Social status and watch collecting
How the universal human desire for status influences watch collecting
Social status is formally defined as “a person’s standing or importance in relation to other people within a society” and yet, people often think of status exclusively in terms of wealth. The truth is, the concept of social status is at play everywhere; In every situation where we get the feeling that we are of value to other people, or where where we feel an iota of elevation in our relative social position. The universal human desire for status greatly influences our culture, as well as our own behaviour and the ups and downs of our mood… turns out, this probably has a lot to do with our hobby as watch collectors too!
Origins of status
Will Storr is a pretty interesting chap who has written quite a few books… I’ll talk mainly about one of them here, but before I do, thought I’d set the scene with some context from one of his books entitled “The Science of Storytelling”. To summarise in a sentence: the brain is a ‘storyteller’ and our conscious experience of life is some sort of ‘heroic story’; However, this heroic story is somewhat delusional, and so, there must be some disconnect between the conscious and subconscious mind.
After publishing that book, he wrote another book entitled “The Status Game” in which he aims to explain what’s going on in the subconscious mind… that’s the book I’ll reference here.
Most living things compete for status. The more ‘status’ they attain, the better their lives become and the longer they survive. With humans specifically, the history of our evolution does a decent job of explaining how we see it today. Having started off in hunter/gather groups, competing for status in that context was about being valuable to the group you were in… either by being virtuous (courageous, generous, kind etc), or competence/success (good hunter, or entertainer etc)… either way, it was about the feeling of being of value. So, he argues, when we feel that we are ‘of value’, we experience a ‘status boost’.
Modern relevance of status
Status is present everywhere, and takes infinite forms.
“You cannot have a social encounter without playing the status game”
You can obtain ‘status’ in many ways, such as being attractive, or being young, or being more educated, or owning rarer watches etc. You can also get status indirectly; Perhaps you are a great watch-purchase advisor, or you might have really well-behaved children. It’s all about your own relative social position in your group of reference.
According to Storr’s book, our brains have a “status detection system” which is constantly monitoring for evidence or cues regarding our relative status versus other people (as well as monitoring other peoples’ status). This system is incredibly sensitive, and some of the most inert things are actually relevant, we just don’t realise it.
Here’s an example: If a waiter poured us a glass of orange juice, and if someone sitting next to us also had a glass poured, but we got slightly more in our glass, this signals a ‘status boost’ in our brain… since we got more! Conversely if we get less in our own glass, we see this as being a lower status, and perhaps feel offended as a result. Now its important to remember that this is all taking place subconsciously; You might not yell at the waiter pouring the juice, and probably wouldn’t even mention it – but the whole idea is rather ‘symbolic’ – and the point here, is that this system can’t be turned off… this is happening all the time, in all circumstances, whether we like it or not.
As the status detection is going on, our bodies are reacting to this information – this might occur as a change in hormone levels, or other chemical releases such as dopamine or cortisol. A simple example is how you feel when you’re watching your favourite sports team win a game on TV – studies have shown that men experience a testosterone boost in these circumstances; the same is true in reverse when the team loses! (Was going to add links, but just google it, there are plenty of examples)
One of the most interesting takeaways from the book was the idea that it is impossible to NOT care about status. People often say they don’t care about status, and some openly say it means nothing to them.
Storr argues that the very nature of declaring such a position, is another way of ‘showing off‘ or using this personal trait as a claim to status… i.e. “I’m better than you, because I don’t care what other people think of me.”
He suggests the only real way to truly not care about status, is to become a Hikikomori, which is basically impractical for most people!
How do we gain or lose status?
Dominant status isn’t about violence or physical aggression per se; it is more about how we react when we are faced with a threat, and the threat we pose in return. Of course, in the animal kingdom this is the primary way of establishing status, but for humans it is less about physical dominance and more about the threat of humiliation – which is what humans want to avoid. An example of this might be an average collector having an argument with F.P. Journe about his watchmaking; I don’t know
anyone who would do this in a hurry, because it is probably accepted that he knows more than you, and if you do have the argument, he might berate you and embarrass you 🙂