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Pack Mentality

Humans are as motivated by status as pack animals.

When my son was 2 years old, we got a Samoyed puppy, and for the next 18 months they were the best of friends. Then the dog changed. Suddenly she started growling at my son and biting him. At first I thought that maybe he was pulling her tail or something else that was irritating her, but that wasn’t it.

My dog had become an adult and instinct kicked in. She became concerned with her place in the pack hierarchy. I learned that our family was her pack, that I was alpha-dog, and that she had no intention of being at the bottom of the pecking order. That meant someone had to be beneath her and the easiest choice was my toddler.

Through training and discipline, we got the biting to stop, but to this day she still considers my son subordinate to her.

It’s all about status and exclusivity. And human beings are just as motivated by it as a pack animal. When Abraham Maslow created his Theory of Human Motivation in 1943, he identified five levels of motivation or five needs that humans strive to satisfy. Those needs are, in order: survival, safety, social, esteem, and fulfillment.

Status is an esteem need and regardless of where we fall on the economic ladder, we all strive to achieve status before we can move on to the highest need. Whether we admit it or not, we all want to feel as if we are a little bit better than the people around us. We begin to establish that—at least in our own minds—with the accouterments of wealth such as branded clothing, jewelry, luxury automobiles, and exclusive neighborhoods. Even the poorest of people find symbols with which to establish their status. The visibility of these status symbols can create the powerfully motivating emotion of envy.

Most happiness that is acquired by achieving status symbols is short-lived. Overtime such trappings become meaningless to us, at which point, we seek genuine achievements to prove our worth. Studies have shown that after reaching a certain income level (usually around $250,000 a year), an individual’s happiness does not increase until they reach the status of super-rich (approximately $10,000,000 a year).

But, status can continue to motivate us long after money ceases to do so. Bestowing a new title with added responsibilities yet without any added pay is a common method for rewarding employees. (Note: a reader challenged me by stating that she was no longer motivated by status. Read my response in this follow-up post: You'll Know When You've Arrived.)

Volunteers can be motivated in a similar fashion. I was a Boy Scout leader for five years. The Boy Scouts of America rewards its leaders with patches embroidered with colorful square knots that are worn on the adult uniform. Different colored square knots represent the variety of services a volunteer has provided or achievements that he or she has earned. Some square knots represent achievements earned years earlier when the volunteer was a Boy Scout. When I attended formal full uniform functions, I found myself scanning fellow leaders’ square knots to note their status. There is one we all looked for; it is the red, white, and blue knot that indicates the wearer earned the highest status in scouting as a youth: the Eagle Scout award.

When the United States was founded, one of its distinguishing characteristics from the rest of the world was the lack of a feudal or caste system. That doesn’t mean status doesn’t exist in America. Indeed it does, but here we must earn it. Best of all, people have a choice and can rise above the station they were born into.

Lacking status puts us in the un-comfort zone and drives us to achieve. When you help someone up the social ladder, you can motivate them in a powerful and positive way.

Robert Evans Wilson, Jr. is an author, humorist, and coach. He works with people who want to achieve more without sacrificing life balance. Contact Robert at

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