People greet each other at an imaginary party, reacting to others based on their status (as depicted in a playing card). Because many people perceive that they have low status, and have the mindset of being powerless, this activity helps them learn that they can take action to change it.

Group Size
  • Large Group (10+)
  • Deck of Playing Cards


  1. Offer a deck of playing cards to everyone. Make sure to take the jokers out of the deck first!
  2. Each person can choose one card, but he/she cannot look at what it is. Then they have to put this card on their forehead.
  3. Tell everyone, “Look around you. The people in the room who have face cards (King, Queen, and Jack) are royalty. They have the highest status in the room. The lowest status people are those who have 3, 2, and Ace (which counts as a 1).”
  4. Continue your instructions to everyone: “Now go around the room and treat people according to their status. Don’t tell anyone what card they have on their head. Just treat them the same way that most people treat people with high status, low status, or medium status.”
  5. Let everyone go around mingling with each other. There will probably be a lot of laughter, as well as anxiety. Often you will see people bowing down to the royalty, or fawning all over them as if they were great celebrities. You might also see people ignoring or dismissing the people with low-status cards.
  6. Just observe the dynamics in the room, and let the participants interact with each other for about 5 minutes.
  7. Call an end to the mingling. Tell everyone to line up according to the status that they think they have on their head. At one end of the room, you will have the Ace, 2, 3, and 4’s… At the other end, you will have the Jacks, Queens, and Kings. Usually people are pretty accurate when they line up. People know when they have been treated as low-status. People also know when they are high-status. Somehow the people in the middle usually figure it out as well. There are rare exceptions, when a low-status person will line up with the royalty cards. That is part of the valuable conversation that follows in the debrief.
  • Sometimes, the cards can just stick to people’s heads. But most people probably need to hold it with one hand to their head.
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People always prove quite enthusiastic to debrief this activity. Ask them how it felt to be high-status. Usually, the Kings and Queens have funny stories about how people wanted their autographs or wanted to take selfies with them. Then ask people how they knew that they were low-status. They usually have anecdotes about how they felt invisible, or worse. (Fortunately many of these stories are quite humorous, too, because people know that it’s just a game.)

Yet this debrief also brings up very strong feelings and emotions. Some people who were low-status talk about how it felt to be ignored and rejected. Many people decry how we treat people based on their status, and there are some who even engage in civil disobedience, treating everyone equally regardless of what it says on their forehead.

After debriefing, you can talk about how status is something that we internalize. But we can act as if we do have positions of high power, and people often treat us accordingly. In other words, we can take action over how we present ourselves to the world.


As Keith Payne, a Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of North Carolina (UNC) writes in his excellent book, The Broken Ladder: “We have to take subjective perceptions of status seriously because they reveal so much about people’s fates. If you place yourself on a lower rung [of a ladder of status], then you are more likely in the coming years to suffer from depression, anxiety, and chronic pain…The lower the rung you select, the more prone you are to weight issues, diabetes, and heart problems. The lower the rung you select, the fewer years you have left to live…. These things are more likely to happen to you if you feel poor, regardless of your actual income.” In other words, it is more our perception of status than our actual status that determines our health and happiness. We can take action to change our perception and the perception that others might have of us.


Transformative Action Institute, based on popular improv activity on status

Additional Readings

A. Singh-Manoux, N.E. Adler, and M.G. Marmot. (2003) Subjective social status: Its determinants and its association with measures of ill-health in the Whitehall II study. Social Science & Medicine 56, 1321-1333.