Tuesday, December 15, 2009

the psychology of social status

Scientific American | Nobel Laureate economist, John Harsanyi, said that “apart from economic payoffs, social status seems to be the most important incentive and motivating force of social behavior.” The more noticeable status disparities are, the more concerned with status people become, and the differences between the haves and have-nots have been extremely pronounced during the economic recession of recent years. Barack Obama campaigned directly on the issue of the “dwindling middle class” during his 2008 presidential run and appointed vice-president Joe Biden to lead a middle class task force specifically to bolster this demographic. Despite some recent economic improvement, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont just two months ago cautioned that “the reality is that the middle class today in this country is in desperate shape and the gap between the very very wealthy and everyone else is going to grow wider.” Concerns about status likely will not be leaving the public consciousness any time soon.

Of course, status differences are not simply relevant to economic standing, but they appear to be on our minds at all times. As renowned neuroscientist, Michael Gazzaniga, has noted, “When you get up in the morning, you do not think about triangles and squares and these similes that psychologists have been using for the past 100 years. You think about status. You think about where you are in relation to your peers.” Between CEO and employee, quarterback and wide receiver, husband and wife, status looms large. Recent work by social scientists has tackled the topic, elucidating behavioral differences between low-status and high-status individuals, and the methods by which those at the bottom of the totem pole are most successful at climbing to the top.

Psychologist PJ Henry at DePaul University recently published an article demonstrating that low-status individuals have higher tendencies toward violent behavior, explaining these differences in terms of low-status compensation theory. Henry began this work by observing that murder rates were higher in regions with landscapes conducive to herding compared to regions that are conducive to farming, consistent with prior research showing an association between herding-based economies and violence. The traditional explanation for this pattern, popularized by psychologists Dov Cohen and Richard Nisbett, is that herding cultures have a propensity for maintaining a Culture of Honor. The story goes that because herders from Southern Britain originally settled in the Southern United States (and also established a herding economy on the new land), this left them in an economically precarious position. The possessions of these herdsmen—the most important of which was their livestock—was susceptible to theft, forcing individuals to develop a quick trigger in response to threats, economic or otherwise. In comparison, the farming economy of the North was far more secure, requiring a less aggressive and protective stance toward one’s personal resources.