This is an article from the spring 2019 issue of LSA Magazine. Read more stories from the magazine.
Everybody knows it’s always best to make a good impression. Arrive on time. Make eye contact and smile. Wear your snazziest suit, your cashmere coat, your nicest shoes, and the Cartier watch your grandparents gave you. Unless, that is, you’re trying to make a friend.
Status symbols, such as expensive clothes and Cartier watches, signal our social value — something that is generally to our advantage, says Stephen Garcia, associate professor of organizational studies and psychology. “In our culture, having status generally has a lot of benefits,” he says. “You might have an easier time getting a job if you went to a really top school, for example. Certain brand names and luxury items can communicate your social value, which can be a good thing because people tend to defer to others who have higher status.”
As a researcher, Garcia investigates social comparison. “Social comparison is the analysis of the self in relation to others,” he explains. “It’s based on the idea that we need to self-evaluate, and so we use other people as benchmarks to try to objectively evaluate ourselves.” But the goal is not simply to compare ourselves to others, he says. It’s also to outperform them, and signaling our social value can help.
There are certainly realms in which demonstrating an elevated social position is useful: scoring a dinner reservation for a promising client at an elegant new restaurant, for example, or pulling up in a shiny BMW on a first date. But people who pile on signs of their cachet when they’re trying to form platonic friendships discover something surprising: Instead of enhancing their appeal as potential friends, displaying their prestige can be a huge turnoff.
Keeping up with the Joneses
In one of several studies related to status signaling, Garcia and his team recruited shoppers in an upscale shopping district to participate in a study. The shoppers were divided into one of two groups: The first group was trying to attract new friends; the other was asked to consider whether they thought people who did certain things would make good friend material.
The researchers asked the first group: If you were going to an outdoor wedding where you hoped to make friends, would you show up driving a luxury car, like a Mercedes, or a more basic car, like a Honda? Nearly 67 percent of the participants said they believed driving the luxury car would be more appealing to potential friends. But the would-be friends in the second group said they preferred someone who drove in a more basic car — a pattern that was confirmed across multiple studies. The researchers also confirmed that their participants were true to their word: They preferred to attract friends from behind the wheel of a luxury car, but were more inclined to seek out a friendship with someone who drove a basic car.
So why are our general assumptions about what would appeal to our friends so off base?
The discrepancy between the beliefs of friend seekers and friend acceptors, Garcia says, lies in our mistaken certainty that our view of the world is objective and one that other people share. In other words, the gap exists because others don’t necessarily see the world in the same way.
People don’t like to feel inadequate, Garcia says, and they don’t like it when their peers outperform them. If that consistently happens, then people will alter their peer group to exclude the outperformer, while also trying to position themselves near the top.
But is others’ aversion to flaunting one’s cachet simply the product of an era that also created Occupy Wall Street and eschews the wealthiest one percent? Not likely, says Garcia.
“Status depends on the context,” he says. “In the early days of hybrid cars, driving a Prius was a status symbol among environmentalists. You can find similar examples throughout history. For example, to support the Napoleonic Wars, wealthy people exchanged their gold jewelry for iron jewelry. Even wearing massive amounts of iron jewelry could have potentially turned off would-be friends.”
But Garcia thinks there might yet be some exceptions to status signaling out there. Working with LSA’s Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP), which pairs undergraduate students with faculty researchers, he’s currently investigating whether status signaling helps in forming friendships for members of stigmatized groups. “We know stigmatized groups consume status signals at higher rates than groups without stigma, but does it actually help them?” he asks.
He also notes that there are other examples where displaying status seems to cultivate friendly bonding rather than competition, such as within some organizations. For example, in the military, displays of wealth seem to be encouraged, he says, “because they inspire the rank and file that they too can achieve these things. The same is true with Mary Kay Cosmetics, whose internal reward system incentivizes growth and sales with pink Cadillacs — and now even with BMWs.”
A pink Cadillac or a BMW may be pretty sweet to some, but for the rest of us, Garcia says, it’s still better to show up in a hatchback, if the goal is to make new friends.