In the United States, the only time it is really acceptable to talk about status is when it involves an airplane. Otherwise, it is pretty much a matter of dogma in the U.S. that we don’t do status and hierarchy. We may recognize that at certain times and for specific reasons, some people have more of it than others. But, we generally don’t credit the idea much. We are a democratic society, and everyone is equal in the eyes of the law, etc.
Be that as it may, we are still human beings, and as human beings, we really do care very much about status, the pecking order, our station in life… however you might like to put it. We have inherited the concern for status from our evolutionary forebears, and there are no known cultures — from chimpanzees society in the Congo to high society in Manhattan — where status doesn’t matter.
Everyone, everywhere is nearly always concerned about where they stand in relation to their peers. There are countless studies from the fields of politics, anthropology and psychology that demonstrate this, but a study from earlier this year does the trick nicely.
First, status generally goes hand in hand with power. It is possible to imagine situations in which people (or other animals) of high status don’t wield more power than their lower status counterparts, but the examples of that might be hard to find. Even the Queen of England, who has enormously high social status and no real political power, has tremendous economic power. In relative terms, few people in the world and certainly very few in her kingdom, have more.
In general, powerful people — people who can command resources, whatever they may be — have high status. Likewise, the people who have high status have the power to command resources.
Second, it has also been shown in a series of experiments that we generally equate size with status. In experiments, when two people of differing heights but identical qualifications compete for a job, the taller person wins. The tallest candidate has won nearly every U.S. election since the data were recorded. Bigger may not actually be better, but it seems that one throwback to our mammalian ancestry is that bigger seems more powerful and most often is accorded more status.
So, psychologists David Dubois, Derek Rucker, and Adam Galinsky wanted to find out how far the association between power/status and size went. In their experiments, they used a number of methods to induce a feeling a powerlessness in participants, then they provided the participants an opportunity to select food items. A consistent pattern emerged. Compared to people who had been made to feel powerful, or people who had not been manipulated at all, people who had been made to feel powerless chose larger portions. But — and this is crucial — the powerless only chose larger portions when others were there to see it. Powerlessness does not lead to supersizing if there’s no one there to witness it. Whether we are aware of it or not, when we feel powerless, we try to demonstrate that we are not low status by taking bigger portions. And if there’s no one to show that to, we don’t bother.
When we look to our evolutionary past, it makes sense that a larger portion of food may have actually signaled power. In most mammal societies, higher status equates to greater access to food. So, grabbing more food than one’s counterparts might actually be more than just a symbolic grab. Having more food might actually have provided the power necessary to be more successful.
What is disturbing, however, is that in modern society, when food is relatively cheap and abundant (and so full of fats and sugars), the costs for taking larger portions in order to compensate for feeling powerless are high. Obesity, high blood pressure and heart disease result from over-consumption of high fat, high calorie foods. If we are even more likely than otherwise to over-consume when we are feeling powerless, then the least among us are doubly penalized.
Next time you find yourself saying yes to super-sizing it, pause and reflect for just a moment. Are you really that hungry? If you were alone, would you be ordering the same?
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This blog post was written by Kerry Cunningham, a member of the Personality & Wellbeing Laboratory and recent M.S. graduate in Industrial-Organizational Psychology at San Francisco State University. Follow @kerryfc
This post is derived in part from work published in the following research paper:
Dubois, D., Rucker, D. D., & Galinsky, A. D. (n.d.). Super Size Me: Product Size as a Signal of Status. Journal of Consumer Research, (proofing).