You are reading a particular chapter of the

book ‘The Purpose of Life’.

2.3 Social Status

High status helps the genes by providing access to a much higher quantity as well as quality of mates.

“Throughout history powerful men have usually had more than one mate each, even if they have had only one legitimate wife.” — Matt Ridley (Red Queen, L2691)

If we look at our history, it becomes more and more obvious that reproduction was really at the center of all our status pursuits.

“The connection between sex and power is a long one… In the ancient empire of the Incas, sex was a heavily regulated industry. The sun-king Atahualpa kept fifteen hundred women in each of many “houses of virgins” throughout his kingdom. They were selected for their beauty and were rarely chosen after the age of eight — to ensure their virginity. But they did not all remain virgins for long: They were the emperor’s concubines. Beneath him, each rank of society afforded a harem of a particular legal size. Great lords had harems of more than seven hundred women. “Principal persons” were allowed fifty women; leaders of vassal nations, thirty; heads of provinces of 100,000 people, twenty; leaders of 1,000 people, fifteen; administrators of 500 people, twelve; governors of 100 people, eight; petty chiefs over 50 men, seven; chiefs of 10 men, five; chiefs of 5 men, three. That left precious few for the average male Indian whose enforced near-celibacy must have driven him to desperate acts, a fact attested to by the severity of the penalties that followed any cuckolding of his seniors. If a man violated one of Atahualpa’s women, he, his wife, his children, his relatives, his servants, his fellow villagers, and all his lamas would be put to death, the village would be destroyed, and the site strewn with stones.”
“in almost every case, power predicts the size of a man’s harem.” — Matt Ridley (Red Queen, L2622)
“Chinese emperors were also taught to conserve their semen so as to keep up their quota of two women a day, and some even complained of their onerous sexual duties.”
“it is one thing to find that powerful emperors were polygamous but quite another to discover that they each adopted similar measures to enhance their reproductive success within the harem: wet nursing, fertility monitoring, claustration of the concubines, and so on. These are not the measures of men interested in sexual excess. They are the measures of men interested in producing many children.” — Matt Ridley (Red Queen, L3054)

Even in modern day hunter-gatherer tribes, “the chiefs of nearly every tribe throughout the world succeed in obtaining more than one wife… studies of the Ache, the Aka, the Aztecs, the Inca, the ancient Egyptians, and many other cultures suggest that, until the common use of contraception, male power translated into lots of offsprings” — Robert Wright (Moral Animal, L4254).

Of course, you may be thinking we have come such a long way since those days. So this link between social status and genetic propagation doesn’t really exist in today’s world. We have gone beyond it, and overcome it.

Again, not so fast. I must admit – it does look like the link between the two factors has maybe weakened in recent times. But I strongly suspect that there’s just something wrong with the way I’m looking at it – because in every other way I can see that the precision with which we go about achieving the objective of our genes.

Perhaps, given the social norms of today, we have subconsciously changed our strategy from quantity of offsprings to quality of offsprings. The objective of the genes is to proliferate and survive through many many generations to come. So maybe we are genetically better off having fewer offsprings and focusing on their well being or genetic success – in the end, it’s better to have 2 offsprings and ensure they have offsprings, rather than have 10 who are not reproductively successful.

Or maybe this can simply be explained by contraception. High status men may not be having more babies than other men but they may be having more sex. Contraception is a big ‘hack’ into the evolutionary process. Evolution doesn’t directly make us want to have a lot of babies, it does it indirectly through sexual attraction. And contraception has broken the link between sexual attraction and sexual reproduction. So even if high status men are having more sex it’s not resulting in more babies anymore.

So the connection between higher social status and number of offsprings may be a bit of dilemma. But that has not affected one bit how strongly we pursue social status. And social status, even today, in and of itself is incredibly valuable. It pervades every aspect of our lives and our society. We will talk in detail specifically about social status gives you an edge in the marriage, dating or ‘mating’ market in subsequent chapters. But let’s touch upon how it affects many of the other aspects of our lives.

All your life people are judging you and you are trying your best, whether consciously or subconsciously to impress them. The game is on pretty much the moment you were born. How quickly you started sitting, walking and talking are the main discussion points – society is keeping a tab on the little innocent you from a very early age. And once you get to school it’s even more obvious. The entire educational journey of a child is little more than a contest and a competition to show that he is better others – not just academically, but in many different arenas. Parents are often trying hard in many ways to showcase the abilities of their child. The entire world around the child is constantly judging, constantly trying to evaluate his ‘qualities’ or his social status. You try to get into the best college, try to get the best job – all just as a signal to society that you are better than others. That you have a higher social status.

You may be thinking – but I was never like that. I didn’t care for these things. But then what did you care for? Being creative? Expressing yourself and your talents? However you want to put it, it was just a different route to the same destination. You may have played a different game, but you still wanted to win.

Travelling has all kinds of status signalling attached to it. Pretty much everything you buy is some kind of status signal. It’s very obvious in the case of luxury goods where you are showing off your wealth, though of course your story will be about its quality, design or ‘tech specs’. Or on the other hand you may buy something cheap and effective to show off your values of thriftiness. In either case, you did tremendous research, almost entirely to ensure you have a great story about it and puts you in a good light; makes people appreciate you.

We carefully build resumes and linkedin profiles to list down our social status in a professional sense. What we’re saying is – you don’t have to take my word for it. Here’s a list of organisations that are validating my social status. And what do you think is really going on in our personal social networks like Facebook and Instagram? At a subconscious level, we are constantly positioning and marketing ourselves and our status in society.

Ever noticed how the atmosphere changes when a ‘high profile’ person enters a room? Noticed how your own behaviour and awareness changes? Even where you stand and where you look changes. A single gaze from a high status person can sometimes dramatically alter how you are feeling. We gossip exponentially more about people who we consider to have a higher status than us – celebrities are the perfect example. We cherish and value relationships with higher status people much more. For high status people, all the rules are different. The world seems to bend to their wishes and demands. To go out of the way to please them.

All the world’s a stage. We are all constantly sending status signals out in the world in so many different ways. There’s even evidence to suggest that random conversations and discussions we enjoy are basically just a game where people are trying to show off their qualities – be it intellect or just their sense of humour.

You tend to laugh much more at jokes cracked by a high status person. In fact, something as enjoyable as laughter is proposed to be an instrument that reinforces group hierarchies. Next time you’re having one of these ‘innocent’ discussions, try to notice who gets the most eye contact, attention and laughter from the group. You might just start seeing the invisible hierarchy.

The subconscious drive for higher status is as high as ever today. In fact with the digital age I would argue it’s even higher. Before we used to be happy being the smartest, or most good looking person in the neighbourhood. Now we try to do it on twitter and instagram, where the playing field is much much bigger. And society values and rewards higher status as much if not more than ever.

Once again I’d like to reinforce that all of this is happening at a subconscious level. You bought an expensive car or bag because it is actually exciting for you. And for a few days after the purchase you literally bask in its glow. It may be short lived and sporadic, but you actually get a huge ‘kick’ out of these behaviours – they are rewarding in and of themselves. But ultimately, as usual, you did the bidding of your genes and achieved higher status for yourself.

Experiments have repeatedly demonstrated how  we are more forgiving, more willing to do favours for, more likely of seeking friendships with higher status people than low status people.

The Social Attention Holding Theory by Gilbert (1990) is a powerful theory that demonstrates how most of the emotions we have names for may actually serve the purpose of negotiating status hierarchies.

Rage is proposed to be a reaction to the loss of status. It “may function to motivate an individual to seek revenge on the person who caused the status loss.”

“Envy is linked with rank in that people experience envy when someone else has resources, houses, mates or prestige that they want but fail to possess.” The experimental evidence is totally in line with what evolutionary psychology would expect. Women tend to experience more envy of rivals who are more physically attractive than they are, whereas men tend to experience more envy of rivals who have more sexual experience and more attractive mates (Hill & Buss, 2006). Why this is so is the topic of the next chapter.

Depression is thought of as an “emotional reaction to the loss of status”, that occurs “when a person loses his or her looks, is fired from a job, perceives himself or herself to be a burden on others, or fails in some socially visible manner”.

So all of these feelings that can be so overpowering and uncontrollable are essentially mechanisms built by our genes to regulate our pursuit for higher status.

“If there were ever a reasonable candidate for a universal human motive, status striving would be at or near the top of the list.” (Barkow, 1989; Frank, 1985; Maslow, 1937; Symons, 1979).