, they can’t find it. It’s not there.

That’s different from power, incidentally. People don’t want a lot of power because it comes with responsibility and hassle. Not so with status: we get somewhere and we want to get further.

So I think a good life is not like those child stars you see, who have it all when they’re 18 before things go downhill the rest of their lives.

It’s a steady, perhaps even slow, climb. That’s what you want to be going for. A steady, slow climb in status as you’re becoming more expert (and more wise) as you get older. It’s easier said than done but I think there’s some truth to it.

The Status Game: On Social Position and How We Use It by Will Storr is published by William Collins.