Status Games are Inherently Groupish

Status Games are Inherently Groupish January 18, 2022

Credit: Public Domain

People think that seeking status primarily occurs among individuals. This impression masks an important underlying dynamic: Status competitions arise within a particular community as well as between communities.

(NOTE: Part one of the series explains the fundamental dynamics of a “status game.” This series highlights several insights from Will Storr’s fantastic new book The Status Game: One Social Position and How We Use It.)

Which Status Game is Better?

Every community is marked but its own kind of status game. Therefore, individuals do not compete for status in the abstract. One may belong to different communities and could be accustomed to playing multiple status games. At the same time, people around them might play different games. What will they do then?

Interestingly, people will actually attempt to raise the status of their own group’s games. In other words, they try to show that their status game is better than other status games. What is this mean? In effect, people attempt to show that their group’s beliefs, behaviors, and norms are somehow more virtuous, moral, and reasonable.

I think this is a critical insight that too frequently gets overlooked. As a result, we’re not even aware of when we’re playing status games and how status games affect our communities and us.

Seeking to raise the status of our group rather than directly pursue individual status has two advantages. First, groups tend to condemn individuals who seek personal status; yet groups will applaud you for seeking the group’s status. So, extolling the virtues of our group’s status games is it socially safe for a route to take. Storr says,

Within the games we play, we police each other. It’s in everyone’s interest the game remains fair and stable and that big shots are managed. But no such policing happens in status competitions between games. On the contrary, our co-players award us even more status when we behave in ways that boost our games rank and diminish that of our rivals

Even if they’re above us in the hierarchy of games, we’ll tell stories that say we’d rather be where we are. Our game is the one: our football team, our company, our clique, our tribe, our religion. (106)

Second, increasing the status of our group is an indirect way of lifting our own status. A person is like a boat that rises with the collective tide. As we raise the group’s standing, we also get a boost individually. Storr comments,

When our games win status, we do too. When they lose, so do we. These games form our identity. We become the games we play. (2)

Defending Me Our Group

These observations have implications for our judgments and behavior. Keep in mind that we draw status from the groups we belong to. Concerning our groups, Storr says,

“If we don’t think they’re inherently statusful, how can we draw status from them?” (105)

In the interest of increasing our own status, we have strong incentives to defend our group at almost any cost.

It is not difficult to imagine how we will react when our groups come under scrutiny or critique. We will likely become defensive and quick to retaliate with disparaging remarks that cast of shadow on the reputation of the critics. To allow others to bring down our group’s status effectively amounts to a tearing down of our own. For most of us, so much of the time, this psychological tension is intolerable.

Storr adds,

“In order to believe our games are superior, we must believe its players are also superior.” (107)

Consequently, we have a deeply ingrained bias for our own in-group members. We quickly and irrationally dismiss criticism from so-called “outsiders,” whom our brains unconsciously judge as inferior.

In recent days, we’ve seen this in numerous debates concerning specific social issues and points of doctrine. These include discussions about race, gender, politics, atonement, among other topics.

As the book shows, our groupishness as humans is so primal and is proven by experiments that repeatedly demonstrate how quickly we become attached to groups. Our groupishness is triggered even when the groups are arranged arbitrarily, such as when kids randomly receive the same color shirt to wear for no other reason than by chance.

When Status Becomes Sacred

A few other dynamics are worth noting. What else follows from the fact that status games are inherently communal? Over time, one no longer gains status simply by affirming the same set of beliefs.

The author says, “Status is earned with active belief” (151). In other words, as groups become larger, requirements for earning status also increase. With more players in the game, individuals must be more active and evident in their affirmation of group values, uphold key social symbols, and defend the semi-sacred leaders of the group.[1]

Storr warns that status games quickly become “sacred” such that this active belief becomes a non-negotiable requirement for belonging and status in that group. In other words, the group now ties individual status to the degree that (s)he conforms in every way to the group’s customs, symbols, and beliefs, even if those beliefs were never before been deemed essential to the identity of that group.

The next post explores several practical implications of the research surrounding status games. This discussion is critical for understanding how to be the church and properly minister in our varied social contexts.


[1] I think this is one dynamic that led to my removal as a book reviews editor for The Gospel Coalition’s theological journal Themelios. Also, notice how often people have come to assume that criticizing certain individuals means rejecting all they say or that affirming another person means that you endorse everything that they say.

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