The psychology of prestige: why we play the social status game

With social media at our fingertips, we are regularly alerted to the news of a friend’s new car, an ex-colleague being awarded yet another promotion, or the lavish holiday your neighbors have somehow managed to afford. It’s hard to not get swept up in the pursuit of social status.

Far from being a modern phenomenon, we have craved status ever since we were monkeys, when it already offered advantages within hierarchical micro-societies. However, now that status is not so closely linked to our survival, pursuing goals based on the assumed prestige our success will confer can be a bad idea.

For instance, those who choose to study medicine based on the future status of being a doctor could later find themselves unfulfilled in a career they are not truly interested or invested in. Rather than striving for status, we need to find more sustainable incentives for success.

Our natural desire for prestige

The importance we confer to prestige makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. For our ancestors, being more popular was a survival advantage. Social status offered greater group protection and longevity, which means that they were more likely to reproduce.

Similarly, as modern individuals, we seek out and follow paths that will maximize our social status and capital, even if we do not realize we are doing it. Professor Cameron Anderson explained that status influences how we behave and think. For example, wearing designer clothing or driving a sports car may be part of our inbuilt desire for prestige.

Such status symbols can help maintain social hierarchies. Dr Sabina Siebert from the University of Glasgow found that when faced with competition from other professions, barristers protected their prestige with the use of status symbols including professional dress, ceremonies and rituals. She concluded that this allowed “elite professionals to maintain their superior status.”

Modern society has exacerbated our natural desire for high-ranking status, with social media as a giant leaderboard where we compete with each other to gain the most prestige points. 

Eugene Wei, who has worked in media, technology and for consumer internet companies, wrote that social media is built on the idea that it offers an efficient way to accumulate social capital. The likes, retweets, or comments are felt to increase reach and boost the perception of one’s own value. It’s a “world of artificial prestige”. But farming prestige points is not without a cost.

The impact of status anxiety

When you focus on how successful you appear to others, status anxiety can occur. Your fear of not being valued by society may sadly lead to harmful long-term decisions being made.

If you study law to claim the associated status of working as a lawyer, rather than because you are drawn to the career itself, you may later find yourself dissatisfied, stressed or unhappy at work.

The desire to achieve status may mean you did not consider other career options, and may have turned down more suitable opportunities because of your drive to appear prestigious. 

In his book Status Anxiety, philosopher Alain de Botton writes that the anxiety about what others think of us and about whether we are judged a success or a failure can lead us to make decisions that are self-defeating, lower our self-worth, or are at odds with our values.

Status symbols such as a large house in a desirable area, multiple holidays each year, or being able to flash a Rolex on your wrist may all be ways that you feel you demonstrate your significance and value in society.

However, when your drive to be outwardly successful supersedes all else, you may ignore exciting vocational work opportunities, put too little energy into personal relationships, or fail to make time for rest. If you decline opportunities for personal growth or self-discovery while striving for status, you could progress fast, but not in the right direction.

In situations in which status, rather than the achievement itself, is the goal, we will find that even when acquired, we will likely remain dissatisfied. So what’s the alternative?

Breaking free from the social status game

It is possible to replace irrational status-seeking behaviors with healthier alternatives in which the value is found in the act itself rather than by the aimless collection of status symbols. Here are a few strategies to help you replace empty prestige with playful exploration:

  • Practice metacognition to reflect on long-term goals. By becoming more aware of your thought processes, it is possible to observe patterns regarding your motivations. If you notice that you are instinctively drawn to actions based on the potential for increased status, note this down in a journal. Take time to consider whether the goal or motivation is truly aligned to your values, or if you are being coerced by a desire for prestige.
  • Surround yourself with explorers. If your colleagues, friends or family are all driven by status, it is difficult not to get sucked into the pursuit of outward signs of success. Even worse, you may find yourself playing a game of one-upmanship and in a vicious cycle of trying to appear better than one’s peers. To avoid this trap, find friends online and in real life who are not playing the status game. This will help to avoid feelings of inadequacy and the desire to keep up with others.
  • Explore unconventional paths. Many people have achieved success in pursuing their interests. Reserve time to read memoirs and biographies of those who have achieved their dreams not by striving for wealth or status, but by reflecting on what is important to them and following their own path.
  • Focus on learning new skills. Rather than collecting status symbols, try to acquire skills that could help you grow and develop as an individual. This could include working on your communication skills, self-confidence, or problem-solving capabilities. It may even involve considering a career change.

The psychology of prestige has its roots in evolution. However, in the modern world, we have the ability to reflect on the motivations behind our pursuit of status.

It is important to distinguish between wanting to achieve a goal that is aligned to our values and will truly make us feel good, and a goal we want to meet purely for its associated status in our society.

If we’re aware that we’re playing the social status game, then we can reflect on whether there is an intrinsically motivated path that could provide opportunities for growth and greater overall satisfaction.

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