Status games

Just finished a podcast from Jordan Harbinger show, where he interviewed Will Stor, an author who wrote about the status games that we play. It wasn't quite the Grand Unifying Theory that explained all of human behaviour, but the reach of status motivations is wide. A lot of what we see in the news, social media, celebrity, workplace, ambitions is driven by status.

A few salient points stuck with me. First was the 3 kinds of status currencies - dominance, prestige and virtue. Dominance is the oldest game, determined by brute force and hard power. This is what drives international politices, the animal kingdoms, high school cliques and playground dynamics. There was a period of time where I was conscious about my height, and would compare my height against the popular or athletic boys in my school. It seemed all-important back then, but looking back now, it's hilarious. There is something about being in close proximity (this was in high school, way before Covid) that makes physical dominance seem important. But I quickly outgrew that, as even in the raging hormonal years of puberty, the Singapore education system made clear that it rewards success, and the underlying social scene respects prestige.

The second point is that status awareness is hardwired in humans. I believe it was Jordan Peterson's 12 Rules for Life that talked about how even lobsters, one of the earliest invertebrates, determine hierarchy via fights. Roost dynamics among chickens gave rise to the term "pecking order". The implication is that status awareness is a very prehistoric, deeply-rooted trait of animals and by extension humans. Of course, we evolved over time to pursue more refined status games of virtue and competence, but it is essentially the same zero-sum game. I wonder if these status games evolved to solve the problem of the distribution of limited resources among a population.

Finally, status is conveyed through a few means - the way the person acts, what other people think etc. The biggest insight for me here is that status has to be communicated. Competence or beauty inherently has no value if nobody knows about it. The extension of this logic is that status can be hacked, by optimising its projection. I suspect this partially accounts for incompetence in high positions. Among the population I hang out with, predominantly engineers, there is always a sense of unfairness or even puzzlement when they realise that some famous or high-ranking person is, in actuality, less logical or intelligent than them. This stems from a lack of understanding of how the world works, which is far more nuanced, complex and impefect from a platonic meritocracy.

Eventually, the podcast ended on the message that status games can never be won, for statuses are fragile concepts conferred by other people, but some status games can have benefits for societies, such as virtue competitions in philantrophic fundraisers. To me, it both reinforced my realisation that status games aren't worth playing in the first place, in whichever form, as well as giving me lenses to understand why I felt a certain way in the past. I distinctly remember several junctures in my career where, after a meditation retreat, I'd focus on being selflessly, quietly useful behind the scenes. That focus, though it resonated positively as the right thing to do logically, also triggered a sense of unease. I couldn't quite pin down what that was, but I now I understand that to be status anxiety. I was opting out of the status game, and with that, its accompanying rewards. Status is a social mechanism that tribes evolved to determine how to optimally allocate resources to members most likely to protect and contribute, and ultimately enhance the chances of the genes propagating. Status-seeking is therefore a very deeply ingrained drive, which explains the pre-verbal, subconscious anxiety I felt.

But as Sam Harris says, evolution optimises for the gene and not the host. And as the host, recognise that we have the agency to break free from evolutionary drives, for our individual benefit. And thus, I arrive at my new happy place, which is to actively opt out of status games in the sense that I erase any illusion that statuses will provide me any long-lasting happiness, while still understanding how it works with the people around me.

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