We all want high social status — ScienceDaily

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Not everyone may care about having an impressive job title or a big luxury house, but all human beings desire high social status, according to a recently published study.

For decades, scholars have debated both sides of the question: is it human nature to want high status in one’s social circle, profession, or society at large?

Professor Cameron Anderson sought to settle the debate. In “Is the desire for social status a basic human motive? A review of the empirical literature” (Psychological bulletin, Vol 141(3), May 2015), Anderson and Berkeley-Haas Ph.D. candidates John Angus D. Hildreth and Laura Howland performed an extensive review of hundreds of studies using a common set of criteria. They found that, yes, status is something that everyone seeks and covets, even if they don’t realize it.

“I usually study the sexy angle of power and confidence, but with this one it’s about everyone. Everyone cares about status, whether they realize it or not,” says Anderson.

Anderson is Professor of Management and the Lorraine Tyson Mitchell Chair in Leadership and Communications II at the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley. He says status is seen as universally important because it influences how people think and behave.

“Establishing that the desire for status is a basic human motive is important because differences in status can be demoralizing,” says Anderson. “Anytime you don’t feel valued by others, it hurts, and lack of status hurts more people than you realize.”

Some theorists have argued that wanting status is an innate desire for reputation or prestige. At the other end of the spectrum, researchers question the idea that status plays an important role in psychological well-being or self-esteem. Anderson and his team searched for a wide range of studies dating back more than 70 years. First, they defined and conceptualized status to “distinguish it from related concepts such as power and financial success.” They defined status as having three components: respect or admiration; voluntary deference by others; and social value. Social value (also known as prestige) is given to individuals whose advice is sought by others. Prestige can also be measured by how much others defer to an individual.

Next, the researchers looked at previous literature that defines what it takes for a pattern to be fundamental and innate to people. Four areas of criteria determine whether the desire for status is fundamental.

1. Well-being and health — attainment of status must contribute to long-term psychological and physical health.

2. Activities — if the desire for status is fundamental, it must lead to goal-directed behavior aimed at achieving and maintaining status, lead to a preference for certain social environments, and lead people to react strongly when others perceive them as having no status.

3. Status for status’s sake — the desire for status is just that; motivation for status does not depend on other motives

4. Universality — the desire for status must operate and extend to many types of cultures, genders, ages and personalities.

The strongest test of the hypothesis is whether possessing lower status has a negative impact on health. The studies reviewed showed that people who had lower status in their communities, peer groups, or workplace suffered more from depression, chronic anxiety, and even cardiovascular disease. Individuals who are lower in the hierarchy of status, or what the authors call “the community ladder”, feel less respected and valued and more ignored by others.

Anderson hopes the study results will influence future research, including but not limited to the management literature. “The desire for status can lead to all kinds of actions, from aggression and violence, to altruism and generosity, to self-preservation behavior that benefits the environment. The more we understand this core engine, the more we can harness it to guide people’s decisions and actions into more productive paths.”

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