Although we don’t yet know the full extent to which status seeking contributes to long-term health and well-being, these findings point towards some intriguing possibilities. Status seeking may play an important, yet largely invisible, role in determining our choices. When we’re plagued with painful feelings of low status, our judgment may become clouded. We may focus more on feeling better in the moment than on how our behavior will affect us in the long-run. Over time, a perpetual need for more status could lead us towards chronic problems. For example, the link between status and portion size may help explain why obesity has increased most rapidly amongst Americans who are underprivileged and poorer. Paradoxically, groups and individuals who often feel powerless might be the most likely to suffer the ill effects of status seeking.
The good news is that by manipulating what signals high status, we might be able to influence people to make better choices. For example, Dubois and his colleagues ran a study where they told people that choosing smaller portion sizes is actually a sign of higher status. Under these conditions, people chose smaller appetizers to eat. The connection between seeking status and making self-defeating choices is not inescapable.
Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.