We’re Wired to Care About Social Status
We’re wired to care about where we stand in the social pecking order: seeking and protecting social status is a primary human motivation. Like other group-living animals, our desire for higher status is an adaptive survival response. Acquiring status, especially in pre-modern times, brought benefits such as greater reproductive success, access to more food, resources and power.
While status considerations aren’t as important in modern times to reproduction and survival, our brains are still wired to place outsized priority on social status. As a result, we humans care deeply about what others think about us. We spend a lot of time and effort (even if we don’t realize it) tracking our relative status as compared to others.
So, even if you don’t want to admit it, we all care about our status relative to others (especially in our social group).
Dominance-Prestige Model of Social Status
How do humans gain status within their social group? There are two paths: we gain status by dominance or prestige (or a combination thereof).
Dominance refers to attaining social rank through fear, intimidation, and coercion. Dominance arises through formal institutional power, such as between a boss and an employee or a police officer and citizens, and also arises through informal social interactions, such as between a bully and a victim.
Attainment of social status through dominance is an ancient strategy shared with other group-living species. According to Florida State Professor Jon Maner, “Most animal hierarchies are regulated through dominance, such that individuals achieve social rank on the basis of their size, strength, and ability to intimidate. The biggest and strongest use agonistic behavior to rise through the ranks, while weaker and less assertive individuals typically reside within lower ranking echelons of the hierarchy.”
We all can think of examples of bosses, politicians, or even people in our social groups who exhibit dominance characteristics.
Unlike dominance, which is asserted, prestige is granted to “individuals who are considered worthy of emulation, usually for their skills or knowledge.” Source. Those with prestige earn their social rank by “displaying skills and knowledge valued by the group, which in turn brings respect, admiration, and, ultimately, high social rank.” Source. The influence of prestigious individuals is manifested by subordinates shifting their views and opinions closer to those of the prestigious due to respect for their abilities.
Gaining status through prestige is uniquely human. Other group-living species only use dominance to determine social hierarchy. Thus, experts posit that prestige status evolved as human society gained in complexity and sophistication
Scientists, artists, musicians, athletes, and authors all gain status through their displayed abilities and talents. But prestige is also gained professionally by being good at what you do and rising through the ranks. Plus, some professions, like medicine and law, are prestigious because the rigor of the training signals intelligence and competence.
Dominance and Prestige Aren’t Mutually Exclusive
While status can be gained through either dominance or prestige, it’s common for a person’s status to be based on a combination of both. An expert on status notes, relationships contain differential degrees of both Dominance and Prestige, such that each person is simultaneously Dominant and Prestigious to some extent, to some other individual. Thus, it is possible that a high degree of Dominance and a high degree of Prestige may be found within the same individual, and
may depend on who is doing the judging.” Source.
For example, teachers are granted prestige status from their students due to their knowledge and abilities. But teachers also have dominance status due to their authority over the students and power over their grades. A similar relationship exists between bosses and subordinates. The boss (hopefully) gained their position due to their hard work and skills (prestige) but as a boss they also have dominance given their ability affect their subordinates’ career prospects and compensation.
One research paper noted how Warren Buffett epitomizes a person with both dominance and prestige status:
For example, Warren Buffett, the world-renowned business magnate, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, and one of the wealthiest people in the world, enjoys extraordinary influence over thousands of employees and throughout the financial sector. He is widely regarded as one of the most successful investors in history and, as a result, possesses tremendous prestige in the eyes of many (including his own employees). However, having achieved a position of legitimate authority as chairman and CEO, he controls access to rewards and punishments for his employees (like other bosses) and thereby wields dominance. Buffetťs influence is thus a function of both freely conferred prestige and threat-based dominance, though he can behave in ways that increase or decrease the extent to which his subordinates perceive him to be wielding each strategy.Source.
Interestingly, a lack of prestige can generate dominance behavior. Researchers note that some CEOs, dictators, and politicians adopt “narcissistic, aggressive, and manipulative [behaviors] in leadership roles . . .. as a result of insecurities about their ability to attain broadly recognized Prestige; indeed, recent findings suggest that powerful individuals become aggressive when they perceive themselves as incompetent.” Source. I bet you can think of examples of people to whom this applies and this concept reminds me of The Peter Principle.
How Does Wealth Affect Status?
Wealth begets both prestige and dominance.
First, wealth is a symbol of accumulated success, so it acts as a prestige cue. Displays of material wealth through clothing, houses, cars, boats, planes and other possessions signal skill and success. Of course, the possessor of the wealth may not actually be skillful or successful, but there is enough of a correlation that displays of wealth do suggest social status. And studies support the conclusion that we associate wealth with prestige, including findings that wealthy people are commonly stereotyped as competent.
But not all displays of wealth are equal when it comes to cueing prestige. One research paper notes:
Compared to purely self-benefiting expenditures, supplying public goods that benefit the collective welfare at a personal cost is a particularly effective means of broadcasting prestige This suggests that individuals should be inclined to signal their wealth through prosocial giving and other forms of altruistic consumption (e.g., charity), which tend to effectively capture the attention of the community. Consistent with this expectation, exorbitant donations to charities from the wealthy are widely interpreted by economists as driven by a desire to demonstrate one’s wealth and signal prestige.Source.
Next, wealth also gives rise to dominance-based social inequalities. Having wealth affords the opportunity to employ others for services or to buy their goods. This generates power differentials (e.g., boss-employee, buyer-seller). Even without such a relationship, those who display wealth signal an ability to control resources and that they could employ dominance.
Signaling of status through wealth is complicated by the fact that some wealthy individuals were born into wealth, and thus, the source of their wealth is unrelated to their own competencies. They may well develop skills and abilities that gain prestige, but their wealth is an unreliable indicator.
Of course, if you have true status through dominance or prestige, you don’t need to display wealth. Warren Buffett is a case in point: he drives an older car and has lived in the same house for decades. I’m also reminded of meeting a top estate planning attorney at a client’s house and noted he drove a Saturn. He was nationally renowned and I guess he wasn’t a car guy and didn’t need possessions to display his high status.