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 anotherone of his books entitled “The Science of Storytelling”… to summarise in a sentence – he reckons 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, he argues, there must be some disconnect between the conscious and subconscious mind. After that book, he wrote another book entitled “The Status Game” in which 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 to others in your group of relevance.
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 this 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 🙂
Virtue status as a concept is surprisingly an evolutionary outcome. If you think about it, how does evolution force selfish, hypocritical apes to start cooperating and thinking about others’ needs, as opposed to just looking out for their own interests? Simple – you reward behaviour which places the needs of others, the needs of ‘the coalition’, above one’s own interests. This is why any selfless behaviour is considered to be ‘morally good’, and selfish behaviour is ‘morally bad’. Humanity as a whole rewards outstanding selflessness with status too – think about Gandhi or Mother Teresa etc.
Competence/Success status requires less explanation… this is the obvious one, where a group will value and give status to the ones adding value through skills or abilities. We see this all around us, in industry, in sports and in any walk of life. Even when you’re buying a watch, if you’re widely regarded as a prominent collector with a great eye for picking out the best pieces, this ability gives rise to status in many ways – perhaps not the best example, but it’s so obvious I won’t bother expanding!
Humiliation is implicated as a leading cause for some of the worst human behaviours… many honour killings, mass shootings, terrorists and serial killers are found to originate from someone trying to counteract their own humiliation or, loss of status. If you think back to a time when you behaved in a less than optimal way, you might realise this was a result of a ‘status defeat’. For example, you get into a silly online argument (trying to use dominance to gain back some status) because your boss humiliated you earlier that day (which is a ‘status defeat’). Alternatively, you get into an argument with your spouse for something you did (status defeat) and then you become extra nice and so something to make up for it (gaining virtue status).
The status game(s)
There are an infinite number of status games, which stem from our subconscious urges to do two things: 1) to connect with others and form coalitions of like-minded-people and 2) raise our status, both of the coalition, and within our own coalition. For example, as watch collectors, we have found our coalition of like-minded people overall… the so-called “Watchfam” – but then within this coalition, we can have an infinite number of status games… Journe Collectors, or Rolex collectors… and within those games you will have internal status games about who is the ‘biggest’ collector, or has the most valuable collection etc… and of course, you can compete across games too – so Journe collectors vs Rolex collectors etc.
Social Media as a status game
All social media, Storr argues, is a status game – and all social media platforms are built and designed around our human desire for status. If you think about the three ways to gain status (dominance, virtue, competence/success) that’s pretty much how social media works; dominance with all the online debating and posturing, competence/success with all the holiday photos and ‘perfect life’ portrayals, and virtue in all forms such as helping others (e.g. Movember) or other feel-good content.
The issue with social media is that the outcomes are unknown – you post something, and you don’t know what will happen – will it be liked, or not? Will it gain you the status you had hoped for, or not? This makes it quite addictive, just like any other random-outcome activity with dopamine-upside like gambling. In fact, that’s EXACTLY what social media is – a form of gambling. What are you gambling with? Your status!
If you post a new watch alert, you’re probably hoping that it will be liked, and you will receive praise for making an outstanding choice, or having impeccable taste. Sometimes you get plenty of status – everyone loves it… and sometimes its a disaster – you get ignored which is depressing, or you get attacked, which is humiliating.
What makes social media such a powerful game, is that it’s this global game, played by ordinary people… you could be a regular person who goes to work every day, an average human so to speak. Yet, on social media you might be a prominent member of a community who has lots of respect and followers, and this ‘status’ you have on social media far exceeds what you might have in your real life. This leads to social media playing a huge role in people’s lives, since it becomes a kind of ‘essential’ nutrient for the mind to function normally.
One final subset of status is around beliefs – and people can attach their status to certain beliefs. What happens is when someone doesn’t share your belief, you look down on them – and equally, look up to people who do share the belief. These beliefs are rarely about ‘facts’ which tend to have no status attached to them (e.g. the freezing point of water) but are more about opinion-based beliefs such as political or moral issues (e.g. vaccination).
We see this play out all the time in watch collecting – across brands, and within brands or across complications and even design aesthetics. Code 11.59 and Hublot anyone?
How to play the status game in a healthy way?
We tend to favour dominance as a way of gaining status… this is the trap, which is pre-programmed by evolution. The advice is to take a virtuous or competence approach instead. This is pretty logical if you say it in layman’s terms… i.e. rather than putting people down to give yourself status – try lifting people up instead, and as a result, you rise up along with them through virtue status! Incidentally, this behaviour is largely present across the watch collecting community on Instagram as far as I’ve seen. Of course, this doesn’t apply when it comes to memes – those get into savage territory 😀
Another piece of advice is to play several status games simultaneously, and arrange them in a hierarchy of sorts. You could have your ‘main game’, say that’s your job. Then you could have your circle of close friends, and perhaps your watch collecting friends, then Instagram and maybe your siblings and so on. This acts like a ‘diversified portfolio’ or a hedge against a ‘status catastrophe’. The problem this addresses is when anyone has too much of their status tied up to one area or ‘group’, this becomes a huge risk to them if that disappears. Say you lose your job, and that was your only source of status… what will take its place as a source of status if you lose it? For some, it might be their role as a parent, or their role as a community volunteer, etc.
Nowadays, many rely on social media as a source of status, and the more they gain, the greater their reliance becomes – it’s a vicious cycle if you think about it. Since status games are unavoidable… Avoiding social media probably won’t ‘solve’ this issue – so it seems wiser to remain aware of this and behave accordingly. It helps if you don’t allow yourself to be triggered by social media, or at least, retain perspective before you let it affect you significantly.
If you take away one thing, it’s this: GIVE STATUS FREELY – people like that. Remain aware of status – this awareness will help you, since not having a ‘status gain’ for a long period of time might lead to you feeling down – it helps to realise what your brain is doing when this happens… and that is why positivity breeds positivity… I found it useful to apply some sort of ‘framework’ to this seemingly fluffy topic.
The applications for this framework in watch collecting are vast… this might help explain how tribalistic people become about either loving or hating a new watch release, or how the dopamine of a new watch alert is processed by the subconscious mind. It also highlights something I hadn’t quite appreciated – which is by saying “I don’t care what other people think“, you’re potentially signalling you are ‘above’ others, attempting to gain status through subtle dominance.
Above all, however, this explains the rationale of hype watches and hype purchases – the antithesis of “buy what you like” as it were… instead, people will “buy what others like, because that gives status!“
Another thing that comes to mind is the informal brand ambassadors… people who attempt to align themselves with brands or prominent watchmakers – yet another example of status seeking… in these examples, being associated with, or close to, certain individuals gives people a sense of importance or… status. None of this is suggesting this is negative or positive – it merely highlights how widely this framework can be applied, and how applicable it is to the world of watch collecting.
Some final food for thought is around how the never-ending need for status impacts limited releases. Take the recently released 5711 with a Tiffany & Co blue dial… already going to auction, and with standing offers (seen on Instagram) exceeding $1m – this just goes to show how the status game never ends. We often find ourselves arguing about whether a certain watch is ‘worth the money’ and then proposing several alternatives which we might buy instead, for that amount of money… yet, for the person who has a vast collection (with the associated ‘status’ for that collection already banked), this is yet another rung to climb on the proverbial status ladder. The corollary to this, is that the people who could never get an allocation of this sort of watch, or afford one, will come up with ‘dominant status’ arguments to explain why its ugly, or why they would rather buy some other high-end watch instead – in both cases, everyone is playing the status game in some way.
Hopefully you found this interesting, and look forward to your thoughts.
Originally published on ScrewDownCrown