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Status, Equality and Motivation


Explanations > Values > Status, Equality and Motivation

The Status drive | Equality as a social glue | The status-equality conflict | The separation-connection dilemma | So what?


Status and equality are both things that are important to us, yet they can fall into conflict. Here's a discussion of this dilemma and what we can do about it.

The Status drive

In building our sense of identity, we constantly compare ourselves with others and want to feel superior in some way. This leads us to play status games where we constantly seek ways to boost our sense of superiority. This can be achieved in two ways. First, we can demonstrate or assert that we are better in some way, being stronger, wiser, richer, cleverer and so on. Secondly, as our perception of superiority is relative, we have a reverse alternative, which is to make other people seem worse than us in some way. This can lead to status-oriented actions such as:

  • Asserting things as being true, hence positioning ourselves as knowing more than others.
  • Gaining qualifications and other evidence of our superiority.
  • Seeking the approval and support of others that acknowledges our abilities.
  • Criticizing others, indicating that they are wrong, foolish or bad (and in doing making ourselves better than them).
  • Indulging in self-talk, telling ourselves we are worthwhile and better than others.

Status also helps us achieve our goals when we can persuade or command others to our service. In this way, status also supports our need for a sense of control. This dual effect in supporting the key CIA Needs of control and identity makes status a very powerful motivator.

Equality as a social glue

If all we were driven by was status, we would soon be at each other's throats. Yet we do not go this far. Evolution has taught us that trying to make it alone in a hostile world is dangerous, and it is safer to collaborate with others within a tribal framework. In order to get help from others, we have to help them. We also find there are things of mutual benefit that can only be gained through collaboration.

The basic social rule that helps us achieve this collaboration is that we are all equal. The significance of equality can be seen in the constitutions and laws of many countries. This translates into values such as:

  • Be kind, polite and generally nice to others.
  • Be trustworthy, including being reliable and honest.
  • Do to others what you would have them do to you.
  • Help other people, especially when they are clearly in need of help.
  • Do not steal or harm others, particularly vulnerable people who cannot defend themselves.
  • Repay your debts, balancing out receiving with giving.
  • Criticize and exclude people who do not follow these rules.

The last rule is a clever addition that helps correct or reject those who do not follow the rules and ensures the overall population knows and follows the rules.

The status-equality conflict

Even though most people agree that equality is a good thing, in practice they often break or bend the rules. Of course they excuse themselves, citing such as urgency or that the rules do not apply in this case. This is why we have values and laws about equality: without them, people would easily fall back into selfish attitudes and actions.

Status is a common reason for breaking equality values, as the status drive leads to inequality. One of the reasons for this is, that while both are needs, they are different in effect. We value status, but it is not a social values. We also value equality, but more for ourselves and when we are personally of lower status. Perhaps because of this, equality is a basic social value.

When we position ourselves as superior, we need others to be inferior, thereby breaking the equality rules. More broadly, we also break equality rules for reasons of greed, although status may be seen as being an aspect of greed, where we seek to have more than others and so prove our superiority by means of possession.

The separation-connection dilemma

A deeper principle that underlies these already deep motivators is the dilemma of connection and separation. When we were infants, we had no separate sense of self as we saw ourselves as one with everything (especially our mother or carer). Gradually, we separated out our individual selves, including via the potentially traumatic mirror phase.

Thereafter much of what we do can be understood as a tense balance between seeking togetherness, such as with family, friends, workmates, etc., and separation, where we focus on our distinct identities. In practice, each of us has a comfort position along the spectrum between strong connection and strong separation. Those who focus more on status err more towards separation, while those who are more persuaded by equality consider equality more important.

So what?

If you want people to be more concerned about equality and less about status, then emphasize the benefits of connection and friendship. If you want to split up groups, put more emphasis on status. You can also socially offer status more to people who help others rather than the more normal process of giving status to those who succeed by themselves or who accrue other forms of power.

Many organizations play to the status drive, with personal evaluations that compare people with others, and with pay and promotion as reward. Yet they know they need people to feel more connected and work together. To get this, they need to change the mindset and focus less on extrinsic, individual reward.

The broader principle being applied here is that social values appear as a coercive mechanism when the interests of the individual will tend to pull them one way, while the interests of the group mean that, in this case, the person must be prevented from indulging in purely their own interests.

See also

Status Values, Status Game, Status Conversation, The Need for Status, The Need for Equality, The Need to Connect, The Need for a Sense of Identity, Power



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