Status Games (book review)

The best analogy to understand Loretta Breuning’s book Status Games is calories.

For many years survival was difficult. One problem was calories. So ‘evolution selected’ creatures with a mutation where certain foods (fat, sweet, salt, etc.) released good brain chemicals. Those creatures did better than others and became dominant. In a world with plentiful food those same adaptations aren’t as helpful.

For many years survival was difficult. One problem was predators. So ‘evolution selected’ creatures with a mutation where certain social group circumstances released good brain chemicals. Those creatures did better than others and became dominant. In a world with fewer predators those same adaptations aren’t as helpful.

Evolutionary life was hard so species adapted. Tigers and orangutans have no predator and tigers and orangutans are the only mammals to live alone. Like five fingers on a hand, something about social was splendid for survival. These groups included a pecking order and status games – which have at least two advantages.

Status games as alchemy. In a nod to Rory Sutherland, status games are a form of marketing where there’s a large reward for a not very large cost. Actual fights among mammals are rare. This makes sense. Fights reduce survival chances. Having a way to find out who is right/strong/better/whatever without the fight is quite nice.

Status games protect the group. Status games trim the tails of an individual’s outcome but make reproduction more likely. Any individual mammal is more likely to survive somewhere in the middle of the pack rather than in a non-stop quest to be ‘top dog’. And, Loretta writes, “It enables weaker individuals to enjoy the protection of stronger individuals in the face of common enemies.”

Groups are good for survival and status games are good for groups. So status became part of our human operating system.

One analogy for the human brain is the elephant and the rider. The rider is our conscious brain and it is giving directions, narrating the story, and feeling in charge but really the elephant is going to go where it wants to go – and per Breuning the elephant wants to travel on well trodded paths. “Your animal brain just strives to repeat behaviors that trigger happy chemicals and avoid behaviors that trigger unhappy chemicals.” Thanks to the evolutionary advantage of being in groups, our brains have a simple set of chemical instructions.

  • Good: being in a group, ideally higher up.
  • Bad: being separate from a group, demoted in a group.

Groups are important so we seek groups. Everywhere are groups and everything is a status game. Fancy cars are status games. But so is ethics, morals, politics, house size, neighborhood, intelligence, partner, ability to drink, family heritage, even hardships. Find the chemical rewards and you will find the game. “Each brain sees the world through the lens of the neural pathways it has,” Breuning writes.

So, status games are normal but maybe not as helpful as they were. If we have to play, then we can play wisely. Remember, explains Loretta, it’s the dopamine that makes something feel good, not the thing. “The simple way to do this,” Breuning concludes, “is to put yourself up without putting others down.”

I have no idea how much of this book is true but I liked it for a two reasons. First, it acknowledges the world as it is. Animals compete and form cliques, just like us, because we are animals. Two, the book’s perspective is action oriented. This is how things are and this is what you can do, I imagine Breuning advising. Most of all this book reminded me of Spent, we are all signaling and we are all playing status games.

Comments: it is ironic that ‘pecking order’ is from domesticated chickens. Also, ‘evolution selected’ is just how we assign action and our brains like effects from actions. Examples include Headspace, poker, and international espionage and it is the source of the expression ‘don’t shoot the messenger’.

May 2022 Update. Scott Alexander’s review of The Gervais Principle offers an example of status games, and why they are helpful, in the context of Seinfeld.

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