3 min read

Why do we provide status to others?

Why do we provide status to others?

We are logical to seek status to improve our lives. But our reason for granting higher status to others requires a bit of explanation

As I cover in the first chapter of Status and Culture, psychologists have concluded that status is a “fundamental human desire.” Whether this desire is genetic, customary, or rational, it's certainly logical: Higher status provides better treatment from others, and therefore, a higher quality of life.

But the status system is built upon social asymmetries, where the top individuals receive benefits from the bottom and do not return the favor. For certain people to gain higher status, an even larger number of people must accept an inferior position to them. On its face, this seems to contradict the fundamental desire for higher status: If I want higher status, why would I give it to you instead of trying to keep it for myself? Moreover, the act of providing others with esteem, deference, and material benefits has costs in time, energy, and self-esteem. So what is going on? Is granting others higher status an irrational act?

This kind of obedience is much easier to explain in power-based hierarchies, such as the military: The explicit threat of punishment forces lower-ranking members to submit to superiors’ requests. Status hierarchies, by contrast, are not based on fear but on esteem, which means that inferiors are ostensibly self-motivated in honoring their superiors.

To understand why lower ranking members provide superiors with status, we first have to note that this tends to be an unconscious process. We generally don't "decide" whom to esteem and respect; we have certain values that inform whom we see as heroes, idols, and virtuosos. There is also evidence that we are conditioned to provide deference to higher status individuals. In a study from the 1970s, researchers found that subjects’ heart rate and blood pressure increased when talking to someone of a higher rank.

At the same time, there are times when we consciously provide higher status — most notably, when it's transactional. Psychologist Cameron Anderson and his colleagues note, “People confer status to an individual with the goal of receiving help in accomplishing their own goals.” Toadyism is very logical. Waiters provide preferential treatment to diners hoping for a large tip. Junior employees kiss the boss’s ring with the hope of a future promotion. A boutique owner gives free merchandise to a celebrity knowing that her presence and implied endorsement will enhance the reputation of the establishment.

But in most cases, status isn't a cynical transaction. We want our own status groups to succeed, which means that we’re willing to defer to our local leaders if their actions lead to higher global status for the group. Freshmen on a college basketball team are likely to defer to the senior stars because winning the championship is good for their own self-esteem and career prospects. Sociologist Cecilia Ridgeway explains, "If by giving more competent members greater influence the group is more successful at its goals, then the low-status members will also receive a share, though a smaller share of the benefits that flow from that success." Deference to those at the top is a small price to pay for membership in a status-enhancing group. This helps explains the extreme cases where some individuals embrace very low status positions within the group rather than flee for new social organizations in which they may receive better treatment. In these cases, individuals have decided that the right to claim group membership at any level is worth the daily disrespect. (And those in the second-to-last tier may feel secure they're not at least dead-last.)

That being said, the strongest force for making us provide status is social norms. All status groups are based around a shared sense of norms, and Cecilia Ridgeway notes that the most basic norm is that members “should defer to another whom the group deems more competent or face negative sanctions." This means we may be obliged to give status to superiors, even if we don't respect them on a personal level. High-status individuals are aware of these norms, which often leads them to twist their position into pure dominance. And the longer we're in the group (or in wider society) these norms become habitualized, which is why we feel anxiety about providing superiors with "correct" treatment.

So we have a clear answer now: we provide status because it's a core part of receiving status. They are inseparable acts.