Do Status Symbols Help You Make New Friends?

Research explains status and friendship formation.

Posted Jan 11, 2019

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Driving fancy cars, wearing luxury brands, and associating yourself with status has its privileges. People are more likely to turn their heads and shower you with attention, and they may also be more likely to defer to your opinion and wishes. So, while having status symbols can be beneficial, do status symbols also help us make new friends?

To begin to answer this question, researchers first explored whether people think showing status will help them attract new friends. In one study, one group of research participants were asked to imagine owning both a basic car and a luxury car and then they were asked which car they would drive to a wedding reception to make new friends. Results showed that a majority of the participants (66 percent) chose to take the luxury car. So, it appears that most people think that the luxury car, instead of the basic car, would be more effective in attracting new friends. But is it actually effective from the perspective of would-be friends?

To answer this question, a different group of research participants were also asked to imagine being at a wedding reception where they noticed a person who drove up in either a basic car or a luxury car. Participants then rated the extent to which they would be interested in becoming friends with that car driver. Results showed that would-be friends were more interested in becoming friends with the person who drove the basic car than the person who drove the luxury car. Thus, people think that status symbols such as driving the luxury car will increase friendship interest, but such status symbols actually make would-be friends less interested in friendship.

This effect, called the “Status Signals Paradox” (Garcia, Weaver, & Chen, 2018), has also been demonstrated in other contexts besides cars. For example, one study focused on wrist watches. When asked to decide what kind of watch to wear when going out to a social event, one group of research participants thought that wearing an expensive Tag Heuer watch would be more effective in making new friends than wearing an inexpensive generic watch. However, a different group of research participants, who were in the role of “would-be friends,” rated which of two individuals at the social event they would prefer to meet: a person wearing the expensive Tag Heuer watch or a person wearing an inexpensive generic watch. Results showed that would-be friends were more interested in forming new friendships with the person wearing the inexpensive generic watch than the person wearing the expensive Tag Heuer watch.

Psychologists explain this effect as a difference in perspective in social comparison. When we are deciding what to wear, we are in “presenting roles” where want to put our best foot forward, so to speak; we want to look better than others. However, we do not take the perspective of the would-be friends. They too would also like to look good and do not want to be out-shined by others. In other words, while we want to compare favorably to others in our appearance, we do not realize that others also want to compare favorably too—or at least not be overshadowed.

Thus, while status symbols—a luxury car, a fancy purse, designer logos, and more—are associated with privileges, signaling status when trying to make new friends can backfire. Moreover, it appears that people, generally speaking, fail to realize that status hurts in these friendship formation pursuits. So, perhaps the next time you go to a social mixer in the hopes of making new friends, you may want to be mindful that some of the status symbols that you wear, or associate yourself with, might actually repel the very people you seek to befriend. 

References

Garcia, S.M., Weaver, K., & Chen, P. (2018) The status signals paradox. Social Psychological and Personality Science. https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550618783712