Will Storr is an award-winning journalist whose writings have appeared in The Guardian, The Sunday Times, The New Yorker and the New York Times. He is the author of 6 critically acclaimed books including Selfie, The Science of Storytelling and his latest book, The Status Game, which is all about our social position and how we use it.
KP Welcome Will Storr, it’s a joy to be speaking to you today – thank you very much for agreeing to come on the podcast. You’ve written in your work as a journalist and an author on a huge range of ideas, including the art of storytelling, why people hold these beliefs despite contradictory evidence, how we became so individualistic in the West and, recently, the games we play for status in life. Your writing explores this range of different questions, and I wonder whether we could dive right in to the question that you think we would all do well to be asking ourselves today?
WS So my question is ‘how do you keep score?’ I think it’s a really important question because I think that we’re constantly playing sort of games with life in a number of ways and everybody kind of keeps score in a different set of ways. But it’s not very often that we see our lives like that. it’s not very often that we see ourselves like that. So I just thought it would be interesting to sort of think about that in a direct way, like how do we keep score of who we are and how we’re doing in life?
KP So I wonder if maybe we could begin with the games. Then We’re kind of talking about life as if it’s a game. What are the games that we play?
WS Well, there are two principle games that we play. We have this kind of weird duality in our brains that we often think of as conscious and unconscious. The conscious experience of life is a story. We experience our lives consciously as this unfolding narrative with us at the centre of it, and it’s a place of heroes and villains and victories, and all that stuff, allies and enemies. But the vast majority of who we are is subconscious. And the subconscious is interesting to me because, as I said before, it resembles a game.
There’s a neuroscientist, Chris Frith, that says that the brain processes our reality, our environment, as a reward space, these kinds of threats and opportunities. That’s what’s going on underneath the hood of our consciousness. And there are two kinds of systems that detect different games. The first one the psychologist called it the sociometer. It’s this system which checks how connected we are to other people, how liked we are, how secure our relationships are, how many friends we’ve got, how popular we are. So that’s one kind of game that we’re playing. It’s with connection and belonging. And then there’s another system in the brain, which is called the status detection system, which neuroscientists also talk about, which is that sense of not how connected we are, but how we’re doing versus other people, how much status we are accruing, how much value other people see that we have, how much value we’re providing to other people. So those are the two big subconscious games, i think, which is connection and status, how liked we are and how admired we are. I think those are the two big games of human life.
KP As you say. As your question implies, it’s relative to how other people are doing, How those around us are doing. We compare ourselves amongst ourselves. I think you described perhaps in the book Status Games’ success in one of these games Stasis.
WS Yeah, I mean, the status game was obviously about status. I talked to people about a connection there too, because that’s also equally important to people, but that wasn’t the subject of the book. They’re both social nutrients Humans are. We’re highly social animals. We’re highly social apes. We survive, we get what we want out of the world by cooperating with each other in a way that no other animal does anything like the extent that we do. So our brain is highly attuned to our relationships, our social relationships, and those are the two dimensions in which we are either positively or negatively getting on with the people around us, how liked we are and how admired we are. So, yeah, it all comes back to the fact that we are these incredibly social animals that rely on cooperation in order to survive in a way that no other animal does.
KP This idea of point scoring and it being a game suggests that we’re doing well, we’re getting the social nutrients, the success nutrients that we need because other people are doing less well than us. Is that a predicate of this game? Someone is always going to be winning, thankfully.
WS So the different games you play in life can be set up in different ways And of course, it is true that there are such things as zero-sum games. The actual games that we play in life, like football and Monopoly. They’re zero-sum games and they’re entertaining, they’re absorbing because they’re using that status detection system, circuitry that evolved actually to manage our social life. We didn’t evolve Monopoly, playing football, playing circuits in our brains. We evolved status detection system. So when we were playing football and Monopoly and those kinds of actual games, we’re just using that circuitry that evolved for tribal life And that’s why they’re so much fun. But they’re also like can be very disappointing, upsetting, because they are zero. There’s such a few zero-sum games which amplifies their drama and amplifies how much we’re kind of absorbed by them. But there doesn’t have to be like that. I mean, in the tribes in which we evolved, it wasn’t that we wanted to be, it wasn’t that we had to be the best sweet potato finder or the best storyteller in order to be happy. We just had to be seen as a good one, that was enough.
And in the status game you know, i describe, you know, two kinds of status games, one being Enron, the company Enron, which is famously the most corrupt company that ever existed, people often say. And Enron had this brutally zero sum game in which they had this thing called the Rankin Yank system, whereby every quarter, the management would sit down with a spreadsheet and they’d assess you and they’d put you in a, you know, in a, in a, in a in a chart, and in the top 15% would get promoted. The bottom 15% would get fired And everybody else would get would just be terrified, and so so. So that’s a horrific status game to play because it’s completely zero sum. You have to make sure in that top 15% if you’re going to thrive. And so everyone’s genocely withholding status, no one’s wanting to give it out, so no one’s cooperating properly and everyone starts cutting corners and cheating. But the opposite of that is the is is the keep fit kind of cultish keep fit craze which is known as CrossFit. And if you’re aware of CrossFit, you know, yeah, yeah.
So CrossFit is one of those ones that are being vegan or going to Oxford or Cambridge where, if you’re into it, they’ll tell you within 30 seconds. They’ll find somewhere of letting you know. You know it’s that, it’s, it’s that old joke. How do you, how do you know if someone does CrossFit? You know you don’t tell you. So it’s, it’s one of those things. But it is like a cult We’re very proud of of, of big members of CrossFit And so.
But CrossFit is a is a brilliantly engineered status game because it’s not zero sum. It’s designed specifically not to be zero sum and that people go to CrossFit. They have what’s called a workout of the day. We have to do a certain set of tasks, like pushing heavy things or whatever it might be, lifting weights, running around a thing, but, but but they’re all tuned to your particular level of fitness. So, so, so, so you’re not competing with anybody in the room, you’re just competing with yourself for your own previous past performance. And it’s culturally kind of critical in CrossFit that everybody cheers everybody else on, everybody is there for each other, everybody kind of gives it that big American whoo, you can do it kind of thing, And so, so, so, so.
It’s the opposite of Enron in, in, in, the status is free, freely given out and and, and. So that’s how people become addicted to it. When psychologists studies CrossFit, as they have done, to try and figure out why it becomes, becomes so addictive. That’s what they say It’s. It is, the crux of it all is this that people go and feel well connected and also they feel valuable, they feel amazing because everyone’s pumping kind of status into them. So so so these games don’t have to be zero sum, and certainly connection is not about zero sum. Connection is simply am I, am I liked, do I feel connected to this group? So so being liked, being valued at different, different dimensions of different kinds of games that we play, so in a sense it’s.
KP It’s easier to see how status or being valued is kind of gamified. But in what sense would you say connection is gamified and what way are we up or down and you’re winning or losing when it comes to social connection and being liked?
WS Yeah, in the sense like I think people, people really rear back from the, from the word game, because it, because it, because you think I’m comparing marriage and love to fucking game of darts. You know it’s like I’m not saying it’s the same, like it’s as important, but it’s simply the fact that it’s a. It’s a, it’s a system of kind of rules and rewards, like the brain knows that it’s got. It’s got a goal. I want to be in love with my wife or my husband, i want to be, have some friends. That that’s connection.
WS In order to sustain love with my wife or have friends, i need to follow these certain social rules and then we get rewards. The better we follow them, the more connected we are, the happier we feel. So that’s all I mean by a game that has that. It has that game structure of goals, rules and rewards. That’s basically what a game is And, as I said, that’s why we enjoy playing games, because they’re using that circuitry, they’re just co-ops in that circuitry. So it is. I mean, marriage is a game, friends is a game, love is a game Like in that sort of basic, fundamental sense it is. It’s we are, we’re pursuing these goals and getting rewards or punishments, depending on how well we we follow the rules.
KP Well, this is still a game that we’re we’re kind of, you know, keeping score where we’re up or we’re down. So, you know, is this something you do? How do you kind of consciously keep score of whether you’re up or down?
WS No, it’s weird. I remember it sort of right in the status game. It became this memory, this flashback of when I was sort of in my late teens, early twenties, and I had I had this, like it was like an early kind of iPod type of thing. It was like it was like an iPhone thing. It was like a digital organizer called a scion and had this graph thing And I decided one day to start like giving every day a mark out of 10 and plotting them on a graph and trying to figure out patterns in it, and I had to stop doing it because it was sending me completely mad, like I was getting obsessed with these graphs and I was thinking this is I’m glad I stopped doing that. So no, it’s not conscious, i mean, that’s why I think it’s interesting is it’s all unconscious And you can see in all these different kinds of dimensions you know, even in in, in the extent of your you know marriage or your long-term relationship.
KP So you know how, how do you and your partner keep score of, of how well your relationship is doing?
WS to some people’s, sex is of primary importance. To some people, other people, to other couples, sex doesn’t really matter that much as long as there’s a bit of it there every now and again. And of course it’s just incredibly complex how you know how, how two people happen to keep score of how how well their long-term relationship is doing, and it’s you know that that kind of map of scores is probably unique to every relationship, that very intricate way of that people have of figuring out how well things are going, and the vast majority of it is subconscious, so you’re just not thinking about it. I mean, one of the ways the brain keeps track is by is by judging and sort of measuring how much eye contact you’re receiving from the people around you, and it does it with numerical precision, it’s always checking it out constantly, constantly, constantly, and the feedback comes in emotion, the feedback comes in feelings, and then we tell stories about those feelings, which may or may not be true.
So, yeah, that’s why I just think it’s a fascinating question to talk about, because so much of it is unconscious and until you actually make that conscious, until you actually start looking for it, you just not aware of what your brain’s doing when it’s keeping track of these various games that you’re playing with in life.
KP Yeah, i like there are certain people in my life who have come across now and again, and it’s been pointed out to me by people like my wife that you know I tense up and I start coming up with such like competitive nonsense. It just comes out at me, doesn’t it, and I feel kind of drained and uneasy with myself after these conversations. What’s happened to me? What spell has that person cast on me? And I guess it’s a game that you just like, something they’re emitting, something that draws me in and I’m like all right, we’re playing, i’m gonna, and we’re both going to humiliate ourselves by bragging somehow and then we’ll leave feeling kind of slightly like awful.
WS Yeah, completely. I mean because, you guys remember, the vast majority of us is subconscious, so these people are triggering something in your status detection system that’s making your subconscious go. No, i’m not having this, and you know it’s. But I mean that’s why I think you know that’s what I got out of writing. The book really was just, i think it’s so powerful to make that unconscious stuff conscious, because then you can see it And then you can realize what’s happening and you don’t have to take it. So you empowered, i think, a little bit not to take it so seriously. You see what you’re doing, you see what your brain is doing and you can just go, i’ll stop it, it doesn’t really matter, you know yeah,
KP That’s exactly why I love your question Will, it has this power to kind of remove the spell, is like psychotherapy adds best. It makes you aware of those script messages and behaviors that you’ve grown up with, so that they no longer have power over you because you’ve become kind of conscious of it. But I guess a question that comes to mind for me is whether we can ever actually escape these status games completely. In a sense, so does the way that nature is mean we ought always to behave like that. We’re biologically wired to play these games, but can we in some sense go against our biology, for example?
Speaker 2: I don’t know if this is an analogy, but you could argue that patriarchal societies are kind of in our, in our wiring. We’ve always had alpha males etc. But we decide as 21st century in line people to push back on that bit of evolutionary biology. Where I’m coming from is that playing status games seems like it’s a quick route to mischief, and maybe the only way not to, the only way to win, is kind of not to play the game. If we feel like we can step outside these status games, there might be some liberation in that, though from what I’m gathering, that’s maybe not an option. We’re plugged into these games, whether we want to be or not.
WS Yeah, i mean, you know you said that there’s an idea that perhaps the idea is that the only way I can win is by stepping out of these games. But to me, stepping out of these games, that’s the definition of a loser. Like if you stop caring about whether or not other people continue to be of value, if you stop caring about whether other people think that you’re worth being in company with, then good luck. You know, because your life is going to be over. You are going to be the literal definition of a loser, and I think that you know probably some of the language that I use by saying game, the status game. It definitely gets people’s backs. If I’ve learned this since the book was published 18 months ago, people don’t like it because they think it’s cynical and they think it’s that I’m kind of shitting on the human condition. But actually I’m not shitting on the human condition at all because, like, it’s certainly true And I’d explore in depth about all the terrible things that happen when we pursue status in these kind of blind ways, but it’s also the very best of the human condition. When people invented the vaccines that got us out of the COVID pandemic, those individual scientists would have cared very deeply about their reputations in the scientific community, that they would have been partly driven by the idea that their peers, the people whose opinions they value, would be thinking that they’re incredible, they’ve done an incredible job by inventing the AstraZeneca vaccine or the Pfizer vaccine. That drives people and there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s a really good thing, because without that drive, where does the impulse to create civilization and progress come from? So when scientists talk about these ideas, they kind of differentiate between two kind of forms of motivation.
Speaker 1: Let’s talk about the ultimate motivation and the proximate motivation, and I think it’s really important to kind of explain that because I think it takes the sting out of a lot of this stuff. So proximate motivation, proximate reasons for us doing what we’re doing, are the ones that first come to mind. I want to create a vaccine because I want a few people to die. I want to create a vaccine because AstraZeneca pay my wages and I’ve got a responsibility, i’ve signed a contract. These are all proximate reasons.
Speaker 1: So what I’m talking about in the status game and what I’m talking about when talking about connection, these are ultimate motivations. So why do you want to eat a pizza? Because I love pizzas. The pizza is delicious. That’s the proximate motivation. The ultimate motivation is because I crave carbs and sugars and fats, because that’s what keeps me alive. So one doesn’t cancel the other out, it’s just an explanation on a different level. So status and connection, they’re ultimate motivations, they’re basic, fundamental things that kind of drive us. They don’t cancel out the altruism, they don’t cancel out the good things, the things that we like to tell ourselves. They’re just at the very root of them. So our deep, evolved desire to feel that other people value us, that creates everything good in the world. That creates progress, civilization, technology, that centers to space and to the bottom of the sea. So I don’t know why you would want to destroy the status game, because we would end up going back into the forest and the jungles, as far as I could see.
Speaker 2: And playing different games. I suppose the talk of motivation I mean it suggests that what we do to play status game is all extrinsic motivation rather than intrinsic. And I’m talking to Leanne Dosele. But I think of a few people I’ve known who’ve been homeschooled And one of the things that’s lovely about them is they haven’t learned those status games that we learn in school, which is just like awful. They’re about your trainers or your haircut or whatever, and so they just like I’ll do what I like because I’m not playing this status game. It’s something that feels like liberating about that And they’re kind of intrinsically motivated by, maybe, curiosity I’m talking about the best examples of homeschooling intrinsically motivated by curiosity. Yeah, i guess part of me wonders whether just playing those status games as your main motivation are you in some sense kind of short changing yourself, of following curiosity into other areas that it’s intrinsically interesting? No, because I don’t think it’s a false dichotomy.
Speaker 1: It’s not curiosity or status. I think if you’re satisfying your curiosity and you’re going into a world, you go into the world, say, we’re a scientist and you’re curious about I don’t know how bacteria works, for example, you become a bacteriologist. So that’s great, you’re curious, you’re satisfying your curiosity. But now you’re in this world of other bacteriologists And if you’ve got an ordinary functioning brains, part of your brain is going to go. I want that bacteriologist and that bacteriologist who I really look up to to admire me and think I’m good. So I want to impress them. So I’m going to write a really brilliant paper about bacteriology. So it’s not curiosity or status, it’s both. That’s helpful. It’s just status is this I mean, as I write in the book, it’s this basic, fundamental rule of the human brain.
Speaker 1: Since before we were human it’s been, and it’s also the case for many, many animals, that the more status that you earn, the better you’re able you are to survive and reproduce. So back in the days of the hunter-gatherer tribe, the more status that we earned in the tribe, the more food we’ve got, the better food we got, the safer our sleeping sites, the greater access to choice of mates. It’s just a very basic, fundamental rule that the more status that you earn, the better everything else gets. And that was true a million years ago. That’s true today all around it, all over human life. They tried to make it not true in the Soviet Union. It’s a total disaster. They ended up with more social classes in Moscow than we had in London. So you can’t eradicate it from the human condition And I think it’s a mistake to condescend to it. I think it’s a mistake to kind of curl our kind of lips up at it a bit. I think that’s yeah, i think that’s an error, but I think it’s human nature to do that.
Speaker 2: In the second half of this conversation we’ll discuss the different types of games we play, both as human culture has evolved and as it varies from east to west, from collectivists to individualist societies. We also talk about the way that as we grow older, different games will make sense and other ones will become less relevant. So I guess maybe the question is to do with how we might discern what the right status games to be playing are and what ones we should be avoiding, What ones have less risk and what ones have more reward. Have you got a kind of criteria by which you might judge that one game is worth engaging with and another isn’t? If status is the nutrient we’re looking for, we can get a lot of that kind of nutrient through rising to high levels within a gang, but it’s not necessarily a good game to be playing.
Speaker 1: What’s interesting about, if you look at human evolution, is that all these kind of games that we play for status have the social games, have their roots in human tribes, in hunter-gatherer tribes. So before we kind of gathered together in these cooperative groups, we were just like most animals and that we play status games with dominance, we’d just push each other around and have fights and kill each other. But then when you start trying to solve the problem of living in cooperative groups, you can’t do that anymore because it’s about cooperation, not pushing each other around. So we have to find new ways of playing status games and so you start to be rewarded for being cooperative, for adding value to the missions of the group. And there are two different ways that you can do that if you’re a human being. The first way is by being virtuous, so you can be generous, you can be selfless, but it’s also about superstition and religion, knowing all the sacred stories and believing them and following them and making sure that everybody else is following them, so you’re enforcing the rules, knowing all the rituals, all that kind of stuff. So being virtuous, being courageous in battle, so that’s one way of being of value to your cooperative group. The second way, of course, is by being competent, just by getting really good at something, so being a great hunter, a great honey finder, a great storyteller. So I call these virtue games and success games and of course that’s still who we are today.
Speaker 1: You can look at the Pope and the Dalai Lama before the recent incident perhaps, of being kind of virtue based superstars. So we don’t look up to the Pope because of his competence. He’s not really amazing at holding the host up or anything like that. He’s a virtue superstar for Catholics. He’s the head of the Catholic status game. And I was to raise the Catholic and, believe me, the idea that Catholicism isn’t a status game. It’s hiding in plain sight. I mean you call priests father and you genuflect to them, these strange men in their robes and they’ve got gold and they’ve got big cats, and when the bishop comes round he’s called York Grace. I mean it’s just, it’s not even hidden in Catholic Church, the status stuff there, and it’s very un-Jesus like as well. It’s very strange. So that’s virtue games And you can think Michelle Obama is better known for her virtue than her competence.
Speaker 1: You could argue. People on these warriors on social media, like Jamila Jamila or Lawrence Fox, i mean they’re playing these games with their actors both of those people but they’re probably better known for their kind of virtue play on social media, i would argue. So then there’s, of course, this competence. There’s Serena Williams, there’s Elon Musk, people who we know for Gordon Ramsay, people that we know primarily for being really amazing at stuff, you know pop stars, amazing dancers, amazing songwriters, amazing performers.
Speaker 1: So virtue games and success games these are the two kind of status games that make up the most of human life For me, the best games. I mean as a born and raised lefty, my assumption was that it was a virtue games. If you want to make the world a better place, play a virtue game. But that’s actually not true. If you want to make the world a better place, you play success games, because the people who you know invented all these vaccines, worked out how cholera spread, and so on and so on and so on, save many more lives than all the popes put together or the you know imams put together. You know, the people that really made the world a better place are the ones that are playing these kind of virtue-inflected success games. That’s what I believe It’s interesting.
Speaker 2: It’s interesting. I was thinking you mentioned the kind of, i suppose, hypocrisy in the church, in the Catholic church, because it doesn’t really reflect the founder. But Jesus is interesting on that level. When you’re reading the Gospels that you have, you have him very much subverting the status games of his day. Right, he’s taking his fingers up to those with status and pulling the people from the margin into the center and saying these people have status And that’s a. It feels like a kind of direct inversion of the status game that people played. I mean, do you see that kind of thing played out now and again? where you have some, one of your suggestions is to be original, right To break from the norm and kind of be successful or virtuous in an area other people haven’t. And you see people breaking out normal status games or conventional status games and creating different ones.
Speaker 1: Well, yeah, you do. So there’s a theory which is, I think, holds a lot of water. They talk about elite overproduction And there’s a guy called Peter Turchin that writes a lot about elite overproduction and looks back in history, periods when civilizations have collapsed, And this phenomena, he argues, happens when a kind of a civilization is producing more elites that it can satisfy, they can find jobs and positions to, And what happens then is those elites then start creating their own status games and starts subverting the, the one that’s kind of holding power at that time. So I think that’s that’s, that’s one way that it happens, And I think what we’re all going to do is we’re going to be able to do that And we’re going to be able to do that. It happens.
Speaker 1: And I think what also happens is that is that you see, in kind of revolutionary movements, utopian movements, is always the same, basically is that they, they argue that we don’t want this hierarchy, we don’t want this power structure. It’s, it’s evil, all the wrong people are on the top, And so that it sounds great. Oh, we want a future of no hierarchy, we want a future where there’s no status, where it’s all, everything’s peace and love And we’re just sharing. But what they always, always constructs is just a reverse hierarchy. So that’s what happened in the Soviet Union So I haven’t under communism is that the people that were at the top went on the bottom and the people on the bottom.
Speaker 1: They’re at the top And the people that were on the top were then bullied and oppressed and say it’s just, it’s just, it’s just a flippage And and, and, and and that and that kind of aligns with what we know about human sort of tribal human nature and one of the most unfortunate ramifications of our travel branches. That is that not only are we, you know, we’re not natural born sexist, we’re not natural born racist, but we are natural born xenophobes and privilege our groups And we also want our groups to win, even if it means that we ourselves get less. The fact that the fact of our groups winning is really important to us. So, yeah, that’s one of the most kind of problematic parts of the kind of human condition It is the fact that we tell seductive stories about equality, but what the subconscious Ben really wants is to win. And you see that, going back in history, these revolutionary movements, all they do is create a new hierarchy with, guess what, themselves at the top and their old enemies at the bottom.
Speaker 2: It’s interesting. I mean, in a sense, your book and some of your other books are works of anthropology Like what does it mean to kind of be a human? Is that something you take? Yeah, definitely. And there’s there’s as kind of written about widely big differences in collectivist and individualist societies and the status games you play there are are significantly different. I remember reading this is quite an interesting observation by GK Chesterton who said that the fairy tales we used to read were about kind of ordinary person in an enchanted, extraordinary world, and now they’re about an extraordinary person in a mundane world. It’s a nice observation of the way our stories have shifted. And yeah, i suppose from your observations like which have been a lot of them and selfie with about you know the whole self-esteem movement becoming hyper-individualist and kind of eating ourselves with it. And are the? what am I trying to ask? I suppose I’m trying to ask whether you think the collectivist status games were a net win as compared to the individualist kind of ones we play.
Speaker 1: I think it’s, it’s it’s an impossible question to answer. There’s no answer to that question. There are certain questions which are just, you know, you can only answer them by telling a story. So it’s like saying is capitalism good or bad? There’s no answer to that question. Is religion good or bad? There’s no answer to that question, because religion does terrible things. But it’s also.
Speaker 1: Billions of people get enormous amounts of meaning and pleasure and community and satisfaction and status out of their religion. So why would you take it away from people? And I think it’s the same between East versus West, individualism versus collectivism. You can see what we’ve lost a bit in the West with our individualistic tendencies. We are highly perfectionistic. We suffer from high rates of, you know, mental illness, depression.
Speaker 1: It’s a brutal, sometimes a brutal ideology, because individualism says that your success is all on your shoulders And it’s great when we win, because when we win we are a culture that you know, ever since the Greeks believed in individual heroes. So we praise Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos or Serena Williams or, you know, michelle Obama, whoever it is, and you’re amazing, and we forget that actually it was teams of people that got them to where they are. But the dark side of that is, of course, is when we fail and most of what we do as human beings is fail That’s our fault too, and so that’s brutal. And so we have a culture of perfectionism. We have a culture of, you know, we beat ourselves up. We have a culture of self-hatred. You know these are broad brush terms. I’m not saying we’re all like this, but these are the tendencies that I think individualism kind of exacerbates. But then on the other side, the idea that we are individual heroes and that we can do whatever we want and we can. You know we are amazing, we have high self-esteem. It’s fantastic because it’s pushed us along.
Speaker 1: You know the West are amazing at progress. We were amazing at civilization. We were amazing at, you know, human rights itself comes out of individualism. You don’t get human rights without first realizing that the individual is the most important thing and not the group. So it’s good and bad. And the same with collectivism. You know collectivism is the natural human state. It’s thus individualist. And the West are weird. We’re not the normal ones.
Speaker 1: Everywhere else in the world is much more collectivist, especially East Asia, the African countries, indian countries, much more collectivist. And yes, they play. They play status games in different ways. Primarily, they see the job of earning status to be the job of the group to which they belong. So your primary motivation is to serve the group, and so that, of course, has good effects and bad effects, the bad effects being that individual human rights aren’t taken anywhere near as seriously in other parts of the world. If you look at the nations that have outlawed torture, the nations that have outlawed capital punishment, the nations that have outlawed the earth permitted gay marriage, the vast majority of them are individualist cultures, individualist nations. So yeah, these are complex systems, individualism and collectivism with extremely complex trade-offs, and you simply can’t answer the question of are they good or are they bad? And if anyone’s trying to do that, then they’re. I think they’re just telling you a story, a fairy tale.
Speaker 2: Just yeah, study the consequences to figure out what games are working and what aren’t. Yeah, exactly.
Speaker 1: And.
Speaker 2: I guess, if I can kind of come back to this question of how do I what will like? how do you keep score? That is it. How do you keep score? So, given that the scion is a good 30 years old now, have you replaced it? Have you got like a graphics calculator to put in its place?
Speaker 1: No, God, no. How do you keep score?
Speaker 2: I mean maybe a few questions there like how do you keep score. But also, as you’ve kind of pulled back from status games, you’ve become aware that they’re just like subterranean existence. Have you chosen to engage less in some and more in others, because you think that’s actually one I can win, that’s one I’m never going to win.
Speaker 1: Yeah, i have. Actually, what I realized when I wrote the book was that one of the things that I recommend in the status game is that we play multiple games. That’s something that happens automatically when you become a parent. For example, he’s up playing the game of I want to be a good dad, i want to be a good mom. Most people don’t just want to be a mom or a dad, they want to be a good mom, a good dad. So even on that level, we want to feel like I want to do a good job of this, so that becomes this other identity that people have. I don’t have children, so all I do is write.
Speaker 1: So I became very aware of I was keeping score by how many books I was selling, what reviewers were saying about my books which is a crazy thing because it’s not really. there’s only a limited amount that you can control, that You can do your best and work hard, but even then, you can’t control how many books you’re going to sell. You can’t control how fashionable you are. You can’t control what the critics are going to say about your books. Also, i’m staring down a barrel of 50 years old and just thinking well, like it or not, you’re going to decline, your brain is going to decline. At some point things are going to start falling into pieces. And if all you’re doing is writing and if that’s the way that you’re keeping score, that’s not good buddy.
Speaker 1: So I just consciously decided to volunteer in my spare time. So I started volunteering for a charity. It’s just something that I never would have considered in a million years before. I wrote the status game And I found, yeah, it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. I volunteer quite a lot of time now to this organization And yeah, it’s because I didn’t have any sources of virtue-based status, like what are you doing for anyone else, you selfish bastard, was the question that I started asking for myself.
Speaker 1: And so what I found? to my surprise, it wasn’t just that, you know, because this organization, there was months of training before I could actually help anybody. But even before that, i would come back from these training sessions feeling really different, really happy, really much less depressed and anxious, and that was because of the connection that I was experiencing with the people that I was training with. So it’s been hugely beneficial to me And I’m hugely grateful for the possibility that I can do that And that’s purely come out of this question of you know, how are you keeping score of how your life is going?
Speaker 2: One thing I found helpful, because I’m kind of like middle age now And in your book you reflect in the fact that you’re writing in middle age and you’re realizing that the games of youth are not the games of middle age or, as we move into, you know, autumn or whatever of our lives. It made me think slightly of David Brooks’ book Second Mountain, where he talks about you know, do you know the book?
Speaker 1: I’ve not read that one. I like David Brooks, but I’ve not read the Second Mountain.
Speaker 2: I like that. I like it. I found it really helpful as a book. But he talked about the first mountain. It’s much more like some status games are like very explicit right, and it’s much more explicit as a status game And you’re looking for, you know, worldly success. And then the second status well, not the second state. the second mountain for him is committing to things that are bigger than yourself And he says that is kind of intrinsically rewarding. So he’d talk about the moral, the spiritual, the sense of belonging a person. But you’re ultimately. what’s interesting I think about it is if the status games in the earlier parts of life, when you’re building a self, are very kind of narrowly focused on the ego, that actually becomes like less interesting as you get older And it also kind of loosens its grip And maybe it frees you to pursue other games which are like seem to have more value And that’s kind of your experience.
Speaker 1: Yeah, i think that’s right. I mean, i mean that’s the thing. I think that’s the sort of caveat to the advice that was given at playing multiple games. That is actually, i think when you’re in your teens and twenties, you should just probably focus on one. You know, you should be a bit more ego driven And because because what you’re doing in your teens and twenties you’re creating the rest of your life, it takes a long time to truly be of value to society And that’s what you’re doing in your teens. You’re figuring out your game and you’re throwing certain, you’re learning from the people who are already up there And so and that becomes really successful.
Speaker 1: I think takes a bit of kind of single-mindedness, but it’s certainly true, like what you’re saying about the kind of second half of life where you can take a broader view and slow down and start playing some sort of more interesting games. But it’s very hard. I mean, one of the things I see in myself which I can’t it just cringe all the time is when I’ve got like teenage nieces. You know what? one is nearly 18 and one is sort of 14, 15. And every time I’m with them I’m like you know, i find myself lapsing into that I was young once too. You know down with the kids And it’s like, oh God, and it’s like you with the you were just talking about how you just hear yourself. You become a competitive. I just become this tragic middle-aged man trying to be cool And it’s just, oh, stop it. I can’t stop it, though.
Speaker 2: So I teach, and with my A level students there’s like I still feel like I’m like not much over 18 sometimes And like, yeah, what’s cool guys, And it’s, it’s I mean it must be painfully cringey, I’m sure. I’m sure there’s a lot of Snapchat.
Speaker 1: Yeah.
Speaker 2: Yeah, Really really interesting, really helpful. So you’ve personally found it really helpful calling out what’s going on and the subterranean levels at a status game. You’ve found that it’s kind of shifted where you put your attention.
Speaker 1: Yeah, definitely, And it’s what has changed my life literally, because I’m now, I’ve now got this volunteering part of me which didn’t exist before, And what’s incredible about kind of starting and joining a new status game is that you find that you’ve got a new identity. It’s almost like you’ve got a whole new, whole new room in your life opens up. A whole new, a whole new way of being yourself comes into existence. I think every game that you play, you have a different identity and every game that you play, you’re a slightly different person. So it is such a gift And you know, it seems so banal to say that. You know, life isn’t all about money and success, But it really isn’t. I mean, and I think there’s no way that you can really understand that without actually doing something. that’s nothing about money and feeling how rewarding it genuinely is, And that’s as I said before. I would never have believed, done it or believed it, I think, if I hadn’t written the status game.
Speaker 2: It’s interesting. You still feel like in doing that, you’re still playing a status game.
Speaker 1: Yeah, i would never say it to the people at the charity because I think I was mentally, i think I was some kind of sociopath, but it is. I mean it’s virtue, it’s virtue based status, like you know it and it sound, it does sound. It sounds, it sounds awful probably, but it’s why anybody does everything. It’s I mean I know from the people who are there. Well, okay, put it like this For me the very best part of the human condition is the fact that we feel rewarded when we help other people. We have an automatic system of reward plugged into us where when we are of value, of service to other people, selflessly, other people reward us. But also we feel good about ourselves. You feel you know lighter, you feel better about yourself. That’s wired in, as long as you’re not a psychopath or a sociopath, as long as you’ve got a normal brain. That’s wired in And that is the very best of human condition, like if you didn’t have that human life. You know we really human life really would be sort of like nature, red in choosing claw, But we’re better than that as an animal. And so by saying it’s kind of virtue based status, i know in the context of our culture that sounds like I’m saying like, as I said, i’m kind of shitting on it, but I’m not at all.
Speaker 1: I think that the fact that we award ourselves and other people status, by which I mean we just consider that they’re of value That’s what status is is saying you’re of value. That’s a wonderful thing that we do. You know, when they invented the AstraZeneca vaccine, we put them on the front of newspapers and we made them celebrities the women who did that, you know, and that’s brilliant that we do that. I love the fact that we do that. We celebrate people and we celebrate ourselves when we feel like we’ve done something good. That’s great. I think that’s wonderful.
Speaker 2: Brought to mind a reflection from Victor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning. You know Frankl the psychiatrist, so he’s like I find I’m a little sucker for books with titles like Man’s Search for Meaning And he says that we have an infinite appetite for money, sex and power. You know, like you see Adler and Freud and whoever says those were like, you’ll never have enough of them. If that’s where you’re going to try and tap, meaning you’re never going to be satisfied, you’ll never have enough power, never enough money, never enough sex. That seems to be true for those people who are pursuing it.
Speaker 2: But if you turn your attention to what’s he say spiritual, moral, creative and relational goods those are like inherently rewarding You can feel sad. So it’s like there’s a sense in which the distinction he’s making, in your way of thinking, is like here’s some like toxic games that might never be that rewarding. We’re all driven to play them by bass appetites and instincts. But here are some games that like they’re infinite games as well. But you know they’re better to play in terms of how we’re you know, i love Man’s Edge meaning and I love Victor Franco.
Speaker 1: But I would question some of that Like, firstly, we know, for example, that actually not everybody wants money, like there are different kinds of games that we play and only a subsection of got this incredible. Like money gets us pleasure and it gets us security. So once we’ve got enough, for a lot of people they’re not particularly. I’m not particularly, i don’t worry about. You know, i’m not particularly driven by money, and lots of people know aren’t, and we know for a fact that power isn’t as either. So there are, of course, there are a subset of people that love power and do anything to get power, but for most people, when they get a certain amount of power they don’t want anymore. Because with power becomes responsibility, with power becomes expectation of work, status is different. Nobody ever, when psychology tried to find this, the point where I need to start the status levels off, they can’t find it. So that’s the first thing I said about that. The second thing is these, these virtue games, are also the worst games that we play. Because, you know, victor Frankl, of course, was a Holocaust survivor. Hitler thought he was a good man. He thought he was by ridding the world of the of Judea’s, and he was doing a doing, a doing a selfless good thing. Stalin thought he was a good man. Lenin thought he was a good man. You know, does Putin think he’s a good man? Maybe, but you know so virtue games are also the very worst games that we play, that the most reprehensible, depraved acts that have ever been committed on this planet have been by people who are convinced of their own kind of moral virtue. In our lifetime, you know, the invasion of Iraq would be my, would be something that I would sort of point to. So so, so, so, so I just be very careful about those, those virtue games, because the brain is very good at telling us that we’re virtuous when we’re being absolutely horrific to other people.
Speaker 1: You know, whether it’s racism, sexism, anything, anyism, you know often that’s very that those isms are dressed up in in in stories of our virtue. You know that permits. You know some. You know a woman is allowed to say that all men are shit and I hate men. A man is allowed to say all women are useless and incompetent because, and they’ll tell themselves a story where actually I’ve got every right to say this because, so so, so yeah, i think those virtue games are kind of dangerous And, as they were, one of the, one of the ways that my mind changed was that that the horizon is the is the success games that actually do make the world a better place, that do create cheap food and, you know, feed people and house people, close people and house people.
Speaker 1: That is the is the people who are solving problems, that actually do much greater than the people that are kind of going to religion and going to political ideology. In my view, i think it’s inarguable. The other thing to say about that is that is that what Frank is right about and it’s the curse of status really is that you can never be happy with status. Status can never make you happy.
Speaker 1: Connection, i think, can, but status can’t, because it’s always ephemeral And you can always be taken away Like yeah, like the CEO can be made to feel like an absolute idiot in a meeting, and the most junior person in the meeting can maybe feel amazing if they contribute a great idea. You know people like you know people at the very tops of their games Obama, zelensky. You know, whoever they might be, no matter how famous and just for that might be that they’re looking at their pit. They’re not competing with you or I, our normal people. They’re competing with people on their level, and so Macron competes with Rishi, sunak competes with, you know, biden. That’s the game they’re playing. So, even though they’re the most famous and powerful individuals in the world, they’re still not guaranteed.
Speaker 1: And they’ve got extremely high status. They care about the judgments of other extremely high status people and you can never keep it. That’s the thing about status. You can’t keep it in a box and put it under your pillow and say that’s my status, because it might go tomorrow And it probably will. So that’s the kind of some of the most meaningful happy moments in our lives to do with status, when we win prizes and achieve qualifications and have books published and get your first podcast or whatever it might be, but they go away. You can’t keep them The next day. You want the next thing, and you want the next thing and you want the next thing. And it’s a blessing and a curse because it’s wanting the next thing and wanting to get that chasing the dragon of status. I wanted to get it back that keeps you pushing on and keeps you making better and better podcasts and keeps me, hopefully, writing better and better books. I mean, that’s what it’s there for. It’s this kind of it can be amazing, but it can be a bastard as well.
Speaker 2: That’s a. I think that’s a helpful place to kind of draw to a close, Like in terms of parting advice on this question of how am I keeping score? What are you sending people off to do with that question?
Speaker 1: Just try and be conscious of it. I think that’s the thing I mean. I’m just really interested in it in, not just in the status context, but also in the connection context, as I said at the beginning of our conversation, in your marriage. one of the ways that marriages or long-term relationships are all different is that they’ll have different with your partner. you have this extremely complex and mostly, or if not completely, unconscious list of ways that you’re both each judging how things are going, and so it’s a how are you doing that and why? And is that sensible? I think that by sort of thinking about how you’re keeping score of your connection and your status, by making that stuff conscious, you can hopefully become a bit more wise about yourself and your flaws.
Speaker 2: Renegotiate the terms of the game that you’re playing?
Speaker 1: Yeah, Yeah, well, that’s just helpful. Yeah, exactly.
Speaker 2: Will. Thank you so much for imparting your wisdom. It’s been for me absolutely fascinating to hear and to think about. I am going to be thinking about how I’m keeping score, i think for a while. I think maybe the first of my life is I kind of switch games? I’m in that transition of shifting games at the moment, I think.
Speaker 1: So yeah, I wish you all the best, Kenneth. Yeah, good luck with your, the changes in your life. I hope it goes well for you and thank you for having me on tonight.
Speaker 2: Well, thank you. Thank you very much, And you too Will. It’s like a joy to hear of the new room in your life that’s opened up through volunteering. I think that’s a great image and a great inspiration for kind of yeah, thanks Will. Enlarging your life through through virtue status. Stay tuned for the next episode in a few weeks time.