Hierarchies and the Desire for Status


Humans have an innate desire for status. It is part of our nature. This desire creates challenges for us as we seek happiness. It can help us be good, do good and thrive. Or it can lead us to waste time on pointless, unfulfilling pursuits.

Humans are a hierarchical species. Many animals are because it has been a successful evolutionary adaption. Hierarchy helps species survive and flourish by facilitating order, cooperation, and specialization. Hierarchy helps those best adapted to the environment pass on their DNA.

There are many hierarchies in human society – social, political, financial, technical, spiritual, etc. The factors that establish hierarchies are varied. Political hierarchy in a gang may be determined by strength and ruthlessness. In many fields, hierarchy is determined largely by competence and achievement. The best athletes and the best scientists rise to the top.

When hierarchy is based on competence it is often good for society. We look to those who are better at something for guidance and leadership. We want them to have more influence because we benefit from their competence and accomplishment. There are some parallels here with the insight of Adam Smith that the pursuit of self-interest can produce public good. Often people motivated by the desire for high regard by others make value contributions to their community.

Hierarchies can be negative for society. Hierarchies based on accidents of birth, violence, raw power, and oppression rarely move society forward. Those tend to reward the status quo rather than progress. Hierarchies are frequently criticized for this. But the existence of destructive hierarchies should not blind us to the benefits hierarchies provide when based on competence and positive contributions to society.

Desire for Status

Status comes with position in the hierarchy. We have a strong innate desire for status because historically higher status means greater reproductive success. Higher status individuals, male and female, are more likely to pass on their DNA. Think of the tribal chief (the top of the political hierarchy) who has several wives while the lowest male gets none. Or the successful farmer or herdsman who is better able to feed his family and have more surviving offspring. With reproduction at stake, is it any wonder the drive for status is so powerful?

Much human behavior seems more logical when we see the link betwee hierarchy, desire for status, and evolutionary success. Look carefully and we can see hierarchies everywhere. We can see, in ourselves and others, the ever-present drive to move up. It is obvious in business and politics. But it is easily seen in all aspects of life – gardening, sports, clothing, cars, etc. Marketers have understood this part of human nature and have long marketed products by appealing to our desire for higher status.

The Desire for Higher Status and living well

The challenge in living a good life, a moral life, is directing and controlling our constant desire for higher status. We first need to acknowledge how powerful that desire is. It cannot be ignored because it is fundamental to our nature. Then we must learn when our desire for status is positive and can be indulged and when it is destructive and must be controlled. The desire for status is a powerful motivator. It can drive us to work hard, take risks, and accomplish difficult tasks that all benefit from. The desire to be the best can bring about valuable achievements. Conversely, the drive for status can motivate us acts in ways that are wrong, destructive, or simply meaningless.

One test for desirable status is whether our gaining status is good for society. Are we meeting our desire for status by being competent in areas that benefit others? If we gain higher status in this way, are we able to provide more benefit to our community? If so, then we can harness, or at least acquiesce to, our desire for status when it motivates us become more competent and achieve more.

Another test is whether status seeking helps our quest to be happy and live a good life. Our drive for high status can lead to actions that are petty and pointless. We desire the flashy car because we want to feel superior to others. We all know people (I include myself here) who spend much effort showing they are the better at something (e.g. having the latest gadget, a weed free lawn, or the most social media likes) when being better doesn’t make them happy and contributes nothing to society. That satisfaction tends to be hollow and transient. There is a surprising amount of what we do that falls into this category. We need to be aware of our true motivations and avoid seeking status simply for its own sake.

In an ideal world, or desire to do good should motivate our actions. But we cannot pretend we are not status conscious by nature. We can acknowledge it and harness to do good. At the same time, we can moderate our status seeking, avoid seeking meaningless status, and put our desires in the proper perspective.

the stoics on the opinion of others

It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own.” – Marcus Aurelius

The Stoics have a lesson for us here. They encourage us not to value too highly the opinion of others. We should do what we think is right and to hold ourselves to our own high standards. When we act primarily to gain the approval of others – which is what seeking status is – we risk taking our eye off what is most important.