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