Are You Fighting Over Status?

Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
June 29, 2016  | Last Updated: June 29, 2016

Instead, compete with yourself by surpassing your past performance. 

Why do people stand for hours to get a signed copy of a celebrity’s new book? 

Status. Brain science is teaching us that we each maintain complex maps of the "pecking order" of the people surrounding us. Any changes in our own standing can trigger an intense emotional response — good or bad. That’s why a sense of rising status may be more rewarding than money, and a sense of decreasing status can feel like a threat to your survival.  Even the hope of future rising status feels good. Owning the signed copy gives us a little buzz of celebrity-by-association and generates that hope. Fear of a loss of status hurts by the same logic. 


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In the United States, we have a commitment to political equality and to treating others as equals. That’s the ideal, but our lives are full of hierarchies anyway. Organizations have ladders of authority. Some people are wealthy; others struggle. Our culture teaches us to find self-respect through living up to our standards without having to feel superior to others. Again, it’s a worthy goal, but not our natural tendency. Being aware of status concerns doesn’t mean you give up on that goal — however, it can change practical decisions and how you relate to others.

Business coach and neuroscientist David Rock, author of “Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long,” proposes that “many of the arguments and conflicts at work, and in life, have status issues at their core.” If you can see perceived threats to status clearly as they come up, you can respond in ways that make people feel less at risk. 

Why do we insist on knowing the answer and love to “win” arguments? We feel a boost in status. Let it go. Or if it’s important to arrive at an agreement on what’s correct, boost the loser’s status in some way, perhaps by changing the subject to an area where he shines.  

Why is it rude to be late for appointments or focus on your smartphone in company? Both actions communicate that you see yourself as higher-status, threatening the status of others. Apologize or explain in a way that communicates respect. 

Why do we panic at the prospect of feedback from a boss or colleague and hate to make mistakes? We fear a loss of status. When you’re dishing out the critique, you might mention your own fears or mistakes at the same time. If you’re on the receiving end, instead of becoming defensive, inwardly remind yourself of status-boosting moments or areas of competence. 

Status has real consequences. Human beings feel threats more intensely and more often than rewards. Social pain — feeling excluded or rejected — is a threat. It can register in the brain much like a physical pain, research suggests, and, over time, hurt your health.

Higher status people do have it better — they have more control, support, and attention from others. Those advantages enhance their performance. Status makes you feel good, and, Rock argues, that well-being helps you think more clearly and creatively. You become healthier and more confident. 

So Rock advises us to find a niche and embrace the feeling of being “above” others: “You can elevate your status by finding a way to feel smarter / funnier / healthier / richer / more righteous / more organized / fitter / stronger or by beating other people at just about anything at all.” 

Another strategy is to set goals and beat your own past performance. Thinking about yourself and thinking about others use the same circuits, Rock points out. “You can harness the power of the thrill of ‘beating the other guy’ by making that other guy (or girl) you, without hurting anyone in the process. To play against yourself gives you the chance to feel ever-increasing status, without threatening others. I have a hunch that many successful people have worked all this out and play against themselves a lot,” he says.

Also, think twice about ignoring status issues when you make big decisions about real estate and schools for your kids. You may choose to live in a bigger house in a less expensive neighborhood and let your child be the big fish in a less-competitive pond. 


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