The Psychology of Social Status

How the pursuit of status can lead to aggressive and self-defeating behavior

Rosemarie Gearhart

Nobel Laureate economist, John Harsanyi, said that “apart from economic payoffs, social status seems to be the most important incentive and motivating force of social behavior.” The more noticeable status disparities are, the more concerned with status people become, and the  differences between the haves and have-nots have been extremely pronounced during the economic recession of recent years.  Barack Obama campaigned directly on the issue of the “dwindling middle class” during his 2008 presidential run and appointed vice-president Joe Biden to lead a middle class task force specifically to bolster this demographic.  Despite some recent economic improvement, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont just two months ago cautioned that “the reality is that the middle class today in this country is in desperate shape and the gap between the very very wealthy and everyone else is going to grow wider.”  Concerns about status likely will not be leaving the public consciousness any time soon.
Of course, status differences are not simply relevant to economic standing, but they appear to be on our minds at all times.  As renowned neuroscientist, Michael Gazzaniga, has noted, “When you get up in the morning, you do not think about triangles and squares and these similes that psychologists have been using for the past 100 years.  You think about status. You think about where you are in relation to your peers.”  Between CEO and employee, quarterback and wide receiver, husband and wife, status looms large.  Recent work by social scientists has tackled the topic, elucidating behavioral differences between low-status and high-status individuals, and the methods by which those at the bottom of the totem pole are most successful at climbing to the top.
Psychologist PJ Henry at DePaul University recently published an article demonstrating that low-status individuals have higher tendencies toward violent behavior, explaining these differences in terms of low-status compensation theory.  Henry began this work by observing that murder rates were higher in regions with landscapes conducive to herding compared to regions that are conducive to farming, consistent with prior research showing an association between herding-based economies and violence. The traditional explanation for this pattern, popularized by psychologists Dov Cohen and Richard Nisbett, is that herding cultures have a propensity for maintaining a Culture of Honor. The story goes that because herders from Southern Britain originally settled in the Southern United States (and also established a herding economy on the new land), this left them in an economically precarious position. The possessions of these herdsmen—the most important of which was their livestock—was susceptible to theft, forcing individuals to develop a quick trigger in response to threats, economic or otherwise.  In comparison, the farming economy of the North was far more secure, requiring a less aggressive and protective stance toward one’s personal resources.
Henry took on the traditional Culture of Honor hypothesis to suggest instead that differences between herding and farming cultures in violence actually stem from differences in status.  His theory is based on a considerable psychological literature demonstrating that individuals from low-status groups (e.g. ethnic minorities) tend to engage in more vigilant psychological self-protection than those from high-status groups.  Low-status people are much more sensitive to being socially rejected and are more inclined to monitor their environment for threats.  Because of this vigilance toward protecting their sense of self-worth, low-status individuals are quicker to respond violently to personal threats and insults.
Henry first examined archival data on counties across the American South to show that murder rates from 1972 to 2006 were far higher in counties that were dry and hilly (conducive to herding) than those that were moist and flat (conducive to farming).  Above and beyond the effect of geography, however, the level of status disparities in a particular county explained these increased murder rates.  Even after accounting for the general level of wealth in a given county (wealthier counties tend to have lower murder rates), status disparity still predicted murder rates.  Not content with merely looking at the United States, Henry analyzed data from 92 countries around the world, to find a replication of this pattern.  From Albania to Zimbabwe, greater status disparities predicted greater levels of violence.
To provide evidence that tendencies for psychological self-protection were the crucial critical link between status and violence, Henry assessed survey data from over 1,500 Americans.  In this nationally representative sample, low-socioeconomic status (low-SES) individuals reported far more psychological defensiveness in terms of considering themselves more likely to be taken advantage of and trusting people less.
Finally, in an experiment with both high- and low-SES college students, Henry demonstrated that boosting people’s sense of self-worth diminished aggressive tendencies amongst low-status individuals. Henry asked some students in the experiment to write about a time when they felt important and valuable.  Other students did not receive this assignment, but instead completed a rote task about defining nouns.  In a second portion of the experiment, all participants answered questions about how willing they would be to respond aggressively to threats. Consistent with the general population studies, college students from low-SES backgrounds expressed more willingness to respond aggressively to insults, but this tendency diminished markedly for those who first wrote about themselves as important and valuable.
Although this pattern of low-status compensation is important on its own, it is also unfortunate given a separate body of research on how people actually attain higher status.  This research, recently summarized in an article by psychologists, Cameron Anderson and Gavin J Kilduff, shows that those who are effective in attaining status do so through behaving generously and helpfully to bolster their value to their group.  In other words, low-status individuals’ aggressive and violent behavior is precisely the opposite of what they should be doing to ascend the societal totem pole.
Anderson and Kilduff demonstrated in one study that people in a group math problem-solving task who merely signaled their competence through being more vocal attained higher status and were able to do so regardless of their actual competence on the task.  Research by psychologists Charlie L. Hardy and Mark Van Vugt, and sociologist Robb Willer have shown that generosity is the key to status.  People afford greater status to individuals who donate more of their own money to a communal fund and those who sacrifice their individual interests for the public good.  Demonstrating your value to a group—whether through competence or selflessness—appears to improve status. Anderson and Aiwa Shirako suggest that the amplifier for this effect is the degree to which one has social connections with others.  Their studies involved MBA students engaging in a variety of negotiations tasks.  They showed that individuals who behaved cooperatively attained a more positive reputation, but only if they were socially embedded in the group.  Those who behaved cooperatively, but lacked connections went unnoticed.  Social connectedness had similar effects for uncooperative MBA students.  Those who were selfish and well-connected saw their reputation diminish.
The sum of these findings can begin to explain the troubled circumstances of those lowest in status.  Ongoing efforts to maintain a positive view of oneself despite economic and social hardships can engage psychological defense mechanisms that are ultimately self-defeating.  Instead of ingratiating themselves to those around them – this is the successful strategy for status attainment - low-status individuals may be more prone to bullying and hostile behavior, especially when provoked.  Research identifying factors that lead to successful status-seeking provides some optimism, though.  Individuals capable of signaling their worth to others rather than being preoccupied with signaling their worth to themselves may be able to break the self-defeating cycle of low-status behavior.

Rights & Permissions
Share this Article:


You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.
Scientific American MIND iPad

Give a Gift & Get a Gift - Free!

Give a 1 year subscription as low as $9.99

Subscribe Now >>


Email this Article