Playing 'The Status Game' with Will Storr

Issue 22: Interviewing Will Storr about his new book; visual lessons from 'The Power of Us'; the Spanish Inquisition catches us out again; and speaking at Habit Day this Friday

This week, we are excited to shared an interview with award-winning author and journalist Will Storr about his forthcoming book, ‘The Status Game: On Social Position and How We Use It. Will has written critically acclaimed novels (‘The Hunger and The Howling of Killian Lone’), fascinating social science books (‘Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It's Doing to Us’), and important investigative journalism.

In his new book (out on September 2), Will investigates how human beings’ “thirst for status drives innovation, art, civilization, war and genocide, and explains cults, moral panics, conspiracy theories, the rise of social media, and the ‘culture wars’”. Many of these themes align with our own book—which is why we think his book will be of considerable interest to you.

We have previously written about how the desire for status attracts people to certain kinds of identities—increasing the allure of élite colleges, for example, or the importance of being seen as a traveller rather than a tourist. We were especially interested in Will’s insights about how striving for status can help people thrive in their groups.

Thanks for talking with us, Will! What does your book teach us about group dynamics?

My interest is in the ways status operates in groups. People have lots of drives, of course, but I'm focused on two of these - connection and status. So to play 'the status game' we need to secure connection with likeminded others (which feels good) and then achieve rank among those people (which also feels good)—to 'get along and get ahead', as it's sometimes put. So much of human life—from sports to politics to religions to cults, and so on—takes this form.

‘The Status Game’ looks into the evolutionary reasons behind this, and tracks its presence behind lots of human history—from the rise of modernity in the West, to Nazism, genocide, social media and the 'culture wars' of today. It also shows how these dynamics spread conspiracy theories (specifically, among anti-vaxxers) and helps us see 'moral panics' in a new light.

What was the most surprising thing you learned as you were writing the book?

For me, it was spotting the same very specific pattern of irrationality in myriad places. It began to feel as if our powers of reason are most vulnerable to failure in the stories we tell ourselves about status. When we or our groups feel low in status, we can (and frequently do) weave terrible, and terribly unfair, stories about the group that we perceive to be above us, pushing us down.

I read the autobiography of a spree killer, Elliot Rodger. He was a violent misogynist who felt rejected by the 'pretty girls' at school and college, and weaved a horrific story about how women were the root of all evil, because they selected unintelligent jock-types to mate with, and this was making the world a bad place. He wanted to abolish sex and destroy all women, aside from a few kept for procreation via artificial insemination.

Rodger was the hero in his story (he literally says 'I am the good guy', in a video shot just before his murders). When I read this, it seemed utterly mad - complete, outlying gibberish. But when you see what happened in Germany, in the aftermath World War I, you see stories not vastly dissimilar to this (except directed at the Jews) take over the most advanced nation in Europe.

What is the biggest unanswered question on this topic going forward?

I'm really interested in the ways that failure to play the game well leads to mental illness. I'm personally interested in this, as I've never operated well in groups (at school or at work), and haven't lived exactly a joyful life.

Do you have any practical advice for people who want to apply these ideas?

In the book I explore three central routes to winning status: dominance, virtue and success (the latter commonly referred to as 'competence' amongst academics). I looked into the research literature around 'impression management', and found some fascinating connections between what they've discovered and what's in the status research.

I think people who want to thrive in groups should present to others with a combination of warmth, sincerity and competence. Each hits a different form of status. Warmth tells people 'I'm not going to attempt to dominate you with aggression or the threat of it'; sincerity says 'you can trust me. I'll level with you', and competence says 'I'm going to be useful to the group. I'll help us all rise in status'.

Visual Lessons from ‘The Power of Us’

We are pleased to announce a new collaboration with Lucid, the visual learning app. Lucid aims to help “people around the world master essential topics and learn skills for work and life, with visualized insights". They have created beautiful visual summaries of many popular books.

Lucid crafted elegant and engaging summaries of lessons from ‘The Power of Us’. One lesson will be released each week until our book comes out on September 7, at which point Lucid will launch a summary of the book itself.

The first lesson examines ‘Why We Help’. Check out a sneak web-based preview here. Or, better yet, download the Lucid app from the Apple Store for access to our book and much more.

Preorder our book - The Power of Us

Research Round Up

In a remarkable new analysis, Mauricio Drelichman and colleagues find that a region’s history of religious persecution—in this case, the Spanish Inquisition— is associated with poorer economic, social, and educational outcomes today. As they put it: “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition to still matter today, but it does”!

A new paper from Kim Peters and colleagues suggests that when economic inequality rises, wealth differences become a lens for dividing up the world into haves and have-nots. During periods of deeper inequality, for example, “books in the United Kingdom and the United States and news media in English-speaking countries were more likely to mention the rich and poor.” This has important implications today when, in many nations, economic inequality is reaching historic heights.

In a provocative article, Keith Payne and Jason Hannay argue that measures of implicit bias do not capture individuals’ attitudes, but rather associations that reflect what people have learned about the world in unequal and systemically racist environments.

Their approach is broadly consistent with our thinking in our book, ‘The Power of Us’, where we explain why reducing bias requires “more than a quick course of anti-bias training. Serious and sustained change takes organized and collective action, first to identify and then to root out the structures that produce disparate opportunities and outcomes”.

Speaking at Habit Day

This Friday (August 27), Dom will be presenting at ‘Habit Day’, a free virtual event where you can learn from experts “all about how to change your life using behavioral science—the right way, not the hype way”.

Dom will be speaking about ‘The Power of Identity'—and how groups can help (or hinder) people making improvements in their lives at 3pm ET.

You can see the full list of speakers and register for free here.

Preorder our book - The Power of Us