Imagine that eons ago a pack of six wolves chase and bring down a deer. All six wolves are gentle souls, and eat the carcass while being respectful of one another.
An unlikely scenario, isn’t it? If that did happen (it couldn’t) in a few generations the situation would quickly change. One wolf would be born with a little aggression, and dominate the others to ensure it ate the best of the deer’s carcass. In times of little food that aggressive wolf would make certain it got fed, and be more likely to produce plenty of puppies and pass on its genes.
Its young might well inherit that aggressive trait, which means that after a few generations wolves would no longer be ‘gentle souls treating each other respectfully’. They would be aggressive dinner companions.
Does that mean that the wolves, becoming more aggressive after each generation in a type of ‘arms race’, would become utterly vicious dinner companions? No. Animals too aggressive would fight constantly, and the consequent wounds would become disabling or infected, and kill the wolves. A balance had to evolve: the wolves would be aggressive, yet not so aggressive to get into fights and succumb to injury or infection.
How could such a balance arise?
To answer that question, imagine a pack of aggressive wolves, and one of those wolves is born with the capacity to:
(1) sense the amount of aggression another wolf has. It could sense which wolves were more aggressive than itself, and stay out of their way, and it could sense which wolves were less aggressive than itself, and ensure it got fed before they did.
(2) It could sense accurately how well it would fare in a physical encounter.
Having both senses, that wolf would do very well, and live long enough to produce plenty of puppies. Result: all the wolves would, over time, develop the capacity to make fairly accurate judgments about their position in the ‘pecking’ order.
An inaccurate judgment would lead to a tiff and a readjustment.
That ‘pecking order’ is another way to say that the wolves would have evolved status. Importantly, once the wolves knew ‘their place’ in the pack, they could then form a true pack, with each wolf taking on a particular role for its position in the pack. That too would evolve over time. Some wolves would hunt, others would teach the pups to hunt, and others might look after the pups too young to hunt – each role at least partly determined by the wolf’s status in the pack.
Further, along with the allotted roles, the wolf ‘language’ would also develop in line with the growing complexity.
Today wolf packs are complex, with each wolf having a role to play, and with a complex ‘language’ of whines and postures. However, the example is contrived. Creatures evolved aggression, and the capacity to sense aggression in others, millions of years before wolves came into being. The purpose of the example was to explain why status evolved: it brings order, safety, efficiency, and complexity to a pack, and allows the pack to thrive. That’s why many species have evolved a sense of status. Including us.
Let’s look at us humans.
The more aggressive of our very early ancestors would have bullied the less aggressive members in the group to get better access to sexual partners, and better access to food, especially in famines. They would therefore have produced more children, who would likely inherit the aggressive traits. Does that mean there would there be an escalating ‘arms race’ of violence like we hypothesised for the wolves, eventually causing the group to self-destruct?
No, and for the same reason: along with that aggressive trait we would evolve the capacity to sense the aggression in others, and sense their ability to defeat us in a fight. We would modify our behaviour accordingly.
In other words, our early ancestors, way back, evolved a sense of status based on aggression. Would that help the tribe in the long run?
On one hand, yes. Like in the wolf example, to have tribal members having the capacity to sense whether they could win or lose a fight would prevent injuries and death. That would help the tribe grow. On the other hand, for a tribe to thrive, the importance of aggression would have to diminish. Like the wolves example, our early hominid ancestors slowly evolved to take defined roles in the tribe, based on status, and the tribe became efficient and successful. Some members would take the child rearing roles; others, the food collecting or hunter roles; and so on. And, because early hominids were capable of far more complexity than a pack of wolves, the tribe could significantly benefit from the diversity. As well, hierarchies within each niche would develop.
Let’s jump a few million years to where we became clearly human. Yes, there was (and is) still plenty of aggression: domestic violence, slavery, inter-tribal wars, bullying . . . but we also created religious and military hierarchies, aristocracies, caste and class systems. They work better than aggression to keep order in the tribe. Our innate need for status supports them.
The reasons why those hierarchies came about vary. Elders with knowledge and experience to make sharp decisions would gain respect and status as a result. In times of war, a charismatic and clever individual might have the ability to marshal and command supporters, and become the leader. An expert in a craft would become a respected teacher.
These experts were more likely to get access to food and to find a mate, and pass their genes on to the next generation. More significantly, the genes to want to be the expert, or to be the leader, were passed on to the next generation.
There is no way we could not have evolved an innate need for status. Anyone not seeking status would be dominated by those who did, and be less likely to pass on their genes.
Status works so well it’s found in every level of every human society. Nowadays, status is established by the profession one takes, the rank taken, the hours worked, athletic ability, salary, computer savvy, wealth, fame . . .
Monks, prisoners, and eccentrics establish status in different ways again.
Teenagers begin smoking to look cool and display maturity.
The opportunities to establish status are boundless.
It’s no use having status if we don’t establish it, so we also evolved a need to display status: in the form of initiation scars, bird-of-paradise headdresses, coloured belts in martial arts, jewellery, uniforms, epaulettes . . . When wealth is a measure of status in Western society it might be displayed in having the right address, or in being a member of an exclusive club. The term ‘prestige car’ clearly outlines its purpose. Flash suits exhibit high status, though some people with even higher status ensure they don’t wear one.
We are not born with an innate need to wear a feather headdress, drive a flash car, or wear an absurd watch; instead, we are born with a need for status, and that need can manifest as a headdress, a car or a watch . . . almost anything, depending on the mores of the culture. Status is a ‘loose cannon’ that can manifest itself in countless ways, many of them weird and wacky. It can influence our behaviour on levels so deep that no matter how absurd those behaviours would appear to an objective Martian observer, they seem natural and right to the person within the hierarchy. For example, in previous centuries, women in the Western world believed their status came from the man they married. (Still a common belief.) Men who didn’t have to work had high status. (Mid-morning was ‘the gentleman’s hour’.) Monks had high status if they stayed celibate for their entire life, slept on wood, and avoided all pleasures. How wacky is that? Up until the late 1900s, debutant cricketers playing for England were banished to separate changing rooms. That’s wacky.
And, how wacky is crushing an infant’s feet, and binding each crushed foot so tightly that it could fit into a shoe the size of a teacup? That’s what the Chinese did, for centuries.
What absurdities! But that’s what happens when we have an innate need we feel compelled to satisfy. With our need for status we have to expect absurdities. We evolved status because it has the distinct benefit of bringing order and stability to the tribe, but its manifestations can be so skewed they can make a society neurotic.
Today we have different measures of status, just as absurd, though it’s hard to see our current absurdities because we are ‘in them’. But let’s try: in the Western world we accord lawyers high status, even though our legal system has been hijacked and is now more a cancerous industry than a fair pursuit of justice. And, someone in a nightclub wearing a twenty-thousand dollar watch, submersible to six fathoms, is also accorded high status. These absurdities will be obvious to our descendants in centuries to come, and are obvious to other nationalities now. But those societies will probably have their own wacky ways of determining status.
The neck rings worn in Burma and Africa are pretty wacky.
And how many millions of beautiful, sensitive people have lost all status merely because the colour of their skin was dark? That’s not just wacky, that’s obscene.
Class and caste systems are wacky too. A monarch is simply a human being in the position merely because a parent held the position, yet ‘commoners’ have sacrificed their own precious lives to protect them. In India, a baby will have its entire life shaped by whether its parents happen to be Brahmans or untouchables.
(An ‘untouchable’ (‘Dalit’ is the preferred name) is a member of the lowest caste in India. They do the filthiest jobs and live separately from other castes. They were forbidden to enter temples or draw water from village wells. Even their shadows were not allowed to touch other Hindus. ‘In earlier times we had to bring our own cups to tea shops,’ said a woman. ‘And when we brought grain to the house of a higher caste, they sprinkled water on the ground afterward to purify it.’ Despite government protections, Dalits still suffer widespread, often violent discrimination. (From ‘National Geographic’ July 2015))
In both examples, it’s unfair and absurd for a society to influence the life-path of a child simply because of the circumstances in which it was born. Our need to establish status is so strong it trumps commonsense.
But the benefit we get from believing in such absurdities is considerable: we gain order and structure in the tribe, and as a consequence the tribe flourishes. Monarchies, class and caste systems might be absurd and unfair, but they have kept societies structured for a long time. If a culture is fortunate, its manifestations of status won’t be too wacky. If it’s unlucky and its hierarchies oppress people, then people will suffer and their society will stagnate, perhaps for centuries.
Class, caste and religious structures can allow a society to stagnate. A healthier manifestation of status is merit. A tribe will benefit if its best decision-makers are rewarded with leadership positions (provided those leaders have the community’s interests in mind).
Let’s put aside the wacky aspect. In modern Western society, levels of status are varied and complex. We have diverse values, which means that to some people, a pop diva will have higher status than the Dalai Lama. To others, vice versa. For poets and fund managers it might be the same.
Money is certainly a factor. Do lawyers have status because they’re paid lots of money, or do we pay lawyers lots of money because they have status? Put another way: would school teachers gain the same status as that of a lawyer if they were paid a lawyer’s wage?
The answer might be yes, but fear comes into it too. We fear lawyers more than we fear school teachers. A big part of someone’s status comes from the power they have.
Further, one person can have low status in her karate class, high status in her chess club, low status in her neighbourhood, high status in her family, and so on. We evolved to need status because it keeps us orderly in society and orderly in each of our niches.
The needs mentioned in the book’s introduction: the need to contribute, to feel valued, and to feel connected (combined: the deep need to belong) evolved to prompt us to form tribes. The need for status evolved for a different reason: to make the tribe itself stable and productive. How? By making us anxious about where we fit in. When we are anxious about losing status, and when we are keen to gain the rewards of higher status, we are prompted to increase our expertise and to strive a little harder. That benefits the tribe.
“The hunger for status, like all appetites, can have its uses: spurring us to do justice to our talents, encouraging excellence, restraining us from harmful eccentricities and cementing members of a society around a common value system.”
Alain De Botton in his book, ‘Status Anxiety’.
Imagine how poorly a tribe would fare if no-one felt inclined to improve upon what they had, and no one wanted to be the best basket weaver, or the best canoe maker, the best hunter . . . The tribe would stagnate, and be surpassed by tribes with members who did strive to excel and make their mark.
If we feel anxious about where we fit in, and feel the need to strive a little harder, it might be good for the tribe but it’s not good for us. That anxiety will detract from our own core happiness. It’s only when we manage to maintain a satisfactory level of status do we lose that anxiety. Then we are rewarded with core happiness.
Does that mean people with low status, like the Dalits of India, are destined to remain less happy than Brahmans? Does it mean people with high status will be happier, in general, than those with low status?
No. Evolution does not want us all to aspire to being chief, because that would disadvantage the tribe. Unceasing resentment and infighting would undermine society. Instead, we evolved to aspire to have equal or higher status to those around us. That need to be a little more successful than ‘the guy next door’ can encourage us to strive a little harder to succeed in the niche we are in.
A Dalit won’t feel the need to be a Brahman. A cockney shift worker who adores the reigning monarch can be as happy as the monarch, provided they feel comfortable with their status in their community. A servant in a mansion, serving the wealthy, will feel comfortable with their status if they feel comfortable with their status within their ranks and compared with the status of the servants in the mansion down the road. If the Dalits of India are unhappy, it’s not directly because they lack status, it’s because of the hard life they are living as a consequence of having low status.
Most of us only need enough status among our peers to be satisfied, in the same way we only need to eat those sandwiches to feel replete.
Problems arise when we cease to match the status of those around us. Nassim Taleb, in his book, ‘Fooled by Randomness’ says (in my words, not his): Marc is paid $500,000 a year, which means he is financially better off than 90% of his fellow students at Harvard University and better off than 99.5% of the people in his home town. His wife Janet is proud of him. They move to Manhattan and find themselves snubbed by their neighbours who are far richer than they. Janet begins to see her husband as a failure. They feel humiliated, and are miserable.
Alain De Botton makes the same point in his book, ‘Status Anxiety’, when he says that no matter how much money you amass, if a neighbour, colleague, or family member should happen to acquire more, your levels of satisfaction may drop.
That’s why some Brahmans might feel the need to increase their status: they’re not competing against the Dalits, they’re competing against other Brahmans. A sultan somewhere might wish for a palace with twelve gold taps instead of the inadequate eight he possesses. Or pine to be in the company of ‘the right’ people: monarchs, celebrities, billionaires and power brokers.
We need just enough status to feel comfortable within our community. If we can raise our status further, well and good, though it might get scary if we rise too fast. Few of us aim to be the next monarch or president. Evolution wants order and it wants us to find our place in that order. It wants us to fit in, yet strive within our community. When we fit in, we feel connected. That’s when we satisfy our deep need to belong.
The question then becomes: How can we ensure we have enough status to feel that we belong? Most of us already have that, but for those of us who don’t: one way is to gain a position in which people look up to us, or defer to us. That even applies to someone in a subservient position: the concierge has it all over the bellboy. But this book isn’t about looking for ways to gain higher positions. Let’s leave that to the How To Succeed books. Instead, let’s change the rules so that we feel okay about the status we already have. After all, we have just seen that status is all in the mind, so let’s ditch the weird and wacky ways our society establishes status, and establish our own saner way to ‘feel good enough’. That way, we can satisfy our need for status and our deep need to belong.
How do we do that?
By gaining confidence in ourselves. By focusing on building the person we are. Nearly all of the keys in this book (and in my other book, ‘The Umpteen Keys to Resilience’) are about just that: building ourselves the person we can rely on and respect. Once we have that person, we have all the status we need.
Q. ‘Wouldn’t having status disconnect us from others with different status? We can’t bond with humanity if we feel better than most of the people in it.’
Our main aim is to fit in. Disconnection comes when we feel we are a better person than those with lower status, and that happens when we base our self-worth on our position. Then yes, we have disconnection.
Q. ’Surely the rewards we get from having high status make us happy?’
Those rewards provide pleasures in life, but pleasures don’t create our core happiness. It is only when we perceive that we are respected sufficiently by the people around us – when we have satisfied our innate need for status – do we add to our core happiness.
Q. ‘I don’t care about cars, or rank, etc. What does that say about me?’
If you’re a poet living among non-poets, or a consultant living among non-consultants, your values might be different to those of the people around you, and you may well find that you’re not competing with them. In which case, you don’t have a status problem and you won’t feel the need to fight for status.
It’s when we associate with people having similar values to us that the matter of status arises. If you were a poet and lived among successful poets, or mediocre poets, you might feel the need to improve or establish your status.
To me there is no difference whether president, beggar or king.
The Dalai Lama.
It’s easy for the Dalai Lama to say that: he already has stratospheric status in another niche. But the message is a good one: don’t let yourself be awed by the status of others. Nor by your own. Because it’s probably wacky anyway.
Q. ‘You say most of us don’t aspire to have high status, that we’re mainly concerned about matching the status of those around us . . .’
Yep. Sometimes we give our status away. In Australia, many of us refer to our politicians as ‘our leaders’. The media particularly have the habit of calling our Prime Minister ‘Our leader’. We forget that politicians are public servants, hired to serve the country. And our Prime Minister is our most senior public servant.
Leader . . . Servant.
Leader . . . Servant.
I don’t see politicians as servants, but I do believe they should be serving the country. I certainly don’t see them as leaders.
Q. ‘What part do advertisers play, if any?’
It is said that advertisers aim to undermine our self-confidence in order to manipulate us into buying products. Supposedly, they create an emptiness within us, and then offer the solution. Their message is said to be: ‘You lack something. You fall short in some way. If you buy our product you will be whole again, and therefore happier.’
Mostly, that’s not how it is. Advertisers aim to appeal to our innate sense of status. ‘Buy this and be admired. Buy this and be respected.’
See the difference? The advertisers are not aiming to create fears to then solve them; instead they offer us a ladder to higher status, a wholly different message. Any anxiety the advertisements might create is due to the status we might feel we lack.
Q. ‘The fact is, we do feel good about ourselves when we impress others. It’s no wonder we try to gain status, or show off money – it works.’
It does work, and it can be a problem. How many people would like to retire or change careers, but refuse to do so, because they fear losing the respect of others? How many people choose their occupations not because it is their calling, but because it promises the prestige they feel they need? How many people, born to be plumbers, have been railroaded into being doctors?
‘One minute you are a respected member of a community and the next you are a nobody.’
The anonymous words of a general practitioner after he retired.
Q. ‘Do those with high status have it easy?’
Most people with high status would feel a little anxious, I suspect. They might have high status because they wanted it, so it means a lot to them. Therefore, seeing someone with even higher status might be troubling for them. That’s just a guess.
Also, they might be concerned about having low status in other areas of their life.
‘Are there disadvantages to having high status?’
Those who gain high status through wealth and power might feel the pressure to keep earning money, and increase their power. And, they might distance themselves from people lower on the ladder and create an ‘us and them’ mentality. On the surface that might suit them, but on a deeper level they will struggle to satisfy their innate need to belong.
There is another problem too: a person with high status might begin to base their self-worth upon their position, and that can skew their perspective. If you are in a prestigious position, or intend to be in one, that’s fine, provided you don’t establish your self-worth by it. If you can remain unattached to your status, and respect another person not by his position, but by how he conducts himself, you’ll do fine.
We respect the CEO who knows the name of the person who cleans her office, and we feel embarrassed for the twit who treats servants like servants.
A wealthy media mogul was gambling in a casino when another man wanted to join him at his table. The mogul refused and the man said, ‘I’m a big player too. I’m worth $100 million.’
The mogul looked at him and replied, ‘I’ll toss you for it.’
The man retreated.
It’s a true story apparently, although the details differ depending on who tells it. The mogul’s message to the man is the same: ‘You have low status.’
1. List the ways you establish status (low or high).
To get you started:
– displays of rank or position.
– displays of wealth, fashion.
– the clothes and jewellery you wear, or don’t wear. Uniforms.
– the car. Bumper stickers.
– Do you purposely indicate in some way that you are working class, middle class, upper class? Bogan?
– The way you speak and the words you use.
– Your career.
2. List the ways you would like to establish status.
Use the same list as a starting point.