The Status Games

The Status Game (2021) by Will Storr is a highly enjoyable read about how status influences our life, happiness and health outcomes. Status is an indicator of a person’s rank in the social hierarchy and even if you aren’t too much into status games, there is a lot to be known about how it works and its effects.

Workers ‘at the bottom of the office hierarchy have, at ages forty to sixty-four, four times the risk of death of the administrators at the top of the hierarchy’. This remained true with every step you took up or down the game. The lower you dropped, the worse your health and the earlier your death.

This is not a surprising finding as it’s pretty much true for all animals living in social hierarchies. The betas and gammas experience more stress than the alphas. It is thought that depression in humans and animals is a withdrawal from the status game to prevent further damage. “Suicide ‘concentrates among those who experience an increase in their social inferiority’ and occurs mostly ‘when people fall below”. People in countries with less inequality are generally happier than people in countries with high inequality. Happiness depends more on relative wealth than absolute wealth.

Storr distinguishes between three main status games

  • dominance (power, intimidation, etc.)
  • virtue (e.g. religiosity, loyalty, kindness, etc.)
  • success (wealth, competence, etc.)

He also mentions physical attractiveness but doesn’t seem to include it. Given how much time and money people spend on their looks, I would definitely include it. Success is much less specific than dominance and virtue, so I would at least add:

  • wealth (and Veblen’s conspicuous consumption as one of the main status games)
  • competence
  • physical attractiveness

The status games are their height during puberty. A status is closely tied to reproductive success evolutionarily speaking that shouldn’t be surprising. Here is how the status games play out in a typical junior high school:

With their game-playing cognition fully coming online, new arrivals found themselves being automatically sorted into a hierarchy of status games, with ‘trendies’, ‘ jocks’ and ‘preppies’ at the top and ‘nerds’, ‘burnouts’ and ‘mels’ at the bottom . ‘They’re judging you this year, and that’s what I don’t like,’ said one interviewee. ‘Because they never used to judge you last year … this year they’re judging you on what you look like, what clothes you wear, what kind of friends you hang out with. Like if your friend is a burnout, then you’re a burnout.’ Status games also formed around after-school activities that existed in an ‘informal hierarchy’ that was ‘generally agreed upon by the students’. The most prestigious game for boys was the basketball team whilst for girls it was the cheerleader squad (the rank of the ‘Creative Stitchery Club’ remains sadly unrecorded). The year Merten’s team visited, around fifty girls tried out for just eight cheerleader spots that were usually filled exclusively from a clique of ‘socially prominent’ girls.

Unfortunately, Storr doesn’t go into more depth here, which he should have as there are some very interesting patterns, which we take for granted because they are so common. To begin with, why should nerds be at the bottom and jocks be at the top or the dorky creative girls at the bottom and the bubbly cheerleaders at the top? Which big achievements do cheerleaders have to show off to earn the top spot? Very few, I would argue. Looking at history, it’s the nerdy guys and the dorky girls who have always advanced humankind, it has only become more obvious now with people like Elon Musk, who on top of not having friends was also bullied in school. And so were probably Newton the nerd and Galileo the geek.

Well, to be fair, this would be a hindsight bias. What about future success outcomes then? Nerds are more likely to attain higher positions and financial success than basketball players. The future success of a cheerleader may even be inversely related to her popularity in high school. Of course, that’s not how evolution works, in the past only the strong became the alphas and tech nerds are quite a recent phenomenon and they didn’t exist in the past, or did they?

There is another interesting element in this teen status game: cliquishness. The dominant players are typically parts of cliques, whereas the omegas aren’t. Of course, stupid! You may think, that’s what status is all about. But it’s almost as if the omegas in this case don’t know how to play the status games, as if they weren’t programmed by evolution to play them.

With their game-playing cognition fully coming online, new arrivals found themselves being automatically sorted into a hierarchy of status games, with ‘trendies’, ‘jocks’ and ‘preppies’ at the top and ‘nerds’, ‘burnouts’ and ‘mels’ at the bottom. ‘They’re judging you this year, and that’s what I don’t like,’ said one interviewee. ‘Because they never used to judge you last year … this year they’re judging you on what you look like, what clothes you wear, what kind of friends you hang out with. Like if your friend is a burnout, then you’re a burnout.’

The rules of the status games keep changing and the nerds just don’t get them. They don’t form cliques, they make friends with other nerds because they are the “leftovers” and because they have similar interests and personalities.

Storr considers the status games a human universal. But how come then, that some of us are so bad at playing them, or even reluctant to play them?

In Japan, more than half a million adults suffer ‘social withdrawal syndrome’, refusing to leave their bedrooms unless absolutely compelled to. These ‘hikikomori’ are ‘incapable of following the rules of society , the sociologist Professor Teppei Sekimizi has said. They find connection and status too difficult to reliably achieve, strongly agreeing with questions such as: ‘I cannot blend into groups’ and ‘I am anxious about what others might think of me.’ Many stay locked up for years. Some die alone. And this, ultimately, is the choice facing each one of us: hikikomori or play.

Why are the hikikomori incapable of playing the status games? And why are they so similar to nerds in our Western world (interest in technology, computer games, manga, etc.)? Are there any other people who don’t dig the status games? Storr leaves out the huge number of neurodiverse people who do struggle, not only with the changing rules of the status games but even with their most basic aspects such as authority and hierarchy. I have argued that such people have a higher amount of hunter-gatherer genes vs farmer-herder adaptions. Storr would contradict me here:

One recent study found no evidence of significantly heightened stress in low status women of the the’egalitarian’ Hadza tribe of northern Tanzania. It’s sometimes claimed hunter-gatherers had no status game at all, and that we evolved in a kind of naive bliss of perfect equality. But it would be a mistake to conclude these shallow hierarchies are evidence we’re not programmed to care about status. On the contrary, writes the psychologist Professor Paul Bloom, ‘egalitarian lifestyles of the hunter-gatherers exist because the individuals care a lot about status. Individuals in these societies end up roughly equal because everyone is struggling to ensure that nobody gets too much power over him or her.’

Well, I agree that hunter-gatherers aren’t completely without status and the most successful hunters certainly have better chances at getting the desired mate or occasionally even two. However, hunter-gatherers really care about egalitarianism much more than about status. That is the reason why low-status Hadza women show no signs of heightened stress. The same women would show high levels of stress if they lived in a status-obsessed farmer-herder society, though.

So, status and the status games would be very different for you, depending on if your ancestors were mostly hunter-gatherer, farmer or herder types. These are basically the four temperaments that have been known since antiquity (with Myers-Briggs types in parentheses):

The status games would have been very different for each of these evolutionary environments. Wealth wouldn’t have mattered for foragers, but very much so for farmers and to a lesser extent for herders (restricted most to livestock due to mobility problems). On the other hand, the physical prowess games would be more highly important in pastoralists than farmers. Fast life history (r-selection) was probably also in play in the transition from foraging to farming and even more increasingly so to herding. This would have resulted in increasing mating effort (vs parenting effort) and hierarchy competition (including polygamy) among pastoralists. For foragers, competence and virtue (kindness and modesty) were the most important status indicators.

And voilà, here you have them, the nerds, dorks, high achievers, jocks and cheerleaders. They have been around for thousands of years, they just manifest themselves differently depending on the rules of the status games. At the dawn of civilization, they were equivalent with the three classes: landowners (farmers), artisans and soldiers (herders) and labourers and slaves (foragers).

If this model is true, you should be able to find the cliquish pastoralists among the teens with early puberty and the nerdy hunters among the teens with late puberty.

Will Storr has written a great book, but when he claims that we are all equally programmed to play the status games since the Stone Age I don’t find him credible. The differences in people’s programmings are very easy to spot nowadays. Polarizing figures like Trump, who play the dominance and wealth status games, are admired by some for his power and wealth and loathed by others ridiculing him for his incompetence and immorality (guess by who of the three “tribes” most). Just like Jonathan Haidt has found moral differences between liberals (more likely foragers) and conservatives (more likely farmers), there are differences in how these tribes play the status games. I personally value competence and kindness most of all in people and I am relatively indifferent towards wealth and generally opposed to dominance.

Ironically, with their focus on competence hunter-gatherer types have been achieving high status particularly in the past decades and dominate the status elite: top scientists and journalists, innovative entrepreneurs like Richard Branson and tech visionaries like Elon Musk are mostly hunter-gatherer types. These new elites are more likely to be found at high-brow intellectual events like TED talks and the World Economic Forum than showing off their luxury yachts like the rich elites used to.

For more information about the three “tribes” check out my book:

Originally published at on October 30, 2021.




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Andreas Hofer

Andreas Hofer


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