Mark Van Vugt Ph.D.

Naturally Selected

Coping with Status Loss: The Hidden Cost of Unemployment

The Titanic effect and why Oscar award winners live longer

Posted Jan 02, 2014

At the start of the year it is good to reflect on the massive unemployment in Europe and the massive problems associated with it. At this moment more than 25 million people in the European Union are out of work and that’s about 12% of the adult population. In countries like Spain and Greece unemployment rates are as high as 27% (including many young people). My sister Petra lost her job just before X-mas. After 21 years of loyal service at publishing company Kluwer, she was made redundant. The statistics suddenly get a familiar face, no longer just a number on a very long list.  

Besides the huge financial implications of unemployment there are many social and psychological consequences that are not always immediately visible.

Let’s start with research in the American movie industry with a remarkable result, showing that actors and actresses who had won an Oscar lived an average of four years longer than their colleagues who had not received this prestigious award. So there is an obvious advantage to status and prestige. This was confirmed by an analysis of survival rates of the Titanic ship disaster, the largest passenger ship in the world, more than one century ago . Of the First Class passengers, 60 % survived the disaster, but among the Third Class passengers only 20 % were able to tell the story.

To proof that status is linked to survival one should do a longitudinal study following high and low status individuals through time and then look at the health consequences. The British epidemiologist  Michael Marmot conducted such a study among nearly 18.000 employees of the British Civil Service in the last century, the famous Whitehall studies. He followed this sample initially over a period of 10 years. His team discovered that the higher ranked employees - there are no fewer than 11 different ranks in the British Civil Service - were healthier and lived longer. Through the use of statistics he could rule out that the effect was in the opposite direction: Healthier individuals did not climb up the ranks quicker.

This is known as the Status Syndrome, the idea that status determines your physical and mental health. Alternatively we could label this the Titanic-effect. One possible explanation for the Titanic effect is lifestyle. Low status individuals tend to smoke and drink more and eat fatty foods so they will die younger, that's the idea. But this cannot be the main explanation as the status syndrome is also found in other primates, which -- according to the latest data -- do not smoke or consume alcohol, baboons. Biologist Robert Sapolsky found that baboons lower in the hierarchy of their group were less healthy and died younger than baboons higher up the hierarchy.

Then what causes the status syndrome? Sapolsky discovered that the lower status baboons had increased cortisol levels. Cortisol is known as the “stress” hormone  and it causes all kinds of health problems in the long run such as cardiovascular diseases. Remarkably, in low status human populations such as the unemployed and recent immigrant groups we also find increased cortisol levels in their saliva. This suggests that poverty and the associated daily stressors may cause long-term health problems. There is also a relationship between low status and mental health. Status losses, for instance through the unemployment also leads to a reduced concentration of serotonin in the brain. This substance, which is the main ingredient of Prozac, makes people feel less anxious and depressed. People who were administered serotonin felt more confident and dominant than those who received a placebo pill. No surprising, recent figures show that depression, suicide, and even infanticide have risen in the European Union since the economic crisis started in 2008.

There are at least two main psychological factors involved in the status syndrome. One is the loss of key social relationships. Research shows that social relationships with co-workers are extremely important for the well-being of the worker, both on and off the job. Even if the contents of the work are not very rewarding the contacts are. Thus, being unemployed means a greater risk of felling socially isolated. Second, unemployed people experience a loss of control over their lives. If you have a job then it does not matter so much that your washing machine is broken or the car does not start. But if you do not have the money to make the necessary repairs then your autonomy is being affected and ultimately your health will suffer.

It is important that European countries recognize the negative health effects associated with being unemployed. Sometimes these effects are not immediately visible but the damage is real. Giving people half a job is better than having no job for them, and doing unpaid (volunteer) work is better than sitting at home. Giving unemployed people temporary financial assistance, for example through a loan or gift is better than not helping them at all. In the long term Europeans will be better off, and Europe can avoid a disaster of Titanic-size proportions by taking the psychological effects of unemployment -- and the associated status loss -- more seriously.

More Posts