Running a race. Angling for a promotion. Thumbing through pictures of possible mates on Tinder. A game of bar trivia with friends. A political election. Two people talking over each other at a dinner party. Posting a blog on the internet. The search for the best pre-school for our children. Learning to play the guitar. Who eats how much and in what order. Cheering on our home nation at the Olympics. Cheering on our alma mater at the NCAA tournament. The clothes we wear. The cars we drive. The places we sit in meetings. The way we try to find the best home for our family.
What do all these seemingly different activities have in common? They are all different ways in which we seek out and claim status.
As social beings, status dynamics are the pervasive undercurrent of almost everything we do. Our lives are structured around a series of elaborately-constructed games that determine who has status in any given situation and who does not.
The rules that determine who gets status are complex and ever-evolving. Some status games matter very much (who has rights and who does not? how much does society value an hour of your labor?) and some status games matter very little (how fast did you do run the 10k this weekend?).
From an argument at a bar to a violent political rally, when you see a social conflict, think to yourself, who here is trying to claim status and from whom? There’s a good chance that the answers to those questions are easy to find. And there’s a good chance that when you find the answer, it will explain the conflict.
We rarely think of it in exactly these terms, but how we perform in status games, the strategies over which games we play and how, will be strongly correlated with many life outcomes, including wealth (citation needed), health, and even how long we live.
If you Google “status games,” the first few pages that come up are about improv comedy. It’s a well-established principle in improv that when you’re doing a sketch, everything works better if one person plays high status and everyone else plays low status. What this means is that one person leads the conversation and then everyone else goes along with what that person says. If everyone follows the leader and simply goes along with what she says, the trip down to the rabbit hole tends to be fun. But when another performer interrupts or changes the scene or competes for status, the conversation gets awkward.  Especially if the initial leader fails to cede high status.
And so it goes for other conversations. It’s easy to not notice this, but in almost every conversation, there is always someone who takes the lead and others who follow. If not, people talk over each other, and the conversation gets awkward and difficult.
Taking the lead in a conversation is a claim for status. If multiple people in a conversation are not at least temporarily willing to cede status, then the conversation turns into a battle of egos. In a healthy conversation among friends, peers take turns taking the lead in the conversation, sharing personal stories or experiences, and then listening while their friends do the same. Those that insist on telling their own stories without then ceding and listening to others’ stories tend to be more dominant – or at least think they are. In a conversation among status equals, taking on a dominant role is not socially acceptable behavior.
To demonstrate this point, researchers observed a series of Larry King’s interviews with famous celebrities. The researchers observed:
When Larry was interviewing someone perceived to be highly prestigious, Larry shifted his vocal frequencies to match his guest’s patterns. However, when he was interviewing those perceived to be of lower status than Larry himself, it was the guests who automatically and unconsciously shifted to match Larry’s frequency. Larry most strongly accommodated George Bush, a sitting American president, as well as to Liz Taylor, Ross Perot, and Mike Wallace, and a presidential candidate, Bill Clinton. Meanwhile, Dan Quayle, Robert Strauss, and Spike Lee accommodated to Larry. Sometimes neither person shifted to match the other, such as when Larry interviewed a young Al Gore. These conversations were perceived as difficult, perhaps because both individuals saw themselves as being higher status than their partner, so neither would defer.
Joseph Heinrich, The Secret of Our Success, How Culture is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter (emphasis mine).
Like it or not, every human interaction is a status game. Most people defer to their bosses, parents, and prestigious members of their community. The opposite is true for subordinates, children, the elderly, and service professionals. Family dynamics are usually less structured and clear-cut, which is why you are much more likely to get into an intense screaming match with your brother or spouse than with another social peer. If you get into a screaming match with your teenage son, it’s probably because he’s trying to establish his place and you are trying to defend yours. Do the same with your boss and you’ll probably lose your job. Do the same with a cop or a judge and you’ll end up in jail or worse.
(If you aren’t interested in philosophy, skip to section III)
“All Models Are Wrong, But Some Models Are Useful”
Ludwig Wittgenstein was among the most important philosophers of the 20th century. For those of you unfamiliar with him, he has a heck of a life story.
But he’s most relevant to this discussion because, in the second half of his career, he mostly stopped trying to solve problems in philosophy. Instead, he adopted an approach that simply observed and commented upon what most people have considered to be philosophical problems.
The main tool he used to do this was the concept of what he referred to as language games.
I’ll defer to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy to summarize how Wittgenstein used this tool:
Throughout the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein returns, again and again, to the concept of language-games to make clear his lines of thought concerning language…. ‘Regular’ language-games, such as the astonishing list provided in PI 23 (which includes, e.g., reporting an event, speculating about an event, forming and testing a hypothesis, making up a story, reading it, play-acting, singing catches, guessing riddles, making a joke, translating, asking, thanking, and so on), bring out the openness of our possibilities in using language and in describing it.
Language-games are, first, a part of a broader context termed by Wittgenstein a form of life (see below). Secondly, the concept of language-games points at the rule-governed character of language. This does not entail strict and definite systems of rules for each and every language-game, but points to the conventional nature of this sort of human activity. Still, just as we cannot give a final, essential definition of ‘game’, so we cannot find “what is common to all these activities and what makes them into language or parts of language” (PI 65).
It is here that Wittgenstein’s rejection of general explanations, and definitions based on sufficient and necessary conditions, is best pronounced. Instead of these symptoms of the philosopher’s “craving for generality”, he points to ‘family resemblance’ as the more suitable analogy for the means of connecting particular uses of the same word. There is no reason to look, as we have done traditionally—and dogmatically—for one, essential core in which the meaning of a word is located and which is, therefore, common to all uses of that word. We should, instead, travel with the word’s uses through “a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing” (PI 66).
Rather than attempting to use this language-games model as a means of resolving all philosophical problems, Wittgenstein viewed this approach as creating a “means that the philosophical problems should completely disappear.” (PI 133) By letting go of the illusion that we can resolve certain philosophical problems, because of the inherent vagueness of language and the amorphous structure of language games, according to Wittgenstein, we should simply try to let the problems go.
As with Wittgenstein’s model of language games, the first step to thinking through status games is to observe them. Simply gain awareness of when you are playing. Not every low status situation is so bad, and most institutions require more low-status contributors than high status contributors. Maybe you enjoy being an assistant coach, a non-lead member of a social group, or a junior employee at your firm and you don’t want additional responsibility. There’s nothing wrong with that. Most of us play low status much of the time, just to make things go smoothly. That’s what “please” and “thank you” is all about.
But perhaps there are situations where you have greater expertise than someone who is claiming high status. When do you claim high status? A few weeks ago I was at a dinner party, and a person at the party was saying all sorts of ludicrous and inaccurate things about the people of Barcelona. I lived there for three years, and so my instinct was to want to correct her. But this person was a bit of a know-it-all. Not the kind of person who cedes status in conversations easily. I’m fairly confident I could have made my point to the group and prevailed based on my superior knowledge and experience that I was right and that she was wrong. But given the context and the situation (it was, after all, a dinner party) that almost certainly would have reflected worse on me than on her. And so I said nothing.
But there are some moments in your life when it is critical to claim high status. When if you do not claim high status, you will become a doormat. While I might defer at a dinner party, there are certain professional situations, as an attorney, where I cannot defer and do my job properly. For example, on occasion, clients will disagree with my recommendations. There are some situations where I might lay out the options, make a recommendation, and leave it to the client to decide what to do. But there are other situations, where, if a client does not agree with my recommendation, I will terminate my relationship with the client. Because the risk of the situation going badly for them (and the firm) is sufficiently great that I am not willing to play low status.
One of the first concepts you learn in negotiating is the concept of BATNA. Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement. What that means is that in all negotiations, you should always keep top of mind a firm point at which if the counterparty is not willing to give you what you want, you will walk away. If the counterparty won’t acknowledge what you perceive to be your true value and status, you will go seek that status elsewhere.
You have to carefully pick a few scenarios when you insist on playing high status – and accept that as a moment where you must be prepared for a confrontation.
Confrontation is what happens when two claim high status in the same situation. Either one cedes to the other, or the claim must be resolved in some other way.
I have a bird feeder outside my window. There, status competitions are in evidence every day. A little bird darts up to the feeder, peeks around, quickly grabs what it can, only to be chased away by a bigger bird, who is the then chased away by a flock of bigger birds, who then get chased away by our dogs. The titmice defer to the bluebirds, who defer to the juncos, who defer to the scrub jays, who defer to ravens and hawks. Rinse, repeat.
Chimpanzees and bonobos are very similar primate species – the two closest genetically to humans. They evolved on opposite sites of the Congo river, starting about a couple of million years ago when the river formed. The chimps’ social structure is governed by an alpha male that bullies rivals and competitors into following his lead, and the rest fall into line. The bonobo social structure is matriarchal, egalitarian, and highly affectionate and even sexual. If a single chimp from one troop wandered into another’s territory, it would almost certainly be gang-attacked and killed. The equivalent bonobo might be in for an orgy.
And so it is with different human societies.
We are not apes with a crystal-clear pecking order. Our status games are complex and ever evolving. What determines status is not universal across cultures or time periods or social groups.
Humans evolved through most of our history to keep high-status people in check. Throughout most if not all hunter-gatherer societies (which is to say, all of human existence until about 10,000 years ago), the hunter-gatherer band was fiercely egalitarian. Standing out as an alpha could lead to social shaming, peer rejection, banishment from the tribe (the result of which was likely death), and actual capital punishment. See, Christopher Boehm, Hierarchy in the Forest, The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior.
So if bragging on social media (whether you are doing it or others are doing it), taking credit for a job well done, or acknowledging your own success makes you feel squeamish, it’s probably because we are hardwired to think that this is dangerous behavior. Because for most of human history, it was.
But there’s little question that most developed societies today reward active self-promotion. The same personality types that would have been banished from society or killed by the tribe a few millennia ago are the same ones living in mansions today. If you want to be survive and thrive today, you have to do the very things that we are genetically hardwired not to do.
So each of us must find the balance of which games to play when, and what status roles to choose. For many of us, to do anything other than playing low status all the time will make us feel awkward and uncomfortable.
There’s no single rule for how to resolve status conflict. Being aware of life’s conflicts and thinking of them as status games doesn’t solve problems with status. Nor does it make high status easier to achieve. Valuable status symbols, from an Olympic medal to a Tesla Model X, are by definition difficult to obtain.
But knowing about the pervasiveness of these undercurrents makes us better aware of our motivations for doing what we do. And knowing that our real motivations are more often related to status that we might initially admit. This awareness also helps us to think of life’s decisions strategically, which most people are terrible at doing. And for me, thinking of these life choices as games gives a certain lightheartedness and playful context to them.
I used to think that I didn’t care about any status games. That I chose jobs, clothes, colleges, cars, and friends not based on prestige or status, but based on substance. That I preferred quality of life over status. But the older I got, the more I realized that status games were happening all around me, whether I like them or not. That I had better participate in status games at least some of the time, or I would be completely ignored or rejected.
To ignore or reject all status games is to not participate in life.
There’s no getting around it, unfortunately. Perhaps you could argue that someone such as a Buddhist monk, someone who seeks to be invisible in service for others, has a life without status or hierarchy considerations. But even then, there is usually a monk in charge of the monastery. Someone had to buy or donate the land on which the monastery is located. There is status within the monastery based on experience or having attained satori. Thus, even for those who purportedly abandon status as a way of life, status games still arise.
The only real exception to status games is solitary confinement. Which has been shown to basically make just about any person go insane. We are designed to view our existence and understand our position in the world as it relates to others. While we often think of ourselves as independent persons who are capable of guiding our own path to self-actualization, so much of our self-conscious thoughts are guided by how we are perceived by and how we interact with others. (See, Others in Mind, Social Origins of Self-Consciousness, Phillipe Rochat). Our relative status with others guides nearly all of our thoughts.
Last year, I wrote a post that asked the question, “why are there so few high status threshold workers?” The post was about why high-status people were obsessed with working so much. You might assume that when someone had obtained lots of money, that they would be inclined to work less. But that’s not usually the way it goes down. There’s plenty of evidence that the people who can most afford to stop working or work less or retire are the ones who work the most. Those who have the most money and can most afford to retire are the least likely to do it.
Tyler Cowen explains this by saying, “it turns out, people like to work.” I’m not so convinced by that as a complete explanation. My theory is that the people who are obsessed with relative status never stop thinking about their relative status.
Lawyers are great for stories about relative status-obsession. Because in my experience, no profession is more status obsessed.
To quote a prior story from that post:
I remember when I first went to law school, the salaries of first-year lawyers were $125,000 a year at all of the major law firms (it’s now $180,000). To someone who had been accustomed to living well on 1/10th of that as an English teacher in Barcelona, this seemed an impossibly large salary to me. One of my best friends in law school, though, was from New York and had many friends who had already been through law school, and who were already working those jobs. He told me that some of his friends struggled to live on that salary.
This was incomprehensible to me. How could a person make that much money struggle to live on that income? That’s insanity!
My friend gave me an explanation of why this happens, and why it’s so common, that has stuck with me to this day. He said, “You may think that $125,000 is a lot of money now, but everyone at the law firm makes at least that. Second-year lawyers make $135,000; third-year lawyers make $145,000. All the partners, of course, make millions a year. Right now, $125,000 is a lot of money to you. But when you get to the law firm, all it makes you is the poorest person in your new social circle.”
That same friend told me another story about a Yale law professor, one who provided a good example about how the games never end. Before coming to Yale, this professor had made partner at Cravath, Swain, and Moore, perhaps the most prestigious law firm in the world. There, he worked non-stop, 3000-or-more billable hours a year, got paid an enormous amount of money, and then was rewarded– with more work. Through all of this hard work, he was eventually rewarded by the firm as they made him a partner.
What happened then? More work and more money.
He described his experience of going for partner as akin to a 10-year pie-eating contest. And then, when he finally won the contest, the prize for winning the competition was more pie.
Status games, indeed.
People who have the highest status in society rarely, if ever, stop obsessing over ever-higher status.
I first started thinking about writing this post when I was following the online coverage of a long-distance race called the Barkley Marathons. For those unfamiliar, it is probably the hardest footrace in the world. In 25 years, only 14 people have ever finished. There’s a great documentary on Netflix that summarizes the history. It covers 100-plus miles, through dense forest, with over 60,000 feet of elevation gain. But those numbers don’t even begin to describe how hard it is.
This year had a particularly dramatic finish. A runner was on pace to finish just before the 60-hour cutoff, got lost just before the finish, and then staggered to the finish, in the wrong direction, six seconds after the cut-off. Hundreds if not thousands of hours of training, all for nothing, simply because of a small mistake, in a state of complete exhaustion, nearly 60 hours into a race.
To have any hope of finishing this race, you have to train hard. I mean, hard in a way that most people can’t even imagine. 20-30 hours a week of hard mountain running, on the toughest terrain, for weeks and months and years. Up and down mountains, pounding your quads into submission. You have to develop an immunity to exhaustion that combines a medical resident’s ability to overcome sleep deprivation and a war prisoner’s ability to withstand discomfort. And even then, you probably have little to no chance to finish in the allotted time. The whole point of the race is that the race director has created a course that is essentially impossible to complete. And then people try to finish it anyway.
On the surface, it’s just so much work for so little reward. 99% of the earth’s population doesn’t even know that this race exists. There is no prize money. There’s not even a cheap plastic medal for finishers. The only reward, if you do somehow manage to finish this grueling competition, is that you and a few of your ultra-runner friends know that you did it.
Stupid perhaps. But its popularity keeps growing every year.
Status games, when taken to extremes, can be funny things.
Is the pie-eating contest law partner making better life choices than the ultra-runner? Or should we look to the vast majority of people who don’t take their status competitions to such extremes as our models? Does any of this stuff really matter?
To the extent that I have an answer, it’s that we all need something to motivate us to get up in the morning. Our motivations are the status games we play. For ourselves. For others. It’s just what we decide to do with our days. And what we decide to do with our lives. And so I like to think of these status games in much the same way as I think of board games. Engage, think through the games strategically, but best not to take them too seriously. Sometimes you win; sometime you lose. Sometimes you win or lose because of strategies within your control. Sometimes you win or lose because of things outside of your control.
Ultimately, all of life’s status games end the same way. But life’s no fun if you don’t get in there and play.
 For those interested in reading more, this theme is the main focus of the excellent Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre by Keith Johnstone.
 I might have some family members who would question how good I am at not taking board games seriously.