The Status Transaction

Out of everything I’ve encountered on the topic of human motivation and influence, the most life-changing material came not from a sociologist or an advertising copywriter, but from an improv teacher.

IMPRO: Improvisation and the Theatre

IMPRO: Improvisation and the Theatre

Keith Johnstone is one of the originators of modern improvisational performance.  The principles that he invented through his teaching at the Royal Court Theatre became the improv performance rules now taught at comedy schools like Second City and Improv Olympic.  Lyndi Smith gives a good background on Johnstone in her eponymous blog.

One of Johnstone’s most insightful observations about human interaction forms the first section of his book IMPRO, Improvisation and the Theatre. I have read this first section over and over, and as a result I now look at the world much differently than I did before.  His insights form the basis of everything I’ve learned about motivation and influence.

Here’s a quotation from the first page of IMPRO:

“When I began teaching at the Royal Court Theatre Studio (1963), I noticed that actors couldn’t reproduce ‘ordinary’ conversation.  They said, ‘Talky scenes are dull’, but the conversations that they acted out were nothing like those I overheard in life. [...]

“I was preoccupied with this problem when I saw the Moscow Art’s production of The Cherry Orchard.  Everyone onstage seemed to have chosen the strongest possible motives for each action – no doubt the production had been ‘improved’ in the decades since Stanislavski directed it.  The effect was ‘theatrical’, but not life as I knew it.  I asked myself for the first time what were the *weakest* possible motives, the motives that the characters I was watching might have actually had.  When I returned to the studio, I set the first of my exercises.

“‘Try to get your status just a little above or below your partner’s,’ I said, ‘and I insisted that the gap be minimal.  The actors seemed to know exactly what I meant and the work was transformed.  The scenes became ‘authentic’, and the actors seemed marvelously observant.  Suddenly we understood that every inflection and movement implies a status, and that no action is due to chance, or really ‘motiveless’.  It was hysterically funny, but at the same time very alarming.  All our secret manoeuvrings [sic] were exposed.  If someone asked a question we didn’t bother to answer it, we concentrated on why it had been asked.  No one could make an ‘innocuous’ remark without everyone instantly grasping what lay behind it.  Normally we are ‘forbidden’ to see status transactions except when there’s a conflict.  In reality status transactions continue all the time.  In the park we’ll notice the ducks squabbling, but not how carefully they keep their distances when they are not.”

When we talk about status “transactions”, we are essentially talking about social dominance and submission.  The terms “status hierarchy” and “submission hierarchy” could be used interchangeably.  This idea presupposes a couple of assumptions based in evolution science, for example:

1) Humans, like any other species of animal, are programmed by genetics with the biological imperative to survive so as to reproduce.  This is the singular basis for all action. (This comes from scientists like Richard Dawkins, in particular his work called The Selfish Gene.)

2) Because survival is a biological imperative, all social (pack) animals including humans must come up with unwritten rules and understandings to prevent them from constantly fighting/killing each other for food, etc.  These unwritten rules are based, again for survival purposes, on dominance and strength.

3) These unwritten rules result in a “pecking order” within a pack or tribe, wherein animals (and humans) can know their place and their value-to-the-pack without necessarily fighting physically.  They will send each other “signals” of communication (eye-contact, posture, stillness, etc.) during interaction in order to establish dominance or submission.

4) Because reproduction is also a biological imperative, high status animals are rewarded with more mating opportunities.

This sounds a little like the Discovery Channel, I know, and actually a lot of Johnstone’s views are informed by his reading from naturalist Desmond Morris.  Morris made a specialty of noting the more animal-like traits of human beings.

Here are some general observations of a status hierarchy in humans:

First, status as we’re talking about it here is related to wealth, looks and power, but not necessarily synonymous.  In fact, in theatre, a lot of comedy comes by playing the opposite of your social status (e.g. the beggar bossing around the aristocrat).  The status that we’re talking about here has mostly to do with action…what you do to another human, and what they do to you.  We define “status” as your beliefs about your own value-to-the-pack, reflected in your behavior towards the rest of the pack.  The concept of value is very important.  The human brain is extremely good at both ascertaining meaning and ascribing value, and once it assigns value to the world, it will then make you seek out that which is most valuable, so you can associate yourself with it.

Second, status operates on the see-saw principal.  If someone is going up, someone else is going down.  If I brag about something I just won, I raise my status and lower that of the people listening to me.  If someone responds with, “Oh yeah, I’ve won five of those,” then they have raised their own status and lowered mine.  I don’t have to just focus on raising my own status overtly; I can try to lower yours, and that will raise mine.

For example, the classical definition of a theatrical tragedy is a story about a high-status person, like a king or ruler, getting ejected from society (the pack).  We enjoy watching tragedies because when the king falls, we all move up a peg. (This example is directly from Johnstone.)

We can also raise or lower our own status by identifying with something that it high or low status, in effect putting ourselves on the same side of the see-saw.  Everybody has a story of a celebrity that they knew before they were famous, or to whom they’re distantly related, and this serves to raise one’s own status while lowering everyone else’s.

Johnstone was asked where friendships fall into this.  Surely friends wouldn’t do this kind of thing to one another.  Actually, friends do it the most.  In this context, we define a friendship as a group of two or more who have unconsciously agreed to play “status games” with each other.  They can one-up each other and bust the others’ chops without any real serious consequences to the pecking order.

Most people try to raise their status, but there are benefits to deliberately lowering your status as well, like commiseration, pity and approval-seeking.  From Johnstone: “Someone who plays high-status is saying ‘Don’t come near me, I bite.’  Someone playing low status is saying, ‘Don’t come near me, I’m not worth the trouble.'”  People have an idea in their head of their own relative value, and act either high- or low-status accordingly.  For example:

A: God, I suck at this! [Lowers self to fish for compliments]

B: No, you’re really doing just fine…

So what physical traits are high or low status?  Here are some easy ones to watch for:

-Eye-contact (specifically whether someone glances back submissively after initial contact breaks)

-Posture (actors are taught that the “Alexander Technique”, which is essentially high-status posture, is “correct”)

-Stillness of the head (he who keeps his head most still while talking is the dominant)

-Taking up space (sprawling out the body to take up space is dominant)

-Tentative eh’s, er’s and um’s (tentative speech indicates lower status)

-Quick, jerky body movements (slow control of body indicates higher status)

-Toes pointed inwards (lower status)

In terms of conversational status, it might seem at first glance that anyone who talks themselves up and puts others down is high-status, but that is of course not true.  High status people to not have to attempt to raise their own status with such tricks; they are already at the top.

Since status is about social value, we typically look to the person from whom everyone is taking their cues.  Sometimes it’s the one telling funny stories and being entertaining.  Sometimes it’s the ‘founder of the feast’, as in the eldest or wealthiest person in the room.  It will always be the one who’s bringing the most value to the situation, whatever that group happens to value most.

I said before that status did not have to do so much with wealth.  That’s mostly true.  I know people with relatively average incomes who are always the life of the party and they seem to always have an entourage.  But status symbols do play a factor.

Limo GuyThe analogy that I’ve heard comes from a comedy book called The Book of Vice by Peter Sagal, which equates conspicuous consumption in humans to a buck with a huge set of antlers, or a peacock with a huge tail.  It doesn’t make evolutionary sense for these animals to carry these burdensome physical traits, because they hinder survival.

But having huge antlers or a huge tail also sends the signal to potential mates that, “I’m strong enough to survive with these things!”  You have to be a strong buck to carry around, and possibly fight with, a huge antler rack.  So to, a guy who wears a multi-thousand dollar watch and drives a luxury car is trying to say, “I am strong enough (financially) to wear these big hindrances.  I have so much power (as reflected in wealth), that I can pour large amounts of it into these symbols and survive just fine.”

The biggest fundamental truth that Johnstone stumbled upon is that no human action is innocent of this status motivation.  This principal is at the root of all human action.  It is at the heart of everything we want and everything we do to others.  As soon as one understands this principal and starts looking for it in everyday life, it appears everywhere.  All secret motivations become exposed.

The repercussions of the status transaction principle are immense, and ripple into all fields of behaviorism: social psychology, acting performance, advertising, negotiation, diplomacy, power-brokering, networking, and everyday interactions that we take for granted.  This is why I’ve chose Johnstone’s Impro as the first among four or five seminal works for this discussion of motivation and influence.

*Epilogue:  Shortly after I published this entry, I found a blog entry from a fellow admirer of Johnstone’s, Venkatesh Rao, who also got many insights from IMPRO.  His perspective is very illuminating.

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  1. Gal
    October 15, 2010 at 2:24 AM

    Great blog here! Went through the newest posts and decided to comment on this one, though I’d love to comment on the majority of them :)
    I was introduced to social dynamics and attraction by my brothers and through several theatre classes. I enjoy studying it a lot.

    There’s something that always comes to mind and bothers me because I know it has to do with my status and value to the group but I can’t quite identify it. As a female, I make friends easily with the opposite sex probably because they are always interested. I just find there’s less drama then with girls. I can say that I’m good looking, considered mature by my male friends and get chased for dates, I avoid gossip and drama and is a lone-wolf. But because I’m more of a lone-wolf, I lack knowledge of some social cues. What bothers me is when I do just about anything else others do in my circle but I get confronted. Accused of manipulating when I had no intention, which makes me laugh because I get offers and I accept, and only ask when I really need something. However, the other girls can purposely boss their guy friend around for lunch and no one says anything. But since I’m confronted not by the one I asked something from (usually a guy since I’m closer to the guys) but from a girl friend who witnesses, I can’t differentiate if she’s just jealous and sees it as an opportunity to dominate. (The guys she liked, I already knew them before she did and had one of them chasing me and respect me unlike with her). When she confronted me, I told her we can talk elsewhere but she claimed she wants to speak on behalf of everyone there so I was basically shamed in front of our circle. I also feel out of place with the girls. We all consider eachother friends, but I’m not as close to them and they don’t invite me to eat with them.

    Basically I was told that I act like I think I’m better. That I ask for rides which annoy them (honestly, real friends wouldn’t mind giving rides), some other stuff I can’t remember and then an input she got from one of the guy which was way off what he actually said. (Supposedly he said I acted like I’m too good for him). From my experience, I feel like he feels ashamed of himself when with me. So I got told I have an ugly personality and need a makeover, wow. She even went on to assume that I am probably like that because my family values material things. Hah, I’m not the one who needs to have that particular phone her pop boyband had in a music video. But I’m also thinking, how much of what she says is true? I’d say 25-50%. Does it mean I’m not taking the feedback well if I refuse to believe what she says?

    This whole situation got me rethinking. When is it a real wake-up call and when am I just being attacked so they can gain? Am I actually the low status one?! Or have I just been pushed by a group of girls who feel the need to lower my status and increase theirs? Or do I have no value at all because I’m quieter, joke around less, don’t follow the status quo and don’t have a girl posse with me?

  2. raczyk
    December 8, 2012 at 1:38 PM

    Great post, love your blog, and I’m also fascinated with social dynamics. You mentioned:

    “The biggest fundamental truth that Johnstone stumbled upon is that no human action is innocent of this status motivation. This principal is at the root of all human action. It is at the heart of everything we want and everything we do to others. As soon as one understands this principal and starts looking for it in everyday life, it appears everywhere. All secret motivations become exposed.”

    How does one develop the social skill to see, interpret, and respond to status transactions? Is this something which can be learned, or is it simply implied, as in boss vs subordinate relationship?

    • December 8, 2012 at 2:21 PM

      Thank you.

      I’ll admit that I’m not the best at seeing these kinds of interactions all the time. I tune in and tune out like everyone else. You develop an acuity for these dynamics the same way a musician develops an ear for pitch and quality: deliberate practice. Every once in a while, it occurs to you that you’re watching a situation with an interesting dynamic, and you take mental note of that.

      It’s not always implied by the nature of the relationship. I’ve seen some bosses that were wrapped around a subordinate’s little finger. That makes for good comedy. Think about a boss trying to get an attractive subordinate to like them. Many times, certain relationships have predictable dynamics: doctor/patient, boss/subordinate, parent/child, etc. Sometimes, it’s not so predictable. Sometimes it’s a struggle. Sometimes it’s an opposite.

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