This document was written by Luc Beaudoin. It’s not particularly polished.
This document contains notes written mostly in preparation for the February 26 of my local humanist group’s monthly meeting. I had asked members to think about
What’s Right in, and What’s Missing from, The Status Game book by Will Storr?
The book is about “Social Position and How We Use it”. You can read about the book on Goodreads.
I will point to
- the concept of social signaling (e.g., Virtue Signaling per The Elephant in the Brain),
- Richard Wrangham’s, The Goodness Paradox,
- Michel Aubé’s commitment theory of emotions, and
- some other concepts and references.
Storr wrote an article in The Guardian about his book. Online, you can find interviews of Storr including by Sam Harris. There is a lot of material to work from.
Or members can just arrive, learn and contribute.
Storr’s primary expository objective is the same as mine, i.e., understanding human nature (oneself and others). We recognize that understanding ourselves and others is inherently valuable. Such understanding can be leveraged for personal and societal well-being.
Like myself, Storr wants his explanations to be evolutionarily plausible and account for as much human behavior and data as possible. Storr has had a longstanding interest in understanding why some people have and voice beliefs that are (to more rational people) obviously false and even risky, such as conspiracy thinking. He sought to understand: what is the payoff for such behaviors.
His explanation: humans are designed to play status games. Like most games, status games have rules. To succeed in any game, one must follow the rules. Status games are competitive.
Why bother playing status games? Aren’t they beneath virtuous and successful people? We play, and must play, these games for two reasons:
- First to be admitted into groups [Groups] (every group plays at least one set of status games).
- Secondly, to ascend in status in the group.
What backs the former rationale? Historically, it is adaptive to participate in groups. Groups tend to (a) provide and share resources; (b) protect their members. Obviously, one’s odds of surviving and mating are higher if one participates in groups. What backs the latter rationale? As one rises in status, one is allocated better protection and more resources. One will raise objections, such as the sword of Damocles. Storr does a good job of handling them. And in many places where he fails, we can fortify his argument. I have added a few caveats of my own, below. For example, Storr points out that a typical rule of the status game is to fairly achieve one’s increments in status. For instance, you lose points if the group finds you’ve cheated or boasted.
Storr points to 3 types of status games, assigning them a rough phylogenic sequence and time frame.
- Dominance games. Brute strength, power.
- Virtue games. Think of the pope, British monarchy, and wokeism.
- Competence games.
In a previous humanist meeting we discussed Richard Wrangham’s excellent book, The Goodness Paradox. It explains virtue games and, to an extent, competence games.
Storr claims that happiness (psychosocial adaptation and medical well being) are a function of one’s status and the number of groups one participates in. (Itself a big idea: we participate in many groups, and our status can be high in one group, and low in another). Here I would point to research by Robin Dunbar and others on friendship. I bet this accounts for more variance and fine details than status games. However, the two theories are compatible. In some respects, friendship theory is less general, because status games play out with non-friends too (e.g., colleagues, social media).
Story-telling and heroism
According to Storr’s theory, to win status games you need not only convince others that you are worthy of the status you seek; also you need to convince yourself. For instance, Storr believes conspiracy theorists wholeheartedly buy into their theories.
Storr points to a storytelling instinct. Some members of our our humanist group will remember I presented on A Mind So Rare by Merlin Donald, which illuminates mythic consciousness.[Footnote-cos] Storr believes people make themselves the heroes of their stories. I think there is a lot to that, though there are exceptions (e.g., imposture syndrome.)
Should we be ashamed of playing status games?
Storr, Harris and I for that matter agree that most of us pretty much ought to play status games, particularly virtue and competence games. People who are insufficiently perceived as virtuous are at risk of expulsion. The more competent we are, the more potentially valuable we are to the group. We “win”, or advance, in the competence game if we provide value to each other.
A friend of mine is at an advanced stage of Parkinson’s. He can hardly talk. So he can’t play the game very well anymore. However, even he, I am sure, continues to be motivated by the game.
I agree with Storr that civilization would not exist if it were not for our evolutionary status motivations, though I will qualify that below. Technology would not exist without social motivation to impress one’s peers and prove to them through our work that we offer value. Evolution does not strongly favor unconditional positive regard for non-family members. Even with respect to children, consider Randy Thornhill’s claim that infanticide was previously a major cause of mortality, second to contagious disease. Sophie’s choice is easier if one of your five children’s reputation endangers the lives of the four others.
Also, there are very non-cynical ways of understanding and participating in status play. It’s OK to take pride in great work, and to seek admiration of others. Hans Selye argued that we need to replace the Christian motto of “Love Thy Neighbor” with “Earn thy neighbor’s love”. Hear! Hear!
No one ought to be above feeling shame — a concept that presupposes status motivation. Even doctrines of egalitarianism at least implicitly recognize the importance of status. Egalitarians don’t want others to have higher status than themselves.
Further, like other games, it’s not about whether you win or lose the status game, but how you play the game. And many, perhaps most, social groups take away status for egregious behavior.
Some status games are counterproductive. Storr does a reasonable job of explaining many horrific behaviors in terms of status motivation.
Status games gone wrong: Culture wars and humiliation
At first blush, explaining conspiracy thinking and culture warring is easy. But first, second and many subsequent impressions or hypotheses here are misleading. One might condescendingly attribute conspiracy thinking to low IQ, personality differences, or psychopathology. (Who hasn’t?) But the data belie this explanation. Social constructionist and postmodern theories fail just as miserably and perversely (see this more general critique). A more sophisticated explanation, accounting for much more of the data, implicates thinking dispositions: such as intellectual laziness and the need for closure (e.g., applying Keith Stanovich’s What intelligence tests miss: The psychology of rational thought theory.) While the latter mechanisms are definitely at play, no purely cognitive theory can fully explain conspiracy thinking.
We need a social-cognitive evolutionary theory to explain why very smart people who are very intellectually zestful (not the majority of the folks whose behavior we want to explain) fail to apply their meta-cognitive capabilities. Not any old social-cognitive theory will do the job (e.g., the argumentative theory of reasoning fails).
William Storr tentatively applies his Status Game theory to the problem. He illustrates his explanation with many examples. Now, coherence between theory and data does not imply truth, as Olivia Guest and Andrea E. Martin have recently reminded research psychologists. At any given time, to explain complex psychological data one needs several models.
Social status is only borrowed and always at risk. Humiliating events can have major psychological and social consequences, including for some : obloquy.
Storr and Harris point to such status-disrupting events as causes of some major political upheavals: Lenin and Trump being prime examples.
Storr partly explains the violent behavior of some ‘incels’ that way too.
Assessing and improving upon Status Game theory
I think The Status game has earned its place as a contributor to understanding much of the data for which Storr has tried to account. It has augmented my toolkit for understanding a wide range of phenomena. Here I will mention some quibbles and pointers towards complementing the theory.
First a couple of general comments. (a) I would however urge the reader to first understand and assess the theory by himself. (b) I’ve developed the CUP’A framework for assessing knowledge resources, which is meant to help any interested adult — lifelong learners, students and experts. But I have not structured this criticism accordingly.
In assessing any psychological theory, I always apply the integrative design-oriented approach. I try to account for a broad range of capabilities in light of the best theories I have incorporated in my toolkit, while being open-minded to revising my prior beliefs. A rare benefit of aging is having processed a large amount of data and theories (not an argument from authority, just noting something that has sustained my equanimity in the face of mortality and all those whippersnappers playing the competence game with me [I would not say “against”, it’s not zero-sum game; if they score some points, I get to use their knowledge]).
My biggest problem with this book is that it tries to make too much of a single idea. Even with its scaffolding it doesn’t hold up. yes status motivators (“status instincts”, “status drives”) exist. But they are not the fundamental or paramount unit of social motivation. Social signaling is a much more fundamental concept. Hence my allusion to The Elephant in the Brain by Robin Hanson) above. In turn, Hanson borrowed the core idea for his book from The Mating Mind book by Geoffrey Miller (without sufficient attribution in my opinion).
Speaking of mating: status is a small part of mating strategies involved in a relationship. Yes, each mate tries to show off a certain status. But mate are signaling about and for more than status. And once a pair have bonded, status games within a relationship will tend to tear it apart.
Richard Wrangham’s, The Goodness Paradox, provides a more fundamental set of explanations than status games. Sure, Storr draws on the Wrangham’s work. But in many places one can point to The Goodness Paradox, sans emphasizing status play.
Like all of the above books and theories, Storr’s theory lacks essential concepts that an integrative design-oriented approach are meant to deliver. For instance, none of them recognize the key concept of architecture-based motivation. One cannot make sense of tacit (not necessarily even unconscious experience) . I explain this in my Cognitive Productivity: Using Knowledge to Become Profoundly Effective book.
Another little problem with Storr’s book is that it fails to invoke two forms of effectance in his accounts of motivation. The first form comes from Robert Wright. You can’t make sense of the drive for expertise without the second version of that concept, which I specified in Cognitive Productivity: Using Knowledge to Become Profoundly Effective. In a nutshell, effectance is motivation for competence. Much of it is architecture-based, meaning that people simply do things to become more competent. Consider a young child engrossed in play. Young children do not typically play in order to impress others. They play simply because they want to play. And this is due to innate dispositions to react to play opportunities — not status opportunities. Play leads to increased social and intellectual competence.
Also missing in action is the concept of motivation for commitment. Here I am thinking about Michel Aubé’s theory of emotions, which I have often mentioned on this blog. Which my colleagues and I also leverage in our SIP theory of sleep onset and insomnolence. [SIP: somnolent information processing theory]. One of the most fundamental human motivations is to obtain, protect, and manage commitments. Status is an important part of this, but it is not the full picture. And again commitment motivation is more general. It is due to such motivation that we want status.
The end gain is not status but commitments.
Similarly, social signaling is mainly in service of commitments. Commitments are proxies for human resources. In Aubé’s theory all human emotions serve commitments.
To be fair, Storr would agree that status is not an end but a means. My main beef is that one cannot understand status motivation without the concepts above. And those concepts are relational, involving other concepts (motive generators, filters, executive functions, etc. per Beaudoin et al (2020) Mental perturbance: An integrative design-oriented concept for understanding repetitive thought, emotions and related phenomena involving a loss of control of executive functions.
Every high-level psychological characteristic, including status motivation varies due to innate, acquired and developmental processes (not that these 3 categories are mutually exclusive). Innate by Kevin J. Mitchell is a recent update on the topic. Storr’s book doesn’t go into much detail here. He does devote an entire chapter to “Male, Grandiose, Humiliated”. In various places he points to personality, including narcissism and conscientiousness. On the whole the book is not very informative regarding innate processes. However, those of us interested in innateness can read in Storr’s books many questions to ask in terms of innateness (e.g., looking into positive feedback loops; individual differences in effectance).
The Status Game appeals to story instinct, but it doesn’t have much to say about story telling outside of status games. However, this will be the topic of his next book. I would recommend he consider Merlin Donald’s book to which I alluded above, and a 2018 humanist presentation of mine: We(e) Sense-makers. And perhaps or Learning from Stories project.
Another quibble is that Storr confounds “World 2” (mental realm) and “World 3” (objective realm). He defines status “as the feeling of being valued”, and yet he also treats it in an objective fashion. Worlds one to three are part of Popper’s ontology. The concept is also expounded in Carl Bereiter’s excellent Education and Mind in the Knowledge Age (should be required reading for anyone in Education). In Cognitive Productivity: Using Knowledge to Become Profoundly Effective, I modernized Popper’s ontology, introducing the notion of “World 2′”.
A more substantial problem is how Storr treats self-knowledge of status play. He excuses people for conveying false ideas ( conspiracy thinking, post-modernism, etc.) by arguing that they play the game unconsciously. I would add some nuance here. To strengthen Storr’s argument I point to classic cognitive psychology research in the tradition of Richard E. Nisbett and Timothy DeCamp Wilson “Telling More Than We Can Know: Verbal Reports on Mental Processes”. In a nutshell, most mental life is unconscious and we are quickly forget contents of sensory memory and working memory. However, consciousness is also required to guide and shape behavior — in truly autonomous agency. When we take a new course of action, we need to [yes, we must] load multiple constraints into consciousness. We don’t just flail about; Skinner was wrong about our machinery. Consider J.L. Austin seminal analyses of legal cases and intentionality. We don’t let people off the legal hook because they forget their initial motives. The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life is ripe with examples of forgotten or conveniently self-ignored motives. So, ,I grant that people often forget their original motives. But let’s not make people out to be stupider than they are. We cannot understand/explain their behavior — or purposive behavior writ large — without imputing consciousness of initial purpose. (Anyone interested: my Ph.D. thesis was : Goal Processing in Autonomous Agents. In his more recent Ph.D. thesis, Gareth Roberts, studied how constraints are used in intelligent behavior.
Storr’s framework (with the improvements to which I alluded above ) can be used to explain peer-review criticism, including this post. That’s a “strange loop”, as Douglas Hofstadter puts it. ( Gödel, Escher, Bach) I love Strange Loops! Also a theme in my Discontinuities and much of my writing. The love of strange loops also explains itself. In a nutshell: a great way to develop and signal competence is to fairly assess and improve upon the book of another. The CUP’A framework I developed in Cognitive Productivity books, which builds upon the best, lays out the rules of the game. Writing word salad and passing it off as expository when it is just art is not fair. It counts as cheating in the status game of rigorous philosophy and science. And yet as we saw in a recent humanist meeting, it is increasingly common.
An extra positive
Of the many helpful concepts in The Status Game, I particularly like the notion of a status detection system. This involves motive generators. The concepts of motivators and motive generators are extremely difficult to convey. I’ve started using the status threat detection system, and threat detectors as an example of motivators/ motive generators.
The Genius on Cleveland street
Here’s a related blog post of mine on social signaling: Why Is A Christmas Story — The Musical — So Hilarious? Inside Jokes, The Mating Mind and Mental Spaces We’d Rather Not Explore – CogZest
I wrote this document in BBEdit in Markdown format. I pasted the HTML in Grammarly. I hooked my draft to the Grammarly web page. When I was done I pasted the lot in WordPress.
Groups.: “Group” IMO is not the best term. There are different collections at play. Tribes, organizations, alliances, groups. But that’s a quibble. I’ll use the term “group” here
. Footnote-cos I used Donald’s theory in developing a theory of, and techniques to influence, the sleep-onset control system).