Character Motivation: We all want high social status

"Establishing that desire for status is a fundamental human motive matters
because status differences can be demoralizing. "Whenever you don't feel
valued by others it hurts.  The lack of status hurts people more than we think." 

What motivates people?

An important question for any writer of fiction or non-fiction.  How can an author or a screenwriter fully develop a character without at least some idea of what motivates this person?

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All human beings desire a high level of social status
A character's motivation, as this research from University of California, Berkeley Haas School of Business points out, could be money, sex, revenge - any number of things could motivate your character in this particular story line.  However, all human beings desire a high level of social status.  In other words, are we respected by others, or ignored, or marginalized, or. . . well, the list goes on.

For decades, researchers have argued both yes and no on the question: is it human nature to want high standing in one's social circle, profession, or society in general?

For a writer and his or her characters, high or low social status has huge impact the way the character behaves and reacts to points in your story arc.

People crave status -- even if they don't realize it
Prof. Cameron Anderson and Berkeley-Haas Ph.D. candidates John Angus D. Hildreth and Laura Howland conducted an extensive review of hundreds of studies using a common set of criteria. They found that, yes, status is something that all people crave and covet -- even if they don't realize it.

"I usually study the sexy angle of power and confidence but with this one, it's about everyone. Everyone cares about status whether they're aware of it or not," says Anderson.

Anderson points out that status is considered universally important because it influences how people think and behave.

If you don't feel valued by others it hurts
"Establishing that desire for status is a fundamental human motive matters because status differences can be demoralizing," says Anderson. "Whenever you don't feel valued by others it hurts, and the lack of status hurts more people than we think."

Some theorists have argued that wanting status is an innate desire for reputation or prestige.

On the other end of the spectrum, scholars cast doubt on the notion that status plays an important role in one's psychological well-being or self-esteem.

Anderson and his team reviewed and analyzed a wide range of studies dating back more than 70 years. First, they defined status as having three components:
  1. Respect or admiration;
  2. Voluntary deference by others; and
  3. Social value.  Social value, also known as prestige, is bestowed upon individuals whose advice is sought by others. Prestige can also be measured by how much others defer to an individual.
Sound like the various movies about Mafia dons feeling disrespected?  How about Rodney Dangerfield who built a career on, "I don't get no respect."  In both cases, a lack of respect rings true with all of us. 

Next, the researchers studied the previous literature that defines what it takes for a motive to be fundamental and innate to people. Four areas of criteria determined whether the desire for status is fundamental.
  1. Well-Being and Health -- the attainment of status must contribute to long-term psychological and physical health.
  2. Activities -- if the desire for status is fundamental, it must drive goal-oriented behavior aimed at attaining and maintaining status, drive a preference for select social environments, and drive people to react strongly when others perceive them as lacking status.
  3. Status for Status' Sake -- the desire for status is only that; the motivation for status is not dependent on other motives
  4. Universality -- the desire for status must operate and extend over many types of cultures, genders, ages, and personalities.
Low status negatively impacts health
The strongest test of the hypothesis is whether the possession of low status negatively impacts health.
  • The studies reviewed showed that people who had low status in their communities, peer groups, or in their workplaces suffer more from
    • depression,
    • chronic anxiety, and even
    • cardiovascular disease.
  • Individuals who fall lower on the status hierarchy, or what the authors call the "community ladder," feel less respected and valued and more ignored by others.
"The desire for status can drive all kinds of actions," concludes Anderson, "ranging from aggression and violence, to altruism and generosity, to conservation behavior that benefits the environment. The more we understand this basic driver, the more we can harness it to guide people's decisions and actions to more productive paths."

And the more a writer understands this - and uses it in a character's make-up - the more the audience or reader will identify with a character, and the more effective your fiction will be.

Related stories:
Other stories of interest:
Story Source:  Materials provided by University of California, Berkeley Haas School of Business. Cameron Anderson, John Angus D. Hildreth, Laura Howland. Is the desire for status a fundamental human motive? A review of the empirical literature. Psychological Bulletin, 2015


  1. "Fundamental," as in the title of the cited article, does not mean "universal," as implied in your title. This is a wide-ranging, qualitative literature review, from which no statistical conclusions were drawn.

  2. I really love your blog there's a lot to share. Keep it up. Actually, I am looking for Hurt Status. Do you have?


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