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Explanations > Relationships > Status

Primitive basics | In organizations | Respect | So what?


A critical part of any relationship is the relative status between the two people, whereby one person is considered to be at a higher social status than the other.

Primitive basics

Watch two dogs meet. Or cats, or many other species. One of the first things they do is work out the status relationship. Beyond the identity sniffing, there will be eye contact, baring teeth, expanding of body, tail-wagging, lying down and other body language that signifies 'I am superior' or 'I am inferior'.

The underlying premise of status is that if an animal challenges a higher status animal, the lower status animal will be punished. Knowing this is enough to prevent the challenge and so the social order is sustained and nobody is harmed.

Body language and status can be seen in the use of space. A higher status animal will casually invade the space of a lower status animal, whilst the lower status animal will always stay well back and never invade. People do this too.

Status is more in the giving than the demanding. Even if a dog wins a fight, if the other dog does not subsequently submit, no status has been awarded.

This setting of social order has many evolutionary purposes. If you are superior, this gives benefits such as:

  • Those of lower status will not challenge or threaten you.
  • You get to eat first.
  • You have first choice of mate.

In a tribal setting, the social hierarchy is a system of trust and contains degrees of status at each level. When everyone knows who gets first choice, there are no battles. Fight first to establish status, then harmony can follow.

In any conversation, if one person shows any form of superiority, this may be interpreted as a status threat by the other person and lead them to respond in a fight-or-flight way. If they do not fight, then they are accepting lower status. This often leads to arguments where both people are really fighting for their own status.

Status is a relative thing. We have higher or lower status in comparison with others. Without others and their status, our own status is meaningless. Status gives power in the ability to achieve our ends through the acquiescence and collaboration of others.

High status people trust others more easily, often because they have the power to mete out justice if they are betrayed. People will likely be less trusting if failure of that trust results in a loss in status (for example by social embarrassment or from loss of status-gaining attributes, such as money and symbols).

Individuals tend to have a preferred status and will seek to achieve this level. This is based on self-image and a person with a lower opinion of their social value may well deliberately seek a 'safe' low status.

There is a sequence of acknowledgement (recognizing the person), approval (evaluating the person) and acceptance before a person is admitted to a group and so achieve the need for belonging. With further approval they gain respect, esteem and consequent status, in which they gain power and consequent control.

Comedy is sometimes based on status. We laugh at the fall of the arrogant person because it lowers their status. Many comic situations also appear where a lower status person deliberately or accidentally adopts a higher status position (something we all would like to do), causing confusion in the process. Tragedy also involves status, as we grieve with people we admire who have been brought low.

Who is top dog and who is underdog is important for people too (note how these terms are used also in human relationships). Although we are more complex than animals, the same basic principles apply and established status contributes significantly social order.

Status has been related to health, probably as a correlate of reduced stress as a result of increased power and the ego-boost of well-being in feeling superior. This can be seen in brain chemistry. Sapolski (2002), for example, found that higher status monkeys had lower baseline cortisol and the striatum increases dopamine levels. Eisenberger et al., (2003) found that changes in status can be trigger the same part of the brain as physical pain (and feel like it too).

In organizations

Modern organizations are hotbeds of status and competition for position, both formal and social. Everyone wants hot jobs, respected roles and bigger desks.

Status also happens between teams and between organizations. Whether you work for a well-known company or a successful team, your status increases with that of your group. Groups and companies hence vie for status with one another.

Higher status companies can also attract higher quality candidate for jobs. Applicants perceive the brand in terms of it status and how saying 'I work for X' will improve their r?um?and increase their status in social groups.


Status is evidenced by respect, which is why many people consider respect so important.

Major types of respect include:

  • Fear-based respect: Giving status due to fear of reprisals.
  • Admiration-based respect: Giving status through recognition of ability.
  • Liking-based respect: Giving status because of social bonding.
  • Desire-based respect: Giving status because you want what they have got.
  • Conformance-based respect: Giving status because rules say you should do so. Respecting because it is right to do so.

You can be respected for many things. For animals, this is first about fighting ability. For people, respect can be for skill, ability and general likeability. One of the most useful social skills is the ability to gain the respect of others without resorting to fear-based aggressive tactics.

With this variation, we can each have status for many different things, from what we know to how we interact with others. This is plenty of scope for status-related activity.

In the way we construct our own self-image through the eyes of others, self-respect often needs the respect of others. If I am at the bottom of the pile for everything, I may find it difficult to respect myself.

So what?

Watch the status games around you. They are everywhere. Understanding these will give you much useful information about the people involved.

To influence people, you can:

  • Push up your status
  • Get others to push your status up for you
  • Pull down the status of others
  • Work with others to pull down the status of a target person
  • Push others up so they reciprocate by pushing you up

Much can be gained by the subtle use of flattery and other status-raising of others. If you show admiration and boost the self-perceived status of others, they will often reciprocate by helping and agreeing to your requests.

See also

Status Game, Status Conversations, Dominant body language, Superiority Words, Status Values, Status, Equality and Motivation

Authority principle, Amplification principle, Exchange principle


de Botton, A. (2005). Status Anxiety, London: Penguin

Eisenberger, N. I., Lieberman, M. D., & Williams, K. D. (2003). Does rejection hurt? An fMRI study of social exclusion. Science, 302, 290-292.

Johnstone, K. (1981). Impro: Improvisations and the Theatre, London: Methuen

Marmot, M. (2004). The Status Syndrome: How Social Standing Affects Our Health and Longevity, Times Books

Sapolski, R.M. (2002). A Primate’s Memoir: A Neuroscientist’s Unconventional Life Among the Baboons. Scribner


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