Envy of the high-statused

Our ill feeling toward high-status players has been captured in the lab. When neuroscientists had participants read about someone popular, rich and smart, they saw brain regions involved in the perception of pain become activated. When they read of this invented person suffering a demotion, their pleasure systems flared up. Psychologists see this effect cross-culturally, with one study in Japan and Australia finding participants took pleasure in the felling of a ‘tall poppy’: the higher their status, the greater the enjoyment of their de-grading. The most venomous levels of envy were reported when the poppy’s success was ‘in a domain that was important to the participant, such as academic achievement among students’ – when they were rivals in their games.

An yet, as we’ve learned, we’re also drawn to high-status people: we crave contact with the famous, the successful and the brilliant. So our relationship with elite players is thunderously ambivalent. On one hand, we gather close to them, offering them status in order to learn from them and, in the process, become statusful ourselves. On the other, we experience grinding resentments towards them. This, perhaps, is the result of the mismatch between our neural game-playing equipment and the massively outsized structure of modern games. Our brains may be specialized for small tribal groups but today – especially at work and online – we play colossal games in which poppies loom over us like redwoods. Status is relative: the higher others rise, the lower we sit in comparison. It’s a resource and their highly visible thriving steals it from us. The exceptions we make tend to be for ambassadors from our own groups: artists, thinkers, athletes and leaders with whom we strongly identify. They seem to symbolize us, somehow. They carry with them a piece of our own identity, a pound of our flesh – so their success becomes our success and we cheer it wildly. To our subconscious these idols are fantastically accomplished versions of us: our copy, flatter, conform cognition overrides our resentment.

Storr, Will. The Status Game. William Collins Books; London; 2021. p. 97-8

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

4 thoughts on “Envy of the high-statused”

  1. Will Storr has packed a lot into the excerpt you included. But it also sounded quite generalized. I expect how i feel either by the rise or fall of high status people may relate also to how I believe they treated other people in general.

  2. I think you would find the book instructive. Among other things, it does a good job of cataloging how no amount of status ever makes a person secure, because there are always more rungs above. Call it silver medal syndrome: instead of feeling good about doing better than 99.9% of the population, people tend to feel miserable and insufficient because 0.1% of people are ahead of them.

  3. The particular paradox described in this post has often struck me: when people see that someone else seems to possess a lot of what they themselves desire (status, influence, beauty, financial security) we tend to simultaneously think highly of them as someone in possession of what we desire and perhaps someone to emulate – but also contemptuously of them, for seeming to be in unjust possession of what we lack. Our admiration is thus of a rather superficial and predatory form: we note that they are up on a pedestal, while dreaming of pulling them off and taking their place.

  4. There is also what I think of as the Saddam Hussein effect: the higher-status you are, the harder it is to have an accurate understanding of the world because everyone around you will flatter your existing beliefs and prejudices. People at the top lose not only their empathy, but even their ability to realize that they are surrounded by sycophants who flatter their prejudices and help them stay disconnected from reality.

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