The Roots of ‘Status Games’—and Why Your Brain Is Stuck in High School

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In her latest self-help book, Loretta Graziano Breuning ’75 explores how your ‘inner mammal’ impacts mental and emotional well-being

By Beth Saulnier

A photo of Loretta Breuning with a human skull and two ape skulls
Breuning shares her insights on evolutionary psychology via books, a podcast, and a newsletter. (Photo provided)

Loretta Graziano Breuning ’75 is an alumna of the ILR School, and she holds a doctorate in international trade from Tufts. But these days, her passion lies in a different field: evolutionary psychology. An autodidact on the subject, Breuning took early retirement from academia—she’s a professor emerita of management at California State University, East Bay—to devote herself to understanding how the chemical workings of the mammalian brain impact our mental and emotional well-being.

Breuning was inspired, in large part, by observing animal behavior in nature videos produced and narrated by the legendary David Attenborough, as well as by her volunteer work as a docent at the Oakland Zoo.

In 2010, she founded the Inner Mammal Institute, aimed at spreading the word about insights she’s gleaned through years of poring over books and research studies by experts in relevant fields. After authoring a blog on the Psychology Today website for a decade, Breuning now pens a weekly newsletter on Substack and hosts the “Happy Brain Podcast.” She’s the author of several self-help books, including Habits of a Happy Brain and The Science of Positivity (both published by Simon & Schuster), and has been featured in national media including the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, the Huffington Post, and NPR.

In September, Rowman & Littlefield published her latest book, Status Games: Why We Play and How to Stop, on the neurochemical basis of social competition. “In this engrossing, matter-of-fact examination of the human being as a social animal, Breuning details the biological origins of the innate need for status,” Publishers Weekly says in a review, adding that her “winning combination of simple advice for small changes and accessible science-based assessments make this a standout.”

What’s our “inner mammal”?

The limbic system, which is the brain structures we’ve inherited from earlier mammals—the amygdala, the hippocampus, the hypothalamus, et cetera. They control the chemicals that make us feel good or bad; the inner mammal is the impulse to turn on good feelings and manage bad ones. We all have the illusion that our verbal brain—certain parts of our cortex—controls our emotions, yet we constantly fail in our efforts to do so.

What role do “status games” play in the mammalian brain?

When I see you, I instantly make a comparison—“Are you stronger or weaker than me?”—and I respond neurochemically. If you’re stronger, I release cortisol, which is known as the “stress” chemical; that tells me to pull back and allow you to prevail. If I’m stronger, serotonin—a “happy” chemical—is released, and it tells me I can relax. Serotonin feels good—that’s its job—but it’s quickly metabolized, so you only feel it for a moment. That’s why you’re always seeking it.

In your book, you talk about “one-up” and “one-down” episodes. What does that mean?

In every mammalian species, there are simple gestures recognized as part of the dominance-submission ritual, such as an erect posture and direct stare versus lowering the head and casting the eyes downward. This ritual may take place in an instant; after that, the animals can be buddies, play, share, cooperate. We see it in dogs, in monkeys. But for humans in the modern world, there are many ways to determine dominance.

We all have the illusion that our verbal brain—certain parts of our cortex—controls our emotions, yet we constantly fail in our efforts to do so.

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Obviously, you’re not talking about continual road-rage incidents between people; how might these interactions play out more subtly in our daily lives?

I have a fabulous example. Whenever a certain friend and I see each other, she says, “Wow, your hair is so thick!”—because her hair is thinning. And I’m thinking, “Wow, her waist is so thin!”—because mine is thick. Each of us is aware of our own perceived weakness, and we see the other’s strength. You do this with everyone you interact with, throughout the day.

One of your chapters is titled “Why It’s Always High School in Your Brain.” So why is it?

We’re born with billions of neurons, but almost no connections between them; the ones we build make us who we are. The limbic system is wired by early experience, and it’s mostly complete by the end of puberty. So the emotional responses of your youth come naturally—like speaking your native language as opposed to a new one. Whatever social comparisons you were making in high school, you’re likely to be still making today.

The cover of the book "Status Games"

Many people wouldn’t relish being stuck in their high school brains. How can we break out?

First, by being aware that it’s not your objective reality; it’s just a neural pathway that’s efficient and well-developed. And as I write in my book, you can enjoy serotonin in healthy ways. You can steer a middle path between too much pride and too little; you can put yourself “up” without putting others down. It helps to understand how you’re triggering your own ups and downs. You trigger cortisol when you put yourself down by assuming that others are putting you down, and you trigger serotonin when you’re addicted to putting yourself up in a way that might be harmful. For example, a person could be a workaholic; they can’t stop, because work makes them feel superior.

You’ve called moral superiority “the status game of our time.” Are you referring, for instance, to things like public shaming on social media?

Exactly. That is acting on the mammalian urge for social dominance—but in a way that says, “I’m doing this for the greater good.” There’s another aspect, too, which involves a different “happy” chemical—oxytocin—connected to the mammalian urge for bonding. As humans, when we decide that someone is our common enemy, we feel that great sense of an alliance that stimulates our oxytocin—and when we prevail over them, we also have dominance.

You also note that status games ultimately have no winner.

I use the example of an actor who thinks, “I’ll be happy forever, if only I get a part.” And once they do, they’re not happy because they want a lead role. And once they get a lead, they’re not happy because they don’t have an award. And once they get an award, they’re not happy because they worry that young up-and-comers will take their position, and they’ll be seen as a has-been.

What do you hope that readers will take away from the book?

To take responsibility for their own social comparisons, rather than projecting them onto society, their rivals, or whomever they view as the bad guys. I want them to feel, “I have power over these emotions, because I’m creating them.”

Published November 10, 2021


  1. Jade-Oden Brewer, Class of 2021

    Love this way of thinking about the concept of virtue signaling – and really any social game of belonging – where we can step outside of the conversation and our feelings around it, noticing instead where the impulse to wrestle with words stems.

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