An Interview with Dr. Loretta Graziano Breuning
The author of “Status Games: Why We Play and How to Stop” explains why we try to one-up each other and how we can stop.
Dr. Loretta Graziano Breuning is the founder of the Inner Mammal Institute, which aims to help people make peace with their inner mammal. She’s also the author of Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain Your Brain to Boost Your Serotonin, Dopamine, Oxytocin, and Endorphins and, most recently, Status Games: Why We Play and How to Stop. Loretta’s first book helped us design Groove to support our community members as they work to achieve their goals. Status Games is so useful for solopreneurs and freelancers, so our Co-Founder and CDO Tova Safra decided to do a Q+A with Loretta.
Tova: Hey Loretta! I was inspired to learn that you’ve had a wavy path in life. You spent years in academia before going out on your own later in life, developing your own ways to teach people how their brains work. Can you tell us a bit about that journey?
Dr. Loretta Breuning: I taught Management for 25 years. I didn’t love it because my students didn’t seem very motivated, but I had already quit a lot of jobs by then so I knew I had to stick with something. When I turned 50, I had the chance to take early retirement, and I grabbed it. My kids were in college and it was finally time for me to do whatever I felt like.
I had always studied Psychology, so I did more of that. I had grown up around a lot of unhappiness and was always trying to understand it. The information I got from academic psychology was not convincing to me, so I kept digging. When I read about the animal origins of our happy brain chemicals, I thought, “This is it!”
Tova: There are a lot of eye-opening, uncomfortable truths in your new book about how humans vie for status with one another in millions of tiny ways every single day. Especially when it comes to our career and how we present ourselves to the world, it can get out of hand. What prompted you to tackle this topic?
Dr. Loretta Breuning: When I discovered the field of Evolutionary Psychology, I was amazed to learn animals have social hierarchies in their herds, packs, and troops. They put a lot of effort into rising in the ranks. They do this because it helps spread their genes. Of course, they are not consciously interested in their genes. They are just doing what feels good, and natural selection built a brain that rewards you with a good feeling when you do things that raise your status. Serotonin is that good feeling.
I was stunned when I read this. It explains so much, so I wondered why I never heard it before. We mostly hear information that fits existing beliefs. People prefer to blame society for social rivalry instead of seeing how they create it in their own minds. But I found great relief in knowing this, so I thought it could help others.
Tova: One of the main points you make is that the impulse for status wasn’t created by modern inventions like social media. It’s built into us as mammals. In modern times, we don’t physically compete for food and attention, but we still have the need to be recognized, feel special, and be respected. I like how you point out these things so that we, as humans, don’t need to feel bad about our natural impulses.
Dr. Loretta Breuning: Thanks! It’s hard for people to accept these impulses in themselves, even though they easily see it in others. The simple way to accept that our happy brain chemicals are controlled by the brain structures that all mammals have in common– the amygdala, hippocampus, pituitary, etc. This limbic system cannot process language, so it cannot tell you in words why it turns on a good feeling.
That’s why your verbal brain may insist that you don’t care about status while your mammal brain urgently seeks that serotonin reward. You get it when you see yourself in the one-up position, while cortisol is released when you see yourself in the one-down position. This is why we have such strong feelings about how we stack up against each other, even as we say “I don’t care about that.”
Tova: I have had so many peers tell me that they wish they could spend less time on their social media standing, but because their profession demands it, they end up getting sucked in more than they’d like. What’s even more troubling is that in the creative industries, now you have clients and talent agents asking to see a report of your social media stats before they will give you a job. There’s so much pressure to get those numbers up in whatever way you can, and not to let them drop. It really affects your mental health. What can we do to have a healthy relationship with social media, when those numbers matter to our livelihood?
Dr. Loretta Breuning: It’s tough, and yet if you went back 100 years or 1000 years, you would see people striving for social dominance in more gruesome ways.
We can celebrate our freedom to choose where we invest our energy. You pay a price when you invest X over Y, so it’s important to have realistic expectations. But we’ve been told we can have everything by people who are appealing to our mammalian impulses. Disappointment triggers cortisol, which makes it feel like a survival threat despite your very comfortable life.
Each brain has the urge to be special, so you have to remind yourself that 8 billion other people want to be special too. In the past, most jobs depended on physical strength. The person with physical strength got the better job. If you wanted that job, you could invest your time building your strength, but then you’d have less of something else.
It’s hard to make that decision to avoid social media and accept the consequences. It helps to remind yourself that every mammal is making the same decision. A gazelle is constantly deciding whether to take a step toward the herd or a step toward greener pastures. If it gets too isolated, a predator will eat it. But if it sticks too close to the herd, it will have to eat grass that was peed on by others. Unconsciously, a mammal weighs each step to get the most happy chemicals, and our brain is designed to do just that!
Now here’s a practical answer: instead of getting your one-up feelings in that way, you can find other ways to get them. That’s the subject of my book, Status Games.
Tova: Another thing you talk about is the fact that well-known achievers throughout history have worked towards their goals and dreams without getting recognition from their peers. Sometimes, they were ridiculed or threatened for what they wanted to accomplish. Solopreneurs embark on journeys that can sometimes be hard to explain to friends and family. What tips do you have for feeling comfortable in taking steps towards your goals when people may be skeptical or disapproving?
Dr. Loretta Breuning: You have probably heard that the Harry Potter book was rejected 25 times before it got published. Other people don’t really know what works, even though they give you advice. Of course, they may be right sometimes– your goals may not work out the way Harry Potter did. It’s your call to make, but you have to accept the consequences. It’s wrong to take the hard path and push the consequences onto others.
Here’s a simple solution that I learned from Ignatz Semmelweis. He’s the Hungarian doctor who figured out that doctors needed to wash their hands to protect new mothers from dying of “childbed fever.” People hated him while he was alive, and he went insane. It’s sad that he didn’t get to enjoy the appreciation he has today. Assume you will be appreciated after you’re gone, so start celebrating the work you do and the small accomplishments you’ve made now.
Tova: How does having your own definition of success affect your natural human need to be recognized? Will someone who’s been creating their own definition of success be less or more susceptible to feeling insecure about their status?
Dr. Loretta Breuning: It’s complicated. Of course, it’s better to define success for yourself. But, the fact is that a pat on the back from others feels better than patting yourself; getting applause feels better than applauding yourself. So, we have to keep reminding ourselves that seeking the world’s applause is unrealistic.
The problem is that the brain habituates to the rewards you have, so nothing is ever enough. Here’s a simple example: Imagine that you get applause in a high school theater performance. It’s more recognition than you’ve ever gotten, so you start dreaming about doing another performance. You decide to be an actor and feel sure that it will make you happy. But once you get a few small parts, you feel strangely one-down with people who have big parts. You are sure you will be happy forever if you get a big part. Finally, you get one, but then you feel an urgent need to get an award. After years of frustration and disappointment, you get an award. And you soon start worrying about the media attention you are losing because of up-and-coming new actors.
Tova: Thanks so much for these insights, Loretta! I always appreciate your unique peeks into what it means to be a human.