Escaping the Modern Rat Race: How to Handle the Game of Competitive Signaling

The worst thing about our modern culture is the growing ignorance towards what’s really valuable in the world. From an early age, we join a long-distance rat race where the competition is measured not by who we are, but by what we own. Therefore, the desire for material possessions and attention from our peers become our chief goals. Survival, it seems to us, is based on how well we portray our qualities to the outside world – even if we don’t necessarily possess them.

Living a normal life according to our society, even if we don’t always admit it, is tightly connected to the acquisition of funds. One of the most talked-about traits promoted by institutions regardless of our location is the value of money. Of course, this is not directly mentioned by the media outlets or by our neighbors, it’s beautifully camouflaged by what money can buy.

As soon as we understand that all breathing humans worship money and stuff, the sooner we start to desire luxury items. Not so much because they are useful, but because these fancy goods make us look like we are more.

And so it happens, that directly after we come into being, these values and principles get embedded in our brains and later influence our decisions. We want better and more beautiful things. But most of all, we want others to see that we actually own these marvelous objects.

This game of competitive signaling has become unbearable only recently. When the number of available choices vastly increased and the way we communicate with others (compare ourselves with them) significantly improved.

In this post, we’ll look at why we’re stuck in this competitive rat race. Why the desire to acquire new things is never tamed and what we can do about it.

By bringing awareness to the problems, I want to liberate more people from the destructive components of this never-ending race to the bottom.

What is Rat Race Life?

A modern rat race categorizes as an endless pursuit – often quite exhausting – where you earn small rewards by conspicuous behavior reinforced by acquiring more financial gains or possessions – or both. However, these gains never feel satisfactory enough. As new things constantly appear on the horizon – new products and new competitors who are also part of the race – the only way we can stay ahead of the curve is by constantly investing resources in this rivalry.

In a way, participating in this vain competition is required. After all, our survival is tightly related to the tools, the resources we personally own, plus the relationship we form with others. That’s why we stay devoted to the race – because deep inside, our genes are focused on survival and replication.

That’s the general concept of the modern rat race. Or in the words of Tyler Durden, the protagonist in the masterpiece Fight Club, “We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.” But to really grasp the reasons we commit to a life of struggle over resources, we need to go a step deeper.

Let’s unpack the modern rat race ideology further…

Why and How The Rat Race Was Formed?

The first reference of the expression rat race was used in the 1930s during aviation training. As stated by Popular Science magazine in 1941, ‘A rat race is … a simple game of “follow the leader.'”1 Or in other words, the expression meant that the trainee fighter pilot had to copy all the actions performed by the senior pilot.

A decade later, the term changed its original meaning.

Nowadays, the expression is more closely related to how we live our lives day by day. We don’t simply “follow the leaders”, we compete with them. We want to be like them. To have what they have and to eventually beat them in the game of resources.

This fierce rivalry for wealth is inspired and fueled by three main motivators:

1. The Genes Want to Survive

We, our actions, are highly influenced by the desires of the microorganisms that form our bodies – our genes. According to Richard Dawkins, the author of The Selfish Gene, “the main goal of the body is to propagate copies of the genes which ride inside it.” To achieve this feat, the body is required to strictly follow two commands: survive and replicate.

There is nothing more important for the genes. We live to live another day and to copy ourselves.

2. Universal Recognition of Money

Different religions exist in different countries but we are all loyal to one and only lord – the money lord. Or as Yuval Noah Harari writes in his bestseller, Sapiens, “Money is the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised.”

During the years of our existence, we form a love-hate relationship with money. On the one hand, we hate it when we see people who are willing to do whatever it takes to earn more and to gain more power. We have movies, literature, songs, and words that mock the aggressive pursuit of more cash.

On the other hand, however, we adequately recognize the need for this resource. Since money is the currency that can literally save our lives from misery and decay, we have no other choice but to obey some sort of rules to gain more of this finite resource. Even so, while it surely exists, our desire to get more money is usually not directly expressed. Throughout our lives, we learn to successfully decoy our desire for wealth. That’s actually why money is a taboo subject.

3. Technological Advancements

High-tech gizmos and the internet greatly exceeded our expectations. These two innovations enabled us to connected like no other species.

At first, we used the Wi-Fi connection to send emails and to communicate better. Now, we use it to showcase our self-worth and to advertise our qualities to the whole world. All of this, done with the underlying desire to feel more desirable by others.


The three above-mentioned notes can be portrayed in the following way:

the-modern-rat-race
The cravings for money, survival, being appreciated by others is something we don’t verbally express. We show it by the stuff we obtain and the things we say/do.

Our inner eagerness to survive forces us to obtain money. And cash, supports our existence. But for most, the comfort of holding large chunks of capital in the bank is not enough. We also want to be seen as wealthy.

After all, just owning money is not enough to increase your chances of survival – meeting new friends that will help you along the way and also potential mates. That’s why, we’re also eager to parade with what we have.  

Just as the peacock spreads its feathers to show its impeccable genes, we, through our actions and the things we acquire, show the world our features hoping that they’ll pick us. This our way of saying to others, “Look at me, my qualities and traits are so good that I can afford to spend $50,000 on a car. You should want to hang around with me.”

Our possessions are an advertisement, a way of showing off. They reinforce the image we desire to portray. And by going around and talking about ourselves, we want to signal to others – in a non-verbal way in most of the cases – why we are a worthy choice.

This is also called competitive signaling.

What is Competitive Signaling?

The way you spend your money can say a lot about how you want to position yourself in modern competition.

If you think carefully about everything before you buy it, and you’re not interested in high-end goods, your income is either average or you’re careless of what others think of you. In contrast, if you focus primarily on obtaining premium goods, you’re probably either rich or you want to be perceived as rich.2

Thorstein Veblen, an American economist and sociologist, argued that the demand for luxury goods is driven largely by a single social motive: “flaunting one’s wealth.”

For example, Nissan is a car. It’s an average, not-flashy, automobile that will help you go from point A to point B, faster. Porsche, on the other hand, is an art museum on wheels. It can also get you from point A to point B, but while driving around town in this beast on wheels you radiate a completely different vibe. You present yourself as a modern, high-paid individual with taste and ambition. Figuratively speaking, the amount of cash that each of them has in the bank – the person owning a Nissan and the person owning a Porsche – can be exactly the same. On the outside though, they appear quite different.  

The more interesting thing to consider, if say the individuals in the above example really do have the same amount of cash stashed, is how they approach buying domestic goods – a set of dishes, blankets, or say cleaning products. Since these goods are not to be seen by others, they both, even the person owning a sports car, will most probably end up getting the same cheap things.3

With this, we can conclude that the available products on the market are a mix of personal value and signaling value.

The car you have is simultaneously a way to move faster in the city and also a representation of your hierarchy in the world. Each product on the market, nowadays, comes with these qualities.

And if we can put this in a graph, it will look something like this:

luxury-goods-vs-useful-goods
Above the line the products don’t get more useful, they do something else. Luxury goods help you display, publicly, your wealth. The “scientific term” for this is conspicuous consumption.4

At some point, certain products become a beacon of your self-worth. If you want to signal to others that you have more money, which internally means that you want to show that you’re smarter, slimmer, better than others in a way, you’ll eventually lean towards goods that are considered a luxury.

The extra you’re paying for a Porche, for example, has more to do with the message you want to convey to others, not with the usefulness of the product itself.5

You might be wondering, “Why this should be bad?”

Well, it’s not always bad. If you have the means to get a sports car and insanely expensive pillows, of course, go for it. But I want to unpack this theory even further. Because, when society adores consumption above else, it’s getting harder for individuals to handle their finance and also feel satisfied with what they currently own.

How The Modern Rat Race is (Badly) Influencing our Lives?

“Modern Americans are feeling less and less satisfied even as their freedom of choice expands.” That’s the premise of the book The Paradox of Choice.

But “less satisfied” is gently put. The negative initiatives of how our society functions are far more destructive than “feeling bad about not getting the right product.”

Since economic growth requires constant consumption, the only way to reinforce the long-term commitment of buyers, to buy, so corporations can continue to exist and push the world forward, is to make them desire more.

A lot can be said about this insidious way the global machine functions. There are plenty of books and resources on the topic. The important thing to realize here is how the modern world influences your emotions and undermines your existence.

There are three main things to consider:

  1. Modern media is all about showcasing wealth: Regardless of the platform you use, it’s all about people who have seemingly more than you. More happiness, more clothes, better jobs. When you join a social media channel, you’re promoted to follow famous people that have it all figured out. And if you do so, what do you think happens? You start to compare your life with theirs. The more they have, the less you feel you have.
  2. We’re convinced that the more we have the more we are: Prestige is measured by what is visible. Others are drawn to our possessions and the way we look because this way we appear as better-equipped to handle possible disturbances in the system. But this superficial approach makes us neglectful of other important areas. We leave our thoughts and skills unexplored.
  3. New things are constantly appearing on the shelves: Our economy can function only if new things are produced and purchased. Technologically and economically speaking it makes sense. After all, things break and they need to be replaced. Also, these spendings fund corporations and enable them to innovate. But the luxury goods market is a US$285.1 billion industry expected to grow to US$388 billion in 2025.6 Meaning that more and more people focus on enhancing their social prestige.

Based on the above, the rat race takes the following form:

the-Game-of-Competitive-Signaling

You see others showing their things and you’re eager to show what you have to the world – this is basically how you spread your feathers. The previous is done because deep down you’re convinced that more things is the way to go. But since new things constantly appear, and other people are also continuously sharing new stuff, you want to do the same – after all, you don’t want to be left behind and perish without propagating your own genes forward.  

So, eventually, we spend more money on things we don’t really need, thinking, that this will reinforce our survival and at the same time make our stay on the planet earth more bearable.

But this is rarely true. We all know what happens when we are caught in this continuous buy-share cycle – or at least we realize it at some point (hopefully after reading this post).

We always feel behind because it is impossible to keep with the trend. And the damage is not only economical – it’s psychological. You get stressed and crippled by the outside pressure imposed. New things appear faster than we can consume and obtain. After all, our funds are finite, compared to the infinitive amount of items available.

How to Escape The Modern Rat Race?

There are a lot of “physical” things you can do to prevent the outside noise from negatively influencing your daily life, thus help you unplug from the rat race. The most common fixes are quite popular and you’ve probably heard them before: unsubscribe from news and other daily updates, unfollow people on social media, remove social media completely, reduce the time you spend online. Or in other words, put up walls that will protect your consciousness from comparing yourself to others all day, every day.

Yet, there are things you need to do that I believe are far more important. Things that can help on a deeper psychological level.

  • Use the money you earn to upgrade your skills and expertise: The dose of happiness that physical objects can buy is short-lived. We, humans, tend to quickly return to a base level of happiness despite the events in our daily lives – both positive and negative. There is actually a term for this phenomenon: it’s called hedonic treadmill, also known as hedonic adaptation.7 So, instead of spending all of your cash on new lenses and pretentious items, use them to acquire new skills. By doing so, you’ll expand your horizons and find better ways to spend your idle time – creating, not always consuming.
  • Commit to a really long-term goal: Our faced-paced world with quick feedback loops ruined the way we expect things to happen. Since you can have pretty much everything on demand, as long as you have enough money, we expect other achievements to also happen fast. Once a project stalls, or progress is slow, we lose interest, and we focus our attention on other things. Things that can give us quick feedback. But quick returns matter only for a glimpse of a second. Real meaningful work always requires time and effort. Find something to do that will take you 10, 20 years, and commit to making daily progress. At first, there will be no immediate feedback about how well you’re doing. But as you progress, you’ll find it more joyful to work on your task.
  • Use the outside pressure for inspiration: Not all is bad about the game of competitive signaling. There are positives too, but people usually can seize them only if they have the right mindset. For example, for some, seeing a person driving a sports car will make them doubt their skills or reconsider their current vehicle – get a loan to purchase a new one. For others, seeing the same person can motivate them to reevaluate their current profession and (probably) inspire them to make a positive change. If you are in stage one – still mostly comparing yourself to others – fleeting the modern arena full of vanity and signaling for a while can surely help.8 If you see the progress of others as inspiration to make positive changes in your own life, you can, perhaps, leave your social media accounts intact.
  • Focus on being, not having: This last piece of advice is more elaborately explained in the book To Have or to Be?. But the short version of the mission presented in this absolute must-read is the following: focus on “productive expression of one’s human powers.” Happiness is the absence of desire and the pursuit of self-actualization. To escape the status games and get closer to your inner persona, therefore feel better, consistently pushing towards realizing your talents and potentialities will aid you in your quest.

Some Closing Thoughts

It’s obvious why people are caught up in the daily-grind-lifestyle where what you present to the world is perceived far more important than who you really are on the inside.

We live in a data-driven world where everything can be measured and compared. The clothes you wear and the car you drive is immediately associated with words like “cool”, “lame”, “average”, “wealthy”.

We do this type of categorization with others, and they do it to us. Naturally, to differentiate and distinguish ourselves from our peers. To send a message and to increase our value as a potential mate or a friend, we focus more on external signals that can boost our position in the social hierarchy and less on other things that are “invisible” to others – but far more important.

Sadly, we become neglectful of our inner desires and ambitions. We prioritize how others see us over how we see ourselves. This might not damage us at the current state of our existence, but eventually, it will take a toll on our well-being.


Footnotes:

  1. Rat-race“. Online Etymology Dictionary.
  2. The last two are completely different things.
  3. This, of course, says a lot more things about their personality. For example, you can have an average income and still get a flashy car. But then, the things that are not visible by others will probably be average to compensate. Conversely, if you’re really rich, you’ll probably buy luxury domestic goods, too.
  4. Conspicuous consumption, Thorstein Veblen
  5. We all know that Porche is certainly a great vehicle. But there are still cheaper alternatives that will do the same job in terms of helping you move from point A to point B.
  6. Source: In-depth: Luxury Goods 2020
  7. Hedonic treadmill, explained.
  8. By this, I mean that it will be a good idea to remove your social media accounts for a while.