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Why We Play and How to Stop
People care about status because animals care about status, and we’ve inherited the brain system that create this. My new book explains our strong feelings about status and shows how to manage them. Details + free resources
In the state of nature, a critter gets bitten if it reaches for food or mating opportunity in the presence of a stronger critter. But if it never reached, its genes would not survive. So natural selection built a brain that compares your strength to those around you, and releases a good-feeling chemical when you’re in a position of strength.
Serotonin is that good feeling. Serotonin is not aggression but the nice, relaxed feeling that it’s safe to go ahead and meet your needs.
Any serotonin you manage to stimulate is metabolized quickly, alas, so you have to find another moment of social dominance to get more. That can be risky, of course. When you see that you’re in a position of weakness, cortisol is released and the bad feeling tells you to hold back to avoid harm.
The mammal brain navigates the social world by constantly comparing itself to others and responding with the appropriate chemical. But how does the mammal brain know when you’re stronger or weaker, you may wonder.
Past experience is its guide. No conscious thought is involved because neurons connect when a chemical flows, which wires you to turn on the feeling faster in similar future circumstances.
So the social triumphs of your youth wired you to expect serotonin when you see something similar, and the social disappointments of your youth wired you to expect cortisol in similar settings.
But how does it all start? How does a young mammal know when to feel one-up and when to feel one-down? Watch young monkeys at play. Watch toddlers at play. A toddler wants the toy it sees in another child’s hands. It grabs, and that may have a positive or negative outcome. Experience wires each brain to assert or restrain accordingly. Adults try to shape children’s experiences in order to build healthy serotonin circuits. It’s no easy task because we want the oxytocin of social acceptance as much as we want the serotonin of social power.
Mirror neurons also play a big role in our circuit building. Children mirror the assertions and the self-restraint of the people around them.
So we all face adulthood with a neural network built in youth.
We’re all motivated to repeat behaviors that stimulated serotonin in our unique individual past, and to avoid behaviors that stimulated cortisol. And we all need to update our wiring because youthful experience cannot be a perfect guide to adult social life.
But it’s hard to make updates because we’re not aware of our own operating system. The brain structures that control your chemicals cannot process language, so they cannot tell you in words why they turn on a chemical.
And we’re not consciously aware of our old neural pathways. We rely on them heavily because the electricity in the brain flows like water in a storm, finding the paths of least resistance. Electricity has trouble flowing into an undeveloped pathway, so we fall back on the ones we have without conscious intent.
The problem is compounded by the tabooness of the serotonin urge. You can’t admit that you long for social importance because bad things happened when you did that in the past.
This is why the urge for status is easy to see in others but hard to see in yourself.
When I say “status,” I do not mean a socioeconomic abstraction, because the mammal brain cannot process abstractions. Your inner mammal just wants to feel on top and avoid feeling that others are on top.
You often feel like others are putting you down because you can’t acknowledge your own urge to put yourself up. You feel like the world is judging you because you ignore the judging you do yourself. It’s not easy being a big-brained mammal!
But there’s good news here. You have power over your emotions when you know how you create your own status games. You can change your emotions by changing your social-comparison circuits.
If you don’t, you’ll repeat old status games endlessly, despite your best intentions. You’ll deprive yourself of serotonin and flood yourself with cortisol.
This is why I wrote Status Games: Why We Play and How to Stop. It shows how to rewire yourself to enjoy healthy status and avoid junk status. Junk status is like junk food: it feels good now but hurts you later. Healthy status puts you up without putting others down.
You may think of money and social media when you hear about status games, but there are so many other varieties. If you pride yourself on holding your liquor better than others, it’s junk status. If you exercise to the point of injury to feel one-up, it’s junk status. And if you see everyone else as “unethical” or “a moron,” it’s junk status.
Status Games has fascinating tales of animal and early human status games, to help you accept your inner mammal. It explores global and historical status games, so you know it’s not just “our society.” And it snoops into the private status games of Sigmund Freud, Jane Austen, Charles Darwin, Booker T. Washington, Soon Ching-ling, Alexander Hamilton, and Shakespeare.
Then you’ll learn to find serotonin in the middle lane instead of yielding to the cortisol of the fast lane or the slow lane. You will track the one-up and one-down patterns you built in your past, so it’s clear that your responses are just connections between neurons rather than external facts.
Finally, you will plan healthy ways to give yourself a feeling of strength. It only takes one step that you’re proud of to connect neurons that make the next step easier. The book helps you design a concrete strategy to keep taking steps that you’re proud of. You will blaze a new trail through your jungle of neurons to the “on” switch of your serotonin. You’ll be glad you did!
Free resources and purchase links at: innermammalinstitute.org/statusgames