Social Status is a Scarce Resource

Social Status is a Scarce Resource September 26, 2023

Eric Schmidt, former Google CEO

In an interview on Armchair Expert, former Google CEO, Eric Schmidt, underscores one reason why we need to take seriously phenomena like fame and social status (both concepts related to honor and shame).

Eric Schmidt on Fame Scarcity

Before quoting his comments, it’s helpful to know the context of the discussion. Around the 11-minute mark, Eric, Dax Shepard, and Monica Padman discuss the impact of AI and other technological advances, including increased gains in material resources. Here’s an excerpt of the conversation:


What would life be like? People immediately conclude that everyone will be watching television and relaxing and lying by the pool, which is precisely not what’s going to happen. What will happen is humans will compete over other things.

… They’ll compete for sports. They’ll compete for power. Humans are not gonna give up identity. What’s the scarcest thing in a world full of everything? Fame, because it’s the one thing that everyone doesn’t have.

So, you’ll have huge competition over fame….


… we could just generally call that status and, as very social primates, that’s never leaving us. We are always going to be obsessed with our ranking in our group.


… What do we fight over? So if we had infinite money, we would fight over something else, but the one thing we don’t have a lot of and will never have a lot of is social hierarchy where everyone’s the same.

So, we’re going to compete for power and attention and whatever replaces money in this utopian scenario. …but we’re not gonna be sitting at the beach in a world full of resources. It’s not how humans work.


There’s no pride in it. No honor in it. No status in it. Nothing in it.


And then, using a stereotype, you sit at the beach, and you compete on the quality of your tan.


… where you got (a seat), what position you have, how close you are to the water.


Yeah, you get the right seat… We will compete over scarcity.

The Scarceness of Status Status

Schmidt highlights one of the most significant reasons why we need to understand honor-shame dynamics. It is an ever-present desire we humans have, and, as a scarce resource, individuals and communities within societies will compete for it.

If this is so, then we as believers need to be aware (1) of how this dynamic affects us, and (2) how the gospel impacts a word longing for a scarce resource like status. Doing so would probably require a book (one I’d like to write).

Credit: CC 4.0

For now, I’ll simply unpack a few ideas that help us understand key dynamics and a few social implications for understanding status and fame as scarce resources.


First, fame and social status are often associated with access to resources like wealth, power, education, and so forth. But these are limited resources. Few people individuals possess them at any given time. Consequently, fierce competitions break out to secure these resources.


Second, status is closely tied to hierarchy and rankings. In every group, certain individuals are inevitably better or more esteemed in some respect compared to their peers. Thus, people constantly compare themselves and compete with others, which then fuels resentment and jealousy.


Third, fame and position are tied to attention. If the internet has taught us anything, we all know that attention is limited. So, we dedicate ourselves to finding ways to stand out, even if via some utterly trivial standard, such as having the world record for Most Eggs Crushed with the Head in One-Minute (= 80) or Most Live Snails On a Face (= 23).

Our desperation for praise intensifies further if we feel shame since we have some “catching up” to do. Of course, we could save ourselves a lot of effort if only we’d learn the lesson that every middle schooler fails to grasp: No one else is thinking about you; only you are always thinking about you.

Individualism and Social Cohesion

We all want to be noticed by others (to some degree) and generally don’t want low status. This is why we’re tempted to seek fame, social status, etc. There’s a paradox we face though.

Social cohesion and relational harmony require that we generally conform to certain standards and behaviors. Sticking out too much can sometimes be disruptive or frowned upon. What happens when we’re all seeking individual acclaim? How can communities be united and enjoy social harmony when everyone tries to outdo one another (in one respect or another)?

I’ve only scratched the surface on this topic. I raise the matter simply so we can have more earnest reflection and discussion about how honor, shame, status, etc. shape our communities and should affect our ministry.

For more, check out my series on “status games.”


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