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When You Try to Buy Status, It Can Backfire

Understanding the lure--and the trap--of luxury goods



iStock/ Vasiliki Varvaki

The desire for social status is one of the most important factors driving human behavior. Our place on the social hierarchy can determine everything from who we marry to how long we live. However, recent research suggests that some of the things we do to boost our status can backfire: they may make us feel better temporarily but increase the chances we will be stuck with lower status.

For example, a recent set of studies found that when people feel they have low status, they offer to pay more money than they need to. The University of San Diego’s Aarti Ivanic and her colleagues, recruited African-American and Caucasian participants at a shopping mall. They gave half of their participants a list of ten characteristics that are stereotypically associated with African-Americans. Participants were asked to read each characteristic (e.g. “High athletic ability”) and indicate how much it applied to them personally. The purpose of this exercise was to highlight racial stereotypes for those participants, thereby increasing their feelings of low status. Afterwards, participants were shown a description of high-end headphones and asked how much they would be willing to pay for them. African-Americans who had been reminded of their race offered to pay significantly more money for the headphones compared to either Caucasians or African-Americans who hadn’t been reminded of their race.

Ivanic and her colleagues conducted a similar study online, asking participants to evaluate a standard vacation package at a hotel. They were given the option of upgrading to a “luxury” room and asked how much they would be willing to pay for the upgrade. African-American participants who had been reminded of their race offered to pay more for the luxury upgrade. They did so despite not expressing a greater preference for the upgrade.

Thus, in an attempt to reassert feelings of social status, African-Americans may be led to behave in a way that causes them more unfairness. After all, consumers who are known to pay more are likely to be charged more. Past research has found that African-Americans are often charged more than other groups for the same products and services.

Ivanic’s studies focused on race—a highly visible proxy for status in society. However, everyone is potentially vulnerable to feelings of low status, whether due to losing a job, experiencing poor treatment, or being surrounded by people we perceive as having high status. Derek Rucker and Adam Galinsky of Northwestern University found that manipulating people’s feelings of status can change the amount people are willing to pay for different products. Participants were asked to write about a time they either felt powerful or powerless. They were then presented with different products and asked how much they would be willing to pay for each. People who had just written about feeling powerless offered to pay significantly more for products that signal high status—for example, a fancy pen or a fur coat. Rucker and Galinsky’s results suggest that people who regularly feel powerless may be at greater risk for going into debt.

Aside from lightening our wallets, feelings of low status can also lead us to gain weight. David Dubois and his colleagues ran several studies demonstrating that when people feel powerless, they are more likely to opt for an extra large coffee or smoothie. In one study, the researchers examined whether this preference for large portions is driven by a need for status or a desire for greater calories. After manipulating feelings of status, participants were all given the same amount of food and asked to choose their own container. The containers varied in size from small to very large. Participants who had been made to feel powerless chose larger containers in which to eat their food. Feelings of low status cause us to choose larger portions in order to signal greater status to others. However, larger portion sizes may eventually cause us to gain weight, thereby lowering our status.

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.

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