Why we spend #1 : Status

Status anxiety

There goes the neighbourhood…

Why do people spend all they earn and then borrow even more?  Why do we keep accumulating crap, long after all our genuine needs have been met?

These are questions that have long puzzled The Escape Artist. I think its important to figure this stuff out. Only by understanding the compulsion to spend can we change our ways and accumulate wealth and freedom.

When people consistently do things that are irrational, we need to look for evolutionary drivers of behaviour. It turns out there is an biological rationale for status and this influences many peoples spending decisions.

We have to recognise that at least part of the reason we spend is to indicate something to others. There are a number of different fancy phrases for this – journalists refer to “conspicuous consumption”, economists refer to “signalling” and rappers refer to “fronting and maxing”. The Escape Artist’s favoured description of this behaviour is “showing off”.

It has been brought to the attention of The Escape Artist that on some council estates in the North of England it is traditional to signal to the neighbours that you have bought a new fridge by placing the old one in a prominent position on the “lawn” in front of the house. Behold! I am the possessor of a new Hotpoint and can afford to carelessly discard its predecessor – am I not wealthy indeed! If the old one were taken away and recycled, how would the neighbours then be constantly reminded of your good fortune and status?

This is obviously insane, as well as a tad chavvy. After all, nice Middle Class people would never do anything as vulgar as this. Or would they? Is this really so different from buying an BMW X5 or other SUV on finance to run Jemima to her clarinet lesson? Look upon my elevated chariot throne with envy, fools, for I and my genetic inheritance are now invincible! Mwaaa–ha-haa!

We show off for at least 2 reasons. Firstly, people often want to impress other people they work with/for for economic reasons. Second, people often want to impress the opposite sex for mating purposes. I’m not saying this is right or wrong…it’s just the way it is.

The more of life I see, the more I realise that a disproportionate amount of everyone’s time in any group environment is taken up by showing off. This is particularly acute in schools, offices and other places where needy people are forced to congregate. People feel compelled to create a hierarchy into which they can place themselves.

Now there are obviously many different potential criteria by which we can judge ourselves and others.  In his book Status Anxiety, Alain de Botton points out that these criteria are fluid over time and in different countries. In societies at war, the skills of soldiers are attributed higher status. If you are a General and the war ends, you’d better be ready for those cocktail party invites to dry up.

At my school, there was one guy who had a very clear view on how status should be measured. Over a fortnight, he systematically went up to every other boy in the year and asked them if they wanted a fight. This was done in a surprisingly matter of fact and unthreatening manner. I can’t remember his name but let’s call him Biffa.

A few no doubt took Biffa up on his kind offer of a fight. Others (me included) were genuinely puzzled by his offer and politely declined. We had no history of conflict so it seemed unnecessary to me. The reason however was clear to Biffa, who had decided that if someone turned down his offer of a fight, that was prima facie evidence that they were not as “hard” as him.

Biffa was keen to establish a position as hardest bloke in the school. For him, life was a ranking and he wanted the number one slot, in the same way that One Direction want to be number one on the Top 40.  To be fair to Biffa, his ranking system at least had the merit of being straightforward, evidence based and internally consistent.

At this point, you may be thinking – ah, yes, that’s just kids. That doesn’t apply to sophisticated adults with their own cars and mortgages and everything.  If so, you’d be wrong.

In fact, Biffa was demonstrating a universal human tendency – to rank others and ourselves based on questionable value judgements. Biffa’s example is only noteworthy by “virtue” of 2 factors:

1)      Choosing a scoring system based on fighting (generally frowned upon these days)

2)      How explicit he was about the ranking system

In my mid 30s, after I got promoted, I was sent by my employer (a professional services firm) on a training / brain-washing / development course. You may be familiar with such events. Think conference centres, flipcharts, marker pens and boiled sweets. This was the sort of place where you are thrown together with other inmates of the Prison Camp and forced to undertake “ice-breaker” exercises to ameliorate the awkwardness of a forced and unnatural situation.

Unusually, one of the exercises was very powerful and illuminating – such that I still recall it with clarity nearly 10 years later. We were split into groups of 13 and each of us were assigned a playing card from the suit of hearts. The card was stuck to our foreheads in such a way that everyone else could see what we were – for example, an ace, a jack or a 7 of Hearts. The wearer of the playing card, however, was not told (and could not see) what card they had been allocated.

financial independence

Aces high

Once we had been allocated our card, we had to circulate (think cocktail party etiquette) and talk to others in the room. Our instructions were to talk to others in a manner consistent with their status, as indicated by the card.

So if they had a King on their forehead, we were to grovel, hang on their words and laugh at their jokes. If they were a 2, we were to indicate disrespect.

At the end of a few minutes of circulating, having spoken to a selection of the others, we were asked to line up. We had to guess where we “fitted” in the social hierarchy, based only on the information conveyed by how people had treated us and arrange ourselves in order of status.

Now, I’d expected that people were going to guess roughly where they were in the pecking order. What was incredible, however, was that every person ranked themselves relative to others with 100% accuracy. In other words, we ended up with a line of 13 people from 2 of Hearts to Ace (high) in exactly the correct ascending order.

We are all hardwired internally with an incredibly sensitive status detector mechanism. This is because evolution selected for these skills. Over thousands of years, people learned to co-operate. Large and important tasks such as hunting woolly mammoths required such co-operation. This involved dealing with other people, which involves issues of status.

If you failed to spot that Krog the Barbarian had high status and you “dissed” him by suggesting that his way of hunting the mammoth was for girls, he might just club you to death.  You then didn’t pass on your genes to future generations. Similarly, back when the whole tribe was hungry, you can see how the guy who was best at hunting might get a lot of cavewoman love action.  His genes spread.  And that is how we got so attuned to status.

Working in an office is today’s equivalent of woolly mammoth hunting or slash and burn farming. It’s a softer gig for sure, but its how most of us now generate our food and other resources.  We are carrying the same genetic baggage as our caveman ancestors but in the very different environment of the modern world.

Now no one has written this shit down anywhere, but an unwritten rule has developed in many parts of the Western world that your ranking is determined by how much you earn and how much stuff you can display. This is clearly mad but, because we are genetically hard-wired to be status conscious and to seek the approval and respect of others, its almost as if we can’t help ourselves.

There are the 3 key takeaways here. First, in the abundance of the modern Western world, I hope you can agree that a ranking system based solely on money is just as arbitrary as Biffa’s Fighting Scale of Hardness.

Second, we can think for ourselves and help each other to mitigate (although never fully overcome) our genetic biases. Self-awareness and honesty is the first step.

Third, if competition and status seeking are inevitable (and I suspect they are) why not compete on different, less toxic, criteria? We could for example compete to be the most reasonable.  Its just a thought.


  1. Great article.

    Us nerds remember the horrors of seeing the school darling go off with the dunderhead from the local tyre shop. Our pocket money couldn’t complete with his weekly envelope.

    I suspect that males rank themselves on whatever women value. Until women stop craving money, then I suspect it will never end.

    Anyway, I think money is actually quite a good KPI for a woman to assess the quality of a potential mate – not perfect, but a good first filter.

    The problem is the incorrectly assumed correlation between the amount of stuff and the amount of money. Easy debt and short-term stupidity broke the link.

    During our evolution, possession was wealth. Now that we have the tools to deceive, women need to wise up and learn that the Porsche is no longer a sign of wealth, but most likely a sign of debt, stupidity and poor sperm quality. Those few % who genuinely can afford a Porsche from spare cash unfortunately need to find a new way of differentiating themselves from their many impersonators.

  2. Yes, evolution has been working slowly but surely for the last million years. In contrast, interest free sofas are a recent phenomena – consumer debt has only been freely available in the UK since the early 1980s. Its understandable that mating selection critieria have lagged behind. Because false signalling is now so easy, maybe gold diggers should make like an auditor and check to third party evidence eg bank statements.

  3. amandajc59 · · Reply

    Unfortunately us girls don’t really get much chance to change our “status”, decided, as it is, by our youth, waist/hip ratio and the proportions of our facial features. Would that it were as easy as earning a few quid.

    1. Amandajc59….I’m not sure about that. I hope my teenage daughter doesn’t feel the same. I would like her to think that we can all control our own actions (even if nothing else) and, by doing so, make the best of the (admittedly unequal) opportunities life throws at us all.

      My “research” shows me that plenty of guys suffer from worries about youth, waist size and facial features. I’m pretty sure its not just me!

      I was overweight until I stumbled across the knowledge to fix this – Realising that stuff actually worked changed the way I saw the world. The facial features I am stuck with…

    2. Jed Mires · · Reply

      Better to be ugly and rich than beautiful and poor. Its dam hard to get rich, but easy to have plastic surgery if you can afford it.

  4. What an entertaining and informative post! Loved the story about Biffa… I think we’ve all encountered similar characters throughout our childhoods (and occasionally run into them in adulthood unfortunately!)

    With regards to the Card game you played, I agree that it is telling about our hyper-sensitivity to status but on the other hand, the dead accuracy was surely just down to a process of elimination? If I talked to 12 other people with cards on their head, I should be able to work out what one I am simply due to looking at the cards on their head and working out what one was “missing”? 🙂

    1. Smart comment! The reason we couldn’t use simple elimination is that:

      1. We didn’t get to talk to every single other “card”
      2. When we were talking to others, we didn’t know what we would subsequently be asked to do (ie line up in order)
      3. We had a very short period of time (approx 20 seconds) to line up…and no pen & paper

      In the general melee, I certainly did not have good enough memory and vision in the crowd to identify all the other cards and deduce what card I was via elimination….so we were left judging our position in the line by instinct…and its amazing how keen our instinct is for this stuff.

      I used to see a similar process happen in meetings in the Prison Camp…the first 5/10 mins of any corporate meeting are often just “filler” while everyone in the room figures out who are the decision makers and who are making up the numbers.

      I have tightened the wording in the article to make this clearer – thanks for paying close attention and for your comment!

      1. Aha, thanks for the further explanation! And apologies for the pedantry. At least you know I was paying attention 🙂

        Hah… So true about the corporate meetings. I’m reading through this series right now which you might find interesting (or have already read/worked our yourself!): http://www.ribbonfarm.com/2009/11/11/the-gervais-principle-ii-posturetalk-powertalk-babytalk-and-gametalk/

        Which is scarily accurate of real life office personas. I think it was linked to by Mr Squirrel originally so thanks to him for the link!

  5. Brilliant writing. Live in the American northeast if you want to experience the status game in all it’s glory. Rejecting that cultural norm requires an incredible degree of confidence and fortitude.

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