The Perils of Paying for Status

Knowing when to pass on that luxury limo or overpriced pen

Aside from lightening our wallets, feelings of inferiority can also lead us to gain weight. Marketing professor David Dubois, also at Northwestern, and his colleagues have repeatedly demonstrated that when people feel unimportant, they are more likely to opt for an extra- large coffee or smoothie. The researchers did not know, however, whether consumers make this choice because size confers status or because they want to consume more when they are feeling low. To answer this question, Dubois and his colleagues designed an experiment in which they instructed participants to imagine themselves as either a high-ranking boss or a lowly employee. Then they asked people to choose between a small or large container in which to eat a serving of a constant size, either a slice of pizza or a smoothie.

The imaginary employees were significantly more likely than the pretend bosses to pick the large container, even though the amount of food was the same in all cases. The researchers conclude that big things may signal higher status, and thus powerless people buy more food because it comes in physically larger packages. Of course, the additional calories collected in these packages could also play a role in real life. Either way, a side effect of buying bigger food products may be weight gain, which, of course, can affect not only health but also the way others perceive us.

When we are plagued by painful feelings of low status, our judgment may become clouded. We may focus more on being happier in the moment than on figuring out how our behavior will affect us in the long run. For example, the perceived link between power and portion size may help explain, at least in part, why obesity has increased most rapidly among Americans who are underprivileged.

The good news is that manipulating what signals high status could steer people toward better choices. When Dubois and his co-workers told people that choosing minimal portions was a high-status move, they picked smaller appetizers. Simply being aware that your behavior may be under the influence of feelings of low status may improve your judgment. When you are in line at a deli, tempted by the extra-large latte or jumbo fries, reflect on your emotional state. If something just happened that made you feel less than vaunted, you may “want” the big size for reasons other than hunger.

The next time that you are making a purchase, be aware of your motives. If you harbor feelings of insecurity, you might want to come back later, when you feel a little cockier. You might get a better deal.

(Further Reading)
  • Getting Ahead of the Joneses: When Equality Increases Conspicuous Consumption among Bottom-Tier Consumers. N. Ordabayeva and P. Chandon in Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 38, No. 1, pages 27–41; 2011.
  • Social Benefits of Luxury Brands as Costly Signals of Wealth and Status. R.M.A. Nelissen and M.H.C. Meijers in Evolution and Human Behavior, Vol. 32, No. 5, pages 343–355; September 2011.
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