Why We Care So Much About What Others Think of Us

What your purchases and other choices might reveal about you.

Posted May 05, 2015

Giovanni G/Shutterstock
Source: Giovanni G/Shutterstock

As a born and bred New Yorker and the daughter of two parents who lusted after material possessions, I grew up with my nose pressed against the store windows of Fifth and Madison Avenues, wanting all the outward emblems of status I could not afford.

Status symbols express where you fit in the world—or show others where you want them to place you. Some people eschew these symbols, but does that mean they are not status-aware or conscious? Research shows the contrary: No one is immune from status-seeking. Even those who appear to shun status symbols—hippies in an earlier generation and hipsters in another—are as concerned with status as their Chanel-clad, Jag-driving brethren.

Psychology circles debate whether status is a fundamental motivation for all human beings. For all species that live in social groups, including us, status confers benefits both in terms of survival and reproduction. It’s likely that the strongest and most able early males, for example—the Paleolithic A-listers—lived longer, ate better, and snagged the most desirable and most fertile females. Even if you discount such theoretical evolutionary benefits, however, a quick glance around modern society confirms that those with status have more influence and power than those lower on the social scale, and access certain rewards and perquisites others do not. 

So, is status a key to individual happiness (or, as psychologists put it, subjective well-being (SWB))?

What is status?

Scholars note that status involves respect and admiration. It also confers voluntary deference, meaning that people will typically go along with the wishes or suggestions offered up by someone with higher status. Finally, status also includes the person’s perceived instrumental social value, or the help that a person of status can offer the pursuit of your own goals. Social exchanges are built on status or, at least, the perception of someone’s status.

Cameron Anderson and his colleagues distinguish between power and status: Power is based on control, while status is based on perception. Similarly, dominance—which is a combination of threat and power—is different from status. Status is also distinct from social belonging since it is hierarchical and vertical, whereas social belonging is not.

So, if the need for status is a fundamental need, is status all about money in the end, and those status symbols I used to lust after? Apparently not. One study by Anderson and colleagues showed that sociometric status—the respect and admiration of others—positively affects subjective well-being, as socioeconomic status, or money, does not. Similarly, a decline in the respect of others lowered subjective well-being.

Interestingly, these results were consistent across four studies conducted with different methods and involving varied participants (college students, people recruited online or through the Internet, and MBA candidates before and after graduation). The authors speculate that

“...One possibility is that although individuals adapt to their income and education, they might not adapt in the same way to their sociometric status. The joy that comes with an influx of money wanes quickly as people become accustomed to how wealth shapes their daily lives. Yet respect and admiration from one’s face-to-face groups might bring sustained SWB.”

This is another variation on the phenomenon of hedonic adaptation—the idea that we get so used to things that were supposed to make us happy that they cease to do so. These results confirm the findings of another study by Louis Tay and Ed Diener, which had a huge number of respondents (60,000) in 121 countries and also found that having the respect of others was a universal aspect of SWB. If you seek happiness, it is wiser to bask in the high regard of others than in the reflected glow of obtained material goods. 

Does how you think of status reveal who you are?

Beatrice Alba and her co-authors put together a scale that could measure attitudes toward status to gauge how they correlate with self-esteem, social dominance orientation, competitiveness, social comparison orientation, narcissism, hypersensitive narcissism, and assertiveness. They expected people high in measures of narcissistic traits to enjoy status more, be more driven to attain status, and be more respectful of the social hierarchy. For those who shun both the idea of a hierarchy and status itself, what does that say about them and their motivations?

To understand where you might fall on the spectrum, try this simple quiz. Below is a sample list of questions. Answer them as they relate to you on a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 being strongly disagree and 7 being strongly agree:

  • It doesn’t matter to me where I stand in the social order.
  • I’m not interested in trying to impress people.
  • I don’t spend much time thinking about whether I’m good enough compared to others.
  • If other people don’t see me as something special, it’s no big deal.
  • It really doesn’t matter how you compare to others
  • When I succeed at something, I like to tell people about it.
  • I like telling people when something good happens to me
  • When I achieve something, I tend to keep quiet about it
  • I don’t need to go telling everyone when something good happens to me.

A lower score, of course, indicates a higher concern about status. This scale involves your world-view—Do you believe in a pecking order or do you think the world should be egalitarian?—which gets to the heart, if not the soul, of status. Other questions probe the relationship between the self and the self as it is perceived by others.

Peg Streep
Source: Peg Streep

How you perceive your own status, whether you strive for it or worry about not having it, and how you think about status in both its presence and absence reveal a great deal about you.

Copyright © Peg Streep

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Anderson, Cameron, John Angus D. Hildreth, and Laura Howland, “Is the Desire for Status a Fundmental Human Motive? A Review of the Empirical Literature, Psychological Bulletin (March 16, 20015). http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/90038781

Anderson, Cameron, Michael W. Kraus, Adam D. Galinsky, and Dacher Keltner, “The Local Ladder Effect,” Social Status and Subjective Well-Being,” Psychological Science (2012), 23, 764-771.

Tay, Louis and Ed Diener, “Needs and Subjective Well-Being Around the World, “ Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2011), vol. 101. No.2, 354-365.

Alba, Beatrice, Doris McIllwain, Ladd Wheelers, and Michael P. Jones, “Status consciousness: A preliminary construction of a scale measuring individual differences in status-relevant attitudes, beliefs, and desires.”Journal of Individual Differences, Vol. 35(3), 2014, 166-176. http://dx.doi.org/10.1027/1614-0001/a000143