Consequences of Low Status: Balancing Sociality and Self-Preservation
People are naturally social—every day we interact with other people. However, these interactions do not occur in isolation; rather, they are couched within a larger social hierarchy that can actually influence how we treat each other. These hierarchies are very visible in animals, as animals fight for mates or leadership (your dog will even mark its territory). For humans, this hierarchy is primarily social. We know who is more respected or more well-off in general and have a sense of what we broadly refer to as socioeconomic status (SES). SES broadly refers to how some people have more financial, educational, and social resources relative to other people. We tend to be especially aware of our SES relative to the people to whom we are closest. Thus when we have our daily interactions with our friends, there is potential for our standing relative to our friends to influence how we act and treat them.
It may be hard at first to believe that SES influences our daily interactions—when we are with our friends, we (hopefully) are not actively thinking about who has more money or who is above whom on the social ladder. Rather, people of lower SES may have more at stake when it comes to threats in general and have to be more attentive to threats as a result. Animals of lower status are more stressed and less healthy than animals of higher status; animals of low status are in a vulnerable position in the hierarchy so it is adaptive for them to worry more about their safety. Dr. Michael Kraus and colleagues assessed whether humans of low status similarly worry about cues, especially in the context of social interactions.1 In their first experiment, undergraduate women came to the lab with a friend and both reported their SES (income and parents’ education); in each pair, naturally, one had relatively higher SES than the other. They were given fake initials and asked to tease one another. Teasing can be fun for some people and not for others, so we often monitor how the other person is responding; it’s like when we tell a joke and look at our friends to see if it landed. Participants rated their emotions and then rated how they believe their friend felt during the teasing.
Both friends were equally good in recognizing the positive and negative emotions of their partner except for hostility. Regardless of differences in SES between pairs, the partner in each pair of lower SES was more likely to look for hostility in her partner. Being of low status, it may be important and even adaptive in everyday life to be more prepared for a negative response and disarming it. However, this tracking of hostility may be counterproductive, as identification of hostile emotion in their partner made them actually become more hostile as well. These results suggest that people of low status may be especially prone to defending themselves by looking out for negative, hostile responses, but this emotional reading is actually not advantageous as they become more hostile as well; by recognizing the friend is feeling hostile, the hostility becomes contagious! Remember this was in the context of teasing they were required to do, let alone an actual fight (or worse, a couple’s quarrel). Over time, these responses can have especially negative consequences for maintaining one’s relationships.
In addition to the general factors that determine our status, there is also the effect of how we view our own status. It seems simply where we perceive ourselves in the hierarchy relative to others may be important (and in some cases more important than where we actually stand). The participants may not have been cognizant of their relative status in the previous experiment, so the same researchers assessed how manipulating one’s perception of status can directly impact their threat sensitivity. Participants not only reported their SES (income and education), but they also were induced to feel especially high status or especially low status. Half of the participants imagined speaking to someone whom they would consider on the top of the social hierarchy (depending on your age this can be Barack Obama or Kim Kardashian, or anyone in between) as well as how they are different from this person—just try this for yourself and see how great you feel about your own status afterward. The other half of participants imagined speaking to someone of the lowest standing and reported feeling of higher status afterward.
All participants then read two stories—one in which a man waited for a long time for his meal at a restaurant and another in which someone got into a car accident. Can you guess how each story ended? Participants were asked to report 5 ways each story could end (seriously, take a minute to try this for yourself). Participants of low SES and who were manipulated to view themselves as being of lower status predicted more hostile endings to the stories. Having low status and thinking you have low status may result in more hostile expectations of ambiguous situations. We face ambiguous circumstances every day. Did he mean anything by that comment? Was she making a face at me on the bus? Why wasn’t there an exclamation point in that text message? Expecting the worst or catastrophizing can take its toll throughout the day when confronted with these scenarios over and over again.
These findings strongly suggest that our perception of our relative status can influence how we think and treat one another. More broadly, status and perceptions of status have been linked to poorer health and academic outcomes, and these results may stem from this increased sensitivity for hostility.2,3,4 If we want students to succeed (or if we want to succeed in our jobs at work) it is especially important to care not only about how well-equipped people are but also how they feel about their status. This message is especially salient in today’s political climate. Status is not limited to SES—it can entail sense of belonging, security, and general respect among other things. These findings can shed light on how marginalized groups (e.g., low SES, ethnic minorities, sexual minorities) feel in their daily interactions. For example, many minority groups felt especially unsafe and afraid following the election. There was a large rise in hate crimes nationally and people were especially vocal about wanting certain groups like Muslims and immigrants out of the country. These circumstances can result in people having a lower overall sense of status. Likewise, recently university students have been especially vocal about feeling unsafe on campus, especially in the South where universities have statues and buildings commemorating confederate soldiers. Regardless of the statistics used to quell their fears, the state of feeling of low status can spillover to influence their everyday experiences and ultimately hinder their success. Moreover, feeling ignored by the local school administration or the broader government can lower people’s sense of status. It is important not only to be conscious of our own status, but also how we intentionally or unintentionally influence the status of others around us. If we want students and people to thrive in America, we need to consider not only their resources but also whether they feel valued.
1 Kraus, M. W., Horberg, E. J., Goetz, J. L., & Keltner, D. (2011). Social class rank, threat vigilance, and hostile reactivity. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37, 1376-1388.
2 Cundiff, J. M., & Matthews, K. A. (2017). Is subjective social status a unique correlate of physical health? A meta-analysis. Health Psychology, 36, 1109.
3 Quon, E. C., & McGrath, J. J. (2014). Subjective socioeconomic status and adolescent health: a meta-analysis. Health Psychology, 33, 433.
4 Destin, M., Richman, S., Varner, F., & Mandara, J. (2012). “Feeling” hierarchy: The pathway from subjective social status to achievement. Journal of Adolescence, 35, 1571-1579.