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Why You’ll Never Win the Status Game
We spend our whole lives unaware that we’re trying to win a game with no winners.
When my family moved from Bulgaria to the United States, I had to learn the rules of the status game in my new country. It started with Lisa Frank binders and escalated to North Face jackets.
Unfortunately, my parents were working several jobs to make sure I had a roof over my head, so I couldn’t exactly ask for a hundred-dollar jacket to earn some “social status” at school.
And so, by the fifth grade, I was already losing the status game.
Weird things give you social status at various points in your life. I remember going to college and seeing the “cool girls” wear oversized T-shirts paired with Nike shorts. Never in any other part of the world does this absurd outfit give you status, but when you’re an 18-year-old college student, it does. (Also UGGs. Ugh, remember UGGs?)
By the time I got into the T-shirt / Nike shorts / UGGs game, I had moved to New York City where a different status game was being played: One that involved thousand-dollar Canada Goose coats I couldn’t afford.
It was always something, and I was always playing catch-up. By the time I figured out what was cool, it wasn't cool anymore.
Rob Henderson, a graduate of Yale and a PhD student at Cambridge, says playing catch-up is just a function of the system. By the time things trickle down to be adopted by the masses, there's something new at the top. This way, you get stuck in the never-ending hamster wheel of spending money to earn status.
The status you yearn for always remains just barely out of reach, and that’s by design.
Henderson coined the term "luxury beliefs," which he defines as ideas and opinions that confer status on the wealthy, while inflicting costs on everyone else.
Take the idea that "monogamy is outdated," for instance. "Saying monogamy is outdated will give you some social cred from other elite college students," he says. "And it's kind of ironic because the upper class is most likely to broadcast these kinds of unusual luxury beliefs, but then they themselves are most likely to get married, and recapitulate the privileges they are critiquing.”
In other words, this is the idea or belief version of a Canada Goose coat.
Over time, luxury beliefs are embraced down the social ladder—at which point, the upper class abandons its old luxury beliefs and embraces new ones. Which explains why the beliefs of the upper class are constantly changing. It’s easy to see how this works if we look at actual fashion.
The author Quentin Bell, in On Human Finery, wrote “Try to look like the people above you; if you’re at the top, try to look different from the people below you.”
The elite’s conspicuous display of their luxury beliefs falls into this pattern. Their beliefs are emulated by others, sending them off in search of new beliefs to display. The affluent can’t risk looking like hoi polloi, after all.
In this week’s Dossier, I featured Will Storr, a journalist and novelist who writes about the science of status-seeking. He says we bestow status upon the people that we see as dominant, virtuous, or competent, and we begin to emulate them in hopes of becoming dominant, virtuous, or competent ourselves. This is how we become participants in the status game.
Here’s how the game works: We begin with a question, form a belief, and join groups that validate that belief. Once we join a tribe, we identify the most powerful high-status members and mimic their beliefs, tastes, and behaviors. “We do this partly as a gameplay strategy: by blindly adopting the opinions and habits of the successful, we hope to become successful ourselves,” Storr writes.
Ironically, we spend our whole lives unaware that we’re trying to win a game with no winners.
“Nobody wins the status game. They’re not supposed to,” Storr writes. “The meaning of life is not to win, it’s to play.”
There are many status games we play, and it’s important to know our part in them. A cancel culture mob, for example, relies on a virtue dominance game. It forces you to adhere to the rules with threat, pain, and punishment.
A virtue success game, on the other hand, uses competence to increase good. Someone running a marathon to raise money for breast cancer research is playing a virtue success game.
Although it’s impossible to opt-out of the status game, remember that you can always play with good intent. And, most importantly, you don’t need an overpriced Canada Goose coat to do it.
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