Showing off your status and wealth makes you seem less co-operative

By Emma Young

People who can afford luxury goods tend to buy them, and to show them off.  “This is unsurprising given the myriad social benefits associated with being perceived as well-off and high status,” note the authors of a new study, led by Shalena Srna at the University of Michigan. But in some situations, there might be downsides to conspicuous consumption. After all, as the team writes: “it conveys a boastful self-interest, which is incompatible, in people’s minds, with pro-sociality”.

So what happens when — as is so often the case — it’s in our interests to work with others? Given the opportunity, do we show off, and signal high status — or do we choose to be more modest? The team’s findings, reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Attitudes and Social Cognition, contain some important insights.

In an initial online study, the team adopted a version of the widely used Prisoner’s Dilemma (PD) game. Participants were told that they’d have to decide whether to co-operate with a partner to do half each of 60 units of work (solving captchas) — or to defect. If both partners chose to defect, they’d have to complete 60 units of work each. If only one did, the co-operator would have to do 90 units, while the defector wouldn’t do any.

Before they made their decision, they were shown an avatar that was purportedly made by their partner. They were informed that their partner had chosen the hairstyle, skin tone and clothing — and also whether to include a luxury logo on the clothing, or to opt for unbranded clothing. In fact, the partners were fictional and the avatars were created by the team. They generated one male and one female avatar (the gender was matched to the participant’s gender), which were identical, except that some wore a shirt featuring a Gucci, Louis Vuitton or Burberry logo, while the other had an unbranded shirt.

The results showed that participants elected to co-operate with partners whose avatars had unbranded clothing 57% of the time, but when the avatar sported a luxury logo, this figure dropped to 45%. A subsequent questionnaire revealed that the participants indeed perceived partners with logo-wearing avatars as trying harder to signal status and wealth (and indeed to have more status and wealth) — and expected them to be less co-operative, and more self-interested.

A second study, in which participants could first choose the design of their own avatar, found that those who chose branded rather than unbranded clothing themselves were still less likely to choose to co-operate with partners with brand-boasting vs logo-free avatars.

The team then switched to a more real-world setting — social network profiles. They found further support for these initial results: participants who saw (fictional) profiles that used status-signalling posts and hashtags were less likely to recommend that individual for admittance into a group that prioritized co-operation, selflessness and generosity.

The work also produced another key result: when it was useful to appear co-operative  — when a group that participants wanted to join stressed its desire for co-operative, prosocial people — the participants tended to become strategically modest; when choosing from prewritten social media posts that described various activities, they were less likely to go for posts that signalled status. (It’s worth noting, however, that when the goal was to be perceived as competitive, status-signalling was beneficial.)

This last finding suggests that we’re aware that status-signalling can be counter-productive, and understand when to avoid it. However, we surely all know people who get this wrong. Many people show off their status to “friends” through posts on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, the team notes. “Such posts may be beneficial for communicating one’s wealth and status, but as we have shown, they can also have negative effects.” In 2019, Stephen M. Garcia and colleagues even found that people believe signalling status will make them more attractive potential friends — but when seeking friends, we in fact prefer people who are more modest. So while we might have some implicit understanding of when not to signal status, it’s clearly not perfect.

Garcia’s research was in the US and the new work was on participants mostly from Western countries. Clearly, non-WEIRD work in this area is needed.  But this new paper certainly highlights a clear disadvantage of status signalling in Western contexts, and suggests that we should be more careful. There are all kinds of environments, including schools and workplaces, where this could clearly have implications for relationships. There’s an ongoing debate about the pros and cons of school uniforms, for example. In schools without uniforms, kids who choose to wear luxury brands might think that they’re benefitting from signalling high status — but if this makes the rest of the class view them as less co-operative and more self-interested, that’s a clear downside for everyone.

On the value of modesty: How signals of status undermine cooperation.

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest