Social needs and status games

I’ve been thinking about our social needs and have begun to test a hypothesis that we have two basic social needs –

a) Fit in to a tribe where we want to belong

b) Stand out – first by seeking ways to improve the tribe’s status and then by seeking ways to improve our status within the tribe by signaling our comparative virtue

So, Jane might be a disgruntled worker in finance who doesn’t really feel a part of the tribe. She might either seek opportunities to go work in a different tribe or may be contacted by a member of said tribe. Let’s say she now has the opportunity to become an analyst at a venture capital firm.

After a year in her new job, Jane’s first need would be met. Since venture capitalists are a relatively “high status” tribe, she may only seek to improve the status of her firm within the tribe. Or, more likely, she might be focused on improving her brand within the community by signaling comparative virtue on Twitter (for example).

Of course, this doesn’t just apply to jobs. We’ve created various kinds of tribes with nations, states, faiths, religions, and so on. We’ve even created tribes around sports teams. Most of these tribes ladder up to bigger tribes.

So, for example, we have different levels of tribes when we consider politics. When things are going well for them, the people of a nation may unite under the larger national umbrella and revel in their collective high status. When things aren’t, they’ll focus instead on improving the status of their local tribe and stop caring about the larger tribes they’re part of.

Once we’re part of a tribe, the goal is always achieving higher status. So, if we feel secure about our status within a tribe and also feel secure about our tribe’s status, we can now get to work on improving our status within the tribe.

Since the goal is achieving higher status, we’re always playing status games – whether we choose to outwardly signal status or not. Choosing to not play status games is just a variant of playing the game.

We only deserve a styrofoam cup

As a response to a post on power recently, Ashay shared the following story from Simon Sinek. It is one I’ve thought about it a few times since and I thought I’d share.


I heard a story about a former Under Secretary of Defense who gave a speech at a large conference. He took his place on the stage and began talking, sharing his prepared remarks with the audience. He paused to take a sip of coffee from the Styrofoam cup he’d brought on stage with him. He took another sip, looked down at the cup and smiled.

“You know,” he said, interrupting his own speech, “I spoke here last year. I presented at this same conference on this same stage. But last year, I was still an Under Secretary,” he said.

“I flew here in business class and when I landed, there was someone waiting for me at the airport to take me to my hotel. Upon arriving at my hotel,” he continued, “there was someone else waiting for me. They had already checked me into the hotel, so they handed me my key and escorted me up to my room. The next morning, when I came down, again there was someone waiting for me in the lobby to drive me to this same venue that we are in today. I was taken through a back entrance, shown to the greenroom and handed a cup of coffee in a beautiful ceramic cup.”

“But this year, as I stand here to speak to you, I am no longer the Under Secretary,” he continued. “I flew here coach class and when I arrived at the airport yesterday there was no one there to meet me. I took a taxi to the hotel, and when I got there, I checked myself in and went by myself to my room. This morning, I came down to the lobby and caught another taxi to come here. I came in the front door and found my way backstage. Once there, I asked one of the techs if there was any coffee. He pointed to a coffee machine on a table against the wall. So I walked over and poured myself a cup of coffee into this here Styrofoam cup,” he said as he raised the cup to show the audience.

“It occurs to me,” he continued, “the ceramic cup they gave me last year . . . it was never meant for me at all. It was meant for the position I held. I deserve a Styrofoam cup.”

“This is the most important lesson I can impart to all of you,” he offered.

“All the perks, all the benefits and advantages you may get for the rank or position you hold, they aren’t meant for you. They are meant for the role you fill. And when you leave your role, which eventually you will, they will give the ceramic cup to the person who replaces you. Because you only ever deserved a Styrofoam cup.”