Our Quest for Status

June 06, 2012  |   Latest News   |     |   1 Comment

News_OurQuestForStatus We all want to be excel at something, we all want to feel important. In the course of this quest for significance, we compare ourselves to others to determine how we measure up in society. Is she more knowledgeable than I am? Am I more fit than he is? Is she a better mother? Am I smarter than my coworkers? Whether consciously or subconsciously, we are always comparing ourselves to others to determine where we fit in and how we rate. The sum of the answers to these questions is usually referred to as our self-esteem. However, recent research has given us a new way to think of this pursuit. It is not self-esteem we seek, but more accurately, status.

Dr. David Rock has done research in the field of neuroscience and concluded that all humans have basic social needs: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness (SCARF). As it pertains to status, in the article “Status: a more accurate way of understanding self-esteem,” he explains that our perceived increase or decrease in status (how we feel we measure up to others) elicits either a reward or threat response, with the threat response being more intense and longer lasting than the reward response. If we feel that our status is decreasing, our threat response is activated. Dr. Rock mentions research published by Hidehiko Takahashi et al in 2009 which shows that once our threat response is activated, our brains respond by releasing cortisol into our blood stream in levels typically seen in conjunction with sleep deprivation and chronic anxiety. Once our cortisol levels rise like this, Dr. Rock indicates that we are unable to think clearly or problem solve effectively. Conversely, if we feel that we are “better than” someone else (even in matters of little to no consequence, such as winning a board game), the reward response is activated. This leads to increased dopamine and serotonin levels, the byproducts of which are happiness, confidence and the ability to process information more efficiently.

However, what can happen to our relationships at home and at work if our feeling of status depends solely on how we measure ourselves against others? We are setting ourselves up to constantly be competing for status, whether consciously or unconsciously. As Dr. Rock notes, constantly comparing ourselves to others sets up a system where if you’re not the winner you’re the loser. There is no middle ground and, whether rational or not, we’re constantly competing against everyone else and our sense of status is subject to other people and their opinions of us (i.e. performance reviews at work). The potential exists for a sense of status being in a constant state of flux…a stressful prospect indeed. This is also where I suspect the phrase “misery loves company” originates from. After all, isn’t it comforting to know that other people are struggling in the trenches with us? Don’t we often hear “I’m so glad to know I’m not alone” from people who realize that they aren’t the only ones walking a difficult or painful path?

So what is the answer? How do we manage this need for status without impacting our relationships in a negative way? How can we use Dr. Rock’s discoveries to better ourselves? How do we take charge of our own increase in status?

  • Awareness: First, half the battle is being aware of this biological need for status and learning to recognize our threat response when it starts to kick in. Dr. Rock notes that once we have awareness, we are then in a position to deal with our emotions in a more informed and effective way. As an example, I have a client who suddenly began experiencing partial facial numbness. After a panicked trip to the emergency room convinced she was in the middle of a stroke, it was revealed that what was actually happening was a physical manifestation of anxiety. When she experienced the partial facial numbness again on a different day, she didn’t add to her already stressed mindset by panicking about a potentially dire medical condition. She recognized it for what it was, practiced some stress relieving activities and experienced a diminishing of her symptoms. She had gained awareness and her emotions were more manageable.

    Rock, Dr. David. “Status: a more accurate way of understanding self-esteem.” Psychology Today. Perina, Kaja, Editor in Chief. Published October 18, 2009. Accessed April 30, 2012. Your Brain at Work

    Rock, Dr. David. “Managing with the Brain in Mind.” DavidRock.net. Published Autumn 2009. Accessed April 30, 2012. Download PDF


  • Challenge Yourself: As Dr. Rock explains, the key to controlling your own sense of status is to “play against yourself.” You should always challenge yourself to be better the next time, at whatever it is that’s meaningful to you. Commit to reading more so you learn more about a particular subject of interest or practice your sport of choice for improved performance. Isn’t that what we tell children when they get frustrated with a difficult task? That if they practice more they will inevitably get better? Implicit in this advice is that once they get better they will feel better about themselves as a result of their accomplishment and raise their sense of personal status. The same holds true for us as adults. An old dog can most certainly learn new tricks. Dr. Rock confirms that our brains are flexible and able learn new tasks at any age. It doesn’t have to be a huge challenge or tremendous risk. Perhaps you read an article about photography and now your pictures are a bit better or you tackle the small home improvement project that you’ve been putting off. Even small steps toward self-improvement will raise your feelings of status. The beauty of this is that you’re in control….you control the effort and you own the rewards. If you constantly raise the bar on yourself and challenge yourself to be better, you will see positive results and experience the associated positive feelings.


  • Speak kindly to yourself and fill your mind with positive thoughts. Your brain and body will believe everything you tell it, whether positive or negative. It is because of this that it’s so important to fill your mind with positive thoughts and encouragement. As Dr. Rock mentions in “Managing with the Brain in Mind,” our brains are always capable of learning new things, however the brain can’t do this if we aren’t able to take control of our inner monologue and the messages that we send ourselves. If we continually focus on what we can’t do, then certainly those predictions will come true. Practice speaking positively to yourself and reject negative thoughts. You will notice your perspective changing. Taking control in this way will keep you focused on what you want to accomplish. As you realize success by improving yourself, your status will rise.

By acknowledging our biological need for status in our communities, we are able to better manage the threat response triggers that come our way. Continually challenge yourself, even in small ways, and you will see lasting status increases.

1 Comment for this entry

    Marc Rodis
    July 4th, 2013 on 10:02 am

    There are many causes of sleep deprivation. The stresses of daily life may intrude upon our ability to sleep well, or perhaps we trade sleep for more work or play. We may have medical or mental-health conditions that disrupt our sleep, and be well aware that we are sleep-deprived.

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