The pitfalls of displaying your social status


Ditch the fancy logos if you want to be seen as a cooperative team player.

In life, impressions matter. Whether we’re meeting a client, attending a class reunion, or going on a date, how others perceive us can make or break our goals. Many people wear expensive clothes, watches and handbags to signal their social status or their real or supposed success. If you are one of them, be warned: postings like this can backfire.

in a new paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychologywe show that a person who uses luxuries tends to be perceived as trying to increase their own social value and therefore selfish and a poor team player. As a result, they are less likely to inspire cooperation or be chosen by others for their teams. In contrast, in competitive situations, the same ostentatious person is often favored over more modest rivals.

Our results suggest that, contrary to what previous research might indicate, we should be more discerning in signaling our social status. Overbidding is generally not a good idea when trying to get on a team.

The devil wears Prada

The use of high-end products and brands to boost one’s social status is well documented as early as the 19and century. Sociologist Thorstein Veblen coined the term “conspicuous consumption” in 1899 to describe people acquiring luxury goods and services not only for their superior quality but also as a visible sign of their wealth and status. Learn how luxury brands, responding to the demand for success and reputation for outdoor displays, created instantly recognizable logos and patterns such as Louis Vuitton’s “LV” and Burberry’s plaid and used them liberally in their products.

Dig deeper into the psyche of conspicuous consumers, however, and you’ll find unvarnished Darwinian logic beneath the pursuit of status. Research shows that people covet high status for its many social benefits: high status people tend to be admired and listened to; they are more successful in negotiations; and high-status men are more datable. Status is especially valued in cultures characterized by hierarchy and tradition.

Considering all of this, it is perhaps unsurprising that the global market for personal luxury goods has been valued at €283 billion last year and is expected to reach 380 billion euros by 2025. Even a pandemic that only happened once a century was only a spot in this upward trajectory.

However, more recent studies indicate that conspicuous consumption could also be counterproductive. Ostentatious consumers tend to be perceived as more arrogant, less warm and even less moral. Miranda Priestly, the icy, well-dressed fashion dean of The devil wears Pradais fictional, but the association between luxury spenders and emotional coldness is very real.

Modesty as a social strategy

Perceptions aside, how do people to behave vis-à-vis conspicuous consumers? In six experiments involving 3,600 participants from 27 countries, we zoomed in on the relationship between conspicuous consumption and cooperation/competition. Our results indicate that conspicuous consumption is a bad idea in cooperative contexts but a good strategy in competitive contexts.

In all of our experiments, participants consistently responded less favorably to conspicuous consumers in situations (playing a game or forming a collaborative group) that called for cooperation. They perceived show-offs as less warm, were less likely to cooperate with them, and were less likely to recommend them to a cooperative group.

In one study, participants decided to cooperate with a partner in a prisoner’s dilemma game, a famous economic game that highlights the trade-off between cooperation and self-interest. Participants saw an avatar representing their partner, which sometimes included luxury logos on the avatar’s clothing. Participants cooperated less when paired with a partner whose avatar wore luxury clothing than when their partner’s avatar wore more modest clothing. They made a strategic calculation that the partner reporting the status was not going to be cooperative, and so they chose not to cooperate as well.

In other studies, when participants were asked to select someone for a group seeking cooperative people, they were less likely to select those whose social media profiles included status symbols. But when the goal was to select members for a competitive group, the results were reversed.

We also found that people could easily choose to be what we call “strategically modest”. When participants in our research were told that they were the ones evaluated for cooperative tasks or inclusion in cooperative groups, they refrained from displaying status symbols. It would seem that people are instinctively aware of the benefits of modesty when the context clearly values ​​cooperation.

Different contexts call for different signals

Life, however, is not always so straightforward. Flaunting your taste for the finer things in life may impress your companions in one setting, but become a turn off in the next. To navigate successfully in different contexts, ask yourself: what is my main goal in this situation? What is the most important attribute I want to communicate about myself?

If the goal is to convey your success, compete and exert influence, or win in a negotiation, it makes sense to wear your best clothes, name your fancy contacts, or use fancy hashtags. on social networks. But if you’re looking to cooperate and inspire cooperation in others, or appear warm, modesty is a better approach.

It should be noted that status signaling is not just about flaunting material wealth or alluding to professional success. Green credentials, altruism (Veblen also coined the term “ostentatious compassion”), nonconformity, and “cool” are also worn as status badges, according to Social Circle. For example, a hybrid car — or other green purchase — may be more of a status symbol than an expensive sedan in some parts of the United States.

Whatever the context, it is useful to think strategically about the fit between your objectives and the signals you are sending through your consumption choices. Designer Tom Ford understands this intuitively. He dresses “A-list” celebrities but usually draws the line for dressing public officials, deeming his clothes inappropriate for Hilary Clinton, Michelle Obama and Melania Trump.

Alixandra Barach is Visiting Associate Professor of Marketing at INSEAD. She is also an Associate Professor of Marketing at NYU Stern School of Business.

Shalena Srna Iis an assistant professor of marketing at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.

Deborah Petit holds the Laura and John J. Pomerantz Professorship in Marketing at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

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