review of Will Storr's book The Status Game

Summary of the book's basic claims:

What I like about this perspective: One of my core beliefs about the world is that many of the most bitter, destructive conflicts are caused by overconfidence. Humans are prone to becoming very sure about the right way to run our lives and our societies. It often feels so clear to us that we have the truth, that we believe anyone who disagrees must be stupid and/or evil.

But each side of the disagreement tends to feel that way. Example: when I was younger, I and most people I knew believed abortion is murder. There was no doubt in our minds; it seemed obvious, and our position was supported by a litany of arguments that seemed rock-solid. The pro-choice position seemed so pathetically flimsy that we couldn't really believe people held it in good faith; all that noise about bodily autonomy was a desperate smokescreen to cover their angry rebellion against God...

Later, I became pro-choice and spent more time in communities where everyone was pro-choice. There was, again, no doubt in most people's minds; it was obvious that abortion isn't murder and is an important right; pro-life arguments were riddled with holes and pro-lifers baselessly dismisssed the compelling arguments for making abortion legal. The pro-life position seemed so absurd that it was generally believed to be held in bad faith: pro-lifers can't actually think abortion is murder, that's just a story they tell to cover for their misogyny; opposition to abortion is just the latest manifestation of the millennia-old tradition of trying to control women...

What I want to convey to you is how subjectively similar the experience of being in each of those two communities is. Regardless of which one you're in, you typically feel no doubt that it's the rationally and morally correct one. You're on the side of Good in an important battle against Evil. You feel indignation at the injustices the other side supports. You're both amused and infuriated by the pervasive blatant hypocrisy of your opponents and the vapidity of their arguments. The righteousness of your cause is a source of motivation and satisfaction.

Such feelings are widespread in religion and politics and I think they push us to escalate disagreements further and further until they culminate in violence. Rather than seeing our opponents as fellow-travelers in a confusing world who, like us, are tragically limited by the particular experiences they've had and information they've been exposed to, we're encouraged to see "them" as fundamentally different from "us": as more wicked or more irrational in their heart of hearts than we are. This makes us cynical about the prospect of resolving disputes by persuasion, since we think "they" are inherently not responsive to reason. And at the same time, it makes us reluctant to compromise; compromising with people we perceive to be evil feels immoral, and even compromising with stupidity is tough to swallow. So we're left with simply trying to defeat them - and if we fail to defeat them within the rules of the current political system, our conscience is likely to eventually ask us to fight by any other means available.

Usually I've attributed this tendency toward total certainty to two sources:

Now, to get to the book: Storr's concept of status games provides another perspective on why we become so confident. We're caught in virtue games, where virtue is signaled - and status gained - by displaying belief in and devotion to the cause. For example, it's easier to gain respect in a community of liberals (conservatives) by loudly denouncing pro-life (pro-choice) views than by having nuanced discussions about them.

This can help explain how some insane beliefs become mainstream: a runaway process of people taking more extreme, aggressive stances to win the praise of their peers. Storr discusses the "Satanic Panic" as an example of such a status "goldrush":

The Satanic Panic was fuelled by status games. They were formed wherever believers gathered, in conferences, seminars, training sessions and organisations such as the Preschool-Age Molested Children's Professional Group, Children's Institute International and the National Center for Child Abuse and Neglect. A survey of more than two thousand psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers who worked with ritual abuse cases found they 'had a very high rate of attending lectures, seminars or workshops concerned with ritualistic crime or ritualistic abuse'. Newcomers would have their ancient tribal coding switched on as they experienced wonderful feelings of connection to the game. They'd then sit gripped as the Satan-hunters wove a new dream for them to live in, and taught them how to earn status within it.

Sessions would often start with horrific, outrage-building testimony. Next, trainee players would be lured with the promise of major virtue status by their battling of what psychiatrist Dr Roland Summit described as, 'the most serious threat to children and to society that we must face in our lifetime'. They were taught rules like the 'Rule of P's' - professions most likely to harbour satanists included providers of daycare, physicians, psychiatrists, principals and teachers, police, politicians, priests, public officials and pall-bearers. Elite players would then lead group discussion sessions during which stray doubters were dealt with; impediments to consensus made quiet.

At training sessions, they'd have further lessons in playing the Satan-hunting game. Rule number one was 'believe the children'. According to Summit, 'the more illogical and incredible' the testimony of a child, the 'more likely' it was to be true. And if they changed their mind and told you, actually, they made it all up, that's 'the normal course' and exactly to be expected; such denials were evidence of the satanists' genius for mind control. Indeed, 'very few children, no more than two or three per thousand, have ever been found to exaggerate or to invent claims of sexual molestation'. Believe the Children became a sacred belief for the Satan-hunters; the rule that defined their game. They wore it on lapel badges; activist parents formed the Believe The Children Organisation. It 'became the banner of that decade', writes sociologist Professor Mary de Young...

Being perceived as someone who is fighting a great evil can feel highly personally rewarding. The problem is that this reward actively blinds you to evidence that the situation may be more complicated. Or, as in the case of the Satanic Panic, that the evil is entirely made-up and you are participating in a reckless witch-hunt.

In Manhattan Beach, California, one daycare centre was pelted with eggs, had its windows smashed and was set on fire, its outer walls graffitied: ONLY THE BEGINNING and DEAD. Parents dug in its grounds searching for a secret labyrinth of tunnels. When unsuccessful, the district attorney hired a firm of archaeologists to assist. When they too were unsuccessful, the parents hired their own archaeologists. Nobody found any tunnels. Nevertheless a survey of that community found 98 per cent thought one of the accused, Ray Buckey, was 'definitely or probably guilty' with 93 per cent thinking the same of Peggy McMartin-Buckey; 80 per cent had 'no doubt' of their guilt. When she was bailed, following twenty-two months of pretrial detention, Peggy was shunned, received late-night telephone death threats and was verbally and physically assaulted.

...190 people were formally charged in ritual abuse cases and at least eighty-three convicted. One man was convicted almost entirely on the testimony of a 3-year-old. Many spent years in prison. Frances and Dan Keller of Austin, Texas, were accused of forcing children to drink blood-laced Kool-Aid and watch the chainsaw dismemberment and graveyard burial of a passerby. The same children claimed they'd been flown to Mexico to be sexually assaulted by soldiers and then returned home in time for their parents to collect them, as if nothing had happened. The Kellers spent twenty-two years in prison.

Perhaps the most astonishing thing about these charges and prosecutions is the lack of physical evidence in support of them. It should've been everywhere: the blood, the scars, the DNA, the witnesses, the flight records, the tunnels, the robes, the corpses, the sharks, the dead baby tigers. Instead, police and prosecutors relied upon debunked and invented tests for winking anuses and microtraumas and the coerced and literally unbelievable testimony of children.

Success vs virtue. For me, the most important takeaway from the book is the reminder that our desire to be (and be seen as) virtuous can misfire in extremely destructive ways - and that there are warning signs you can look for that your community may be particularly vulnerable to this.

If the small original cadre of Satan-hunters had been motivated to solve the problem of ritual abuse, they'd have played a success game. In success games, status is awarded principally for displays of competence. They make for a culture of analysis, experimentation, practice, research, testing, revision, data and open debate. A success game approach to the riddance of secret sex-satanists could be expected to start with a useful assessment of the problem. This would've led to the realisation that it didn't exist. The consequence? Not much status for the Satan-hunters.

Instead, they played a virtue game. Virtue games often do weave a story around their striving that says they are motivated by the solving of some critical problem - frequently in the form of some evil, high-status enemy - but the truth is betrayed by their mode of play. Virtue games tend to be focussed mostly on the promotion of the game itself, with maintenance of conformity, correct beliefs and behaviours being of heightened importance. The hunters' core beliefs were often challenged by children in interviews and their virtue play is evident in their magicking of these denials into further evidence that their diseased perception of reality was correct. They were willing to 'believe the children', but only when the children confirmed their beliefs. The consequence? Status beyond their wildest dreams.

One of the formative experiences of my life was leaving my religion (slowly) in early adulthood. The form of Christianity I'd grown up in was extremely focused on belief. A person's eternal destiny supposedly depended entirely on whether they held the right beliefs, and a person's standing within the community was highly affected by which doctrines they expressed agreement with and which ones they denounced. Thus, feeling doubt about whether the religion was true would cause you to feel guilt and shame, along with fear that expressing that doubt would seriously damage your relationships. This dynamic (which, unforunately, is not restricted to religion) is traumatic for the doubter, but it's also dangerous to society. It incentivizes us to subconsciously avoid, ignore, or downplay any challenges to our beliefs. This leaves us overconfident, easily swayed to act on those beliefs in more drastic and risky (to ourselves or to the outgroup) ways than reason and evidence really justify.

Humiliation. Another takeaway for me is how dangerous it is to promote the humiliation of others. Storr uses serial killers Elliot Rodger, Ed Kemper, and Ted Kaczynski as extreme examples of people whose feelings of humiliation may have influenced them. (I hadn't heard the story of Kaczynski being subjected to years of perverse psychological experiments during college, which was pretty shocking.) He also says that "[a]cute or chronic social rejection has been found to be a major contributory factor in 87 per cent of all school shootings between 1995 and 2003".

Surveys hint at how gruesomely painful episodes of humiliation can be to ordinary people, and are suggestive of their ability to summon demons, with one finding 59 per cent of men and 45 per cent of women admitting to homicidal fantasies in revenge for them.

A definition he gives for humiliation is: "an absolute purging of status and the ability to claim it." And because we are "programmed to seek connection and status, humiliation insults both our deepest needs." It's unsurprising that, consigned to this emotionally unendurable state and powerless to fix it, some people will lash out in destructive ways.

I think it's fairly common to take pleasure in, or fantasize about, seeing our enemies humiliated. We gloat when social media users gang up to mock and ostracize someone we don't approve of. We laugh when comedians mock the weight or face or voice or genitals of a public figure we dislike (apparently as long as it's funny we don't care about the collateral damage to anyone else who happens to share those features - as also evidenced by our willingness to make everyone named "Karen" live in a society that treats their very name as a joke). Sometimes we practically compete with each other to prove who is most willing to dehumanize the perpetrator of some particular offense, such as when people laugh about the possibility of a criminal being raped in prison, or even imply that it's a good and just part of their punishment.

I want to be conscious of how tempting this impulse to embarrass and humiliate people is, and actively resist it. Not just because we're prone to taking it further than the target's behavior really justifies (though we are), but because it can unnecessarily provoke the target and their supporters to push back more vehemently - leading to increasingly bitter and intense conflict.