Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Jun 28, 2019

Do Status Symbols Help People Attract New Friends?

by Stephen Garcia
Two men looking at expensive car

Many people believe that driving fancy cars, wearing luxury brands, and associating themselves with status has social benefits.  After all, people are more likely to turn their heads and pay attention to those who appear to be affluent or have high status, and others are also more likely to defer to high status people’s opinions and wishes. So, status symbols can get people extra attention, but do they actually make other people want to be our friends?

To begin to answer this question, my colleagues and I first explored whether people think that showing status will help them attract new friends. In one study, research participants were asked to imagine owning both a basic car and a luxury car and then they were asked which car they would drive to a wedding reception if they wanted to make new friends. A majority of the participants (66 percent) chose to take the luxury car. So, most people thought that driving the luxury car, instead of the basic car, would be more effective in attracting new friends. But is that true?

To answer this question, a different group of research participants were asked to imagine being at a wedding reception where they saw a person drive up in either a basic car or a luxury car. Participants then rated the degree to which they would be interested in becoming friends with that person.  Looking at this situation from the perspective of would-be friends, participants were more interested in becoming friends with the person who drove the basic car than the person who drove the luxury car.

So, although people thought that status symbols such as the luxury car would increase others’ interest in becoming friends with them, such status symbols actually made would-be friends less interested. 

This effect, called the Status Signals Paradox, has also been demonstrated with other status symbols besides cars. For example, when asked to decide what kind of watch to wear when going out to a social event, participants in one study thought that wearing an expensive Tag Heuer watch would be more effective in making new friends than wearing an inexpensive generic watch. However, a different group of research participants, who were in the role of “would-be friends,” were more interested in forming new friendships with a person wearing the inexpensive generic watch than a person wearing the expensive Tag Heuer watch.

This Status Signals Paradox appears to occur due to a difference in perspective. When we are deciding what to wear or what item to use, we are in a “presenting role” in which we want to put our best foot forward; we want to look better than others to attract attention or make friends.

But those would-be friends to whom we are presenting ourselves have a different viewpoint. They also would also like to look good and do not want to be out-shined by others. And, our efforts to make a good impression by appearing to be of high status can make them look and feel worse by comparison.  In other words, although we want to compare favorably to other people, we do not realize that others also want to compare favorably too—or at least not be overshadowed.

So, although status symbols—such as a luxury car, a fancy purse, designer logos, and more—are associated with social privileges, signaling high status when trying to make new friends can backfire. Moreover, people generally fail to realize that status often hurts, rather than helps, in making friends. So, perhaps the next time you go to a social mixer in the hopes of making new friends, you may want to be mindful that your efforts to appear to be of high status might actually repel the very people you would like to befriend.


For Further Reading

Garcia, S.M., Weaver, K., & Chen, P. (2018) The status signals paradox. Social Psychological and Personality Science. https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550618783712


About the Author

Stephen Garcia is an associate professor of psychology and of organizational studies at the University of Michigan. He primarily researches the psychology of competition and social comparison.
 

An earlier version of this blog appeared on psychologytoday.com, January 11, 2019

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Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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