4 January 2022

From social media spats to civil wars, status anxiety underpins everything we do

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Late last year, I came across long-form chat-show Triggernometry’s interview with science writer Will Storr. In it, Storr applies research from his latest book, The Status Game, to the emergence of what we’ve now come to call ‘cancel culture’, especially as it manifests on social media.

I do not want for items to review. Most of the time, they arrive opportunistically, posted through my mail-slot. My policy is to give all comers a 100-page chance but to write about only those I find really striking (in any one of various ways).

The Status Game was different. After watching Storr’s interview, I requested a review copy. 

Perhaps, then, it may be best if you look at Triggernometry before reading what I say here. Storr showcases a rare skill the ability to use technical academic scholarship in solving a real-world problem. Of course, this is something lawyers and engineers (in particular) do daily. That’s the point of those professions: apply law or physics to the facts. But it’s much rarer (and much harder) outside occupations that require ‘applied’ thinking, as the extent to which universities have become nonsense factories discloses. 

The Status Game is an evolutionary account of why humans compete for status, how pervasive that competition can be, and why the form the status competition takes determines whether it’s socially constructive or destructive. Scrabbling for prestige really can motivate people to be both utter shits and utter heroes. The book is no less remarkable than Storr’s interview and it covers a great deal more ground.

I went outside for a sneaky ciggy after I’d finished it at 2am, which is always a sign that I’ve appreciated something: I can usually turn literary interest on and off at a whim. Reading The Status Game made me think I’d donned X-ray goggles. It was as though all the trees in my little corner of Hampshire had angels sitting in them. 

Or, perhaps, devils. 

Competition for social status structures all human activity, and humans evolved to survive by cooperating in small bands of foragers. While the development of agriculture and the domestication of horses and cattle changed us (it’s why some people can consume milk in adulthood and others can’t), most of our evolutionary wiring is hunter-gatherer and pre-human hominid, and so not adapted to screens and smartphones. The most successful of our ancestors were those who achieved ‘approval and acclaim’ within their group. These people lived longer and had more children. ‘Evolution has programmed us to seek groups to join and then strive for rank in them,’ Storr points out. 

Even with the earliest foragers, there were three ways to win status. The first and oldest – shared with the high primates who so closely resemble us – is status by dominance. Dominance behaviour was nearly always male, with only a few unusually large and strong female ring-ins. Importantly, our lengthy evolution wiped out the nastiest and most violent dominance-seeking males. Every now and again, archaeologists find a skeleton, typically with the skull smashed in from behind. Foraging societies actively suppressed extreme male dominance to protect non-violent intra-group cooperation.

This evolutionary history has consequences in the present: human beings are the least reactively aggressive primate. Among our own, we’re ‘incredibly peaceful’, even more than bonobos, the famously peaceful ape. However, we’re as proactively aggressive as chimpanzees, and chimps are astonishingly violent. Proactive aggression involves planning to aggress; it requires imagination and foresight. It also means human violence is at its worst when we’re committed to our groups.

The other two games by which humans win status emerged once we’d come down from the trees: virtue and competence. Virtue status is based on moral qualities like courage, generosity, loyalty, and kindness. Competence or ‘success’ status turns on being able to do something skilful and of value to the group. Both virtue and competence status allowed people to win prestige non-violently, and unlike dominance games were far less gendered. While virtue-games are more typically female and competence games more commonly male, the overlap is huge. 

Unfortunately, winning virtue status can become a vehicle to achieve dominance status, the old-fashioned hominid ‘bash-his-head in-he’s-a-baddie’ behaviour one sees among chimpanzees. In human beings, virtue-dominance competition for status tends to manifest as religion or political ideology, which turn out – at least in evolutionary terms – to be closely related neurologically. 

In one of those creepy bits of writing that makes readers suspect they’ve woken up in the matrix, Storr describes how religious and political values, when connected to virtue status, light up the same parts of the human brain if people are placed in an MRI scanner. If you want to see this process and its close relationship to physical violence unfold in real time, watch comedian David Baddiel’s short documentary Social Media, Anger, and Us. At one point, neurologist Professor Sophie Scott stuffs Baddiel in an MRI tube and exposes him, serially, to complimentary tweets and then antisemitic or plain abusive tweets. His entire body engages with the latter; he must work hard to stop his ‘fight’ response going into overdrive.

There’s a subtle difference between the two non-violent ways of securing prestige, too. Competence-status is much more bottom-up, while virtue-status has a domineering and performative element to it. This explains the religious and political attraction, and how people can do something like perpetrate a genocide and still consider themselves on the side of the angels. 

Such is the beneficial effect of high status that The Status Game manages to explain any number of behaviours that, superficially, are baffling. One learns why most workers prefer a fancier job title over a pay rise, for example, or how having more power does not equal a happier life, or why once national incomes have risen past a certain point – average happiness plateaus. Our desire for status is insatiable in a way that desires for money or power are not. People are fine if everyone gets poorer, so long as they have more themselves, for example. As a Somali colleague with whom I once worked used to say when describing his country’s descent into chaos and warlordism, ‘the Caliph of ruins is still a Caliph’.

It turns out, too, that we need welfare states not just to ameliorate the problem of poverty but to flatten out inequality. Societies where there is too much relative deprivation – ie, everyone may be housed, fed, and clothed but there’s a vast gulf between those at the top and those at the bottom – are more vulnerable to civil disorder than more egalitarian places where there’s genuine poverty and hardship. Relatedly, it’s middle-income countries where a superannuated elite is locked in combat with a rising middle-class – the latter often shut out of status and power – that are more likely to have revolutions.

Unfortunately, status is a zero-sum game. Unlike the wealth pie, the status pie cannot be grown. The economic and legal tools people from the Roman jurists to Adam Smith worked out – which developed into capitalism, a system with ‘an almost magical capacity to raise living standards and life expectancy,’ – do not address the reality that, in evolutionary terms, if one group rises in status, others must fall.

The implications of this finding are grim, and Storr explores them with great sensitivity in an extraordinary section on Communism, with a special focus on Lenin. It turns out Lenin shared psychiatric traits with Elliot Rodger, the misogynistic spree killer. Both were ‘male, grandiose, and humiliated,’ a trifecta of danger and destructiveness he documents with surpassing rigour. Apart from that, the discussion of Marxism puts flesh on the bones of the famous EO Wilson quip, ‘wonderful idea, wrong species’.

‘The lesson many will find impossible to accept is this: never believe groups who claim they just want equality with rivals. No matter what they say, no matter what they believe, they don’t. They weave a marvellous dream of fairness for all, but the dream is a lie’.

And so, we return, as discussed on Triggernometry, to social media. Storr calls it a ‘slot machine for status’. It supplies affirmation with every like, but also encourages group against group competition, which is when humans are at their most dangerous. Anything that facilitates virtue-dominance status competition feeds into our outsized capacity for proactive aggression, the bad trait we share with the chimpanzee, our violent cousin. It doesn’t matter that social media’s ‘groupies’ are based on identity affiliations that are neither universal nor particularly salient. Evolution selects for joining groups, not the groups thereby joined.

Competence status provides the healthiest, most useful route to human flourishing. As it did for our forager ancestors, it makes life better for everyone and grows the size of the pie. Of course, it, too, can be undermined. Wernher von Braun was both a Nazi who exploited slave labour to build the V1 and V2 rockets and helped put man on the Moon. For competence status misuse to occur, however, virtue-dominance status must compromise the institutions in which people orientated to skill and success work. 

The Status Game is a moving yet scholarly account of how to stop that happening.

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Helen Dale read Law at Oxford and won the Miles Franklin Award for her first novel, 'The Hand that Signed the Paper'. Her latest novel is 'Kingdom of the Wicked'; it was shortlisted for the Prometheus Prize for science fiction.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.