Social status

Americans Think Activity Signals High Social Status – Quartz

“How are you?”

“Oh, you know, busy, busy.”

Such is a very common conversation in the United States. But why, ask researchers at Columbia and Harvard universities, is everyone suddenly bragging about being busy? Just 100 years ago, boasting about your hobbies, not your job, was a sign of importance and wealth.

In a series of experiments, the results of which will be published in an upcoming article, the researchers tested whether reporting “activity” changes people’s social status.

One experiment asked participants to read either a Jeff who “works long hours and his schedule is always full” or a Jeff who “doesn’t work and has a quiet lifestyle.” Other experiments tested where activity cues could double as status cues, much like luxury goods. Participants read the story of a middle-aged shopper who frequented a grocery delivery service like Peapod, the upscale grocery store Whole Foods, or the Trader Joes checkout store. In another experiment, they read either Anne listening to music on Bluetooth headphones (a sign of multitasking) or Anne listening to headphones.

Participants associated ‘activity’ and props of activity with high social status. They thought Jeff was a higher status person when he was busy. They believed that the shopper who had groceries delivered had a status comparable to that of the shopper who went to the notoriously expensive Whole Foods. And yes, they found that Anne had a higher status when she wore a Bluetooth headset. Study authors Silvia Bellezza, Neeru Paharia and Anat Keinan presented their findings in an article for the Harvard Business Review. They offer insight into why the association between activity and status might be:

What has changed so much in a century? We believe that the transition from a leisure status to an activity status can be linked to the development of knowledge-intensive economies. In such economies, individuals who possess the characteristics of human capital that employers or customers value (eg, competence and ambition) should be in high demand and in short supply in the labor market. Thus, by telling others that we are busy and working all the time, we implicitly suggest that we are wanted, which improves our perceived status.

Participants’ beliefs about social mobility impacted how they associated occupation with status. In a study with a group of international participants, Italians were more likely to associate leisure, not bustle, with high status. “Americans are more likely to perceive they live in a mobile society, where individual effort can move people up and down the social ladder, while Italians are more likely to believe they live in less mobile societies,” the researchers explain.

Photo by Quinn Dombrowski on Flickr, licensed CC-BY_SA 2.0